Hiking Rainbow Mountain in Peru: Day Trip from Cusco

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Rainbow Mountain, also known as Vinicunca, is a place so beautiful I almost don’t want to share it with people as it could get way too popular. While Machu Picchu is the most popular attraction, this was by far the best experience for me. But hiking rainbow mountain in Peru was without a doubt the highlife of my trip and it definitely stole the show from the lost city of Incas.

Everyone who sees the photo of the colorful hills wants to see it. But after doing even the slightest amount of research many travelers give up on visiting Rainbow Mountain. Why? The hike to the top is no joke. Constantly changing weather conditions, combined with high altitude, can be a challenge for experienced hikers. But if done right it’s manageable even for those who don’t hike much.

If Rainbow Mountain had been in a European country or the US, there probably would have had a cable car to the top. Eventually there would have been a Starbucks or McDonalds at the peak, along with a fancy toilet. Fortunately, Peruvians like to keep their ‘attractions’ local and that’s why Vinicunca is still slightly off the beaten path. In fact it’s so hidden that there’s no Wikipedia article about it.

TABLE OF CONTENT:

  1. Where is Rainbow Mountain in Peru: Ausangate Trek
  2. Rainbow Mountain Day Trip from Cusco
  3. Booking Online vs. Booking in Cusco
  4. What to Pack for Rainbow Mountain
  5. Renting a Horse & Toilets
  6. Where to stay in Cusco before hiking Rainbow Mountain

 

Tips for Hiking Rainbow Mountain Peru

(1 Day Trip from Cusco even for Non-Hikers)


Where is Rainbow Mountain in Peru: Ausangate Trek

The most popular route to see Vinicunca is a 6 day hike called the Ausangate Trek. Unlike the Inca Trail, no permit is needed. In fact, it’s one of the quietest in the region and you’ll likely see only a few hikers. You’ll hike through the fields full of alpacas and llamas, red mountains, snowy peaks or lakes. The views are unforgettable.

Ausangate mountain itself is considered a holy mountain by Peruvians and it’s been a place of worship since pre-Inca times. The mountain is also notable for the Qoyllur Rit’I Festival held at the base at the end of May. The festival draws over 10,000 pilgrims each year and celebrates the mountains spirit and the apparition of Christ on the mountainside.

The trek isn’t an easy one and your only option is staying in local houses and camping with no proper bathrooms on the way. As rewarding as this trek is, I only know that this isn’t for everyone, especially those with health problems. Here’s the good news for you: there is an option of seeing rainbow mountain in 1 day!

Colorful rocks

Colorful rocks along the trail


Rainbow Mountain Day Trip from Cusco

Facts:

  • Vinicunca (Rainbow Mountain) is in the Willkanuta Mountain Range, nestled in the greater Andes Mountains, just 3 hours away from Cusco.
  • Starting altitute: 4,326 m / 14,189 ft
  • Max. Altitude: 5,200m / 17,060 ft
  • The best time to hike Ausangate is during the dry months between May and September. The shoulder months of April and October are also pleasant.
  • The Ausangate local community is one of the only few shepherding (raising lamas and alpacas) communities left in the world.
Rainbow Mountain Peru

Can you see the rainbow?

Alpacas in Peru

Alpacalypse is coming!


Booking online vs. booking in Cusco

Many travelers prefer to pre-book all excursions in advance, and while it’s totally understandable, this isn’t always the best option when it comes to Rainbow Mountain. You often get overcharged this way.

If you just want to go, whether it’s in a small or big group, then instead of pre-booking online, wait till you get to Cusco. You can save over $125 USD by booking in person directly in Cusco (60-100 soles = $17-30). But you won’t know exactly what will you get.

FlashpackerConnect is one operator that does it right, offering a premium service they don’t sell you off to another service, leaving you in a situation where you don’t know what you are getting. They offer all the necessary safety equipment, a private chief, and focus on a small group experience (8 people max). For those who like a bit of comfort and attention from staff/guides check them out (tip: they also offer multi day treks if you are looking to shed the crowds).

