However, as we delved into our research, we encountered a plethora of conflicting information regarding access, distance, etc. Therefore we embarked on a day hike to discover the realities firsthand. Having hiked for three days in the surroundings of Cusco before the Vinicunca tour, we felt fit enough to extend our exploration to Red Valley. Curious? Watch our video below to discover its beauty.
After 6 days in the Andes and the full day Inca Trail behind us, we were fit enough and ready to hike to 'Rainbow Mountain', also known as Vinicunca (5,200m elevation/17,000ft).
We were picked up from our hotel in Cusco at 05:30, allowing us to have breakfast before heading south to Cusipata.
After a 2 ½-hour drive, we noticed the end of the paved road. The uneven road ahead wasn’t very pleasant. Take a look at the video below. After around 1-hour into the journey, you will be able to see alpacas in the distance grazing in the Altiplano. A welcomed distraction from the bumpy ride.
Exactly 3 hours after our pickup in Cusco, we arrived at the trailhead which was also an opportunity to make a quick toilet stop. The local community have built two toilets there for public use. I've never had such a luxurious view while queuing for toilets (see the snow-capped mountains in the picture below).
The first part of the 4 km hike up to Vinicunca was extremely pleasant. The path was even most of the time. Incredibly beautiful snow-capped mountains on our right-hand side joined us along our route.
You can take some spectacular photos of alpacas grazing at the foothills of these imposing mountains along the way. Unlike the Inca Trail, the local community here is in charge of the trail administration. The trail is cleaned every day and the community members also sell water and snacks along the path. Others offer their horses to travelers who are not able to cope with the high altitude.
We must say that the most enjoyable part of the hike ended up being the last 100 meters. It was a very steep ascent to the mountaintop across the Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain.
At this stage, even the travelers that rented horses are required to hike the rest of the way. Each step towards the end took quite a lot of effort due to the altitude. Nevertheless, the imposing mountains surrounding us gave us the energy to overcome the trail's most challenging leg.
Once you reach the top you will have a 360° panoramic view of Rainbow Mountain, the Ausangate snow-capped mountain range (the highest in Cusco), the valley with grazing alpacas, and the 'Red Valley' in the distance. At this point of the hike, you will begin to feel so much more connected to Mother Nature.
We personally think the answer depends on these three factors:
The path itself is not overly demanding but the altitude makes it a challenge. We recommend spending at least 3 nights in destinations like Colca and Cusco to acclimatize better. Furthermore, if you can make do with alcohol-free beers the night before, even better 🙂
We picked a month in the dry season and were lucky to have a clear sky during the hike. As an added bonus, we saw the fields covered in a blanket of snow from the snowfall a few days before.
Once you reach the top and you have these 3 factors playing on your side.
You'll definitely think IT WAS WORTH IT.
You are simply overcome with a sense of joy and gratitude. Your heart beats faster, not only because of the altitude but also the picturesque natural beauty that surrounds you.
One tip to consider is that many informal companies in Cusco offer this hike at extremely cheap prices. So be sure to take a look at the 'what to ask your provider before booking the hike' section to find out what you should find out before booking your Rainbow Mountain Trek.
After reaching the summit of the multi-colored wonder and scanning the surroundings, you will see a rust-colored collection of peaks and troughs in the distance. This dream-like landscape is known as the Red Valley. An off-the-beaten-path destination that we recommend visiting when traveling to Rainbow Mountain.
As you descend Rainbow Mountain and make your way back along the same trail that you ascended, you will see a trail fork at the point where the horses are stationed.
One fork leads back down to the parking area and the other will take you on a short adventure (1.5 km/45-minute hike) to the lookout point of Red Valley.
This relatively easy hike to the Red Valley is well worth the time and is not as crowded as Rainbow Mountain.
Once you are done soaking in the stunning views, make your way back along the trail that you came from, towards the Rainbow Mountain fork.
Despite it being the same as it is on the way up. We enjoyed it just as much as when we were making our descent back to the parking area.
We then left Cusipata and headed back to Cusco. Along the way, we made a stop for our boxed lunch. We arrived in Cusco around 3 pm with enough time to relax and get ready for a celebratory dinner. This time with pisco sours 😉
Weather at Rainbow Mountain is unpredictable. In addition to that, the temperature in the early hours in Cusco can be below freezing. Even though the vehicle bringing you to the trailhead can be heated, you will definitely notice the cold temperature. This changes as the sun starts shining in the Andes. Therefore, we recommend that you dress in layers.
Frequent heavy showers are likely in the so-called rainy season in Cusco. It generally starts in November and lasts until March. Consequently, the gravel road to the trailhead often becomes inaccessible after heavy rain. We, therefore, don’t recommend visiting Rainbow Mountain in the rainy season.
From April to October, it rarely rains. The days of endless sunshine offer an even better view of the rugged mountain peaks against a clear blue sky as a backdrop.
The weather is becoming unpredictable worldwide and Cusco is no exception. In our case, heavy snowfall was pilling up on the road making it inaccessible. We were lucky that the temperature increased 2 days before, making the road fit for traffic again.
We recommend you plan an extra buffer day in Cusco, just in case.
We recommend asking your trek provider the following few questions so that you can be sure you get the perfect service tailored to your needs:
You can either do the Rainbow Mountain Trek in a private or SIC (also known as 'seat in coach'). The difference between the 2 is not only separated by the price difference due to transport options along the 141km/3hr journey from Cusco to the trailhead but is also based on the size of the group that you would like to travel in.
A private tour will afford you more freedom to take things at your own pace, while the SIC service will usually have larger groups. During the high season on average up to 30 people.
When it comes to excursions at altitude, you never know how your body will react to the thinning oxygen as you ascend and make your way to the summit of Rainbow Mountain.
An experienced guide has been specifically trained to look out for the early signs of altitude sickness and will be able to know when to administer emergency oxygen and is certified to carry out first aid in the event of an emergency. If booking a SIC service ask about the guide ratio.
Due to the high altitude, sometimes even the fittest and most capable travelers can succumb to altitude sickness. Be sure to confirm that your trek includes easy access to an oxygen canister at all times.
Usually, each trek to Rainbow Mountain will come with a briefing that is done before the actual day of your trek. The main reason for this is to go over the important details of the trip such as the pick-up times, what to wear and bring with to be fully prepared.
Food is always an important part of the day and just because you have to leave your hotel at around 5am. Our trek to Rainbow Mountain will either include a boxed lunch that you can enjoy along the way or will include a reservation at a restaurant that is close to the starting point of the trek where you can enjoy a warm meal.
If the pictures of Ausangate and the Rainbow Mountain impressed you, but you prefer a slower pace and/or wish to learn more about ancestral traditions, we recommend spending at least one night at the 'Andean Lodges'.
Four small lodges have been built by the community during 6 years of intense work and collective effort. This is an initiative that directly involves the peasant and shepherding communities of Osefina and Chillca, each considered equal partners of the company 'Andean Lodges'.
The traditional local communities of Chillca and Osefina are involved in the company’s decision-making process and take part in 100% of their operations.
Furthermore, it creates a market for alpaca meat and fleece products, as well as traditional woven textiles, manufactured by the women of the communities. Locals accompany travelers on their hike along the ‘Apu Ausangate’ route and share their knowledge of the sacred mountain as well as their cosmological perspective.