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Rainbow Mountain Hike, Peru

by | Destinations, South America | 4 comments

The highlight of our recent trip to Peru was the hike to Rainbow Mountain. Machu Picchu takes some beating, but we both agreed that hiking to Rainbow Mountain eclipsed even this fabulous archaeological site. We had the perfect day – clear blue skies, a nip in the air and the mountain pretty much to ourselves (at least when we arrived!) We had seen pictures, of course, but the reality of seeing this natural phenomenon surpassed all expectations. If visiting this area of Peru, I would say that the Rainbow Mountain hike is an absolute must.

View of Rainbow Mountain hike

Deciding to hike to Rainbow Mountain

When we planned our visit to Peru, our guide asked if we wanted to hike to Rainbow Mountain. I immediately said yes. When I looked at the itinerary though and saw that this trip would involve a 3.00 am start, I hesitated. Then I did some research and realised that the hike to Rainbow Mountain was no walk in the park. At an altitude of 17,060  ft that was going to hurt. I told Marco that we had changed our minds. He called me and persuaded me to give it a go. I should mention that I had met Marco as a guide on a previous trip and trusted him. He pointed out that we would be acclimatised by the time we tackled the hike and that he carried oxygen if it was needed, although he assured me that this was extremely unlikely. He also said that it would be better to cover the first section of the hike by horse. In short, I caved and although it was with some trepidation, Rainbow Mountain remained on our itinerary. I am so pleased he persuaded me!

Jane and Peter looking over to Rainbow Mountain

What is Rainbow Mountain and where is it?

Rainbow Mountain, also known as Vinicunca, is a fabulous mountain in the Andes. It is known for its amazing coloured stripes. It is in the Cusco region, but somewhat off the beaten path. The drive takes at least 3 hours from Cusco to the start of the hike. Rainbow Mountain’s stripy colours are the result of the natural minerals in its formation. The mighty Ausangate Mountain can be seen from Rainbow Mountain.

Ausangate from Rainbow

Getting to Rainbow Mountain

Marco picked us up from our hotel at 3.30 am. Yes, that is correct: 3.30 am. He insisted this was necessary as we would avoid the crowds and get the best of the weather. The drive from Cusco on empty roads took about 3 hours. Although the first couple of hours were on the highway, the last hour was on a twisty dirt road. It was very scenic as we drove through the fabulous landscape with mountains and glaciers forming the backdrop. There were a couple of checkpoints along the way where a small fee was required to use the road which belonged to local communities. In return, we saw the local people damping down the track at various points in order to keep the dust down.

When we arrived to the parking area, we were only the second vehicle there. Marco had brought breakfast and hot coffee. That was really welcome! There were also some rudimentary toilets near the parking area. The guardian charged one sol to use them and she provided toilet paper.

Taking the horse

Jane on horse on Rainbow Mountain hike

Marco had recommended that we cover the first part of the trail by horse, mainly to keep ahead of the crowds who would be arriving soon (up to about 2000 people per day tackle the hike to Rainbow Mountain) but also to conserve energy for the main climb. I was definitely up for the horse. It added to the experience, was fun and also put something back into the local community. It cost $16 each to hire a horse and they went at a fair trot, taking about 20 -25 minutes to cover this part of the trail. The terrain was fairly flat for the most part.  It would probably have taken an hour and a half to cover this ground on foot. I should point out that this was not a complete cop out: the horses only took us to the base of the main climb and we still had the steep part to cover on foot!

The climb to see Rainbow Mountain

Of course, visitors do not climb the main Rainbow Mountain summit, but the peak facing it in order to get the view. And what a view! Rainbow Mountain certainly has the WOW factor!

Jane at Rainbow Mountain peak

The climb is not long, but the altitude makes it difficult. I huffed and puffed my way up, stopping frequently. The trail is well marked, rocky in places, stepped in others, but it is not difficult terrain. I used poles for extra traction.

Trail to top of mountain

It took about 40 mins to climb up to the summit of this peak and then we just gazed at the magical sight which is Rainbow Mountain.

