What’s so Special About Rainbow Mountain?
You may have heard of Rainbow Mountain (Winicunca/Vinicunca National Park) in the region of Cusco in Peru, but it’s far more likely that you have seen a picture taken by somebody at the top of the mountain; it’s been a favourite on image sharing websites for years and is fast becoming one of the things to do when you come to Cusco.
The typical picture has somebody standing on the top of a hill in front of the slopes of a gorgeous multicoloured mountain, hence the name “Rainbow Mountain”. When we arrived at the top, we found the colours far more muted than we had expected, and snow blanketed the right-hand side (as seen from the top) of the mountain. I guess Rainbow Mountain has a better ring than “Shades of Red, Grey and Yellow Mountain”.
It was, nonetheless, an absolutely magical sight, and the feeling of satisfaction having reached the top of the mountain far outweighed our mild disappointment at the muted rainbow colours of Rainbow Mountain. More impressive to us was the huge glacier to the northeast, Ausangate (6,300m), completely ice-covered and glistening in the morning sunshine. Even from a distance of about 10km, Ausangate looms large and mightily impressive; what a hike that would make!
Getting to Rainbow Mountain by Bicycle
There isn’t much information about getting here by bicycle on the internet. 99% of visitors to Rainbow Mountain arrive on a bus after a 2-hour journey from Cusco as part of a tour group. These tours are inordinately expensive and the road up to the base of the mountain is such a gorgeous climb that we would wholeheartedly recommend biking to the top, despite it being a pretty tough ride.
However, even the night before our ascent, we weren’t 100% certain about going to Rainbow Mountain ourselves; we weren’t sure how touristy it would be, nor how difficult the climb would be once we finally got to “base camp” at 4,300m. We are bikers, not hikers, and we weren’t sure we were up to a 3+ hour hike which peaks out at ~5,000m altitude. Nevertheless, the morning before the turnoff to Pitumarca (the last big village before Rainbow Mountain), we woke up feeling especially adventurous and set off on a grand voyage to the top of the mountain, not having any idea how difficult it would be. It turns out it would be more difficult than we could have imagined.
It’s very easy to find your way up the mountain to the base of the hike; simply take the turnoff from the main road (the 3S) towards Pitumarca and begin the ~40km climb. After ~39km of climbing, you must take a LEFT on to a track as the main road switches back up to your right. This is the final stretch of track before you reach the base of the climb.
Here is a Strava ride of our ascent up the mountain. The GPS track ends exactly at the town where you must leave your bike to begin the hike up the moment and it shows the turnoff from the 3S towards Pitumarca for the beginning of the climb.
The Hike to Rainbow Mountain
The hike took us about 3 hours and has about 700m of vertical climbing. If you are not already acclimatised to Cusco’s altitude at 3,400m, we do not recommend heading here straight away. If you have been biking at this altitude for a while, you should be absolutely fine. We had some shortness of breath all the way up, but that’s probably natural for two people who only ever cycle and then attempt this moderately difficult hike.
Leaving Your Bike at the Base
As you cycle along the track, after taking that final left turnoff from the main road, you will come across a small village and a barn-like shelter on the right hand side. The shelter is attached to a small building which is actually a village shop selling soft drinks and snacks. We arrived late in the day during a hailstorm and took immediate refuge under the shelter without even seeing if anyone was around. The next morning we woke up and asked the owners of the shop if it would be okay to leave the bikes chained up to the shelter. They were so cool with it and we would recommend leaving your bikes there as well. It’s way out of sight and you shouldn’t have any issues.
The mountain is located within the Winicunca National Park and there is a pleasingly modest fee of 10 Soles (£2.20) to enter the park for as long as you care. You could feasibly take a tent, cooking stove and food into the park and stay for a couple of nights. Although, if you had left your bike at the bottom, you might be understandably reluctant to leave it there for more than the one day. The good news is that you can easily make it up and down the mountain in a single day, so you don’t have to worry too much.
We attempted to haggle with the man selling tickets, but he was having none of it. He wasn’t unpleasant at all, but very insistent that the only discount he could offer was 50% to Peruvian nationals. As we couldn’t produce Peruvian identification (the DNI), our request for a discount was flatly refused. Hey, it’s still an absolute bargain compared to some of the tourist sites near Cusco.
The Descent Back to Pitumarca
The final part of the journey to Rainbow Mountain is a furious descent with some 13% downhills and narrow tracks. It can seem a little daunting, but it really isn’t so bad.
The road down is actually better than you would expect after riding it up. You are rewarded with some gorgeous views over the valley and it flies by so quickly. The big downside to the descent is the countless tourist buses that will try to overtake you if you are leaving any time between 2pm and 5pm, i.e. when the tourists come back down from the top. The buses kick up a horrible amount of dust and make the descent pretty hairy at times. Nonetheless, the road quality is good (lots of traction with 2 inch tyres at 2 bar) and you should enjoy this one; we certainly did!