Rainbow Mountain is fast becoming one of the most popular tourist destinations in Peru. Here we discuss whether it deserves the hype – is Rainbow Mountain worth a visit? We would say yes, but only if you combine it with a trip to the Red Valley!  Read on to find out how. 

In the last couple of years, tourism to Vinicunca, often referred to as Rainbow Mountain, has exploded. The mountain got its nickname due to its mineral composition which creates seven different colours; for example the red is iron and the yellow is sulphur.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, our plans for Cusco didn’t go quite as they were meant to. I had to spend an evening in hospital, and we struggled a lot more with the city’s altitude of 3400m than we had expected. Although we’ve spent a lot of our trip high in the Andes, our previous stop had been Mancora, at sea level, and our bodies were feeling the sudden lack of oxygen.

At its peak, Rainbow Mountain is over 5000m and we knew we needed to be in full fitness if we were going to make the most of it. We delayed booking the tour until we knew we we were ready.

Booking a tour to Rainbow Mountain and the Red Valley

All the tour operators across Cusco sell tours for around the same price, 70-75 soles (around £17-19). This is for a full day excursion, including breakfast and lunch, so it’s a pretty affordable option. It can be overwhelming trying to choose a company to go with, as they all seem to look the same, and offer the same.

As we wanted something quite specific, our options were narrowed down significantly. Most of the tours take you up to the summit of Rainbow Mountain, give you time to enjoy the view, and then return the same way. We wanted to do a loop, visiting Rainbow Mountain before walking back through the nearby Red Valley.

There really aren’t very many tour operators who go this way. After some research we finally found a company called Inka Time. For just 25 soles (around £5) more than the usual tours, we would get to see so much more. We went into their shop and signed up for the next day!

An early start

Our alarm woke us at 2.45am, giving us plenty of time to pack our day bags and have a warm cup of coca tea in preparation for the altitude.

Despite a relaxed, if not extremely early, start, our morning quickly turned into chaos. We were told that our tour would be with an Inka Time staff member, yet we were picked up (30 minutes late) by a third party on foot. The bus that was meant to pick us up was nowhere in sight, and we had to chase the staff member through the rain, along the slippy cobblestone roads. When we arrived in the centre of town, he told us to wait for a white Sprinter van, before running off without an explanation.

There were lots of tourist vehicles lined up along the street, but after enquiring with each one, none were for us. Becoming increasingly irate as the rain soaked us through, we rang the number that we had for Inka Time. They didn’t seem to know what was going on either, and told us to stay where we were.

We stood on the street for a good 20 minutes, totally confused. What should we do? Was he ever coming back? Had the van been and gone without us?

The journey to Rainbow Mountain

Eventually, a white Sprinter van full of people pulled up, and the guy we’d chased through the streets, reappeared. It was past 5am by this point, and we were understandably unimpressed. To make matters worse, there seemed to be some confusion over whether or not everyone was there. The staff member, who it turned out would be our guide for the day, spent a long time looking over his list of names and calling various ones out looking confused. No one else came, and eventually we set off.

Thankfully, the drive and our stop for breakfast went by without another hitch and we were at the entrance of Rainbow Mountain by about 9.30am.

Walking to Rainbow Mountain

The bus dropped us off in the car park, which sits at a height of 4480m. Although the path gently inclines for most of the way, the altitude makes what should be a fairly easy walk surprisingly tough.

The entrance of Rainbow Mountain

When you begin the walk, you are already at an altitude of 4480m

Every now and again we would stop and look around us as we caught our breath. The scenery, filled with crazy mountains and herds of alpacas, would be beautiful if it wasn’t for the line of tourists snaking their way past.

We are in good fitness, and had acclimatised well in Cusco before the hike. It took us around two hours to make our way up to the summit and we were there for 11.30am. Others in our group were slower, some faster. Ultimately, it isn’t a race and you have to be really careful of altitude sickness when you are hiking so high. We saw people of all ages struggling, and several didn’t get far before turning back to their buses.

