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See Cuzco’s Rainbow Mountain in style

Most people who visit the breathtaking multi-colored mountain high in the Peruvian Andes do so on a grueling 16-hour round-trip. SA Expeditions clients, however, enjoy a leisurely two-day itinerary that avoids the crowds and includes a night spent in a gorgeous campsite. Jenny Byrne, our resident mountain goat, unpacks the experience.

What is Rainbow Mountain?

Rainbow Mountain, or Vinicunca as it’s known locally, is a ridge of multi-colored – turquoise, lavender, gold and more – sediments that have been brought to the surface by the clashing of tectonic plates. Since its ‘discovery’ about five years ago (locals say that until some time ago, snow hid the mountain) the mountain has become a real tourist attraction that’s visited by more than a thousand people every day.

Nearly there (Photo: Jenny Byrne)

Located at 16,500 feet, getting to the lookout is not for the faint-hearted – but it is oh so worth it. None of the images in this blog (all taken by me) were edited at all – the mountain really is that bright and vibrant, even on a cloudy day.

How do most people get there?

Touts in Cusco sell cheap tours to Rainbow Mountain by the dozen, but whilst the price may be right, the experience isn’t. Tourists are collected from their Cusco hotels at around 3 am before embarking on a 3½ - 4-hour drive (some of it on asphalt roads, some on mountainous, dirt roads) to the trailhead. After grabbing breakfast en route, they start hiking at around 8 am – along with hundreds of other people.

The SA Expeditions itinerary will keep you far from the madding crowd.  (Photo: Jenny Byrne)

The 4-mile hike (one-way), which starts at 14,100ft and ends at 16,500ftt, passes through breathtaking scenery, but the crowds and the very early start make it rather tricky to appreciate the surroundings. Everyone reaches the mountain at more or less the same time (between 11 am and 1 pm). After snapping a few pics, they hike back – along the same route – before driving back to Cusco and collapsing into bed at around 8 or 9 pm.

It’s a pretty tough day and many hikers who head up there are unprepared for the strenuous hike, extreme altitude and mountain weather. There have been at least two deaths on the trail since its popularity boomed and you just need to look at people’s faces to know that many suffer from symptoms of acute mountain sickness. This New York Times article paints a pretty vivid picture of “the other side” of the experience.

How does SA Expeditions go there?

We don’t enjoy the one-day itinerary but don’t think this should stop people from witnessing the incredible natural wonder that is Rainbow Mountain, not to mention hiking in the gorgeous Ausangate section of the Andes.

You'll pass spectacular snowmelt lagoons on the way up.  (Photo: Jenny Byrne)

SA Expeditions’ clients enjoy a two-day itinerary that transforms the experience into the memorable vacation highlight it surely should be. Highlights of the two-day itinerary include:

  • A leisurely 7 am departure from your Cusco hotel

  • A 14-mile round trip hike that takes different routes to and from Rainbow Mountain. The hike to the mountain is blessedly uncrowded (read totally devoid of human life) and passes through some incredible scenery. On the way back you will hike the route used by those on the one-day itinerary, but you will do so much earlier in the day than everyone else.

  • The opportunity to camp in a truly magnificent (albeit very high) spot, with only the peaks and the stars for company.

  • Quality tents, air mattresses and sleeping bags and three hearty meals a day.

When to go?

Whilst some tour operators will take people there all year round, we don’t think it’s worth going in the rainy season (December through April) when you could find yourself in rain, hail, fog and even snow and the main path can become a mud-bath.

We only run tours during the dry season.  (Photo: Jenny Byrne)

Who is Jenny Byrne?

Originally from the UK, I live in Cusco, where I work as a Destination Expert at SA Expeditions. I spend most of my free time exploring the Andes with my husband; hiking and rock climbing in some of its most remote corners. Read more about me here.

The area around Rainbow Mountain – with its pristine valleys, soaring peaks and forgotten civilizations – never ceases to amaze me. I hear a lot of people are disappointed by Rainbow Mountain. It is NOT disappointing at all, but I can understand why you’d feel let down after the ordeal of getting there on the one-day itinerary.

What are you waiting for?

Check out our 8-Day Machu Picchu and Rainbow Mountain Tour or speak to one of our Destination Experts about crafting the bespoke Rainbow Mountain itinerary of your dreams.

Wish you were here.  (Photo: Jenny Byrne)

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