You’ve seen the photos and, like the rest of the world, you’ve wondered if it was a product of nature or photoshop. In most cases, the latter has been used to enhance the vivid, multi-colored hues of Vinicunca. But, you’ll be pleased to know that there truly does exist a colorful mountain ridge where pastel slices of lime green, maroon and purple have given it the apt moniker of “Rainbow Mountain” – and established it as Peru’s most famous peak.
Also known as the Montaña de Siete Colores (Mountain of Seven Colors), this striking corner of the Peruvian Andes has become a key feature on most travelers’ bucket lists and a must-visit tour from Cusco.
But, there’s a catch.
Vinicunca, aka Rainbow Mountain, is located 138 km (86 mi) southeast of Cusco in the province of Quispicanchis. It forms part of the Vilcanota mountain range, which is best known for being home to Apu Ausangate, a mountain revered by the local Quechua population and one of Peru’s highest.
But Rainbow Mountain is now far more famous than Ausangate. This rainbow hill looks like something out of a dream, thanks to its shocking striations of color. These were caused by the oxidation of the mineral deposits left here millions of years ago, which have since been exposed to the air thanks to the movement of tectonic plates.
Although the international press has waxed lyrical about the destination, and heavily promoted this candy-striped mountain over the past five years, few have stopped to consider the damaging, and ultimately threatening, impact of increased tourism to the area.
The mountain itself is a legacy of climate change. Until around 2013, the mountain’s vivid kaleidoscope of colors was buried year-round beneath a layer of snow. As temperatures in the Andes and across the globe have increased, the snow has melted, revealing the mountain in all its glory.
But the impact of humans – aka tourists – poses the biggest threat to this once pristine destination’s future.
As of this year, 1,500 hikers reportedly hike the trail to the viewpoint for Vinicunca each and every day. To put this into perspective, that’s around a third of the number of visitors to the significantly larger site of Machu Picchu.
Traffic along the 4 km (2.5 mi) Rainbow Mountain trail causes significant erosion to what is still – and should be – a pristine, undamaged natural environment. Trekkers report how the constant movement of visitors piling onto the mountain has widened the trail to 10, even 20 meters at points, thus damaging the fragile vegetation that once lined the path. In fact, reports suggest that many parts of the path have fully collapsed, causing it to be rerouted and therefore even further degradation of the terrain
But it’s not just hikers who are unintentionally leaving their mark. A wetland that was once an important habitat for wild ducks was recently turned into a vast parking lot the size of five soccer fields. While this means you no longer need to walk as far to reach the all-important viewpoint, this has also allowed even larger vans and buses – bringing even more tourists – to park on the mountain.
As a result, a perfect storm of more visitors all taking the same path, and little to no environmental management by the local people has placed enormous pressure on this extraordinarily fragile location.
Before you book, here are four things you should be thinking about for your tour to Rainbow Mountain.
As we’ve seen, the main issues surrounding a tour of Rainbow Mountain is the environmental impact of tourists and the safety concerns of the altitude. To best negate both of these, a two-day trek to Rainbow Mountain, including a night camping in splendid Andean scenery nearby, is a great alternative.
Not only will you arrive far earlier than those making the day trip from Cusco (meaning you’ll have significantly better photos with fewer tourists crowded in them), by camping overnight at altitude, you’ll already be far better acclimated to the trail. As a result, the experience will be safer and far more pleasant.
What’s more, it’s an opportunity to appreciate the mountain the context of the surrounding scenery and the rural Quechua people who live nearby – deepening your experience of this unique attraction.
For the first few years after Rainbow Mountain’s “discovery”, the only visitors to explore this now fabled peak were those hiking the challenging Ausangate trail, a trek that brings you within striking distance of one of the highest peaks in Peru.
Following in their footsteps isn’t a bad idea. Firstly, this sees you hiking along little-trafficked routes that don’t follow those used by the normal Rainbow Mountain day trips from Cusco, thus helping to manage soil erosion on the trail. Secondly, as with the two-day tour mentioned above, you arrive at different times than these same tourists and will again be far better prepared and acclimated for the trek.
What’s more, you won’t spend most of your day in a van driving to and from Rainbow Mountain from Cusco – which is the less than favorable reality experienced by day-trippers.
While the full Ausangate circuit is a 70 km (43 mi), six-day trek, you can also hike a shorter, four-day route around Ausangate and Rainbow Mountain, which still incorporates turquoise glacier lakes, vistas of highland meadows packed with grazing alpacas and wild vicuña and snowy mountain peaks in close proximity.
You’ll summit passes of up to 5,020 m (17,060 ft.) above sea level and have opportunities to spot regional wildlife. Expect condors soaring in the sky above and maybe even a glimpse of an elusive puma.
There’s nothing worse than falling sick on a trek. Becoming ill at 5,200 meters above sea level with no access to medical attention and a one-hour trek to get back to your vehicle is not how most people plan to spend their vacation.
Unfortunately, a lot of tour agencies aren’t equipped for the eventualities of someone becoming unwell during the hike up to Rainbow Mountain. Many lack appropriate first aid kids and even sufficient English to help in a crisis.
It’s therefore paramount that you choose a tour agency that is prepared for any eventuality. Oxygen canisters in case of altitude sickness and an emergency horse to get you down safely off the mountain if your symptoms develop or you become injured are essential. Check before booking to ensure that the company provides all of the above.
Due to the high elevation of the trek to Vinicunca, the weather that you face can be extraordinarily variable. Rain, hail and even snow are likely, so to stay safe and avoid the worst of the rain, plan your trip between April and September, which is the dry season in Peru.
Between October and March, heavy seasonal rains can entirely cover the mountain in a thick blanket of snow, thus making access significantly more difficult – and treacherous.
If it’s raining in Cusco, odds are that it’s hailing or snowing at the top of Rainbow Mountain. Check with your tour agency whether they cancel (and provide a refund) for poor weather. Many don’t – and reports of disappointed travelers forced up onto the mountain in freezing conditions prove just how unpleasant a trip can be in these conditions.
How to choose a responsible – and safe – Rainbow Mountain tour from Cusco
However, the increase in people visiting Rainbow Mountain certainly hasn’t had a net negative impact.
Tourism has seen positive consequences. For the local communities who live close to Rainbow Mountain, jobs have been created, with former farmers and alpaca herders now renting out horses to, or acting as guides for, tourists.
What’s more, some five hundred former residents, who had moved away from their ancestral village, have since returned to profit from the influx of tourism. Standards of living for those in the indigenous village of Pitumarca, which lies near the trailhead, have since improved.
And, most importantly, without the painted mountain’s meteoric rise to Instagram fame, it’s unlikely that Canadian-based mining company, Camino Minerals Corporation would have had their application for the mining rights for the region rejected in 2018 by the Peruvian government. This has ensured that these candy-colored mountains are protected for years to come.
But there’s more that can be done to ensure that this natural wonder can be appreciated by visitors for decades ahead.
This starts with travelers making conscious decisions. While it is possible to visit independently, there is no financial gain to do this (it takes longer and costs around the same as a tour), so getting to Rainbow Mountain always involves using an agency based out of Cusco.
Additional tips to ensure your trip is memorable – for all the right reasons