As we walked we saw lots of horses for hire. Most of them were in terrible condition and if you visit we would strongly advise you not to use their services. By giving them money you are endorsing the cruelty of these animals.

The crowds walking to Rainbow Mountain

There is no chance of feeling lonley on the way to Rainbow Mountain. A constant stream of people and horses filed past us.

Closing in on the summit, I nearly stopped climbing all together. I was metres away from the end, but my lungs were rasping and it was becoming harder to walk. By the end of the climb, I was pretty sure that I must have collected stones in my shoes on the way up, as my feet felt like dead-weights at the ends of my legs. Phil had to give me a mental push to not give up!

If you ignore the hundreds of other tourists, the view from the summit is amazing. Unfortunately, Vinicunca itself is pretty disappointing. We could just about make out four of the seven colours that are meant to be there. We fast realised that the photos we had previously seen of the mountain had been highly filtered – naturally the colours aren’t that vivid. If it hadn’t been for the crowd of people with their selfie sticks, we might have missed it completely.

A mass of people walking up to the summit of Rainbow Mountain

The crowds make their way up to the summit of Rainbow Mountain

Is Rainbow Mountain worth it? At the summit

Here we are trying to unsucessfully dodge the crowds to take a photo with Rainbow Mountain.

Finally, we made our way over the ridge to the edge of the Red Valley. Regardless of whether you are walking through the valley or not, there is a 5 soles fee for access to the viewpoint, which is also the start of the next part of the walk. There were a couple of guys waiting on the path to take our money.

The ridge to Red Valley

This is the ridge that you need to walk across to get to the Red Valley viewpoint

When we got there, the scenery took away what little breath we had left. It was almost like looking down upon Mars. The wild red mountains in front of us was so much more vibrant than the colours of the famous Rainbow Mountain.

The Red Valley

While we waited at the viewpoint, where the next part of our hike would begin, the clouds were rolling in thick and fast. By the time our guide and group had assembled, we were being assaulted by hail. There were eight in our group, the others from our bus were all returning the way they had come on the standard tour. At this point, I think several of us were seriously considering joining them.

The first part of the walk came in equal parts of awesome and terrifying. There was no path, just a red downward slope in from of us. Due to the red clay, which is almost like sand, there was nowhere to get a grip with your feet. Using the wooden walking stick (provided by our guide) as a steer, we each slide quickly down into the valley.

Sliding into the Red Valley

Sliding down the clay mountainside into the Red Valley.

From this point, the hike was relatively easy going. Due to our initial descent, we weren’t plagued as much by the altitude. Surprisingly, the clouds parted around forty minutes later, allowing the sun to shine into the valley.

During the three hour hike, we only came across one other tour group, which was in vast contrast to the first part of our day. At times it felt like we were true adventurers, the first to discover the land since the time of the Incas.

Along the route we saw lots of agricultural terraces, which had been built into the mountainside by the Incas. Many are still maintained and are used for growing potatoes. We even saw one father and son combo working to plant new crops.

Planting new potatoes in the Red Valley

As we were walking in the Red Valley we saw a father and son planting new potatoes

Through the centre of the valley snakes a stream which runs red from the clay. In places the stream is filtered by rocks and forms wonderful blue pools of water, their colour contrasts violently with the red of the clay mountains and the vibrant green grass and moss. The vegetation is high in nutrients, and farmers graze their alpaca and llama herds here.

Pools of water form in the Red Valley

The colours of the Red Valley are so vivid!

A mother and baby alpaca grazing in the Red Valley

Herds of llamas and alpacas graze in the nutrient rich Red Valley

Sadly, by 3.30pm our walk had come to an end. We finished at the point where we’d had breakfast just a few hours before, and where we were to have lunch with the rest of our bus. The place was nothing fancy, a single room with long tables, attached to someone’s tiny home. The building belongs to a small village, made up of around ten or fifteen different houses, several of which cater to the tourist groups.

