Rainbow Mountain, or Montaña De 7 Colores, is a colorful mountain near Cusco with significant historical meaning. It is often overlooked on most trips to Cusco, as most travelers reserve more time for nearby Machu Picchu. However, this hike should be squeezed into your Cusco itinerary when possible.
Rainbow Mountain sits about a two or three-hour bus ride from Cusco and is surrounded by a vast landscape riddled with breathtaking colors and roaming alpacas.
The Rainbow Mountain hike is relatively straightforward, but the trouble comes with the sheer altitude of the mountain. Rainbow Mountain is at 5,200 meters above sea level (17,060 feet). The altitude can be challenging, especially for those who need more preparation or acclimation to such a height. However, once you become comfortable, the trip to Rainbow Mountain is well worth it.
Curious to find out more about the Rainbow Mountain hike? Continue reading, as I will share everything you need to know.
Make sure to also read my posts The Best Day Trips From Cusco and A Guide To The Inca Trail To Machu Picchu.
The History Of Rainbow Mountain, Cusco
Most scientists attribute the breathtaking rainbow hues of Rainbow Mountain to the nearby glaciers. As the glaciers melt, they leak rich minerals into the soil. The minerals have soaked the landscape and turned it into bright, eye-catching shades.
Rainbow Mountain was discovered by locals in 2012 due to melting ice caps on the mountain. It did not become well-known to international travelers until 2015. It is now deemed a holy site by locals in Peru, matching the colorful rainbow flag flown around Cusco.
The Rainbow Mountain Hike
Rainbow Mountain has quickly gained popularity. In fact, it is the second most visited attraction in the Cusco area. For this reason, it is relatively easy to get to Rainbow Mountain and navigate your way to the top.
Rainbow Mountain is roughly 100 km (62 miles) from Cusco. The trip by car or bus takes approximately three hours due to the winding road up the mountainside. There is only one trail going up and one route going down, clearly marked by signs and often swarms of hikers.
You begin the hike at the singular parking lots. You will follow the well-marked path leading up the mountain. You should be able to see a piece of Rainbow Mountain during your hike, as well as the vast rolling hills that surround Rainbow Mountain.
The first one-quarter of the hike is on a relatively flat pathway leading you into and around the red mountains. The next two-quarters of the hike is up a slightly tricky incline. The final one-quarter hike is up a straight slope to the top.
The final stretch is equipped with rope and chains that provide further support.
Need more details? Good, continue reading!
What To Expect When Hiking To Rainbow Mountain, Cusco
At first glance, Rainbow Mountain may appear to be a relatively easy hike. It is approximately 4km (2.5 miles). However, sitting at 5,200 meters (17,060 feet) above sea level, the altitude makes this hike rather difficult.
Depending on your acclimation to the elevation, the time you need to hike to the top may vary. However, you can expect about a 2-hour hike with frequent stops and breaks to allow your body to adjust. Be sure to take a break to visit the many alpacas you will pass on the hike.
The weather varies greatly depending on the time of year, but be prepared for a lot of wind and cold air. In fact, you should ack more layers than you think you may need. At more than 5,000 meters (17,000 feet) of elevation, it can be chilly regardless of sun exposure.
Bring coca leaves, garlic, and ibuprofen in case of altitude sickness. And always remember to stop for as long as necessary if you notice symptoms of altitude sickness (headache, dizziness, tingling of fingers and toes, short of breathing, etc).
Practical Information About The Rainbow Mountain Hike
Overall walking distance during the Rainbow Mountain hike
The Rainbow Mountain hike is only 4 km (2.5 miles) all the way to the top, but this number may be misleading. The hike is straight up the mountain, meaning it is a significant elevation gain.
The most important thing here is to be prepared for the altitude and take it slow. The trail begins at around 4,300 meters (14,000 feet) above sea level. You then proceed to hike up approximately 1,200 meters (4,000 feet) in a very short distance.
Overall walking time when hiking Rainbow Mountain, Cusco
The walking time may vary depending on your fitness level and preparation. The fittest people can make it to the top in under an hour, while the slowest take about two hours. It is best to anticipate about two hours of walking and remember that fitness and altitude sickness are actually not correlated!
Other ways to reach the top
There are two other choices to get to the top of Rainbow Mountain if you are confident your fitness level will prevent you from doing so.
The first option – which I don’t really recommend – is to take a horse or a donkey along the trail. At the trailhead’s beginning, you will see a train of locals offering this route. However, the conditions the animals are walking in are abysmal at best. These animals make the trek all day, despite the cold weather or heat. This might not be the most humane choice for the animals. The horses and donkeys cannot go all the way, so you will still have to hike the most challenging part at the end anyways.
You can also take a four-wheeler or ATV to the backside – but again, I don’t really recommend it. We met a family of four that took this route and seemed to enjoy it, though it is less popular and not heavily advertised. You would have to talk to your tour operator about this possibility. You would still have to hike the challenging final route to the top of Rainbow Mountain and be wary of damage to the terrain and surrounding environment.
Hiking Rainbow Mountain independently
Some people choose to do the Rainbow Mountain hike on their own. There are several advantages to going on your own, including the independence and the chance to get away from large tour groups.
However, it may be significantly more expensive to find a private driver, rent a car, or navigate the local colectivo system. There are also more precautions to be taken when navigating the Peruvian roads without guidance.
Hiking Rainbow Mountain with a guided tour
Hiking Rainbow Mountain with a guided tour makes the journey much less stressful. The only downside is that most tour operators depart Cusco between 4:00 am and 6:00 am. If you have a lot of other hikes (for example the Inca Trail) and adventures planned for Cusco, the early departure may be daunting.
