Everyone has seen the photos of “Rainbow Mountain” (Vinicunca) in Peru. In the past few years, this colourful mountain range close to Cusco has become an Instagram sensation with thousands of tourists flocking to see those picture-perfect views. As with many Instagram trends, a trip to THE “Rainbow Mountain” may not be all it’s cracked up to be. That’s why, when I learned about a new “alternative” mountain range with a similar rainbow effect, I snapped up the chance to visit!
There isn’t anything “wrong” with the original/most popular Rainbow Mountain (Vinicunca) per se, there are just a number of elements that often aren’t reflected in the Instagram shots that you see!
Despite the fact that Rainbow Mountain is a fairly “new” tourist attraction, only gaining popularity since 2015, it’s rapid increase in popularity means that the site is often extremely overcrowded and busy.
The most popular way to visit Rainbow Mountain is via an organised day trip from Cusco – there are tonnes of tourist agencies in the city who will be over the moon to book your trip for you. I found that prices for agencies in the city were much cheaper than those I found online. Of course, booking online gives you the benefit of pre-planning your trip if you are short on time and being able to check reviews before purchasing.
What you may not realise is that Rainbow Mountain is actually a significant distance from Cusco, the drive taking around 4 hours each way. Given the long drive, you are faced with two problems:
If you are intent on visiting Rainbow Mountain, I would perhaps explore the idea of staying more locally, with the intention of being able to explore the area outside of peak tour hours.
The hike usually takes 2.5 – 3 hours to summit and 1.5 – 2 hours to descend. Those timings aren’t particularly long compared to other hikes, and 80% of the summit is fairly gradual incline, so what makes it so hard? Altitude.
The 5,200m (17,100ft) altitude of Rainbow Mountain is sure to leave you breathless! Nobody knows how their body is going to react to altitude until they are in the moment, so be sure to take adequate precautions to keep yourself safe (arrive in Cusco with sufficient time to “climatize”, chew cocoa leaves, stay well hydrated and get anti-altitude sickness tablets if necessary).
Remember that Cusco is at a significantly lower altitude than Rainbow Mountain (3,400m / 11,200ft), so even if you acclimatise fully to the city, this does not guarantee success during the hike.
By the time you reach the final 10-20% of the hike (which is extremely steep), you may struggle more than anticipated due to the high altitude and also the lack of a good nights sleep (remember you will be picked up at 3-4am to begin this day trip)!
Lets face it, mountainous regions aren’t known for their stable weather conditions! Many people complete the hike, only to be faced with zero visibility of the mountains or many of the colours obscured by snow.
Before booking your trip, be sure to check “usual” weather conditions and visibility at the time of year you are travelling.
If you are blessed with good weather conditions, remember that the photos you see on Instagram are highly saturated and are unlikely to represent the actual colours of the mountains. If you re-adjust your expectations slightly, you will have a brilliant experience!
RELATED: You are likely to make a trip to your choice of Rainbow Mountain from Cusco – a great city! Ready my itinerary on how to spend your time in Cusco here.
While you will be seeing very similar multi-coloured mountain ranges, there isn’t one huge peak at Palcoyo (like there is at Vinicunca), if you are looking for that one picture-perfect moment, then Vinicunca may be more suited to you. Palcoyo has three main viewing points, all of which are stunning, but none quite are dramatic as that of Vinicunca.
Tourists are still flocking to the Rainbow Mountain that they “know” leaving Palcoyo practically deserted. Our tour group consisted of 10 people (including the guide) and we saw another 3 people during our entire time at the mountains. Less people means more freedom to explore and not having to barge past people to try and get a photo!
There isn’t really a set “hike” at Palcoyo. If you are less mobile, you could simply step out of the car and enjoy the immediate views (although you’d be waiting around a long time for the rest of your tour group, so it wouldn’t be a particularly fun experience).
There are a number of walking routes that you can follow, none of which are particularly long (less than 45 minutes each) or particularly steep.
