If you’re looking for a high-elevation, off-the-beaten-path adventure near Cusco, Peru, Vinicunca might be the perfect trek. It’s situated high in the Andes with the awe-inspiring Ausangate Mountain towering over much of the trail. The excursion culminates at a surreal viewpoint near Vinicunca, the rainbow mountain itself, at an elevation just over 5,035 meters. Excellent fitness and proper acclimatization are necessary.
If you opt to do the single day version of this hike, be sure to plan it after your Inca Trail trip or an acclimatization hike up to at least 3,962 meters. With Cusco sitting at just 3,400 meters above sea level, you’ll want a little extra boost so that you can enjoy the journey. This trek features some serious altitude, and it is incredibly easy to get sick with AMS, HAPE, or HACE if you don't properly acclimate. Many companies also offer a two-day trek, which allows time for exploration and acclimatization.
First of all, many websites will try to sell you an overpriced version of this hike, when you can actually just walk up to most tour/trekking companies in Cusco’s center and arrange for transportation and food for 80 to 100 soles. Your bus will pick you up at 3:30 a.m. to begin the three-hour ride deep in to the lush, green Peruvian countryside. Catch up on some sleep or watch the sun rise out the window as playful herds of llamas and alpacas graze in the Andean foothills.
The first stop is for a simple breakfast in Hanchi Pacha, a tiny farming village set deep in the Andes. Here, you’ll have an opportunity to buy more water and use the bathrooms. Remember, hydration helps with altitude sickness, so be sure to bring at least 3 liters From here, the bus will take you another 30 minutes to the trailhead.
The trail begins amidst Technicolor-green hills dotted with friendly alpacas roaming free and eating all the grass they can stomach. After a quick but steep 150-meter ascent, there will be a small corral with local people renting horses for tourists who do not wish to hike the whole way up. The cost of a horse is about 80 soles. There are squat toilets here and further along the trail as well. After the stables, the trail’s steepness lessens and meanders through a breathtaking valley of rust-colored peaks jutting up and out of the earth. At about 4 kilometers into the trek, you’ll come to a gate marking the entrance to the area’s national park. If your guide has not already arranged this for you, it is 10 soles to enter.
Once inside the park, the trail continues upward. Take your time, as this area of Peru is truly magnificent, and on a clear day, you can see the majestic 6,384-meter Ausangate Mountain and her massive glacier soaring over you for a lot of the hike. Hail, snow or sleet might suddenly appear as you continue to climb toward Vinicunca, so be prepared with warm layers, gloves and a hat.
The last 60 meters of ascent steepen before spitting you out onto a saddle between Vinicunca and a beautiful viewpoint to your right. If you’re up for it, turn right and climb an additional 100 meters to snap the perfect photo of this exquisite Apu, or holy mountain.
The trail back down is the same way you came, passing through the tiny villages of alpaca farmers. The mountains surrounding the area feature an incredible array of different colors due to the region’s high iron and mineral content. Once you get to the bottom of the trailhead, your bus will be waiting for you. A quick drive to Hanchi Pacha allows for a warm lunch before the long three-hour drive back to Cusco. Take a nap or marvel at the mountains as your descend – you’ve earned it!
Due to the rapid increase in tourism to the area, many critics have emerged stating that the Rainbow Mountain treks are ruining this once pristine Andean alpine environment. It's true that this rural area's infrastructure is lacking, and the trek is falsely marketed as "just a fun day hike" that anyone can do from Cusco. The truth is, while the trek greatly aids the local economy, they are still reeling to get roads, trained guides, and established trails in place. The weather can turn on a dime in the mountains, turning this "easy stroll" into a slippery, high-altitude mud pit in which it is nearly impossible to keep track of your guide or your group. Be smart and don't attempt this trail if you are not comfortable hiking 75% of it unguided and doing some minimal trail navigation at altitude. A horse is not recommended, because you'll be less aware of your body's response to the high altitude and won't know if and when you need to descend for safety. It's a beautiful place to trek, but be smart and hire a reputable service to guide you. The mountain will always be there tomorrow.
Hiking or backpacking to Vinicunca or "The Rainbow Mountain" can be a magical introduction to high-altitude Andean peaks and valleys, but it's important that tourists understand the inherent dangers and fitness requirements before sauntering up above 16,000 feet. Be safe, hire a vetted guide, and properly acclimate beforehand to make sure you get all the enjoyment you can out of this once-in-a-lifetime experience!