Among all the mountains to visit in Peru, there is one that calls special attention to all visitors because of its stunning and magnificent colours: Rainbow Mountain (Vinicunca). But what most people don’t know is that here in the Andes, there is an alternative Rainbow Mountain: Palccoyo. But which one is better, Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain vs Palccoyo Rainbow Mountain? Stay tuned as we explain the pros and cons of each!
For all fellow travellers that want to know which tour is most suitable, this article will offer some insights to make the best decision. So, let’s dive into it!
Where is Rainbow Mountain, Peru?
First things first: where is Rainbow Mountain located? If you want to visit Rainbow Mountain, Cusco is the place to start. From Cusco, we embark on a 3-hour drive across the altiplano in the direction of Puno until we reach Chillihuani (4700m / 15,419 ft), the trailhead for the hike to Vinicunca, the classic Rainbow Mountain in Peru.
Vinicunca, Peru is the geographical name given to the classic Rainbow Mountain in Peru, which is also known as the Montaña de Los Siete Colores. This rock formation with stunning colours is located at 5200 meters above sea level and about 60 miles south-east of the Inca city of Cusco, in the district of Pitumarca, province of Canchis.
The alternative Rainbow Mountain of Peru is Palccoyo. A beautiful but less well-known mountain also found south of Cusco in Canchis province, in the district of Checacupe. After 2 ½ hours on the Puno road, passing the quaint village of Checacupe, we take a detour along a dirt road for another hour until reaching the Palccoyo Rainbow Mountain trailhead, located at 4900m (16,076 ft). From there, it’s a much more gentle ascent until we reach this multicoloured cordillera, which is located at 5040m above sea level.
Rainbow Mountain vs Palccoyo: What is the Difference?
If you’re trying to decide whether to hike to Rainbow Mountain or Palccoyo, you’ll need to understand the differences between them and think about what kind of experience you’re looking for.
First of all, are you looking for a challenge or just want to take it easy and enjoy the view? The main difference between Palccoyo and Rainbow Mountain is the hike difficulty. While Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain may be considered a tour for expert hikers – with a difficult, steep climb up to the lookout point – the Palccoyo Mountain Tour, and its much more gentle climb at slightly lower altitude, can be a good option for beginners.
In terms of landscape, the Vinicunca tour offers only one Rainbow Mountain. However, if you find the right spot facing the mountain, you will witness its majestic beauty. Depending on climate conditions, it is possible to observe in the distance the tallest mountain in the Cusco region, Ausangate Mountain.
By contrast, the Palccoyo tour allows visitors to enjoy not just one, but three different colourful mountains along the route. Compared to Vinicunca, the alternative tour of Palccoyo, is a less-crowed destination. Additionally, the tour is the perfect opportunity to get a glimpse of Andean culture; it is common to see locals in their everyday activities accompanied by alpacas and llamas.
Vinicunca: The Original Rainbow Mountain of Peru
In 2015 this geological spectacle was added to Peru’s list of must-see tourist destinations. Its name comes from two Quechua words: wini, which means “little black stones” and kunca, which translates as “wind-gap”.
Since then, it has exploded in popularity. Nowadays, the Vinicunca mountain in Peru has become one of Peru’s top Instagram spots, for tourists and locals alike. What makes this Rainbow Mountain so special? La montaña de los siete colores, as it is known, was formed by sedimentary deposits, weathered by environmental conditions over time, resulting in stunning series of colourful layers – blue, green, turquoise, orange, brown, and red.
Palccoyo: An Alternative Rainbow Mountain
The Palccoyo Mountain (sometimes seen spelled “Palcoyo Mountain”) is another dreamy place with majestic beauty. This hidden gem in the Red Valley of Peru is formed by not one but THREE colorful mountains and offers a great view of the mountain Ausangate.
Palccoyo came on the scene a few years after Vinicunca, after people started looking for a more peaceful alternative to the often-crowded Rainbow Mountain. It’s also an easier hike – just 45 minutes walking and not as steep, compared to the 1.5 to 2-hour climb on the classic route.
The Palccoyo hike also has some added highlights that the classic Rainbow Mountain hike does not, like a stop at the village of Checacupe whose modern, colonial and Inca bridges is like walking through time.
You can also explore the fascinating Palccoyo Rock Forest, a fascinating outcropping of jagged rocks.
Pros & Cons of Rainbow Mountain vs Palccoyo: A Summary
Which One is the “Best” Rainbow Mountain Trek? An In-Depth Look at Rainbow Mountain vs Palccoyo
No matter which hike you choose, you will be amazed by the beauty of the Andean region. Few places on earth offer this kind of view, which makes this site one of the most popular destinations in Peru.