A lot of tour operators branch together and send everyone on the same bus, serve them the same food and hike with the same group. I was personally on a tour with people who pre-booked online – the only difference is they paid 4 times as much.

Alpaca in Peru

Friendly alpaca

Another reason to consider not booking the tour online in advance is that fact that you can rarely change the date of your trip. Why is this important? One day you get great views, another there is a snowstorm and you don’t see anything. If it’s bad weather, you won’t be able to see much.

The weather cannot be predicted more than a day in advance so when you book last minute you can actually make sure you go when it’s nice and sunny out. I actually had to change my original plan and do the hike on a different day, as it was hailing and snowing for a few days.

rainbow mountain trek


What to pack for Rainbow Mountain?

It’s impossible to dress appropriately for Rainbow Mountain. When you leave Cusco at around 2:30 AM you want to wear a few layers, gloves and you’re most likely going to be freezing. When the bus dropped us off at the beginning of the trek I was still shaking and when I saw some people in shorts and t-shirts I thought they were crazy.

However, later during the day the sun bears down bringing skin to the boil and those hikers in shorts were actually properly dressed. Well, they were for when I visited, but the day before hikers experienced snowstorm, so everything is possible. Here what I’d recommend to pack:

  • Small Backpack – Pink in my case 😉
  • Comfy Shoes – I trek in sneakers as I find standard hiking shoes very uncomfortable, but be prepared for a lot of walking.
  • Warm clothes – Somehow I received many comments from readers who thought I looked very fashionable on that hike. I was wearing the simplest leggings, undershirt, thin sweater. I also bough an alpaca sweater, alpaca socks and alpaca gloves that I got in Cusco. Alpaca clothes are the best invention ever: warm light and cheap! My secret is out 😉
  • Rain jacket or poncho – In case for a snowstorm.
  • Hat and sunglasses – For the sun and snow.
  • Sunscreen
  • Lip Balm with Sunscreen – Don’t forget it! I burned my lips so badly!
  • Lifestraw Bottle this won’t be much help at Vininunca, as there’s no source of water anywhere.
  • Coca candy for the altitude – If you’re afraid of the altitude you can order them from Amazon in advance, but they’re widely available in Cusco.

rainbow mountain day trip

snowy mountain in Peru

Snowy mountain peaks!


Renting a horse, Toilets and other things…

As soon as I hopped out of the van at 7am I saw a bunch of local homes surrounded by hundreds of llamas and alpacas! For an animal lover like me this was an incredible treat. I was served a hot breakfast an coca leaves tea to get the day started and got to meet the other hikers.

People in my group weren’t hardcore hikers for sure, in fact quite a few of them have never seen a squat toilet. I was actually surprised that along the trail there were squat toilets everywhere, as I expected none of them.

After we were well fed and mouths were stuffed full of coca leaves, we started our first hike. Our guides let us go at own own pace and I started walking with some new friends I made at breakfast. I think it was good that our guide allowed go at our own pace. Some people from my guide were very fast on horses and other very slow due to the lack of hiking experience and altitude sickness. Of course, various guides came to check on us many times.

I had more than enough time to stop and take photos along the way and noone limited me on the top of the mountain. I wouldn’t want a guide to tell me that I only have X amount of time and then we have to go down.

My group also got split into two different minibuses, as some of us finished the trek around 3pm, while other reached the bottom of the mountain around 7pm. I think it was a great idea, as not everyone hikes at the same pace.

Operators provide the horses to rent but unless you’re injured and need a guarantee of a horse you don’t have to ask for it in advance. My guide told us that if we want a horse for an entire way up it’s 75 soles ($22), but I actually hiked most of the trail and only decided I’d like a horse for the last part of the trek which I paid 40 soles for ($12).

Many horsemen were walking the trail along the hikers, so I found myself a horse within a few minutes. However, certain sections of the trek are so steep that you’ll need to get off and walk beside your horse.

horse rainbow mountain

Hopping on a horse taxi!


Where to stay in Cusco before hiking Rainbow Mountain?

