Visiting Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain & Red Valley in 2022
Pictures of this beautiful mountain in Cusco (en route to Puno) have gone viral thanks to social media. There is so much conflicting information available on the internet regarding the access, distances, and level of difficulty that we decided to prepare for a day hike and find everything out for ourselves.
How to get there
After 6 days in the Andes and the full day Inca Trail behind us, we were fit enough and ready to hike to the ‘Rainbow Mountain’. Also known as Vinicunca this mountain sits at 5,200m elevation (17,000ft) We were picked up from our hotel in Cusco at 05:30, allowing us time 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 served as an opportunity to make a quick toilet stop. The local community has built two toilets there for public use. I’ve never had such a luxurious view while queuing for the toilets (see the snow-capped mountains in the picture below).
The Day Hike to Rainbow Mountain
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 will be able to take some spectacular photos of alpacas grazing at the foothills of these imposing mountains as you make your way along the paths. 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.
The Last Meters Before Reaching the Summit
I must say that the most pleasant 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.
What Do You See From the Top?
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.
Is Rainbow Mountain Worth It?
We personally think the answer depends on these three factors:
- Physical condition
- Favorable weather conditions
The path itself is not overly demanding but the altitude makes it a challenge. In our case, we had enough time to get adjusted to the altitude. We recommend spending at least 3 nights in destinations like Colca, Cusco, or the Sacred Valley at an average altitude of 3,000m (9800ft). Furthermore, if you can make do with alcohol-free beers the previous nights, even better :-)!
We picked a month in the dry season and were lucky to have a clear sky during the hike. As an extra bonus, we could also see the fields covered in white after a 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 an overwhelming sense of joy and gratitude, your heart beats faster, not only due to the altitude, but also because of the picturesque natural beauty that surrounds you.
We can’t deny that it is also at this point where you will see many visitors struggling to get the perfect picture of themselves with the Rainbow Mountain in the background. Therefore, the earlier you leave Cusco, the better, as you will arrive at the top before it gets crowded.
One tip to consider is that many informal companies in Cusco offer this hike at extremely cheap prices. Ask in advance how many people will join the tour. As they will most likely need to collect a large number of participants from different hotels your pick-up time will probably be set for 2 hours earlier than on a private tour.
Don’t miss out on the Red Valley
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 and is 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 came up with, you will see a trail fork at the point where all of 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 the more popular Rainbow Mountain and will give you an endless view over the rusty-red colored landscape that is dotted with green and grey spots, making it seem to be other worldly.
Once you are done soaking in the stunning views, you will make your way back along the trail that you came, towards the Rainbow Mountain fork.
The Way Back to the Trailhead
From the summit, you can also see the path to get back to the trailhead. I marked it in orange in my picture below. Despite being the same as it is on the way up we enjoyed it just as much as when we were making our descent.
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 😉
What to Pack for Rainbow Mountain
Weather at the 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 notice the cold temperature. This changes as the sun start shining in the Andes. Therefore, you better dress in layers.
- I wore a base layer, a long sleeve fleece, and a light down jacket
- Waterproofed hiking shoes
- Sunblock and sunglasses
- Wool cap
- Water bottle
- Snacks (if you are planning to do the hike on your own)
Best time to Visit Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain
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, and the days of endless sunshine offer an even better view of the rugged mountain peaks against a clear blue sky.
We picked July for our day hike to Rainbow Mountain. Nevertheless, it is important to mention that we got the confirmation that the trail was open only 3 days before the departure date. The weather is becoming unpredictable worldwide and Cusco is not an 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 to plan an extra buffer day in Cusco, just in case.
The Lodge-to-Lodge Trek to Rainbow Mountain
Ausangate is considered an ‘Apu’ (a sacred mountain) by the locals that still live on this incredible land.
If the pictures of Ausangate and the Rainbow Mountain impressed you, but you prefer an option at 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 as 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 operation. Furthermore, it creates a market for the 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.
Our Rainbow Mountain Lodge-to-Lodge & Mallkini Alpaca Farm journey is a treat for true nature lovers and seekers of the more off-the-beaten-path experiences.
Palcoyo – The Less Demanding Rainbow Mountain
Unlike the Instagram phenomenon that is the Vinicunca, Palcoyo remains an insider secret among locals. Many of our clients asked for an easier trek with equally stunning views. Our team in Cusco hiked this trail ;-). Although at a similar altitude and only a few kilometers from Vinicunca, Palcoyo is considerably less crowded. Thanks to its short and soft ascent Palcoyo is an option suitable for everyone. Find the report from our team in Cusco here.