Rainbow Mountain is a relatively new tourist attraction in Peru and one of the most popular day trips from Cusco. It’s about 3.5 hours outside of the city and has quickly become one of the main tourist sites in Peru after Machu Picchu.
Getting to Rainbow Mountain is fairly easy and pretty much will take up your entire day. Here are some things to know before you visit Rainbow Mountain that will make your trip better – and more realistic.
Rainbow Mountain = Climate Change
Until 2015, Rainbow Mountain was unknown. The locals simply knew it as Vinicunca or Winikunk. But in 2015, the ice that covered the mountain melted and it’s been that way ever since. Climate change uncovered a place that has since become one of Peru’s most beautiful destinations to visit.
Where do Rainbow Mountain’s colors come from?
The beautiful colors of Rainbow Mountain are due to mineral deposits in the soils that make it up. Not coincidentally, this is also a reason that mining firms have an interest in exploring the area.
Here are some examples:
Red: Iron oxidation, or rust
Yellow: Iron sulfide
Buy a trip online or book it in Cusco
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If you want to do Rainbow Mountain on a budget, then we would suggest that you look around Cusco while you’re out one day. You can literally find a shop on almost every street in the historic district selling a trip.
The price for a trip to Rainbow Mountain ranges from $15 all the way to $250 or more. Trust us – anyone charging you more than, say, $40 is ripping you off. There are a couple of value adds that you might want to pay for, but a basic trip to Rainbow Mountain involves picking you up in a van, driving you 2 hours, letting you climb the mountain, and then bringing you back to Cusco.
It should be fairly cheap.
To save ourselves time and to make our own trip a bit more comfortable, we booked our trip with Rainbow Mountain Travel. We paid a little more to avoid having to do, well, anything.
- Pickup 3:00-3:30 am from your hotel or hostel
- A comfortable van to Rainbow Mountain
- Breakfast about 1.5 hours outside of Cusco
- Rainbow Mountain entrance
- Drive back with a great buffet lunch along the way
We highly recommend this tour. It’s an affiliate link, so we will make a small commission if you book it here.
Read more: If you’re coming to Cusco, we recommend that you consider the Cusco Tourist Ticket.
Further reading: We’ve put together a list of Cusco travel tips that we believe will make planning your trip easier.
You should leave very early
Rainbow Mountain might be only a few years old from a tourism standpoint, but it’s become extremely busy since its “discovery” in 2015. Every day, 2,000 people visit the mountain. It’s safe to say that this number is going to rise even more, considering it was just over 1,000 in 2018.
That said, you can still enjoy Rainbow Mountain without the crowds. It’s just that you have to get there early.
Our tour picked us up in Cusco at about 3:15 am. Yes, that’s stupid early, but if you want to avoid the crowds, it’s absolutely necessary. We stopped for a quick breakfast along the way and we arrived at Rainbow Mountain at about 7:30.
It took about 1.5 hours to hike up to Rainbow Mountain. When we got there, only about 50-60 people had reached the mountain. That’s not bad. We stayed on the mountain for about 30-40 minutes, got our photos, and left.
By the time we finished, there were hundreds of people making their way up the “stairs” to the mountain, while several hundred more were starting the trek from the parking lot.
Get there early. We expect that in the coming months and years, treks to Rainbow Mountain by better companies will start even earlier to avoid the crowds.
Rainbow Mountain Location
Rainbow Mountain is about 3.5 hours southeast of Cusco. To get to it, you will follow Route 3S to CU-124. When you get to CU-124, you can expect a fairly rough ride for the rest of the way. So do your best to get a little bit of sleep before you get to that point.
Prepare for serious altitude!
Cusco’s elevation is 11,152 feet or 3,400 meters. For most people, that’s going to take a few days to get used to. For me, it took almost two weeks. I didn’t have altitude sickness exactly, but I did take quite a while to learn how to breathe properly in the thin air of the city.
Rainbow Mountain is almost FIVE THOUSAND FEET HIGHER than Cusco. That’s 1.6 KILOMETERS. If you just arrived in Cusco and you’re having issues now, wait a few days before going to Rainbow Mountain.
Unless you know you won’t have altitude issues, do not book your Rainbow Mountain trip until after you get to Cusco and get used to it. The altitude here is not something to mess with. It’s higher than the highest point on the Inca trail.
Further reading: The most popular day trip from Huaraz – but is Laguna 69 worth the time and money?
And some effects you might not recognize
Altitude doesn’t just affect your breathing. For most people, this is what they’ll notice most, however. But your respiration can have effects on other things that you might not have thought of. For example, you might experience:
- numbness in your fingers and hands
- aching limbs
- hacking cough
The last one always happens to me. In the few times I’ve been at altitude, I feel like I’ve just run a marathon and I get a cough that’s really annoying.
Serious altitude can mean serious weather.