After we had all eaten, we got back on the bus and headed for Cusco. After the early start and intense exercise, most of us were asleep within minutes.

So, is Rainbow Mountain worth it?

Honestly, we would say … no! Here’s why:

  • The whole walk and the summit were crawling with people. When we got to the top we were wading through the crowds, and it was next to impossible to stand still long enough for a photo without someone trying to push you out of the way.
  • If you search for Rainbow Mountain, you will see a vast array of brightly coloured photos. Sadly, most of them have been filtered so much that they are beyond recognition when you see the real thing.
  • If you are travelling through the Andes you will see many brightly coloured mountains due to the insane amount of volcanoes in this part of the world. It’s their ancient (and not so ancient) activity that has caused the high density of minerals to occur. Most of them will be sighted through the window of your bus, without a breath-stealing hike necessary.
  • We got the impression that most of the tour companies running trips to Rainbow Mountain are pretty pants. It’s just not worth the hassle of dealing with them.

HOWEVER! Having said this, it IS worth going to Rainbow Mountain on your way to the Red Valley. It is worth the trek up to 5000m to descend through such incredible beauty.

Would we recommend Inka Time?

Usually, after such a bad experience, we would say avoid Inka Time, the tour operator that we used. Unfortunately, as I’ve mentioned, there aren’t that many tour operators who currently go to the Red Valley. Shop around and see what other companies are running this tour, and be prepared to go with Inka Time if necessary. After talking to other travellers, we have a sneaking suspicion that they are all as bad as each other.

Let’s recap why they were terrible:

  • We were picked up later than scheduled, with no apology.
  • We had to walk to the pick up point, after being told when we booked that the bus would come to us.
  • Once our guide had come to pick us up, we were left in the rain in central Cusco. Our guide had run off into the darkness of the early morning and our vehicle was nowhere to be scene.
  • We had been told our tour would be with an Inka Time staff member. Our group was made up of customers from a range of tour operators, and I’m not sure what company our guide was working for, but it wasn’t Inka Time.
  • The guide was completely disinterested in our group. He just came across as really annoyed for having to walk the extra miles through the Red Valley.
  • Despite the high altitude we weren’t given a safety briefing about what to do if we began to feel ill on the hike. Oxygen was meant to be available if required, but I wouldn’t have known what to do or where to go for it.
  • During the Red Valley part of the hike, the guide often rushed off ahead, refusing to wait for the slower members of the group.

In summary we would say that isn’t worth dealing with a rubbish company purely for Rainbow Mountain, but it is to be able to experience the Red Valley! We can’t recommend this experience enough.

Have you visited Rainbow Mountain and/or the Red Valley? Let us know about your experience and if you have any recommendations for tour companies!

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Categories: PeruSouth America

Vicky

Hola! Vicky here :)

30 Comments

Cathy · March 11, 2018 at 6:18 am

Peru is on our wish list, we are thinking of Machu Picchu but undecided how to hike there. Part of me wants to do the traditional Inca Trail to experience it but I am not a fan of crowds. Rainbow Mountain is the same for me, but combining it with Red Valley as you suggest might be the way we go. I’d love to do the Ausangate trek which I’ve heard is gorgeous but we would need more vacation time to do it all.

    Vicky · March 12, 2018 at 12:36 am

    There are some beautiful parts of Peru and I’m sure you will have an awesome time. If however, you want to avoid the big crowds, you might want to consider Colombia or Bolivia, they have stunning scenery and feel a lot more authentic. Your money also goea a lot further!

Trippin' Turpins (Kelly) · March 4, 2018 at 4:07 am

Well at least you did Red Valley, it looks absolutely beautiful!

