Hiking Rainbow Mountain and The Red Valley, Peru
In recent years, Cusco has become even more popular than it already was, this time because of Vinicunca, a magnificent geologic wonder. Also known as Rainbow Mountain or La Montana de Siete Colores, Vinicunca has taken Instagram by storm. Photos of Rainbow Mountain are everywhere, complete with shots of people posing with cheeky Alpacas at the top of this colourful mountain. Some people have even decided to dress to match the mountain! It’s an Instagram sensation.
But are all those bright colours just a result of some sneaky Photoshopping? We weren’t sure whether to visit Rainbow Mountain, mainly because it’s now super-touristy and also because we’d heard that the colours were not as vibrant in real life.
However, when we spoke to people who had done the Rainbow Mountain tour, combined with the adjacent Red Valley, we decided to give it a go anyway. After all, we needed a bit of altitude training for the Salkantay Trek that was coming up very soon. What mainly intrigued us was Red Valley. Other travellers had told us that it was just as beautiful as Rainbow Mountain and much less heavily visited.
Where are Rainbow Mountain and Red Valley?
Both attractions are right next to each other in a remote area approximately three hours drive from Cusco. Most people only visit Rainbow Mountain but we assure you, you can not miss the Red Valley! For us, a visit to Rainbow Mountain is not complete without heading back to your bus via the Red Valley. It was the highlight of our tour!
Where and when to book your Rainbow Mountain tour?
Don’t book too far ahead of time. If you book in Cusco you will pay around 100 soles which will include all transportation, breakfast and lunch, and a knowledgeable local guide.
There are many agencies all over town offering tours. However, do your research because not all of them are reputable and most don’t include the Red Valley as part of the experience. You will be hiking at high altitude so it pays to go with an operator that knows what they’re doing.
We were recommended Inka Times by a fellow traveller. They offer a combined tour to the Red Valley and they did a great job of it. Their driver wasn’t crazy (like some we’d heard about) and hiking both locations made the three-hour drive worthwhile, rather than just visiting Rainbow Mountain and heading back to Cusco.
We recommend booking your tour two days ahead, maybe more in peak season. Avoid booking online or you may be overcharged.
What about the weather?
Of course, the best way to enjoy both Rainbow Mountain and the Red Valley is to visit on a nice day. The colours just don’t look the same when it’s overcast or rainy. But unfortunately, there is no way of knowing what the weather will be like at that altitude. The weather up there changes quickly and often with little warning. It might be sunny in Cusco and pouring on the mountain.
You just have to hope for the best. We had a sunny start to the day and by the time we descended from the Red Valley lookout, the weather had turned and it started raining lightly. Two minutes after we returned to the bus, it began pouring down. That was very fortunate timing!
The discovery of Rainbow Mountain
You may wonder why Rainbow Mountain is only now becoming popular. The truth is quite sad. The reason why Rainbow Mountain is now there for all of us to enjoy is due to climate change. Before 2015, the mountain was covered in a thick layer of ice all year round. No-one knew what colours lay beneath it. As the temperatures rose, the ice melted and eventually the ground beneath it appeared in all its splendour. Now approximately 1000 people visit Rainbow Mountain every day.
Well, expect to have an early start. Most tours will pick you up from your hotel anywhere between 3 am and 3.30 am. That’s right, way too early! Still, the earlier you arrive, the better. If you happen to be in one of the first few buses, you are in luck.
The drive there takes about three hours and you will stop on the way to grab some breakfast. Make sure to have some coca tea with breakfast. It’s supposed to help with altitude sickness, although a doctor we saw in Arequipa told us this is just a myth.
The hike to Rainbow Mountain
Once you arrive, it’s time for the big hike. To reach the Rainbow Mountain viewpoint, you will walk roughly three kilometres. The first two kilometres were the easiest. After that, things quickly became tougher.