Finding accommodation in Cusco isn’t a problem, but places do get booked up. Do need to pre-book it in advance. Everyone can find something for themselves, as the town offers luxury hotels, cheap hostels and simple guesthouses.

One tip: many budget places don’t have a central heating and use fireplaces instead. As a result quite often the temperature in the room is the same as outside (read: freezing at night!). Here are some options for every budget:

  • Marriott El Convento – Super central hotel in Cusco: expensive, but well-worth it.
  • Novotel Cusco – Luxury hotel with a beautiful courtyard. Slightly cheaper than Marriott.
  • Kokopelli Hostel – Hostel & budget private rooms. Most dorms are heated and have a private bathroom.
  • Ecopackers – Cheap hostel with an incredible atmosphere. Rooms do get cold at night, but if you’re equipped with alpaca socks you’re going to be just fine.

Arrange your travel insurance

Don’t forget to arrange a health insure before heading to Peru. The easiest and the most reliable travel insurance is Travel World Nomads Travel Insurance. Get it before your trip to avoid unnecessary troubles that might ruin your holidays!


I highly recommend hiking Rainbow Mountain, even if you’re not an experienced hiker. The trip is remarkable and definitely unforgettable. While Machu Picchu might be the most famous landmark of Peru, this one is definitely the most memorable for me.

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50 Comments

  1. Oct 18, 2016 / 8:51 pm

    Thanks so much! I love the look of this and will 100% be doing this when I go…any tips on where to book in town or just an operator? Great to know the ‘local’ price!

    • Oct 19, 2016 / 12:02 am

      You can book Rainbow Mountain tour pretty much anywhere. I know that Cusco Experience has good tours, but also at Kokopelli Hostel.

  2. Oct 22, 2016 / 8:16 pm

    I don’t know how I am just hearing about this place! Guess it’s a reason to go back to Peru. 🙂

  3. Oct 29, 2016 / 5:19 pm

    I wanted to do this so badly but I had such a struggle in Colca Canyon, I didn’t dare. One operator ensured me there were horses for the whole route (why don’t they advertise “horse trekking to Rainbow mountain” then) and others said there were only horses for a small section. I decided not to do it as to not put myself in any danger or slow/annoy the group. Now reading this I’m thinking: was it possible after all….? Maybe next time!

    • Oct 29, 2016 / 6:25 pm

      I don’t think any tour operator can guarantee horses as they don’t control them – locals do (which after all is better). One way or another the last part you have to trek on your own but it’s manageable. This is why I think my group was great – everyone was doing what they wanted and how fast/slow they wanted 🙂

  4. Nov 19, 2016 / 4:57 pm

    Oh wow, I really really want to visit Peru and especially see Rainbow Mountain! It looks so beautiful and colourful. It’s reassuring that you don’t need to be a really experienced hiker as well. I’m pinning this for future reference. Your packing list is super helpful btw.

    • Nov 19, 2016 / 6:23 pm

      You can definitely hike Rainbow Mountain in Peru without any professional experience. It’s not the easiest hike, but definitely worth it! Glad you enjoyed the post! 🙂

  5. Nov 19, 2016 / 7:24 pm

    Wow. Just wow. I got complete wanderlust looking through the photos of your hike! Add to Bucketlist… check!

    • Nov 21, 2016 / 4:16 pm

      Alpacas will lead you when you’re back 😀

  6. Anya
    Dec 2, 2016 / 5:25 pm

    Hi Anna,

    This question is a bit out of topic, but.. I know there are vaccinations required to travel to South America. I am so much against all vaccinations and wonder if there is a way to travel anywhere to Latin America without them? Which immunizations did you personally got? I would be very grateful for your response!

    Thanks,
    Anya

    • Dec 2, 2016 / 8:35 pm

      Hi Anya!
      I actually haven’t got any vaccinations before going to South America (Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil), so that shouldn’t be a problem I guess.

  7. Edwin Gonzales
    Dec 2, 2016 / 9:35 pm

    As an astral traveler, I know I could be there in a few blinks of the eye, but I’d rather stand still and know I am blessed with golden light of any path I walk on and charge myself with making the best decisions on putting that light in use.