Below we cover each of the main differences between Palccoyo vs Vinicunca in detail, to help you make the best choice.
|· Walking distance: 4 km
· Walking time: 45min to 1h (one way)
|· Walking distance: 7 km
· Walking time: 1.5h to 2h (one way)
The driving distance from Cusco to Rainbow Mountain (Vinicunca) or Palccoyo is about the same – 3 to 3 ½ hours south through the beautiful Vilcanota Valley.
From the trailhead for Palccoyo Mountain, there is a gentle ascent that takes 20 minutes to the first lookout point over the Red Valley. From there, it’s just another 20 minutes of hiking to reach the main Palccoyo lookout. This is the best spot to admire the beauty of Pachamama and to capture that magical moment. If desired, enjoy another 20-minute uphill hike to explore the Rock Forest.
By contrast, it takes 1.5 to 2 hours of steady, steep climbing to reach the viewpoint at Vinicunca Pass – a longer and more difficult hike to Rainbow Mountain. The views are worth it, though! You are rewarded with magnificent views of the turquoise, orange, brown, and red rock sediment layers. This is the perfect photo opportunity for your Instagram feed.
Thanks to Rainbow Mountain’s Insta-worthy views, the site’s popularity skyrocketed as impressive photos flooded social media. Today, Vinicunca is actually the second-most visited tourist attraction in Cusco, after Machu Picchu, with as many as 2000 visitors per day!
By contrast, you could be the only visitor at Palccoyo on any given day. This is because few people know about this alternative to the “real” Rainbow Mountain, Peru.
|· Maximum altitude: 5040m (16,534 ft)
|· Maximum altitude: 5040m (16,534 ft)
How does the Palccoyo mountain altitude compare with Rainbow Mountain altitude? Actually, both Palccoyo and Vinicunca are located at a similar altitude – both are over 5000m in elevation. As a result, no matter which hike you do, you must be well acclimatized (read more about altitude acclimatization here).
Whereas distance and altitude are pretty similar for both Vinicunca and Palccoyo, there is one special factor that makes the real difference: the difficulty of the hike. The real question is not about the Palccoyo Rainbow Mountain altitude itself, but rather the elevation change.
Rainbow Mountain’s elevation starts out at 4650 m (12,255 ft); from there, it’s a steady climb steeply upwards until you reach Vinicunca Pass at an altitude of 5040m (16,534 ft). That’s an elevation change of almost 400m over less than 2 hours.
By contrast, the Palccoyo hike starts at 4900m (16,076 ft) and climbs much more gradually to the same 5040m (16,534 ft) final altitude, an elevation change of just 140m – less than half what it is at Vinicunca!
In general terms, the Vinicunca Rainbow mountain is a difficult, 1.5-2h uphill climb which can be quite strenuous for most people, while the Palcoyo Rainbow Mountain hike is much flatter and gentler which takes just 45 minutes to reach.
If your goal is to get that classic Rainbow Mountain picture to rival the rest on Instagram, then Vinicunca is probably the Rainbow Mountain tour you should opt for. When joining this hike, you will see only one colourful mountain peak but if weather conditions permit, you will also be able to see Ausangate mountain in the distance.
Palccoyo’s views, on the other hand, are more varied. While the main attraction is perhaps less striking than Vinicunca, you will actually have the chance to see THREE different colourful mountains: one from the parking lot, another one along the way, and the third one at the final viewpoint.
Besides that, you will be treated to stunning views of the breathtaking Red Valley that surrounds Palccoyo, not to mention the fascinating geological formations that form the Rock Forest. Plus, it is very common to observe alpacas, llamas and local villagers working in the fields.
What about Rainbow Mountain weather? No matter which trek you do, the weather will be cold and windy. So dress accordingly!
You might find Vinicunca to be a little colder due to its proximity to Ausangate’s snowy peak. Palccoyo is further away from Ausangate, but cold mornings and warm sunsets are very common on this mountain.
Want to Know a Secret? New Rainbow Mountain Alternative
This just in: a NEW alternative to Rainbow Mountain! Located in the district of Layo, Pallay Punchu is a longer, more challenging trek to see rainbow mountains.
As it’s located slightly further away (a 4.5h drive from Cusco), the Pallay Punchu tour starts quite early in the morning. This new alternative rainbow mountain trek starts in Layo at an altitude of just 2300m (7546 ft) and, after 10.5 km of walking, you will reach the lookout point at 4780m (15,682 ft) where you get to see the extraordinary dark waters of the Langui-Layo Lagoon.