The good news is you have a lot of time to sleep on the bus if you struggle with grogginess. The bus ride is simple and easy for the majority of the trip.
Most tours stop for breakfast on the way to Rainbow Mountain and lunch on the return journey. The time we went on included a buffet-style breakfast and lunch that was surprisingly good.
We went with Willka Travel tour operator and paid $150 S ($38 USD) for our tour, including hotel pick-up, transportation, breakfast, and lunch. You can also book your tours online through third party booking sites such as Viator and GetYourGuide, and the price is pretty much the same.
You can book your Rainbow Mountain hike on GetYourGuide here or here. If you prefer a private tour, click here.
To book your Rainbow Mountain hike in Viator, click here.
How to avoid the crowd and bonus hikes
According to Peruvian tour operators, upwards of 1,000 people visit Rainbow Mountain daily. Most tour companies depart and arrive in the same time frame, making this an overly crowded hike at times.
You can escape from these crowds in several ways. The first is to rent a car or a driver and take the trip on your own. You can leave earlier or later to avoid the tour companies. Controlling your schedule also allows you to visit Rainbow Mountain during the best hours of light (in the early morning or late afternoon). But this is definitely a more expensive option compared to the others.
You can also bypass the crowds by exploring the area on your own. If you go with a tour company, they will give you a timeframe to meet back at the bus. You can go beyond Rainbow Mountain to explore the vast, expanding landscape where no other hikers can be found. You will also get a different perspective of Rainbow Mountain and the nearby rolling hills.
If you go with a tour company, keep an eye on the time. It can be easy to get distracted while exploring the area, and you don’t want to miss your ride back!
How to prepare for the elevation
The elevation is the most challenging part of the Rainbow Mountain hike. For this reason, it may be helpful to have some tips and tricks in your back pocket to be better prepared. Here are some things to keep in mind while prepping for this high-altitude hike:
- Give yourself time to acclimate to the altitude in Cusco. Three days is the minimum, usually.
- Drink plenty of coca tea and/or coffee before the hike.
- Take it slow on the hike. If you are feeling some altitude sickness, stop, go back a few steps, and wait for the symptoms to subside.
- Stay hydrated before the hike and drink plenty of water on the hike.
- Bring ibuprofen or other medicine to help with altitude headaches.
- Look into altitude sickness pills in Cusco, or bring them on your trip.
With enough preparation, the altitude of Rainbow Mountain is perfectly manageable. Especially as one of the shorter (distance-wise) high-altitude hikes you’ll find in Peru.
Make sure to also read my post The Best Hikes In Peru.
Food and drinks
The Rainbow Mountain hike is a well-trafficked one. This means plenty of vendors are on the way up to the top of Rainbow Mountain. You can find snacks, coca products, water, and other hydration options throughout the entire trek to the top.
If you go with a tour company, you will most likely stop for breakfast and lunch.
However, you should still have a few hours at the top of Rainbow Mountain. You may want some light snacks after the strenuous walk to the top. Small snacks like nuts, bananas, or other fruits are recommended.
Rainbow Mountain is a high-altitude hike, meaning you will want to bring a lot of water for the trek. I always carry a minimum of 2 and at times even 3 liters of water on any high-altitude hikes, and I sip it slowly, throughout the day. If you forget to bring water, don’t worry: You can find water for purchase on the trail, so you don’t have to worry about this as much as other less-isolated hikes in the area.
The best time of year to hike Rainbow Mountain, Cusco
The time of year and weather conditions can significantly impact the aesthetic of Rainbow Mountain. For example, if you go on a rainy or cloudy day, the colors of the mountain won’t be as bright and vibrant. And in fact you may even end up hiking in the fog and being unable to see anything.
April through September included is the dry season in the Andes mountains. During these months, you will have a very high chance of catching a crisp, clear sky for a better experience.
The best times of day to visit Rainbow Mountain for colors is early mornings or later afternoons. However, tour companies do not go during these hours.
Make sure to also read my post The Best Time To Visit Peru.
Essentials for your Rainbow Mountain hike
The weather and temperatures at the top of Rainbow Mountain might make it challenging to plan for. In this case, it is always better to be over-prepared than under-prepared.
Here is a list of recommendations for things to wear or carry on your journey:
- A good backpack to keep your belongings and water in during the hike.
- A pair of hiking boots with a good grip. You will be better off with water-resistant hiking boots.
- Warm hiking pants or a thick pair of leggings.
- A base layer to wear on top.
- A fleece to layer on top.
- A wind or rain jacket. It is very windy at the top with no protection.
- A hat and gloves.
- A walking stick can be helpful during the last push of the hike. If you go with a tour company, they should provide you with walking sticks.
- Sunscreen and lip balm. The sun is powerful in this area of Peru, and there is little-to-no protection from the sun on the trek.
- Sunglasses to protect your eyes from the sun and the dust that kicks up from the wind.
- A camera. The views from the top are incredible. You will undoubtedly want to capture these memories. Remember to get the infamous photo with the alpacas with the Rainbow Mountain background.
- Plenty of water, snacks, and a small bag to store your trash in.
- Ibuprofen or altitude sickness pills for emergencies.
Don’t forget to also read my post What To Pack For The Inca Trail.
Some people go to Rainbow Mountain and complain about the elevation and crowds. But if you go prepared with an open mind and the will to explore, you will have an unbelievable journey.
Have you experienced Rainbow Mountain in all its beauty? Please share your thoughts.
If you are planning a trip to Peru, these other posts will be useful:
- The Best Cusco Travel Tips
- The Best Things To Do In Cusco
- How To Hike Huayna Picchu
- Where To Stay In Cusco
- A Complete Guide To The Sacred Valley
- How To Get To Machu Picchu