  8. cherie
    Dec 15, 2016 / 3:11 am

    Hi, I’m going to Peru in February. I’m planning to do the rainbow mountain hike, but do you think it will be challenging? I heard February is rainy season. What is the trail like and how long usually does it take to hike? Thank you!

    • Dec 15, 2016 / 3:35 pm

      Going in February might be tougher, but not impossible. It took me 5 hours to take, but as I said in the article – you can take a horse if you’re tired. I would still try to go 🙂

  9. Jan 7, 2017 / 2:26 pm

    This is such an interesting place! I have seen Rainbow mountain in instagram photos but never realized it was so challenging to get there. I’m planning Peru in May and have bookmarked this for all your tips!

    • Jan 7, 2017 / 4:08 pm

      It’s quite a trip for sure! But totally worth it, so I definitely recommend hiking Rainbow Mountain 🙂

  10. Jan 7, 2017 / 8:55 pm

    Hi Anna,

    I just read your post on Rainbow Mountain. I am traveling to Peru in May and am dying to see this! I almost booked a prepaid tour until I saw your post. I would love to talk to you more about this as I have some questions. Mainly about availability. Can we definitely get a day tour and choose which day we want if we wait till arriving in Cusco to book? I do like that it is less expensive, you can still get a horse if you need one and can choose which day you go according to weather. As a travel blogger myself, I would love to get the best day possible for my photos but not pay more than I need to! Thanks for your help!

    • Jan 7, 2017 / 10:03 pm

      Hi Heather! I was worried about the availability as well, but neither me nor other people I met encountered any issues and I was there during hih-season (July). Horses are being given on first come first serve basis at the mountain as none of the tour companies own horses. I actually never pre-booked my horse even on the bus, and as I said in the post, simply hopped on it half way through the mountain 😉

      • Heather
        Jan 8, 2017 / 4:42 am

        Thank you so much for your response! I would think July would be harder than May so I feel better about waiting. The tour company we were going to go with had a horse booking option so not sure that was a new thing?? In any case, thank you for your help. We have decided to wait! 🙂

        • Jan 8, 2017 / 4:53 am

          I’m not surprised. They always ask you when they pick you up or if you want a horse, so they can pre-book them, but then at the mountain they just basically go to the local guides and arrange horses upon arrival. I personally witnessed a guide from another company (not sure which one) making a deal at the mountain to rent a horse to a girl for twice as much as I paid standing 5 feet away with my guide. And as you can imagine the money didn’t go to the local horseman living in the rainbow mountain area, but the other guide from Cusco. So it all varies unfortunately.

  11. Jeannie
    Jan 19, 2017 / 6:10 pm

    Great post! I do have a question. Do you think it’s feasible to hang out in Cusco one day, hike Rainbow mtn, rest one more day, then do the 4 day Machu Picchu trek? None of us are experienced hikers so I’m a bit nervous, but I just can’t see how we can pass up Rainbow mtn! Are we setting ourselves up for a horrible Machu Picchu hike? Thanks for your help!

    • Jan 19, 2017 / 10:01 pm

      Sure it is! Just pay attention to the weather forecast 🙂

  12. Gin
    Feb 21, 2017 / 1:48 pm

    Hello! I love your blog! Where did you buy your rainbow mountain tour while you were in Cusco?

    • Feb 21, 2017 / 5:56 pm

      You can get it anywhere, but the one from Kokopelli Hostel was great!

  13. Cara Fuller
    Mar 23, 2017 / 7:36 pm

    Hi Anna,

    Do you recommend having a tour guide? I speak Spanish and would love to take my husband and just hike on our own. But I don’t know if this is tecommended or even possible.

    Also–do you know if there are places where you can camp along the way? Could we for example camp there overnight?

    Thanks!

    Cara

    • Mar 23, 2017 / 11:30 pm

      My friends did Rainbow Mountain hike on their own as they just drove there with their own car and started walking.

      For Ausangate Trek you’d need a GPS and arrange camping with local tribes on your own. As I don’t have a first-hand experience I can’t say how does it work, but once I come back to Peru and do it I’ll report back!