When you get there, you’ll understand where the place gets its name: the mountain resembles the shape and colour of an Andean poncho!
Palccoyo & Rainbow Mountain Tour Options
Ready to hike Rainbow Mountain Peru? Check out all of our Rainbow Mountain trekking options, plus our Palccoyo Rainbow Mountain tour. Despite the popularity of Vinicunca, ALL of our Rainbow Mountain tours are designed to keep you out of sync with the crowds; check out the full itinerary and details of each trip at the following links:
- Rainbow Mountain day trip 1D This is one of the best options if you are short on time but want to live the adventure hiking the Rainbow Mountain.
- Rainbow Mountain trek 2D On this 2-day trek, you will climb high passes with striking views of snow-capped mountains, valleys and the colourful stripes of Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain.
- Ausangate Rainbow Mountain Tour 5D This 5-day trek is filled with a series of gorgeous glacial lakes and Andean wildlife. Combine the classic Ausangate circuit with a chance to soak in the Pacchanta hot springs, witness the stunning Vinicunca mountain, and visit Checacupe where you can see bridges from three different eras: Incan, Colonial and Republican.
- Palccoyo Mountain tour 1D This is a great option for someone looking for a more casual day hike around Cusco. The Palccoyo tour offers a gentle Rainbow Mountain trail with less elevation gain, plus the chance to visit the village of Checacupe, explore the Palccoyo Rock Forest and also witness the beauty of the Red Valley of Peru.
Facts About Rainbow Mountain & Palccoyo
Before you visit these wonderful places check out these Rainbow Mountain Peru facts:
When was Rainbow Mountain discovered?
Around 2012. By 2018, the Palccoyo rainbow mountains were discovered as well.
Why is Rainbow Mountain Peru colorful?
The colours of Vinicunca and Palccoyo are produced by a geological formation accumulated over time by the mixture of marine, lake and river sediments. The accumulation of minerals and water, as well as the combination of local winds and humidity, all contributed to the creation of their colourful striations. In particular, the red colour suggests iron oxide rust, while turquoise indicates chlorite.
How was Rainbow Mountain discovered?
Some experts in the field affirm that the melting of the surrounding glaciers contributed to revealing the magical diversity of tones.
What does “Vinicunca” mean?
The original name of the classic Rainbow Mountain is Vinicunca, sometimes spelled Winicunca. This is an Indigenous name formed by two Quechua words: wini, from Wini Rumi which means “little black rock” and kunca, a Quechua word which translates as “neck” and is used to refer to a mountain pass.
Does the river near Palccoyo really turn red?
Yes! During rainy season, rainwater combines with sediment from the rocks on its way down to the river and colours it red, showcasing an extraordinary natural effect.
Get Ready for Your Hike to Palccoyo or Rainbow Mountain
So, are you in? Let’s get ready for a once-in-a-life experience!
When to Go
The best time to visit these magnificent mountains is during the dry season (from May to September or October). The weather is much more pleasant during these months (sunny but cold!) and you will get to take the popular shot with the colourful mountains as background.
During the rainy season (December to March), not only might the hiking conditions be cold, wet and muddy, the colourful mountains may actually be covered in snow!
What to Pack
If you are wondering what to pack when joining a Rainbow mountain tour, you will need a light day pack with some basic essentials:
- Winter hat, scarf and gloves (It can be windy and/or the temperature may drop unexpectedly);
- Light-weight, long sleeve t-shirt;
- Waterproof windbreaker or rain jacket;
- Quick-dry trekking pants (layer leggings underneath for weather changes);
- Sun hat, sunscreen, sunglasses. Sun in the Andes is more intense!
- Comfortable water-resistant hiking boots;
- When possible, take with you a thermos, so you can enjoy some hot tea!
Prepare for the Altitude
Rainbow Mountain vs Palccoyo, the altitude is the same – very high! We recommend spending a couple of days to acclimatize in Cusco or in the Sacred valley, so your body will adapt more easily to the altitude in the Andes.
Check out our blog for tips on how to spend your time while acclimatizing before visiting Rainbow Mountain from Cusco:
The Final Word: Which is Better? Rainbow Mountain vs Palccoyo
Based on the information you just looked at, now is the time for you to decide which tour to join: Rainbow Mountain vs Palccoyo. To make the best decision, keep in mind which factors are most important to you:
Are you looking for a genuine challenge? Want to share the popular photo on your social media channels? Want to meet other hikers en route? If the answer is yes, the Rainbow Mountain tour is probably your best choice.
By contrast, if you are looking for an easy hike, want to observe more than one coloured mountain and escape from the crowds, then the Palccoyo Mountain tour might be the right choice for you.
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