David · March 3, 2018 at 9:06 am

What an interesting experience. I had worried that Rainbow Mountain wasn’t as vivid as represented in photos but I’d still like to see it, ideally without the hordes of people. Red Valley does sound awesome though and glad you went to extra lengths to experience it. Honest posts like this really are very useful! #feetdotravel

Travel Lexx · February 27, 2018 at 6:38 pm

Awesome post – I love hiking and this would definitely be one of my must-do things in South America. Rubbish that you had a sub-par experience with a company but it sounds like you’ve made the most of your time. Is it possible to do the hike without using a tour company? Can you stay closer to Rainbow Mountain? 9:30 is very late to start a hike for me as I would prefer to be up by about 8-8:30 already. I don’t like crowds (definitely not on hikes) so this would be an issue if the only way to see it was with a tour

    Vicky · March 10, 2018 at 12:54 am

    Thanks for popping by and having a read! I really wish I had more definite answers for you… here are my thoughts in response!

    1. The entrance to Rainbow Mountain is pretty remote and there is no public transport, you would need to hire a car or driver to get there without a tour company.

    2. The trail for Rainbow Mountain is really clear (just follow the hordes!), however I would say the Red Valley is a lot harder to hike. It’s really remote and the weather conditions change a great deal. Also, if you do this, it ends somewhere different to where you started so if you had a car it would be tricky to get back to it. I would advise on having a guide.

    3. The closest ‘town’ isn’t even really a village and I don’t think it would be possible to stay there.

Kate and Kris · February 27, 2018 at 6:58 am

How interesting about the pictures. They don’t look like the ones you see online. I wonder if it was the weather too? Thanks for being so honest about the trip. It doesn’t look great with the crowds of people and safety issues.

    Vicky · February 27, 2018 at 8:05 pm

    You’re right, if there had been more sunshine it would definitely have helped to bring out more of the colour. Unfortunately, even then, I don’t think it would quite look like the Instagram photos.

Nicole · February 25, 2018 at 10:29 pm

Thank you for such an honest appraisal of an experience. We were in Cusco and Machu PIcchu around 18 months ago and had such a wonderful authentic experience. I was kicking my self for missing Rainbow Mountain, but now, after seeing and hearing about your experience, I’m glad we missed it.

    Vicky · February 27, 2018 at 8:08 pm

    It’s an experienc, but there are so many wonderful things to do in Cusco and the Sacred Valley, that in our opinion, were far more authentic and awe inspiring. So please stop kicking yourself 😊

Sara · February 25, 2018 at 9:43 pm

I appreciate your candor and honesty about your tour operator. I think that information is helpful to everyone! I can imagine that it would have been really nervewracking to be on the red clay – it almost looks fluid in your pictures… so I’m sure its even more slick when it gets wet!! I don’t understand the over filtering of pictures that don’t make natural beauty look normal. I see a lot of editing trying to overcorrect for not understanding how to use your camera, and it’s a shame when it’s disappointing when you realize it’s not the same in person! I always strive to make my images look exactly how I remember the experience.

    Vicky · February 25, 2018 at 9:59 pm

    Hi Sara, it was pretty strange at first on the clay but then I was really sad to get to the bottom!

Tomas · February 25, 2018 at 2:56 pm

We’ve done the hike to the top of Rainbow mountains last year at the end of May and it was a bit different than your experience. We had their lots of tourist but not so many crowds as you. For example on the peak, we were alone only with other guys from our group.
The colors are also different when you would see it in sunny weather. Anyway, I agree that many photos are colored… #TheWeeklyPostcard

    Vicky · February 25, 2018 at 7:34 pm

    Thanks Tomas. It’s great to hear experience from another point in the year. I think tourism has EXPLODED quickly eith regards to Rainbow Mountain. We were there in the quiet season and it was covered with people.

