Rainbow mountain in Peru has undoubtedly blown up. When I first traveled all over Peru just 5 years ago, Rainbow Mountain did not show up on any tour agency posters and the quechua word Vinicunca was unspoken amongst backpackers. Now though, signs advertising one-day treks for a “Rainbow Mountain adventure” or “La Montaña de Colores” as it is referred to in Spanish are only rivaled by advertisements for Machu Picchu.
Having seen all the hype on Instagram about Rainbow Mountain, I’ve been both captivated and skeptical since I began considering a third trip back to Peru. The reason for captivation is obvious: does a mountain with vibrant streaks of seven different colors racing down it’s spine truly exist? Or is this a Photoshop frenzy at its finest? Mostly, I was skeptical. If I was seeing Cusco, Peru’s Rainbow Mountain more on Instagram than Machu Picchu, I could easily imagine the long lines of white vans in the parking lot, the overpriced alpaca clothing and water bottle salesmen at the gate, and the troves of people dotting the trail, so much so that ahead you could see more people than trail.
Well after visiting tour agency after tour agency to do some research and then successfully completing Vinicunca, the Rainbow Mountain unguided and via public transportation, my skepticism was correct. But my captivation was equally justified. Rainbow Mountain is as heavily trafficked as it is beautiful. If you want a true adventure where you get to experience nature without having to elbow through hundreds of people just to get your one photo, a guided tour to the Rainbow Mountain is not for you. But there is another way. However, I cannot reiterate enough that you need to be a decent Spanish speaker, you need to be brave and you need to accept the possibility of getting stuck in a micro-town to make this happen.
If it weren’t for Allie, I would have completely written off Rainbow Mountain. It sounded like the exact thing that I attest about travel capitals of the world such as Cusco. I know, I know, I’ve already written enough above about why. But after stating all my concerns, she still thought that we could figure out how to do it differently. Despite hours of research on the internet, googling “Vinicunca/ rainbow mountain/ la montaña de colores… on the cheap/ unguided/ solo/ diy/ on your own/ etc.,” we still had no good information.
The only decent tips we had came from our German hostel owner, Ludwig, who told us how he got to a town halfway to the Rainbow Mountain at least 15 years earlier. Well shout-out to Ludwig of Royal Frankenstein Hostel, he got us halfway and we figured out the rest. And it cost us less than half the price of a tour agency!
How to get to Rainbow Mountain on your own for half the price:
Note that the following steps include only transportation and that it is a two-day adventure. However, I will say truly that the first day of the adventure was just as amazing as Rainbow Mountain itself as we stayed in a tiny pueblo, easily hitchhiked up a mountain and hung out with an alpaca herder without even trying to do so! So, to do Rainbow Mountain unguided on your own, follow public transportation as such:
1. (0.80 soles, 15 minutes) Starting around 7am from the plaza San Francisco in downtown Cusco (two blocks up from the Plaza de Armas) take any public transportation bus labeled Toda La Cultura on the side. Ask the collector manning the door if you are going towards “el hospital regional”. This is where you will get dropped off! Use the must-have travel app Maps.Me (iOS) (Android) to watch your location and get off at the hospital here.
2. (3 soles, 1.5-2 hours) Walk a few buildings down to here. Hop on the next bus to Urcos. This is about an hour and a half ride. Get out at the first main spot “el terminal de Urcos,” the bus terminal, or if you’re hungry/adventurous, ride it up to the Plaza de Armas (main square) of Urcos (a very authentic little mountain town) and grab a bite to eat at the local market before walking back down the hill to the bus terminal.
3. (3-4 soles, 45 minutes) From the terminal, take another bus to “Checacupe.” Most, if not all buses headed the opposite direction that you came from should be going here. You will have to get off early, so watch for a road sign for Checacupe and pay close attention to Maps.Me and get out around here.
4. In Checupe, either take a taxi for 10 minutes (8 soles) or take a long but nice walk to Pitumarca. You will stay here for the night and I highly suggest you go hiking around the alpaca herder trails and inside “El parque de la escalada” if you’ve got the energy for two big hiking days in a row. Here’s the trailhead (dirt road to start).
We hiked about half the trail before getting a free ride on the back of a wooden cart hooked up to a motorcycle. From there we unknowingly began hiking along an alpaca herding trail. We found out what it was when 35 fluffy alpacas slowly appeared over the hill and walked right up to and surrounded us!
4.5 This step is about preparing for the next day of transportation. You are going to share a colectivo (a vehicle that drives a set route and leaves when full) the next morning at 3am. This sounds miserably early, but it is truly the only way to experience Rainbow Mountain on your own, as the hoards of tour groups will start showing up after you’ve had it all to yourself for an hour or two. What’s more, once you’ve gotten to Pitumarca, this is your only way to get there unless you pay a taxi A LOT! The colectivo leaves from here at 3am sharp so you’d be smart to stay in one of the two hostels right across from each other just a block away.
5. (5 soles, 1.5 hours) Because you’re smart, you stayed at the “hospedaje” right next to the colectivo spot so you only need to roll out of bed and walk outside. A big tractor trailer truck with a wooden trailer hooked up to it awaits you as your royal carriage. Hop in the trailer and snuggle in on top of a nice pile of hay and grab a blanket from the driver because it gets COLD! You won’t get out until the last stop, which should be here.
6. So, it’s 4:30am. Shooting stars fill the night sky and silouettes of mountains loom over you. Use a light to find the trailhead on the right side of the parking lot and get hiking! After ten minutes, you will pass through the national park ticket counter, where 10 soles will open you up to the next 2 or so hours of hiking up to Vinicunca, the Rainbow Mountain. If nobody hears you, you may get through for free as it’s so early, but you could possibly be checked for tickets by guides later in the day.
7. After a cold and grueling hike up that is rewarded by amazing views and a sunrise all to yourself, take your time at Vinicunca the Rainbow Mountain, because you won’t have transportation back until the tour groups start leaving as well. Be super proud of yourself for pulling off the complicated, but extremely rewarding way to get to Peru’s Rainbow Mountain on your own for half the price! Relish in the time you get without the crowds! You are awesome!!
8. Getting back- Colectivos don’t start leaving until 2pm, giving you a whopping 10 hours in the park. But if you’re good with Spanish or make some friends in a tour group, you could get lucky and grab a ride back early. We paid 20 soles each for the ride back (direct to Cusco) to ride with a tour group that had extra seats and it was a quick drive. If you aren’t so lucky or want to save a few more soles, wait until 2pm and hop in the first colectivo from the parking lot and follow the above route backwards.
You did it!
If taking this off-the-beaten-path route to Peru’s Vinicunca the Rainbow Mountain, you are required to work much harder than using a your company, but your experience will be infinitely more authentic and you will get many hours in the park with Rainbow Mountain all to yourself. This two-day DIY trek was the highlight of my 3rd trip to Peru and definitely in my top 5 of all time. That says a lot in one of the most diverse countries on the planet!
A final note on what to pack
As you will be getting up very early for two days straight, expect to have your own breakfast ready. My trusty on-the-go breakfast in Peru is a big bottle of Gloria yogurt and quinoa pop or kiwicha pop. Expect to eat lunch on the road for one of the days as well. In short, pack tons of snacks, you’ll want them for the hike anyways! Also pack a flashlight or headlamp or at least make sure your phone is fully charged and use it’s light. You will be hiking in the dark to get to Rainbow Mountain. Don’t worry though, the beautiful stars plus having it all to yourself makes it more than worth it!