A few years ago, I conquered the beast of a hike which was Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain. Since then, it’s probably become the most common sight I’ve seen on Instagram. It is without a doubt Cusco’s most popular day trip, and despite the 3 AM wake-up call and brutal high altitude conditions, hundreds of travelers a day accept the challenge. A few years later, I returned to Cusco and heard about an alternative to Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain, boasting similar views with a fraction of the difficulty and a fraction of the tourists.
I recommend doing both, since I enjoyed my experience on both Rainbow Mountain tours. However, I understand that most people are quite short on time. No one ever realizes just how much there is to do in Cusco. As I write this, I’m on my third trip back to Cusco and still overwhelmed with adventures. I get it, choices have to be made. You can’t do everything. And you are traveling, do you even have time to read blogs?
Not to waste your time any further with some roundabout way of saying that you should do both, my answer is Vinicunca, the original and most iconic of Cusco’s Rainbow Mountains. I enjoyed Palccoyo but I don’t think I will ever forget my experience at Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain.
Let’s break it down.
When one thinks of Peru, Machu Picchu is the first view that comes to mind. Second is a toss-up, but it’s hard not to imagine that the cascading colors of Vinicunca isn’t in competition for that silver medal. The thing that blew my mind the most about Vinicunca is just how beautiful the journey was en route to the iconic view. I think I actually enjoyed the journey more than the destination.
Although the trek is difficult, the incredible views along the way make it more than worth it. Once you reach the finish line, the panoramic views are otherworldly. Sure, you’ve got that Rainbow Mountain right in front of you but behind you and in every direction is something worth looking at. Mountains and valleys of red, snow-capped peaks, and all those little people behind you still struggling their way up the mountain. It is an unforgettable view.
Palccoyo boasts not just one but three Rainbow Mountains. One of them, you can see straight from the parking lot, so the payoff is immediate. Of course, the best one is undoubtedly the last one, and you’ll get an epic view of it after about a 30-45 minute hike. If you just want to see a Rainbow Mountain, then Palccoyo is the one. However, it is hard to deny that the journey is as important as the destination here.
With Vinicunca being close to a six-hour roundtrip trek compared to the two hours that you’ll need for Palccoyo, you will have a plethora and wider range of views at Vinicunca. However, the drive to Palccoyo is absolutely stunning, boasting an incredible cruise through the Peruvian countryside scene that includes views of a pinkish-red river, terraced mountainsides, and all the alpacas your heart desires. Even taking that into account, Vinicunca overall blows Palccoyo out of the water. Considering how beautiful I found my experience at Palccoyo, that is a testament to how otherworldly Vinicunca is.
I’m getting flashbacks just thinking about this hike. With a brutal starting altitude of close to 5,000 meters, Vinicunca is not for the faint of heart. I gave myself very little time to acclimatize before taking on Rainbow Mountain and I paid the price. The lengthy trek requires an early morning start, so on top of the high altitude, you’re likely also suffering from a lack of sleep. Throw in a bit of nausea along the mountain roads and you are totally not in any position to do this hike. Or at least I wasn’t.
I struggled a lot at Vinicunca. I refused to get a horse at the beginning of the trail, despite every other person in my group choosing to do so. Within ten minutes, I was begging to find a horse. I was constantly out of breath and my head was pounding. I was dizzy and I was beginning to doubt if I’d even make it to the mountain. Having fallen behind significantly, I praised Pachamama once I got to a checkpoint and was able to hire a horse.
Vinicunca is difficult, especially for the maladjusted. Altitude affects everyone differently, so everyone’s experience will vary. Some of my friends have told me I am wildly exaggerating the difficulty, but I know what I know. And this is my blog so if you think I’m lying, go write your own damn blog and call me a pussy online.
Vinicunca is a lengthy excursion and you will be exposed to the elements. Beyond just the walk itself, which is admittedly not the most difficult, you might be facing snowstorms, hail, freezing rain, brutal winds, and a sizzling sun all within the matter of hours. I came in unprepared and suffered for it. Vinicunca is difficult but come prepared and acclimatized and it is doable.
Although Palccoyo also comes close to grazing 5,000 meters above sea level, it felt significantly easier. We were also greeted with a snowstorm and freezing temperatures when we arrived here. However, I threw on my rain poncho and gutted out the short hike. High altitudes and bad weather aren’t so bad when you’re only out in the mountains for less than two hours. Palccoyo is a breeze compared to Vinicunca. This makes it a great option for people looking for a warm-up hike or think that Vinicunca might be too difficult. You can get some incredible views at Palccoyo for a fraction of the challenge.
If you’re young, have spry legs, and are up for the challenge, then Vinicunca is calling your name. If you want something more laid-back that still offers some unbelievable views, then Palccoyo is a good place to start.
With Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain more popular than ever, and potentially still growing in popularity, the prices have gone down to dirt cheap. Wait until you arrive in Cusco to book it because that’s how you’ll get the best price. Booking it online or ahead of time, you’ll likely get charged close to the realm of 100 soles ($30 US). You’ll pay half the price if you talk to a local tour operator in person. For 50 soles ($15), you get the six-hour round trip transportation, a breakfast, a lunch buffet, and a guide. All it’s missing is the 10 soles entrance fee.
With Palccoyo being equally as difficult to get to as Vinicunca with only a fraction of its popularity, it will be more expensive. I paid 100 soles ($30 US) for my tour to Palccoyo, and it didn’t even include breakfast or any entry fees. When it comes down to it, you are paying double the price for maybe less than half the package. However, you likely won’t have any other way of making it to Palccoyo without a guided tour so this is your only option, for now. If it ever gains the popularity that Vinicunca does, then the price might go down significantly as well.
One of the most disappointing things people will find about Vinicunca is the immense crowds of people that you will run into along the way and especially at the finish line. Everyone wants that perfect photo, and you will be competing with several hundred people for breathing room. Don’t even think that you can get a photo without other tourists in it without the help of Photoshop. Don’t believe what you see on Instagram from those loser influencers (psh, I would never be one of them, right?).
You can’t have everything to yourself, though. Despite what you may believe, we are only the protagonists of our own lives. What I’m saying is don’t be that asshole that is so self-obsessed that they have no self-awareness and just ignore that there are dozens of other people waiting to take photos or whatever. You’ll undoubtedly run into several of these at Rainbow Mountain. Don’t let it ruin your experience, although sometimes it’s hard not to.
Where Palccoyo really shines is how devoid it is of crowds. You have all of these incredible views and aren’t fighting tooth and nail for positioning for those Instagram bangers. Compared to Vinicunca, Palccoyo is a ghost town. You’ll stumble into maybe a couple dozen tourists there, and most of them will be local or from some other part of Peru. Palccoyo has yet to cement its position on the Gringo Trail so it is still a hidden gem to most travelers.
If you have the time, then it is worth doing both Palccoyo and Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain. Palccoyo is a much more chilled activity that doesn’t require too much energy in case you wanted a light activity in between more difficult treks. Cusco is a treasure trove of experiences and sights to behold. You’ll never get to see everything you want to see, so choose wisely.
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