Surprisingly, just 2 years ago no one had ever heard of Peru’s Rainbow Mountain. It was said that a writer from National Geographic came to Peru in search of discovering something new. When presented with the idea of hiking to a colorful and distant mountain in the high altitudes of the Andes, the idea seemed too good to be true. After completing the trek an article was published in the National Geographic, which later went viral. Since that day the tourism to the Peru’s Rainbow Mountain has boomed with increasing numbers making the trek every day.
What is Peru’s Rainbow Mountain?
Officially known as Vinicunca Mountain the mountain also goes by other names such as ‘Rainbow Mountain’, ‘Mountain of Seven-Colors’ and also the Spanish name of ‘Montaña de Siete Colores’. Peru’s Rainbow Mountain is one of many mountain ridges in the area formed by mineral rich lava spewed up from the depths of the earth during the formation of the Andes. Shaped by millions of years of weather erosion the different layers of colorful rock are visually stunning in appearance. A local investigation by Cusco’s Cultural Landscape Office revealed that the mineralogical composition of the mountain is made up of clays and stone rich in iron, magnesium, calcium carbonate and silicon dioxide among others.
The Drive from Cusco
We were collected promptly at 5.30 am by one of Totally Latin America’s best guides – Dennis. In our private vehicle with Roberto at the wheel, we left Cusco heading south on the road to Puno. A couple of hours later we arrived at the small village of Cusipata (famous for its pasta), where we took a small turning away from the paved road. This bumpy dirt track was unknown territory for me and I felt a sense of adventure and excitement as we headed off into the unknown mountains. Just a few miles along the track we stopped for a break and breakfast at ‘Restaurant Abuelito’ (Little Grandfather’s Restaurant). Here we took advantage of the 15 Soles (US$ 4.50) buffet breakfast, filling up with much needed carbs and energy for the challenge that lay ahead. Continuing the journey, we passed through several remote campesino villages constantly gaining altitude. This was probably the least favorite part of the day for me as the constant winding and switchbacks started to make me feel a little giddy. Dennis explained that we were leaving the Quecha Zone or the tree line and entering the snow line. As we advanced higher and higher it became evident that the temperature had dropped and the landscape had become stark. After providing the necessary documents at a police check-point and purchasing the entrance tickets we finally arrived at the start point of Peru’s Rainbow Mountain trek; a mere 4,500 meters (14,763 feet) above sea level.
From speaking with guides and friends that had completed the trek, I was under no illusion that this was going to be an easy task. With the temperature at just a few degrees above freezing we wrapped up warm and applied sunblock before heading off. As we passed the toilet stop (1 Sole for a twinkle), it was obvious that the trail was well-trodden. We joined what seemed to be an endless stream of hikers leaving the comfort of the tour buses and heading up the mountain. 10 minutes along the trail we came across locals renting horses. For 60 – 80 Soles (US$ 19 – 24) a horse complete with keeper will take you most of the way to the summit.
Following a fairly gradual incline, the first part of the trail took about 1-hour to complete. This section of the trek was not particularly tough on the body, but the obvious lack of oxygen had many (including myself) struggling to maintain a constant pace. “There is 21% less oxygen in the air here than in Cusco City,” explained our guide Dennis. “As you know there isn’t much oxygen in Cusco either,” he said. We were trekking in a wide open valley noticeably lacking in color. Behind us the view grew more impressive as we ascended in altitude. A vista of several miles opened up with magnificent views of rolling hills and rugged Andean Mountains that we had just driven up. To the left we were under the constant watch of the imposing snow-capped peaks of the Ausangate Mountain range (20,944 feet / 6,384 meters). On our right, and although not yet obvious was the mountain ridge of Peru’s Rainbow Mountain.
We had arrived at the final section of the trek where the trail followed a steep incline of 30 – 40 degrees. It was here that we would mount our last challenge to reach the mountain ridge that overlooked Peru’s Rainbow Mountain. It was tough. The lack of oxygen induced heavy breathing after just a few steps. Our pulses raced as our hearts thumped heavily in our chests. For a handful of trekkers the challenge was unsurmountable, with one unfortunate lady physically vomiting. We walked 2-3 minutes and rested 2-3 minutes advancing little by little. To the amusement of all of us, and rather shockingly, our guide Dennis hadn’t even broken into a sweat.
