“We arrived guys. Time to enjoy this beautiful view!”, said Rolando, our guide, once we made it to the top.
And from there we could see that strange phenomenon that almost every traveler in Cusco is talking about: the rainbow mountains (or “montaña de colores” as the Peruvians call it).
Yeah, you heard me right. I said “mountains” (plural) because on this tour you can see various rainbow mountains, not just one.
And the best part about it: you don’t have to hike 3 hours as the majority of people that take the famous tour to the Vinicunca rainbow mountain.
Cusco’s New Star: The Rainbow Mountain
The rainbow mountain(s) made it on the list of the top things to do in Cusco. In fact, with more than 600 visitors per day, the 5200m Vinicunca mountain is on a good way to catch up to the Machu Picchu that currently counts more than 4 times as many visitors per day.
On top of the Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain
So how come the rainbow mountains have become so popular? And what about the route that almost nobody knows yet (although it has many advantages over the tour to the Vinicunca)?
You won’t believe me but even though local tourist guides have discovered the rainbow mountain around 2 years ago, it is still not part of the most recent version of the Lonely Planet, neither of the most popular Peru-tours offered by foreign tourist agencies.
As a result, many travelers actually miss out on this highlight when visiting the country of the Incas.
The locals living close to the Vinicunca just kind of enjoyed the nowadays famous mountain, that is red as iron, yellow as sulfur and green as copper, for themselves. Can’t blame them I guess…I mean, who wouldn’t want to have a rainbow mountain in their backyard?!
Just recently through the distribution of spectacular photos on Facebook and Instagram more and more travelers want to discover the new tourist magnet for themselves and get their own stunning Instagram-picture.
Even though many of the photos are heavily edited, the natural colors of the rainbow mountains are still very impressive in real life.
When to visit the Rainbow Mountain?
This natural beauty wears its shiny colorful rainbow-dress all year long, but everyone knows that between November and May “winter is coming”.
And this winter brings rain and snowfall, in the worst case, covering the Rainbow Mountain in white for days.
I would not advise doing the tour under these conditions as it is very probable that you won’t find what you are looking for: the 7-colored rainbow mountains.
So before talking about the -in my eyes- best route to get to know the rainbow mountains, let’s first take a look at the common Vinicunca trek that more than 90% of daily tourists take.
The conventional tour to the Rainbow Mountain Vinicunca
As for every trip I do, I checked what other travelers said about the rainbow mountain tour on TripAdvisor.
I found various travelers complaining about the bus ride, about guides making their group hurry up during the hike because their timetable was super tight and -especially- about problems with the altitude while hiking for 3 hours.
It seems like some agencies group their travelers and charter a bus for like 30 people where the driver is the tour guide at the same time.
Take a look for yourself and make sure you choose the right tour operator/guide with good reviews so that your experience can be as breathtaking as it should be.
Now let’s take a look at what the day tour to the Vinicunca rainbow mountain was like.
At the top of the crowded Rainbow Mountain Vinicunca
The Wake-Up Call at 2:30 am
If you want to be one of the first ones reaching its summit, you have to get up early and leave between 3:00 am and 3:30 am.
You will either meet your group at a meeting point or you will be picked up from your hotel.
Then, you will start heading southeast for around 3 hours, passing beautiful landscapes on not so beautiful roads.
Once you step out of the bus at more than 4,300 m (14,108 ft) you might feel your heart starting to beat a little faster and breathing feels more difficult, especially when you find out that you have a 6 km trail (around 3 hours of hiking) ahead of you.
The hike itself is not too difficult but what makes many travelers suffer is the high altitude and the fact that there is little oxygen in the atmosphere.
The Vinicunca rainbow mountain tour that we at exploor operate ourselves includes the red valley and a shorter hike of only 1.5 hours which is easier.
Some people prefer renting a horse instead of hiking (cost: around $30). In case you prefer that option, don’t worry about the scarcity of horses: they are literally waiting for you in the valley just like taxis in the city of Cusco. Crazy!
Riding a horse on the Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain Trek
Having arrived at the top of the Vinicunca, you get to enjoy an unforgettable view that makes up for the eventual pain you have felt during the hike.
However, in case you left Cusco a little later (as most travel agencies do) now the fight for the perfect photo begins.
The most popular photos of the rainbow mountain with no people in the background have become quite difficult to obtain, but you can still get some incredible shots!
Afterwards, you have to hike down again to the parking lot in order to head to a restaurant for a tasty lunch. You will be back in Cusco at around 5:00 pm.
Why? Because the entire valley that surrounds you when hiking down is red and looks like a different planet.
View of the Red Valley
So far so good, but after this tour, I asked myself whether there is another trek that allows me to see rainbow mountains without having to hike for various hours.
And yes, there is a very interesting alternative rainbow mountain trek.
The Alternative Tour to the Rainbow Mountain Palccoyo
Now that you know the common Rainbow Mountain trek, imagine an alternative trek, on which you find only 30-50 people crossing your path…per day (!).
A trail, on which you do not get the “classic” rainbow mountain view but instead you can see various mountains with the typical rainbow colors.
And to make it even more special, you get to hike up the trail with the alpaca Pepe or with the llama Jorge accompanying you the entire time until reaching the mountain.
View of the alternative Rainbow Mountain Palccoyo with nobody around
Rolando picked me up from my hotel and we immediately had a great connection. The stories he told us in the van about the rainbow mountain and about Peru in general, made me feel like the drive was 30 minutes instead of 3 hours.
Once you get to the starting point, you will already see the first rainbow mountain at the parking lot.
