Vinicunca (also spelled Winikunka) is an impressive mountain range in the Southern Sierra of Peru, perched at an elevation of over 5,200 meters. It's best known for its unsual, bright, and attractive colors.
Vinicunca, otherwise known as "Rainbow Mountain", is a mountain in the Cusco region of Peru, near Mount Ausangate. In this area the mountains are partly formed by colored sediments, which give it its unique and surreal aspect.
Although there have few people living in small villages around the place, it is only become a popular tourist attraction since 2015. The first guided tours were available in January 2016, but now almost all agencies in Cusco offer day trips and the place is set to become a major tourist attraction in a short time. Even on rainy / cloudy days the site can get crowded with a large number of hikers climbing to the top at the same time. Be aware that the lookout itself, from where you get the best view of the real Rainbow Mountain and its surroundings, is just a small hill that fills up fairly quickly. All guided tours reach the top at approximately the same time, therefore, while there won't be many people around for most of the day, there will be a lot of people around 10:30-11:00. For those wishing to enjoy it a little alone or longer, the only way is to go there alone or spend the night in the area.
As the region is becoming more and more popular, it is especially important not to leave litter (including human litter - there are toilets along the way, so use them). Try to stick to the trail and don't walk on the Rainbow Mountain itself (there's a fence around it) in order to preserve the site.
The trail is a three-hour drive from Cusco, and the last third is a narrow dirt road. There are several ways to reach this fairly remote place.
The mountain itself is accessible only on foot or on horseback. From the nearest road there is a trail leading up that takes about three hours to walk. Including the three-hour drive from Cusco, it takes about six hours total to reach the summit. You can find the trail on OpenStreetMap and it is well marked and easy to follow, even if you do not go with a guide. When in doubt, just follow the other tourists you are sure to find.
Your visit to Vinicunca may be part of a trekking tour to Ausangate. The original tour does not include a pass through Vinicunca, but a detour is always possible. Ask a local guide or talk to an experienced agency that can provide tourist information. You can choose to hike or camp in the mountains from less than an hour to several days.
If you have your own or rented vehicle, you can go there on your own. Although the last hour is on a dirt road, you don't need a 4x4 and there are some places to park (although they may be crowded by agency vans).
Collectivos run from Cusipata's main drag starting at 3am and will take you to the trailhead for 20 soles one way. The difficulty afterwards will be getting back down, as these collectivos generally service local vendors, and don't start making runs back down to Cusipata until around 2pm, when the vendors pack up. Tour buses will leave earlier but generally refuse to take on extra passengers even if they have empty seats, as they see independent travel as an affront to their business.
With guided tours
You can book day tours with most agencies in Cusco. Most tours start early in the morning and include a pick-up from the hostel, breakfast, lunch, entrance fee (S/10) and oxygen in case of altitude sickness. Tours start from a minimum of S/50 (check what is included). While the cheaper tours leave Cusco at 05:00, the more professional/expensive tours start as early as 03:00/04:00. Try to arrive as early as possible because the weather gets worse after 12:00. Also, ask about group size and check the weather forecast. There are minibuses (up to 19 people) and buses (up to 35 people). Most tours stop near Cusipata district for breakfast and lunch (the dirt road starts there). It takes about 2 hours from Cusco to Cusipata and about an hour and a half from there to the top (it is faster downhill). Breakfast is usually bread, jam and butter, eggs and tea, or chocolate. Once you get to the parking lot, you can walk up at your own pace or rent a horse (for S/70, but it's not worth it because you still have to walk the most strenuous part, the last 200 meters). There is no need for a guide, just follow the crowds or the clear paths uphill – you cannot get lost. Be sure to get back to the parking lot in time; the return to Cusco is around 18:00. Although this is definitely the easiest way in, some people are disappointed that they do not have enough time at the site. Be aware that there are several offers online, most of which are overpriced. It is probably better and cheaper to book travel directly to Cusco, since this offers the opportunity to haggle and compare prices. Just check if everything is included to compare prices. You can also negotiate the price if you book the tour without food. Do not pay an extra S/10 for the guide to the "Red Valley" as it can be easily reached from the top independently, and it does not take much time.
If you are ready for some adventure, some agencies can take you there and pick you up again one or more days later. This is probably the easiest and cheapest way to spend more time on site without all the hassle of the public transportation option, while also ensuring that you arrive early in the morning and thus giving you the whole day to explore the area.
Fees and permits
The only way up is on foot, which takes about three hours (including return). You can also rent a horse from the villagers: since the first part is rather flat, the locals will follow you with horses waiting for you to tire along the way, so it is usually possible to rent one even if you are already halfway up. Keep in mind that when it is crowded (especially on weekends), there may not be enough horses for everyone.
Breathtaking scenery, lots of alpacas and some wild vicuña (if you are lucky). There are some small villages, and people still live by their traditional way of life, which includes typical colorful clothes.
- 1 Red Valley (Valle Rojo). It has fewer tourists, but is just as fascinating. There is no need to book a guided tour because it is easy to find and explore. If you come down Rainbow Mountain, turn left (after about 200 meters you can see the tracks from the viewpoint). You will come to a junction guarded by locals. The left trail will cost you S/10, while the right trail costs S/5. Climb to the viewpoint (5,038 m above sea level) where you can see Rainbow Mountain and the mountain range on one side and the Red Valley on the other. In addition, it is possible to descend another 200 meters to get a closer view of the red valley. There are 2 options to return to the trail/bus. The first and easiest/fastest option is to go back from the viewpoint to the main trail, second to keep to the other side of the mountain range and follow a less touristy route. You will be asked for an additional S/5 for this trail. It is recommended that you follow a guidebook, as the trail is not always easy to identify. As an approximation, just keep to the right of the mountain (you will have to go around the mountain range to get back to the bus station).
Eat and drink
There is not much there, but some of the villagers will sell you snacks on the way up. At the top there are stores selling hot food and coffee/tea. If you want to stay more than a day you will need to bring supplies.
There is a small stream that you can use for water, but be sure to purify it before drinking it, as there are many horses and alpacas around and they leave waste everywhere. Also be aware that you will find less water the higher you go, so do not rely on it and always carry a sufficient supply with you. In the village you can buy bottled water and some soft drinks from the villagers.
As of September 2022, there is no place to rest your head, but there is plenty of room to pitch a tent. Be sure to ask the people of the village first, even if they might ask for money (be aware that none of them have jobs, so they mostly live on alpacas so even a few soles can make a massive difference).
The main problem is the altitude. Remember that Vinicunca's elevation is well over 5,000 meters, so try to acclimatize yourself before climbing to avoid altitude sickness. Furthermore, the weather can change rapidly (like everywhere in the mountains). While it can get hot during the day, nights can be cold and snow isn't uncommon. The place is very remote, and the only way to get there is on foot or on horseback. Especially if you go independently, make sure you bring the proper equipment, water and food.