Weather and Clothing at Rainbow Mountain
Keep an eye on the weather before you book, and be sure to dress in layers and appropriately for the weather. I wore a pair of hiking jeans plus an insulated jacket. I was a little chilly but fine. Also, it was a nice day. On the day before, it was snowing.
Don’t drink the night before
A hangover is bad enough the next morning at the best of times and at the most normal of altitudes. At high altitudes, even small amounts of alcohol can have outsized effects on your system.
Instead, drink coca tea or chew coca leaves. Peruvians are adamant that coca leaves fend off the effects of altitude sickness for many people. I’ll be honest, I don’t think it worked well for me. But we met lots of other tourists in Peru who felt differently. You can buy Coca Tea before you go on Amazon. But you’ll find it much more cheaply in Peru – especially in places at high altitudes.
And even if it doesn’t work for you, what’s the harm in trying. Coca tea tastes great, in my opinion. I enjoyed the drink in spite of the fact that I didn’t feel it had much of a medicinal effect on me.
Make sure you drink lots of water the night before and the day of. It probably wouldn’t hurt to have a sports drink as well.
Again, the altitude is not a joke. Don’t mess with it.
The hike is a bit tough, but almost anyone can do it
From the time we got out of the van, we felt the effects of the altitude here. The first thing I did was walk down a few steps to use the toilet before the hike. Even walking those few steps back up to the van winded me.
Still, I did the hike and I am so glad I did.
Generally speaking, the first ten minutes and the last 40 minutes of the hike are the hardest. During the first ten minutes, you’ll be hiking from the parking lot up to the trail. From that point until the last 30 minutes or so, the hike is fairly easy. There are little uphills and a few small downhills. But it’s generally very manageable at most fitness levels.
Then, you get to the base of the mountain and it’s all uphill for the next 30+ minutes. I’ll be honest. I had a rough time here. I probably took 10 minutes longer than the average person. But I made it.
This is the part of the hike where, if you’re going to quit, you probably will.
Don’t. The next 30 minutes are worth the view you’re going to get. On the way down, we just kept encouraging people who looked ready to quit. “Keep going. It’s so worth it.”
And it is.
Avoid using horses at Rainbow Mountain
During the hike up the mountain, you’re going to see dozens of people offering to rent you a horse. The cost in 2019 was roughly 60 soles up and 20 down.
That may seem cheap, but the cost is not just yours. It’s the horse’s, too. We saw horses being run up and down the mountain constantly. It’s all they do, all day, every day.
You can make it up the mountain without subjecting an animal to hours and hours of hard work all day every day.
Instagram is not reality
Let’s be honest, Instagram is pretty much ruining travel. So-called “influencers” post heavily edited photos of all the amazing places they’ve been to around the world. When you get there though, all you see are crowds – for days.
Rainbow Mountain is beautiful, but it is no different. It’s amazing how some of the people dress when they go to Rainbow Mountain. Flowing hair. Dazzling glasses. Light, revealing clothing. It’s as though they are preparing to go out to a classy club for the evening or a 5-star restaurant.
In fact, they are going to climb up a hill that is sometimes muddy, and always dusty just to get a shot of themselves posing alone (i.e., they’ll edit everyone else out) in front of what looks like a desolate, colorful, beautiful place.
I promise you, before the editing happened, each of those men and women fought their way through hundreds of people waiting to take the very same picture.
Look up “Photoshop Content-Aware” editing and you’ll see, at least partly, how they do it. When you go to Rainbow Mountain, you’re going to be sharing a fairly small space with literally hundreds of other people. Don’t let Instagram set an unrealistic expectation of Rainbow Mountain.
Our Rainbow Mountain travel video
Climate Change isn’t the only issue at Rainbow Mountain
Climate change isn’t the only bad thing that’s happening here:
…[the 4km] dirt trail climbed by tourists to reach Rainbow Mountain … has been badly eroded in the last 18 months, scarring the otherwise pristine landscape. A wetland once popular with migrating ducks has also been turned into a parking lot the size of five soccer fields that fills each morning with vans of mostly European and American visitors. [my emphasis]Associated Press
Since the AP article was written in 2018, the number of tourists has doubled to 2,000 a day.
Twice the number of vehicles to park. Twice the number of people on the mountain.
Should you visit Rainbow Mountain?
That’s a tough question to answer. We’d feel like hypocrites if I told you “no.” But the fact is, Rainbow Mountain is past the point of over-tourism already – and it’s only been a thing since 2015!
I guess the best advice is to use the best judgment you can. Choose a responsible tour operator, if that’s even possible. Avoid using horses. Take only pictures.
Or, simply choose something else more sustainable. That’s tough because Rainbow Mountain would be so difficult to miss. But choosing another destination – perhaps a place like Palcoyo Mountain – might be a better alternative for you.
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Michael is originally from Canada but now resides in Atlanta, GA with his husband, Halef, who also writes here. He is a Couchsurfing expert. Michael has traveled to over 50 countries learning how to experience more for less as he travels.