Peru is an uncanny tourist attraction where life thrives at unprecedented elevations and minerals turn barren hillsides into murals of color. Come hike the Rainbow Mountain Trail to see why it’s such a popular destination.
My favorite kind of adventure takes place in mystical mountain settings, where rugged, high elevation terrain inspires me to push the boundaries of my comfort zone. Hiking Rainbow Mountain in Peru is a prismatic example.
I was both captivated and tested on my first visit to this remote part of the Peruvian Andes. With lush flora, hardy fauna, and a colorful culture that thrives at high altitudes, Peru’s landscape defies the laws of nature.
Yet, like any 5,000 meter peak, visitors can’t defy gravity. While the hike itself may not be the most physically demanding, the elevation, at 5,200 m (17,060 ft), poses a challenge. Don’t let this deter you from hiking to the summit of Rainbow Mountain, though. The trail demands mental toughness, but it’s completely attainable for any dedicated hiker—especially if you’re willing to learn from the locals.
Pros and Cons of hiking the Rainbow Mountain
The Mountain of Seven Colors
Rainbow Mountain—also called Vinicunca, from Peru’s native tongue Quechua, meaning “colored mountain”—gets its name from its colorful rock. Forever known to the local farming community, it was only in the last few years that it began attracting widespread attention.
Rising temperatures in the Andean Region has caused the snow on Rainbow Mountain to melt away, revealing the distinguishing colors beneath. Such contrast makes it easy to see how climate change is impacting the area, like how it’s affecting the climbing conditions on Chimborazo in Ecuador.
Rainbow Mountain’s distinguishing colors make for a glimpse back in time. Tectonic movements pushed oxidized layers of ancient mineral-laden rock to the surface, revealing the natural phenomenon you see today. Different mineral compositions account for the colors. The red is due to the presence of iron, the yellow from sulfur, and the green from copper.
Hiking the Rainbow Mountain Trail is the perfect one-day trip from Cusco. You drive through the Peruvian countryside for three-hours until you reach Quesiyuno, the start of the trek. Before I recount my journey, I want to share more about what makes this area so special.
Defying the Laws of Nature
If you’re wondering how Peru defies the “laws of nature”, it’s in the hardiness of the flora, fauna, and people that live there.
At elevations above 4,500 meters (15,000 feet) in most parts of the world, you find yourself alone in a sea of rock and snow. But in Peru, there are orchids basking in the sunlight, patches of thick ichu grass, and herds of grazing alpacas. Where you expect a barren landscape, life is fertile and abundant. It begs the question, how can this be?
The locals satisfied my curiosity: Peru is so close to the equator that its tree line is much higher than other places, allowing greenery to grow. Despite the logical explanation, the landscape at this elevation appears unfathomable.
An unlikely culture
Like the landscape, the people of Peru defy “the laws of nature” too. While the elevation in Cusco makes it hard for me to sleep, locals run up and down the hills without losing their breath. Even in the cold weather, they hike around in sandal-like shoes called hojotas, trudging across snow and rock without a second thought.
For most people, climbing peaks above 5,000 meters—like Mount Kilimanjaro, for example—demands months of preparation and acclimatization. In comparison, locals regard hiking the Rainbow Mountain Trail as a casual morning stroll.
Civilizations that operate so close to the sun seem to radiate a special coalescence of culture and nature. If you’ve hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu you get the idea, and will experience something similar on the Rainbow Mountain Trail.
Learning from the locals
When my parents and I visited Rainbow Mountain, we connected with a knowledgeable guide through Crossover Peru. Yaritza, a Cusco local, knows the area like the back of her hand. She’s forged an intimate connection with the land during her eight years of guiding hikes on Rainbow Mountain.
Yaritza can tell you where to get the best muña tea, how to avoid the crowds, which locals have been working on the mountain the longest, where to reapply sunscreen, and the alpaca migration patterns. Most importantly, she taught us ways to manage the high elevation.
Rainbow Mountain: A Radiant Day Trip
4am: Breakfast and a history lesson
We started our hike up the Rainbow Mountain before dawn. Well, in truth, we got into a car and I fell back asleep under a warm blanket, listening to the mellow whistling sounds of Peruvian music. After a short drive, we stopped to have breakfast, greeted by a rush of cold air. I watched as the sun came up over the coral-streaked horizon, eventually acquiring its signature orange glow.
After some coca tea and a cup of coffee, we continued our drive. As the car jostled up a bumpy dirt road, Yaritza shared some history of Rainbow Mountain geology and politics. The area surrounding Vinicunca is rich in minerals, and a Canadian company was interested in buying the land to mine. But the locals protested—it’s better to have Rainbow Mountain as a regional tourist attraction than a mining site whose profits would go to people far away.