There were only a couple of other hikers when we first arrived, along with a few local people who had brought alpacas to post for pictures. And why not!

Jane and Peter with alpacas on Rainbow

The view of Rainbow Mountain is absolutely fabulous, but actually the 360 degree view is superb with glaciers and brightly coloured peaks all around.

The glacier seen from Rainbow Mountain Hike

We took lots of photos and just drank it all in.

Jane by sign at top of Rainbow Mountain

Jane and Peter on Rainbow Mountain hike

View of Rainbow Mountain

Vista view of Rainbow

Hiking to the Red Valley from Rainbow Mountain

On a high at having achieved Rainbow Mountain and feeling full of energy, we then decided to continue our hike over to the Red Valley. We could see the trail ascending away from us towards the brightly coloured valley beyond.

Trail to the Red Valley

There was a small fee for using the trail, but we were the only ones on it for the entire way. The hike was hard, really hard. I challenged myself to walk 80 tiny steps very slowly before having to take a break. It took us about an hour to cover the ground, which, had it not been for the altitude, I would have covered in about 15 minutes.

Jane and Peter on trail to Red Valley from Rainbow Mountain

Nevertheless, this extension to our Rainbow Mountain hike was so worth it. Coming over the lip of the valley and seeing the vista stretching before us was breathtaking. It is incredibly beautiful.

View over Red Valley

View of Red Valley

Jane with Red Valley in the background

Jane and Peter looking over Red Valley

At the viewpoint over Red Valley

Returning from Rainbow Mountain and the Red Valley

Making our way down and hiking back to the carpark took the best part of two hours. The descent was steep and I was pleased I had my poles.

Descending from Red Valley

Looking down on to the track which we had covered by horse early in the morning we were astonished to see all the hundreds of tiny people making their way along. At this point, I was grateful that Marco had insisted on the early start.

Tiny people in trail below

By the time we got back to the car park, it was rammed. We had a fabulous and well deserved picnic lunch provided by Marco. We were on a high: what a fabulous experience to hike Rainbow Mountain! I fell asleep in the car on the way back…

How hard is it to hike Rainbow Mountain?

Rainbow Mountain

 

To answer the question, hiking at altitude is hard. Breathing is difficult and limbs ache through lack of oxygen. However, it is perfectly doable with preparation. We had been in Cusco for several days before we attempted Rainbow Mountain, so were acclimatised. We also both took Diamox to help with altitude. This is a personal decision, but I had used it before when I had tackled a longer hike (Hiking the Salkantay Pass in Peru) at altitude and found it helped. However, I would recommend discussing this with a doctor before deciding to take it. There is no doubt that we could have hiked the whole way from the car park to the base of the climb as this part was reasonably flat, but taking the horse speeded things up and conserved energy with the result that we were then able to hike over to the Red Valley. The advice is to walk slowly and take frequent rests and drinks, which we did. In short, it is a hard hike, but with a little planning and reasonable fitness, it is entirely possible.

Our guide

We used a small, family-run guiding agency for our trip to Peru: https://privatemachupicchu.com  They put together a five-day, personalised itinerary for us. I knew Marco from a previous trip and was pleased he was able to help again. Marco collected us from the airport, organised all our hotels, transport (including the vista dome train) and all entry tickets. We had a private car, driver and guide throughout. This made our trip super special.

 

 

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Rainbow Mountain pin

 

 

4 Comments

  1. Wow, you two have such enviable jobs!
    Gorgeous photos, as always.

    Reply
    • Thank you. All just taken with my mobile phone!

      Reply
  2. Fabulous read Jane. I really enjoyed it. I was up on Rainbow Mountain with you! What a fantastic experience!

    Reply
  3. Fantastic photos and writing. We have visited Peru, but didn’t do this trekking to Rainbow Mountain. Like you I took Diamox and found it helpful, the altitude is hard.

    Reply

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Hello!  I’m Jane. I live in the Lake District in the north of England with my husband, Peter. We love to travel, but this is a great place to call home.

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