We had arrived. From the top of an adjacent mountain ridge, the view of the Peru’s Rainbow Mountain became apparent. Dipping down the mountain saddle before climbing high to the mountain ridge in the distance, the 7-colors (or more) were striking and vivid. Behind us looking out across a vast desolate mountainous expanse the full grandeur of the Ausangate Mountain range was on display. It was definitely worth the effort.
Fighting Communities: Quispicanchis verses Canchis
At the top of the mountain we took a break to admire the views. I spoke with Dennis about the recent issues with the two clashing communities of Quispicanchis and Canchis. Peru’s Rainbow Mountain separates the communities of Canchis and Quispicanchis along its ridge, and access to the view point can be gained by climbing a trail originating from either community. When the first tourists descended to the area, the only access road was via the community of Canchis. From Cusco the drive took approximately 4 hours. Then at the beggning of 2019, the neighboring community of Quispicanchis finished a competing access road that cut the journey from Cusco by 1 hour. From one day to the next tourism accessing the mountain from Canchis stopped dead, with tour operators opting to take the shorter more cost effective route via Quispicanchis. This caused tension between the two communities which eventually ended in physical violence and fighting. From the view point of Peru’s Rainbow Mountain you can see the access trails from both communities and the stark difference in trekkers. On the Canchis side I counted just 4 trekkers, whilst on the Quispicanchis side there could have been 500+.
Dennis explained… “Of course the increase in tourism has benefited both communities financially not only in entrance fees, but also in trade for local restaurants, food & drinks vendors and through the rental of horses. At the start tourism was unregulated which lead to negative effects on the communities and also the environment. Thankfully things have settled down a little now and some regulations have been put in place, thought there is still a long way to go.”
Optional Trek to the Red Valley (Valle Rojo)
Retracing our steps back down the mountain, Dennis guided us along a detour to the Red Valley (Valle Rojo). A quiet trail separated away from the descending crowds and followed the contour of the mountain. A line of rugged granite rocks marked a sort of entrance to the Red Valley and a further 20 minutes’ walk on we arrived at the view point. We took some time to appreciate the view of the vast valley before us. Different shades of ochre and deep reds dominated the landscape making for a visually stunning experience and some great photo opportunities. Best of all, there were no crowds!
When to Hike Peru’s Rainbow Mountain
Peru’s Rainbow Mountain is open all year round. At TLA Travel we recommend that our clients hike in the dry season from the end of April until November. During these months you can expect bright sunny days, clear skies and less mountain mist. During the wet season (December – April) we consider the access roads to the mountain to be too dangerous to pass, with roads becoming slippery and an increased risk of landslides.
With up to 1,000 people visiting Peru’s Rainbow Mountain every day, it is an incredibly popular attraction. This is most noticeable when you reach the summit where there is limited space to stand. Finding a clear vantage point to view the mountain and take photos was difficult (if not impossible). The huge number of people was a surprise for me and certiainly detracted from the magic of the moment.
Why You Should Experience this Hike
Exploring any part of Peru’s glorious mountains is a great day out! It is even better when you share the experience with friends and family. Peru’s Rainbow Mountain is certainly not one of the most scenic treks that I have even experienced, but it does present a unique challenge hiking at high altitude and to observe the beauty that mother-nature affords us. Personally, I didn’t think that I would enjoy the trek quite as much as I did. Somehow heading up to the cold snowline and experiencing something completely unique was brilliant and rewarding. I loved it and would definitely recommend it to others.
This trek IS for people with a good sense of adventure, a moderate to good level of fitness and desire to challenge themselves. This trek is NOT for people looking for a relaxing day out, have poor physical fitness (that includes me), any medical issues (especially heart conditions) or those that don’t do well at high altitudes.
Trek difficulty: Difficult
Hiking distance: 2.1 miles (3.4 km’s)
Actual Hiking Time: 1-hour 30 min – 2-hours.
Starting elevation: 14,763 feet (4,500 meters)
End elevation: 16,732 feet (5,100 meters)
Elevation difference during trek: 1,968 feet (600 meters)
Collection time from Cusco: approx. 5.30 am
Duration of complete day: 11 – 12 hours.
Driving distance from Cusco City: 62 Miles (100 km’s)
Recommended months: April – November (dry season)
If you are interested in include Peru’s Rainbow Mountain Trek in your trip, contact the Peru Travel Experts today. To see our full selection of active vacations follow this link: Adventure and Hiking Tours.