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The Vinicunca, also known as the Rainbow Mountain, is no longer a secret tucked in the central Andes. It has become an alternative attraction to the famed Machu Picchu citadel, and nowadays you can find day tours to visit this geological wonder. In fact, it’s becoming one of the top activities to do while in Cusco.
Travelers should be physically prepared to climb up to 17,000 feet above sea level – a difficult task for inexperienced hikers who are short on time and want to see it all in a day. It is recommended travelers take longer tours to acclimatize and to also visit other destinations like Ausangate mountain, local communities, and to take a moment to appreciate the wildlife in order to get the best out of the trip.
The Rainbow Mountain is located in the Vilcanota range, also home to the majestic Ausangate. The minerals in the Rainbow Mountain caused the sandstones to acquire a red rust-like color that contrasts the yellow, maroon and turquoise stripes, caused by the presence of other minerals combined with weathering; truly a geological wonder. Locals say that the Rainbow Mountain used to be covered in glaciers that melted due to global warming, thus its late touristic discovery.
Getting to the top of the Rainbow mountain involves a steep hike that could be extremely challenging for individuals who are not fully acclimatized to the altitude. It’s recommended you spend at least a couple of days in Cusco prior to the excursion. Some local tour companies offer a day trip that leaves Cusco by bus at 4AM and arrives four hours later to the towns of Japura or Chillca, situated at the bottom of the mountain. From there you’ll hike five miles for about two hours until you reach the peak. It sounds easy, but it’s actually so difficult due to the elevation (17,000 feet) that locals rent horses for 150 soles (around US$45) to take you and your gear up the mountain.
The higher elevation also means colder, nearly freezing temperatures, so be prepared. If you decide to take a one-day tour, make sure to wear very warm clothes. Also bring coca leaves to fight off altitude sickness and carry the minimum gear possible to ease the hike. There is also a chance that you’ll meet many groups of tourists by the time you arrive at the mountain, which can be some time before noon.
A full day trip might cost from US$50–$70 but includes transportation, a professional guide, a meal and snacks, trekking sticks and first aid in the unlikely case it’s needed. It’s a quick visit that may leave you wanting more, but make sure your tour offers a guide since some cheaper programs only include a ride to the bottom of the mountain. If you don’t want to be rushed and are looking for a more relaxed and unique experience, you can sign up for a multi-day private tour that guarantees a much more spiritual and cultural adventure.
Most private tours last six days because, aside from visiting the Rainbow Mountain, you get to hike around the Ausangate, one of the Incas’ holiest mountains. In those six days, you’ll tour the Ausangate, where you’ll see ice caverns, the mountain’s glaciers, little-known Andean landscapes and crystal-clear lagoons you can swim in. You also get to experience life with natives who are llama herders, visit ancient hot springs and see animals like condors, foxes and the endangered vicuñas.
These trips gradually take you up the Vilcanota mountain range to help you acclimatize to the elevation, and include full meals, water, tents, guidance and horses to help you with the trekking. A tour like this could cost around $600 depending on how many travelers are in your group. Also, you can request a local curandero (local shaman) for a spiritual healing in the presence of the Ausangate mountain.
Whether you choose the full day trip or the six-day adventure, visiting the Vilcanota mountain range means traveling to the cosmic world of the Andes, an area mostly unexplored that would be a stunning addition to anyone’s bucket list.