To this day, the government has no say in operating Rainbow Mountain. It’s entirely run by locals. As you drive up, you pay two entrance fees that support the local communities that conduct operations.
7am: Starting the uphill
While we prepared to begin our trek, Yaritza explained how good tourism is for the communities here. Before, people subsisted off alpaca wool and meat, but now they earn an income from entrance tickets, horse rides, selling food, and much more.
At the trailhead where locals sell water and snacks, you can rent horses to take you up the mountain. A one way trip costs around 70 – 90 soles depending the size of the horse and the traveler, but keep in mind that horses can only get you part of the way because it’s too steep to ride to the top.
7:58am: Coca leaves
The first section of the Rainbow Mountain trail is flat. Using trekking poles, you can speed through the majority of it. It’s not the hiking but the altitude that poses the greatest challenge. Like the 4-day Santa Cruz Trek, this hike can turn into a nightmare if you’re not acclimatized.
After about an hour, we were half-way up admiring the Ausangate Glacier across the valley. Our heads started hurting, so Yaritza showed us a trick the Incas used (and people in Peru still use to this day). You take 8-10 coca leaves, pile them on each other, roll them into a tight roll and put them in the side of your mouth between your teeth and cheek. You keep it in your mouth for 30 minutes or so while swallowing the juice that compiles in your mouth.
8:22am: The final stretch
We arrived at the end of the (relatively) flat part of our trek. The final 15 minutes of the hike were by far the steepest, but we had plenty of energy and time left over. Those who took horses up the trail had to dismount at this point. The alpacas roamed around us, grabbing tufts of ichu grass out of the ground above their roots. At 5am, they begin their way up the valley and return home before dusk.
Yaritza gave us one final local remedy for the altitude—a spray composed of coca leaves and other herbs. You spray it on your hands, rub them together, clap two times and then make a small cup around your nose and mouth, inhaling deeply.
9am: The summit
We made it to the top well before the crowds and mingled with some of the locals who were cooking alpaca stew and brewing tea. In no hurry, we drank muña and coca leaf tea, petted the alpacas, and admired the scenery. I was glad for the time we spent on the summit.
We descended quickly, reaching the bottom in about an hour. As we were going down, we encountered increasingly larger groups coming up. About halfway, we took one last look up to the summit, observing the swarms of people that resembled groves of densely-packed trees. The moral of the story? An earlier start is a better start.
Good to Know Info and Additional Facts About Rainbow Mountain
Why is Rainbow Mountain in Peru colorful?
Glaciers that eroded over the years exposed the mountain and all of its beautiful colors. Through examining the movements of the tectonic plates, we learned that the Nazca plate was subdued under the South American plate, which uplifted the Andes Mountains and introduced a lot of rare minerals to the area. Each of the colors seen on the mountain corresponds to a mineral. Red is iron, yellow is sulfur, and green is copper.
Where is Rainbow Mountain in Peru?
Rainbow Mountain is located near Cusco. The drive from Cusco takes about three hours. You first head to Cusipata and then to Phulapatawasi, where the trek begins. It takes you through the Peruvian countryside and local farming communities, making it a perfect one day escape from the business of Cusco.
How to get to Rainbow Mountain in Peru?
To get to Cusco, most people fly from Lima. From the city, the easiest way to get to the Rainbow Mountain is by car. The road up to the start of the trail is very steep and rough, so unless you have your own car, it is beneficial to hike the Rainbow Mountain with a guide. They provide transportation so you don’t have to worry about renting a car that will make it up the road.
How difficult is the Rainbow Mountain hike?
This really depends on your fitness level and how acclimated you are. Because of the altitude, many people can feel the effects and find it difficult. If you’re regularly active and are familiar with hiking at higher elevations or mountaineering, this might feel like a moderate trek.
How long does it take to hike Rainbow Mountain?
The average time is about 3-4 hours, though this is dependent on your fitness level and speed. Roundtrip, the hike is about 4.5 miles (7km), which might not sound like a lot, but remember you’re starting around 4,600 m (15,092 ft) and ending up around 5,200 m (17,060 ft), so be mindful of altitude sickness!
How much does it cost to go to Rainbow Mountain?
Prices for a Rainbow Mountain hike vary by tour operator, but range from $35 to $100+ per person (depending on whether you want to go as part of a group or privately) and include transportation and a certified guide.
The Rainbow Mountain Hike: A One Day Trip You Must Do
With a short drive, easy hike at a casual pace, and plenty of time to hang around at the top, hiking the Rainbow Mountain is the perfect one day trip from Cusco. You get to see the Peruvian countryside, immerse yourself in a surreal landscape, and interact with heartwarming people of a culture rich in history. It is definitely a test of endurance and how much altitude you can handle, but we’re all here for the adventure, and this one defies the laws of nature.