I first visited Cusco’s now world-famous Rainbow Mountain about four years ago. At the time, it had just been recently discovered. Something like that doesn’t stay hidden for long, though. It has easily become Cusco’s most popular day trip, and one that often sets travelers up for disappointment. Don’t get me wrong, I had an incredible time at Vinicunca (Rainbow Mountain). The hike is gorgeous, although difficult, especially if one has not adjusted properly to the altitude. However, a mixture of volatile weather conditions, high altitudes, and severe over-tourism can lead to a less-than-pleasant experience these days.
This leads me to Palccoyo, what is known around Cusco as the new Rainbow Mountain. To not get the two Rainbow Mountains confused, we’ll call them by their local names, Vinicunca (the OG Rainbow Mountain) and Palccoyo. I went with two of my friends as they went to book a tour for Vinicunca, whose price had dropped to a measly 50 soles ($15 US) thanks to the high competition between tour agencies. I paid 80 soles ($25 US) for my tour back in the day. Not wanting to do Vinicunca again, I decided to ask about the alternative Rainbow Mountain, Palccoyo. Since it is lesser-known and equally as difficult to drive to, the price was quite a bit more expensive, although you might be able to haggle it down if you book multiple tours. It is less popular, so the price will often be lower if you can find a few friends to book it with.
If you can’t find a tour company offering it, you can also book the guided trip online, although it will be more expensive if you’re just booking for yourself.
With nothing else to do, I decided to go for it. The pick-up time of 6:30 AM was much more manageable than the 3:30-4 AM pick-up that most people get for Vinicunca.
What To Bring For Palccoyo
Being prepared to take on the elements is crucial for Palccoyo. Although Palccoyo Rainbow Mountain isn’t too much of a challenge physically, it can turn into a bad time real quick if you aren’t prepared. The weather in the mountains can be unpredictable, going from clear skies with sizzling heat to a snowstorm in the matter of minutes. It is better to over-prepare than to under-prepare.
- Breakfast and snacks
- 1 liter of water
- Rain poncho
- Warm clothes
- Hat and gloves
Is Palccoyo Rainbow Mountain Difficult?
Compared to Vinicunca, Palccoyo is a breeze. The round-trip hike takes less than two hours, and that is accounting for a generous amount of time for photo breaks. And trust me, there will be plenty of photo opportunities. There are a few steep stretches, although not many. The terrain is manageable and parts of the often-muddy trail are paved with stable stones to make things easier.
The main difficulties you might face are the altitude and the weather. It was snowing, wet, and freezing when we arrived at Palccoyo, although the weather calmed down significantly shortly after we started. Since the hike is quite short compared to Vinicunca, bad weather at Palccoyo won’t be as brutal as experiencing the same at Vinicunca. I didn’t know it was possible to experience a hailstorm, blizzard, and get a sunburn at the same time until I conquered Vinicunca. Like I said, Palccoyo will be a breeze.
The altitude gain at Palccoyo is only about 200-300 meters, starting at 4,700 meters and reaching a peak of 4,950 meters above sea level. It is a few hundred meters lower than Vinicunca, but if you haven’t properly adjusted to the altitude, it can still be a struggle. I didn’t struggle with the hike itself, but there were a few times where I got extremely lightheaded and dizzy when I was quick to get up from petting a dog.
Palccoyo Rainbow Mountain Tour Itinerary
6:30-7:30 AM: Pick-up time
When I booked Palccoyo, they told me to be ready to be picked up by 6:30 AM. I wasn’t picked up until 45 minutes later, and then we didn’t leave Cusco until about 8:30 AM. Unfortunately, that’s just the way things seem to work in South America. Peruvian time, they call it.
9:30 AM: Arrive in Checacupe
Most tours will bundle Palccoyo with a quick visit to Checacupe, a small colonial town that is on the way. It is popular because of its colonial bridge and its Incan bridge. It isn’t anything too spectacular, but you might as well enjoy it while you are here. The views of the mountains over the river is stunning. The bridge is cool to walk across, too, although not sure if it was entirely worth the 2 soles.
You will spend about 30 minutes here, which allows you time to buy snacks, drinks, or have a quick breakfast if you haven’t yet.
12:00 PM: Arrive at Palccoyo
It takes about two hours to get from Checacupe to the starting point of the Palccoyo Rainbow Mountain hike. The drive is absolutely stunning, driving through lush valleys and passing Peru’s famed red river. It is closer to pinkish-brown than the red you might have seen on Instagram, but it is still gorgeous, especially in contrast to the bright green landscapes. You will also pass small villages, herds of alpaca, and incredible landscapes like mountain terraces.
After arriving, you’ll have a few minutes to grab a tea or use the bathroom. The good thing about Palccoyo is that the payoffs happen right away. You can see one of their rainbow mountains straight from the parking lot. 20-30 minutes of walking later, you’ll pass yet another one as you pass incredible views of the red valley and layers of mountains beyond it. Another ten minutes will take you to the third and biggest of Palccoyo’s rainbow mountains. An optional hike up to a rock forest will take about another 20-30 minutes before you head back down to the parking lot.
Take your time. The hike is easy and there is no shortage of views. We stayed for about two hours total, with only 30-40 of those minutes actually spent walking.
2:00 PM: Leave Palccoyo
3:30 PM: Lunch at Checacupe
Once you’ve gotten your fill of the views, it’s time to get your fill of lunch. We had a massive lunch buffet with pasta, rice, potatoes, fries, and a bunch of delicious Peruvian dishes to choose from. This was included in our tour, so I definitely tried to get my money’s worth here.
4:30 PM: Leave Checacupe
6:00 PM: Arrive in Cusco’s Plaza de Armas
It depends on traffic, but you will usually be in Cusco between 6:00-6:30 PM. You’ll get dropped off about a block from the Plaza de Armas, unless your tour offers drop-off back at your hotel or hostel.
Can You Visit Palccoyo Without A Guide?
Short answer, no. Palccoyo is very difficult to get to since it is in a remote region of Peru. The only way you could is if you had your own car. Even then, the mountainous and often-muddy roads can pose a challenge for anyone who is inexperienced with driving in those types of conditions. If it becomes as popular as Vinicunca one day, then maybe it will be possible to take public transportation towards the area, but I don’t picture that happening any time soon.
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