Sandra · February 25, 2018 at 9:48 am

So sorry to hear about your unpleasant experience. I have really wanted to visit Rainbow Mountain since I first heard about it a couple of years ago…now I’m not so sure.
#TheWeeklyPostcard

Angie (FeetDoTravel) · February 25, 2018 at 8:51 am

Whoa! What an experience, shame it wasn’t all positive but appreciate your honesty! Its always unnerving when your companies turn up late etc and never makes for a good start! Such a shame to learn that most photos of Rainbow Mountain have been highly edited, never used to get that with good old fashioned 35mm film 😀 haha. Thanks for sharing your story, I was riveted all the way! #feetdotravel

shere · February 25, 2018 at 6:08 am

Such a pity that the real rainbow mountain is less impressive than in the pictures. I would have been also very upset if I had waken up so early and then picked up late 😤

Ruth · February 25, 2018 at 2:54 am

I can only feel sad after reading your account. Seems like a lot of companies have started to offer tours to the Rainbow Mountain because of the demand and the money they can make of it. But what makes me sadder is the lack of connection or appreciation for the land and natural resources (from the guides who are locals). I like to take a guided tour to learn and comprehend more the country I am visiting. I am not taking a tour to be mistreated by a bunch of people. It would be nice if these companies are regulated by some sort of government agency or cultural institution. #TheWeeklyPostcard

    Vicky · February 25, 2018 at 2:27 pm

    Hi Ruth! You make such a great point! We will often pay more for a sustainable company and/or good guide. For Rainbow Mountain it seemed impossible to do this, we didn’t see any companies trying to celebrate their good ethics etc.

California Globetrotter · February 24, 2018 at 3:19 pm

ah booo this really bums me out to learn that photos are highly filtered! That’s kind of misleading and I’m terribly sad to hear of the mistreatment of the animals! That one donkey looks terribly too skinny! 🙁 Thanks for linking up with #TheWeeklyPostcard!

Wendy Maes · February 24, 2018 at 2:14 pm

Thanks for sparing me the tough climb. It’s like with many of the popular tourist attractions: expectation vs reality #YTheWeeklyPostcard

Jill · February 24, 2018 at 12:06 pm

I’ve stopped following some of the “beautiful travel” sites because I am so disappointed when I get to a place that doesn’t even resemble the photo that originally inspired me to go there. Even with the crowds, though, Rainbow Mountain and the Red Valley look worth visiting for it’s natural beauty. Glad you were able to see it.

    Vicky · February 24, 2018 at 12:46 pm

    Hi Jill, thanks for your comment. Unfortunately a lot of travel sites just want to have beautiful photos, that’s more important than sharing the true experience with theie followers.

Samantha (Vibrant Yogini) · February 24, 2018 at 9:21 am

Wow!!! I have never seen anything like this, how wonderful! This makes me want to visit Peru just to experience thst gorgeous rainbow mountain!! #FeetDoTravel

    Vicky · February 24, 2018 at 12:48 pm

    Peru is a wonderful country with so much natural beauty to offer. It’s more than just Machu Picchu (but that’s awesome too 😉).

Anisa · February 24, 2018 at 8:53 am

I have seen plenty of pictures of the rainbow mountain on Instagram so I have been wanting to go. I did not know anything about the red valley. Sorry to hear your tour was disappointing but glad you got to visit both places. Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard.

    Vicky · February 24, 2018 at 12:50 pm

    Thanks for popping by Anisa. Rainbow Mountain has definitely become an instagram hit! 😊

    Avril · April 23, 2018 at 5:04 pm

    Hi guys, sorry to hear this trip wasn’t as expected. I’m guessing you won’t be taking your mam with you?? 🤔

      Vicky · April 26, 2018 at 4:30 pm

      Haha! She loves walking but I’m not sure she would’ve been up for the altitude!

Stef · February 21, 2018 at 2:41 pm

This place is beautiful! That dirt really is red! But it’s always unfortunate when a beautiful destination becomes so touristy! At least you can say you’ve seen it 😊

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