With less people around and a more flexible schedule, you can usually spend as long or as little time hiking as you please. My friend and I completed a few of the walks at our own pace, taking rests to catch our breath (the only issue I struggled with at high altitude) regularly.
Given that you do not need to do a 5 hour round-trip hike to reach the mountains, day tours to Palcoyo tend to start later than that of Vinicunca. Starting the tour at 7am rather than 3am was music to my ears. After travelling for an extended period and doing a few more hikes than I had anticipated, I was fairly exhausted by this point!
Unfortunately, visibility will still be an issue at Palcoyo, they’re still mountains after all! We had great visibility during our trip, but it did begin to hail while we were walking, proving how quickly the weather can change in this region!
As we had seen very few pictures of Palcoyo (and we assumed that the pictures we had seen had been photoshopped to some degree), we had no real expectation of what the views would be like, which bode well for us as we were over-the-moon with our day!
RELATED: One of the reasons I chose Palcoyo is that I had already spent so much time hiking while in Peru One of my favourite hikes was the Inca Trail, which you can read about here.
I spent a lot of my time in Cusco with a who I had originally met in Chile, many months ago! One of my favourite things about backpacking is that you end up meeting the same people time and time again, it’s so lovely when you bump into a familiar face.
We both wanted to visit Rainbow Mountain but were put off by other traveller’s stories of early morning wake up calls, difficult hikes and lack of visibility. We had book done quite a bit of hiking recently and didn’t fancy another challenging hike.
We had seen a few signs for a “New Rainbow Mountain” and decided to pop into the next tour agency we saw that was promoting these trips. For us, that happened to be Kana Travel. Clearly, they did a great job pitching Palcoyo to us as we book a trip for the next day!
During the night, one of the girls in my hostel dormitory began rustling through her bags at 2am, getting ready for her day trip to Vinicunca. After waking briefly, I smugly fell back to sleep knowing that we would have very similar experiences today but I could stay in bed for another 4 hours!
We were picked up between 7 and 7.30am to begin the 3 – 3.5 hour drive to Palcoyo. The roads are seriously bumpy, so I was glad that I’d had a full nights sleep and wasn’t intending to nap in the car! And of course, a nap would mean I’d miss the gorgeous scenery; there was so much to see, from stunning mountain views to adorable llamas grazing.
After around 2 hours of driving, we stopped at Checacupe to stretch our legs, buy snacks and use the bathroom. I’ve never seen such a beautiful bathroom stop! Checacupe is known for it’s three bridges (two of which you can see in the above picture) passing over the beautiful valley – an suspension bridge, a stone bridge and an iron bridge (talk about having options)!
After this brief stop, we continued on to Palcoyo, passing through gorgeous villages throughout the valleys. One thing to look out for is red water running through the streams – don’t worry, the water is coloured due to the minerals in the rocks, there hasn’t been a bloody murder!
When we finally arrived at Palcoyo, we all hopped out of the car excited at our first glimpse of the rainbow mountains! Our guide gave us a brief explanation and told us the routes we could explore (after seeing the impact of toursim at Vinicunca, conservation efforts are already in place at Palcoyo to limit damage by tourists, so some areas are out of bounds).
As a group, we all walked together to the first viewing point, before attempting a small summit at our own paces. We had plenty of time to explore the area and take as many photos as we wished before jumping back in the car to return to Cusco.
I absolutely loved this day trip to Palcoyo and would recommend it in a heart beat. I have absolutely no regrets about not visiting THE Rainbow Mountain; while I may not have got THAT photo, the entire day was brilliant and sounded much more relaxed and enjoyable than that of other traveller’s storied from Viniunca.
Have you visited rainbow mountain? How does my experience compare?
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Pinned this to my bucket list – I love your guide! I absolutely loved Peru and I am planning to go back when we can travel again. I didn’t realize how close it was from Cusco. Thanks to your blog, now I know!
Yay – I hope you get to visit soon!