If you are looking for an unforgettable hiking experience… you just found it! Everyone knows Peru for Machu Picchu, but hardly for anything else it seems. I can still remember the exact moment when we started sharing our first photos from our hike to Rainbow Mountain (Vinicunca) back in 2019. The majority of the responses were just people wondering where it was and then everyone was blown away that it was in Peru, surprised that they had never heard of it before.
The surprise from our audience was somewhat understandable though, as it is a relatively knew site to explore. It wasn’t discovered until 2015 but since then it has become a bucketlist destination for travelers all over the world. It is called Rainbow Mountain/The Mountain of 7 Colors because of the unique sediment layers that create this beautiful visual effect. Glacial melts, runoff from snow, rain, and the unique mineralogy of the area, all coupled with time, have produced this incredible rainbow effect on the mountain sides as the minerals have slowly been exposed. Even though it is somewhat new to the world, especially in relation to Peru’s other destinations, we were shocked at how much of our audience had never laid eyes on a photo taken from there. This made us even more excited to share the adventure.
Arriving at the viewpoint for Rainbow Mountain is no easy feat, however. The area around Cusco is far above sea level and the point where most photos are taken of this natural wonder sits at an elevation of 5,200 meters, or 17,060 feet. To give you a comparison of altitude, if you have never done hikes like this before, Everest Base Camp is 5,600 meters/18,372 - not too far off. Hiking at altitude is no joke and you definitely have to be prepared for it. Just like with any excursions around the Cusco area it is highly recommended that you take a couple days after arrival to rest up. The altitude in the city is roughly 3,400 meters, or 11,152 feet, and the change in breathing is immediately noticeable. The higher your elevation, the more difficult it becomes to breathe and Rainbow Mountain is quite a bit higher than Cusco as you can see by the numbers here. As you climb higher up into the sky the air that you breathe becomes colder, the oxygen molecules become fewer and the air also becomes less dense. The result of this is that you need to take more breaths to get the oxygen intake that your body needs. Once you start being physically active it can be difficult to maintain your body’s oxygen intake and this can cause altitude sickness in anyone, regardless of age or physical condition. Don’t push yourself too hard!
We spent a few days in Cusco because it is just an awesome city… tons of fun places to visit, bars, restaurants, open markets, llamas and alpacas wandering the cobblestone streets, historical sites and so on. We absolutely love Peru and Cusco is by far our favorite city of all the locations that we have visited there. We highly recommend that you do the same. Take two or three days to just walk around Cusco, get acclimatized and rest up from the travel it took you to arrive there. Even in Cusco you will notice that you become short of breath very quickly. Also note that this is a good place to pick up some altitude sickness medicine. It isn’t expensive so it doesn’t hurt to pick some up - just in case.
Once you have booked your trip to Rainbow Mountain you will depart from Cusco by bus, heading high up into the mountains. The roads aren’t bad getting out of Cusco but they do get a bit rough as you climb higher. You will be dropped in a parking lot along with many other travelers and this is where you begin the trek. It takes roughly two hours to complete the hike from the bus to the viewpoint and it is definitely tiring. There is an option to ride a horse up, costs roughly 80 Peruvian Soles if I remember correctly, but if you are physically capable of walking we recommend doing that. Riding the horse just takes away from the experience in our opinion. Your first Peruvian beer upon return to Cusco will taste so much better if you do the trek on foot!
The entire trek is absolutely stunning. You have glaciers on both sides, crisp mountain air in your lungs and one of the bluest skies I have ever seen. Some of the views here truly breathtaking and it makes the hike completely worth it. If you are ever looking into visiting Peru because you want to see Machu Picchu, you need to add this to your list as well. It is often done as a single day trip so it is easy to fit into your schedule if you are on a time crunch. In comparison with the other trips offered in the area we would say to put this at the top of the list, just below Machu Picchu.