  14. Fany
    Apr 20, 2017 / 7:50 am

    Hi Anna

    then how much for your 1 day trek? did you book it at FlashpackerConnect?? Thanks.

    • Apr 20, 2017 / 3:26 pm

      Hi, have you even read the article?

      • Fanny
        Apr 21, 2017 / 3:56 am

        hi Anna

        yes, i have already read it, is it mean that if i book at FlashpackerConnect when i’m in cusco, it’s only around USD30? since i checked the online price is USD150 now. thanks.

        • Apr 21, 2017 / 5:57 pm

          No. Flashpacker Connect is an option for those wanting to pre-book a tour before they get to Cusco as you can do it online. If you book something in agencies in Cusco it will be between $25-40 🙂

          • Fanny
            Apr 24, 2017 / 4:21 am

            oh, thank you so much.

  15. Miguel
    Apr 22, 2017 / 12:16 am

    Hey Anna,

    I will be going this coming September. Not really related to Rainbow Mountain, but do you recommend paying for the hike to Machu Picchu once in the town, or pre book it?

    • Apr 22, 2017 / 2:20 am

      Are we talking about Inca Trail? It all depends. There are many, many different hikes available to Machu Picchu. Full traditional Inca Trail, half Inca Train, one day hike, Jungle Trail, Inca Trail with guesthouses etc. If you want to have a more luxury hike, then I recommend booking in advance as these tours get full. However, if you just want to hike I met many people who purchased their hikes upon arrival to Cusco 🙂

      • Miguel De Gracia
        Apr 22, 2017 / 2:30 am

        I’m not in Cusco for very long. I am interested in a one day trip to Machu Picchu. Should I still book ahead of time?

        • Apr 22, 2017 / 2:36 am

          Oh, that’s different. If it’s a one day trip you’d have to take a train. Leave from Cusco at 4am to catch a train at 5am and return by train in the afternoon. When I went it was easy to purchase tickets on arrival, or stop by any agency to book you tickets and transfers.

          • Miguel
            Apr 24, 2017 / 4:08 pm

            Thanks for your time and help.

  16. Gaby
    May 6, 2017 / 2:57 pm

    Hi Anna, great post! I know you said it many times but since I’m not a hiker at all – I hiked a few times but only for a maximum of 2 hours- definitely a beginner, do you recommend me to do this? possibly I will start by myself and then take a horse.

    • May 7, 2017 / 4:01 am

      I’d say if the weather conditions are good (basically no rain or snow) you should be fine. You can take a horse any time, so that’s the worst case.

  17. May 11, 2017 / 12:20 pm

    Your Peru info is super helpful! I’m going on a trip to Cusco next month and it’s surprisingly hard to find reliable information online about how to get around and do things like Rainbow Mountain.

  18. Sharon
    May 13, 2017 / 4:48 pm

    Thanks, Anna! Your info was very helpful. We did the Vinicunca hike on horseback — well worth it in my opinion, even for experienced hikers, if you’re not acclimated to the elevation, plus it also directly helps the local indigenous community. One piece of info that wasn’t in your blog post, which answers the question of “why haven’t I heard about this place before?” is that the mountain has only been exposed relatively recently (in the past 5 years or so) due to climate change. Previously it was snow covered.

    • May 13, 2017 / 6:06 pm

      That’s a great piece of info that I should add – you’re right 🙂

  19. Dtacey
    May 16, 2017 / 3:52 am

    I would love too it but I am not a hickey and would probably die as I’m not in the best shape… but can a person still do it?

    • May 17, 2017 / 9:21 pm

      There are always horses…

  20. Eva
    May 23, 2017 / 10:13 am

    Hi Anna,

    Thank you for you’re great info. I’m going to Peru for three weeks. I want to book the Salkantay tour, that’ 5 days and 4 nights and then you end in Maccu Pichu. But I want to do the Rainbow tour also. What do you recommand? How many days in between?

    Greetings Eva

    • May 23, 2017 / 4:38 pm

      I gave myself a day between these two trips. You’ll need a day to recover, shower etc 🙂

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