The hike begins at 4600 meters above sea level, and the viewpoint is at 5036 meters above sea level! That’s very high up and believe me, it makes everything so much harder.
We already had a little experience of hiking at altitude from trekking the Colca Canyon but that was nothing like this. We struggled a lot, and from the very beginning! Many stops along the way to catch our breath were required. Inka Times provided us with very helpful hiking poles.
Every step was harder than the previous one. Looking up at the peak, we thought we’d never get there. But we persevered and eventually, we made it. It took us an hour and a half to reach the top and we were very glad to get there.
Reaching the Top
Once at the top we had about thirty minutes to take some photos. Yes, you only get about 30 to 40 minutes at the top. Why? Well not only there are lots of other people wanting to enjoy the summit too but it’s also not great to stay at that altitude for long.
Simon started getting tingling in his chest, head and arms while ascending. Not only this but the wind at the top makes it so cold! You’ll want to get moving again just to warm up.
Yes, the way down was a bit easier. But halfway down, we turned off to the left. From there on we were again hiking uphill to get to the Red Valley lookout.
The Hike to the Red Valley
The Red Valley earned its name from the red coloured soil of the surrounding mountains. From the turn-off, halfway down from Rainbow Mountain, it took us approximately forty-five minutes to reach the Red Valley lookout. Once again it was tough, although slightly easier than Rainbow Mountain. The lookout is also at over 5000 metres, the air is very thin up there and you will feel it.
From the lookout, the views as spectacular as from Rainbow mountain. The best part was that there were not many people up there. You could take your time snapping photos and enjoying the view without getting in someone’s way.
After spending another thirty minutes at the top, it was all downhill from there. We enjoyed another hour and a half walk back to our bus, taking in the spectacular scenery of the valley.
Getting back to Cusco
After this exhausting hike, it was time to head back to Cusco but not before stopping along the way to have some lunch. We were all starving and a buffet lunch was very welcome. After lunch, we drove back to Cusco and I wasn’t the only one who fell asleep! Arriving in Cusco at around 4.30 pm, I wished we had more time in the bus so that I could nap some more.
What you need to know before hiking Rainbow Mountain
- You won’t be the only person doing it. Yes, you might think that it will be just like on Instagram and that you can score some great selfies with no-one in them. Think again. There are hundreds of people hiking Rainbow Mountain every day. It is the second most visited attraction near Cusco after Machu Picchu. It’s far from the quiet mountain it once was when no-one knew that it even existed, If you want good photos you will need to be patient and you will need to be very quick.
- It’s a tough hike. They say no pain, no gain and this is the case for Rainbow Mountain. 30 seconds after we started walking uphill, I was already out of breath. The hike to the top takes one and a half hours. So, it’s no piece of cake! If it wasn’t for the altitude, the hike would be moderately difficult but the altitude makes it much tougher.
- The colours might not look like they do on Instagram. If the weather is dreadful (which is not uncommon), the colours won’t be nearly as vibrant. Plus, to be fair, most pictures on Instagram have been heavily edited. Either way, temper your expectations to avoid disappointment.
- Don’t even attempt this hike on your first day in Cusco unless you have already spent time at altitude in Puno. Rainbow Mountain is extremely high up and it will be punishing if you are not acclimatised. Spend at least 2 days in Cusco before attempting this hike.
- Dress appropriately, bring lots of layers. It’s very cold! Bring a beanie, scarf, gloves, raincoat, windbreaker, warm pants and warm jumpers. You will need them. You will warm up as you start walking but as soon as you reach the top you will be freezing if you don’t put your layers back on.
- Bring snacks and lots of water. You will need them! While there are people selling drinks and snacks on the mountain, you will pay very inflated prices.
- Bring sunscreen lotion. The UV at that altitude is very strong, even when the weather is overcast. You can burn without realising it.
Accommodation in Cusco
To find your accommodation in Cusco you can use HotelsCombined to search across all major accommodation websites. We use it all the time.