Group of Explorers in front of Palccoyo Rainbow Mountain
On this trek, you will see a lot of animals joining you during your hike: from alpacas and llamas accompanying you on the ground to condors (when you’re lucky you can spot the vulture gryphus) circling over you.
You can even observe the rarely seen vicuña (part of the wild llama family). But most importantly, you will see fewer people.
This makes you feel like this postcard-like landscape is all yours.
Explorer taking a picture of Rainbow Mountain Palccoyo
Having arrived at 4900m (16076 ft), we made it to the top. Oh boy, what a view! Just beautiful!
I have to be honest though, hiking at this altitude is no joke. However, it blew my mind that when I checked my watch it said that we hiked only 45 minutes.
Feeling the fresh breeze of the wind in my face while standing on the rainbow mountain and looking at the red valley really made me realize that Peru is more than just Machu Picchu.
Then Rolando woke me up from my daydream and gave us a muña tea with some fresh bread he bought on the road.
That was the right moment to get the camera out and take some shots of the famous mountains, the red valley and the mighty Ausangate Glacier (6375m /20,915 ft high).
We spent around 1.5 hours discovering the surroundings and Rolando showed us some great spots to take pictures.
Explorer with an Alpaca at the Rainbow Mountains Palccoyo
The descent will take only around 30 minutes, making the entire hike a lot easier than the common tour.
Afterwards, we visited the local Palccoyo community, a social project that Exploor Peru engages in, and got to know some locals living in the village.
We visited their potato museum, where Laureano explained us more about their history, their work and what their everyday life looks like.
Everyone of us tried on some of their traditional clothes they made themselves and took amazing pictures.
I took home a mini llama for me and a scarf for my mom. It was really interesting to learn about their lifestyle, considering that it’s so different from what most of us are used to.
In exactly these moments you start to appreciate even more what you have and you’re astonished by how these people live their lives.
Travelers wearing typical local clothes during the visit of the local community Palccoyo
Leaving the community, we went to a little village close by where we got some delicious lunch from a local lady.
We ate Chicharrón de Pescado (fried fish), Pollo al Wakatay (Wakatay chicken), yellow rice and salads; everything was really tasty.
After the well-deserved lunch we started heading back to Cusco, where we arrived a little before 5:00 pm.
I was a little tired because I felt the effects of the altitude but that was nothing compared to what most people felt after having hiked the Vinicunca trek for 5-6 hours.
I have to say that the alternative tour to the rainbow mountains was definitely one of the best tours I have done in Peru.
It has a reasonable price, a local guide that really knows what he is talking about and the highlight of the tour, the rainbow mountains, are 100% worth seeing.
Apart from that, the typical Andean lunch was really good.
Still, after having seen many people complain about problems with the altitude in general I think it is super important that you are aware of this and prepare yourself well, just like I did.
In the following video, you can see what the alternative rainbow mountain tour is like.
Preparation and acclimatisation is everything
No matter which tour you end up doing, you should always remember that the conditions are -most likely- very different to the places you have visited before so that your body needs some time to acclimatize.
I followed the tips on how to avoid the altitude sickness and didn’t have any problems with the altitude.
I’d still recommend bringing extra oxygen (can be bought at every pharmacy in Cusco), Soroche pills and some coca leaves you can chew in case you feel sick.
Even if you are an athlete, the local conditions should be taken seriously and I highly recommend you to get acclimatized for 1-2 days in Cusco before doing the rainbow mountain-or any other high altitude trekking tour.
I mean we are talking about around 5000m here…
Elevation of Cusco & famous mountains in comparison to the Rainbow Mountains
I don’t want to scare you off, I just want to make sure you prepare yourself properly so you don’t experience any unpleasant surprises.
In terms of physical preparation, I’d suggest you start exercising before your trip to Peru (especially if you want to do various trekking tours). Still, a good physical shape is no guarantee of avoiding altitude-related problems (headache, nausea etc.).
And don’t get me wrong, with this post I don’t want to convince you that the Vinicunca trek is bad and the alternative tour to the rainbow mountains is the only option, certainly not.
What I want to do is present you an option that is a lot easier and that helps you avoid the pain points many travelers have faced before you.
On the one hand, the Vinicunca trek is already starting to become conquered by hundreds of travelers every day, requires more hiking and will physically exhaust you more.However, the tours offered are normally quite cheap.
On the other hand, the alternative tour is less exhausting and still allows you to feel like an explorer that is discovering something new, without any crowds around.
In the table below, you can see a final comparison of the two tours we operate ourselves.
|Category||Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain Tour||Alternative Rainbow Mountain Tour|
|Trekking distance||1.5 – 2 hours until reaching the top (return through Red Valley takes 2.5 – 3 hours)||45 mins – 1 hour until reaching the top|
|Extra||-Hike through red valley||
-Hike with a llama/alpaca
-Visit rock formations on top
-Visit local community
|With Exploor||One of the first ones on top||One of the first ones on top|
|Number of Rainbows Mountain||1||3|
|Number of Tourists p. day||1000-2000||Around 20-50|
|Horse renting||Yes, but not until the top (costs around S/ 80)||No|
|Food||Breakfast & lunch||Breakfast & lunch|
|Entrance cost||S/ 10 ($3) and S/ 10 ($3) for Red Valley||S/ 10 ($3)|
Comparison of Vinicunca and Palccoyo Rainbow Mountain Tours
Eventually, who doesn’t love the feeling of exploring spectacular terrains that are not crowded by tourists yet?
Besides that here are 10 things which you have to consider when booking a tour form a Peru travel agency.
I’d love to hear about your experience hiking the rainbow mountain trek! Just leave a comment in the box below.