I had a chance to visit Peru last year, particularly Cusco, the old capital of Inca Empire and home to the iconic Machu Picchu. But aside from the archaeological remains of this ancient empire, one would ask – what’s there to see in Cusco?
Surprise, surprise! There’s actually a lot!
Cusco is actually a city, a province and a region. Cusco City is the capital of Cusco Province that belongs to Cusco Region. So when I mention Cusco, it is generally about the region as a whole.
There’s more to Cusco than Machu Picchu and the heritage buildings of Plaza Armas.
Nested at about 3,000 meters above sea level, Cusco Region lies along the longest mountain range in South America – the Andes. The region is made up of 13 provinces including Canchis Province where the famed Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain of Peru is situated.
Seeing rainbow mountain with my own eyes was a long time dream. Thankfully, after spending two nights in Machu Picchu, I had a free day in my itinerary. Without a second thought, I decided to avail of the day tour to Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain from Cusco. It was a dream come true!
A spare day! So I went trekking to Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain.
How to Trek: Package Tour or Do-It-Yourself?
It is highly recommended to avail of a tour package to Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain if you are based in downtown Cusco specially if you are an individual trekker. The transportation to the site is a bit challenging and a day tour is impossible if you do not have your own transportation.
Local tour operators offer a day trek to this spot for as low as 35USD.
Local tour operators in Cusco offer a single day and multi-day trek packages to Vinicunca for as low as 35 USD (120 Peruvian Nuevo Soles) per person. The package costs at least 60 USD and as high as 200 USD online. Most if not all hotels in Cusco have partner operator and you can book with them even a day before your intended date of visit. I wasn’t aware of this so I booked mine ahead online for 60 USD. Thankfully, I was able to bring it down to 35 USD when I told the operator that my hostel was offering me a 35 USD day trek package.
A shuttle bus picked me up from my hostel near Plaza Armas at around 3AM, the bus went around the area to pick up more guests before driving for almost three hours to Canchis Province, approximately 145 kilometer from the downtown. Before sunrise, we were already at the trailhead of Vinicunca.
It was white all around us on our way up.
What to Pack?
It was the latter half of August, almost the end of Peruvian winter but it was still extremely cold in Canchis Province. In fact everything around me was white and covered with snow when we arrived at trailhead of Vinicunca before sunrise. I could tolerate the cold in downtown Cusco and Aguas Calientes but not in Vinicunca which is nested at 5,020 meters above sea level, higher in elevation compared to Everest Base Camp!
I never expected it. I wasn’t really prepared. In fact, I was on a getup ideal for a tropical weather – just a cotton shirt, quick dry pants, socks and rubber shoes. No gloves, bonnet or any inner layer of warmer from head to toe. Truth was, a trek to the Rainbow Mountain wasn’t originally part of my itinerary… I never planned for it. But if I will be asked what to pack for a day of trekking to Vinicunca, I would say – make sure to wear stuff that will make yourself warm and light.
What to pack for a day trek to Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain?
Inner Layer: Uniqlo Heattech
It is important to keep yourself warm specially that there is a chance you will be trekking on a snow-covered trail, so thermal inner layer is a must. And amongst the products that are available in the Philippine market today, I have serious reasons to believe that Uniqlo Heattech innerwear items, particularly the top (whether turtle necks, crew-neck or v-neck), tights and socks, are the perfect base layer. Heattech guarantees constant warm, more moisture for dry skin, guard against sweat and odor, easy laundry, and best of all, it is lightweight! It comes in three types – the Regular, Extra Warm and Ultra Warm Heattech but for an August trek to the Rainbow Mountain, the Extra Warm will definitely be the best choice.
Uniqlo Heattech items are perfect base layer!
Outer Layer: Uniqlo Flannel, Ultra Light Down Jacket, Warm Pants and more!
For the top outerwear, Uniqlo Flannel and Ultra Light Down Jacket are perfect combo.
The long sleeve checkked Flannel is an eye candy and will surely add a little style for your OOTD. Top it with the pocketable, thin, light and warm Ultra Light Down Jacket to protect you from the freezing cold specially in the early morning, then pack and pocket it inside your day pack in case the sun peaks on the summit or on your way down.
Thin, light and warm Ultra Light Down Jacket
Checked long sleeve shirt for a perfect OOTD shot! 🙂
For bottom, add another layer of warm or dry pants on top of the Heattech tights and you are good to go!
Then for the shoes, put on your preferred comfort trekking shoes ideal for a non-technical trail. Understand that the trail is usually covered with snow on your way up but dry and brown on your way down, so snow boots are not really required. One that has a good grip and water resistant (at least) is advised. As for me, I survived with my low-cut trekking shoes that I usually use when trekking in the Philippines. To avoid blisters, double your layer of Heattech Socks.
In case your hands get chilly, make sure to put on the Heattech Gloves. And lastly, since you’re wearing Heattech all over, make sure your head is kept warm as well with Heattech Knitted Cap. 🙂
What to Expect?
The Rainbow Mountain is 5,020 meters above sea level. Before joining the trek here, it is important that you have properly acclimatized so the trek is best done after visiting Machu Picchu or after spending a day or two in downtown Cusco.
From the trailhead, you can reach Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain by foot or by riding a horse.
From the trailhead to the Rainbow Mountain is eight kilometers, 16 round trip. There is an option to go on foot or ride a horse. Of course, I went for the former, not only because I was on a budget but for the real sense of experiencing the trek. The horse ride costs 70 PEN (Peruvian Nuevo Soles) or 21USD round-trip and 50 PEN or 15 USD one-way.
Due to high altitude, snow covered trail and thin air, the trek is painfully hard. To be honest, I struggled. The thin air, extreme cold and high altitude made this trek one of my hardest feats. In fact, when I reached the Rainbow Mountain, I experienced a seriously painful headache and the coca leaves didn’t help at all. We didn’t stay long in the summit because the high altitude was already taking its toll not only on me but on majority of trekkers!
The snow melted on our way down. A different beauty of the Andes was revealed.
Going down, the scenery changed drastically as the snow melted. We were treated to a different beauty of the Andes on our trek back! It was magical! And after almost seven hours of trekking, I completed the Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain day trek!
I struggled, yes! But I am so glad I did the trek. Seeing and experiencing the beautiful Rainbow Mountain of Peru made all the pain and hardships truly worthwhile! Ask me if I will return? Given the chance, I will! But I will make sure to bring those awesome items I mentioned on my packing list for a more comfortable and enjoyable trekking experience.