Ausangate Trek, The most enigmatic Mountain hike in Peru

This remote  Ausangate Trek is a 43 mile backpacking trip that runs through one of the most beautiful landscapes in the Andes. Starting at 12,000ft and reaching high passes close to 17,000ft, the Ausangate Trek reaches some seriously high elevations. Along the way, you’ll pass by small villages, glacial lakes, towering snow capped peaks, and herds of alpacas. The Ausangate Trek is an adventure of a life time, and I’ll be covering all of the details in this guide.

Best Time To Go:

The climate in the Andes has a high level of variation based on season and elevation. The optimal time to hike the Ausangate Trek is July and August, at the peak of the dry season. I hiked the Ausangate Trek in July and had mostly dry weather with only one short rain storm. The daily high was around 35 (F) and the nightly lows approached 0 (F).
• The wet season in the Andes of Peru spans from November to March when the climate is warmest.
• The sunny and dry season spans from April to October and is the optimal time for backpacking and trekking. Expect cool days and very cold nights. Almost every night of my trek reached single digits

 

Guided vs Independent Trekking:

For this trip to Ausangate, Julia and I went with a guided tour from Vidal Expedition I’m usually a do-it-yourself kind of backpacker, but wanted to get the most out of this trip without having to pack food, a tent, or other items a self supported affair would require. I’m really happy we went with Vidal Expeditions because our guide, Antonio, was phenomenal. He taught us a lot about the history of the Andean people and the locals that live in the area. Our chef was from the local village and cooked up regional meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Finally, one porter was assigned to horses that carried all of our gear from campsite to campsite. This allowed us to carry very light daypacks for enjoyable daily hiking experiences. Having had this guided experience, I might go with a self supported trip next time to save on money and free up a little time. For a first time visitor, I would recommend a guided tour through Vidal Expeditions.

 

Guided Pros:
  • Knowledgeable guides with information on the region
  • Regional meals and snacks
  • Most gear is provided and transported from campsite to campsite
  • Support of the local economy by giving porters jobs
  • Transportation to and from Cusco is provided

 

Guided Cons:
  • On a guided itinerary without much room for autonomy
  • Expensive at ~$800 per person

 

Directions And GPS Tracks:

To start the Ausangate Trek in Tinki, Peru, you’ll need to start in Cusco. There are a number of airlines that fly to Cusco. We flew in via American Airlines with a 2 hours layover in Lima. From Cusco, you’ll need to take a bus to the city of Tinki. For a guided tour this bus will be provided. If your tour is not guided, you will need to catch a public bus or charter a ride.

 

Key Points:

Distance: 42.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 9406 ft
Minimum Elevation: 12498 ft
Maximum Elevation: 16,828 ft
Time: 5 days
Permits: No
Visa: Single entry tourist visa to Peru for US citizens
Trail Condition: Wide fired road on the start which narrows to single track and alpaca trails
Cell Phone Reception: None

 

Gear, Food, and Water:

The gear you bring will be decided by your choice of going with a guided tour or not. I’m not going to get too much into gear, food and water for self supported hikes because if you don’t already know what you should be bringing, you shouldn’t be going without a guide.
The only difference in my planning for a self supported trip of the Ausangate Trek would be to bring one more cold weather layer and a 0 degree sleeping bag.
If you plan on going with a guide service, make sure to check what they will be provided before you arrive. With Vidal Expedition, they provided food, water, tents, sleeping pads, and horse transportation for all of our things from site to site. The only things we needed to bring during the day were our hiking essentials. The exceptions to that list are that I would include rain pants, and an extra cold weather layer.

 

Safety Precautions:

The Ausangate Trek is in a very remote part of Peru with only small villages and no hospitals. Make sure to come prepared with the proper gear, and most importantly, proper fitness. If you’ve never hiked at altitude before, plan to start slow. If this is your only trip in Peru, take at least 48 hours to acclimatize in Cusco. Here are a few other things to consider:

  • If you’re not going with a guided group, make sure to leave a detailed itinerary with someone you’re close with.
  • Make sure to stay hydrated. When hiking at high elevation in cold weather, you will sweat much less than you are used to. Once you are dehydrated it is often too late. Mixing dehydration with elevation sickness can be a nasty combination
  • Familiarize yourself with the early signs of altitude sickness, and be proactive in your approach to combating these symptoms.Altitude sickness usually manifests itself with an early headache followed by dizziness and a loss of appetite. Don’t be afraid or too stubborn to stop.
  • Be hyper-vigilant of weather. The conditions can change by the hour at high elevation in the Andes. Always have your warm layers and waterproof layers readily accessible. This is especially important when heading up and over the high passes.
  • Have a first aid kit, gear repair kit, and blister treatment kit ready to go in your day pack.
  • Check your health care plan to see what kind of international coverage you have. Consider international travel insurance for the off chance of a catastrophic event.
  • Although crime is not common, keep an eye on your belongings when passing through the small villages. You can also bring along small gifts to hand out to the children.
  • Make sure all water is boiled and properly treated. There are herds of alpaca and vicuna all throughout this region of the Andes. Treat all water as if it’s contaminated.

 

Hike Description:
Ausangate Trek Miles (Elevation Gained) Campsite
Day 1: Tinki to Upis 7.5 (2346 ft) Upis
Day 2: Upis to Pucacocha 10.25 (2946 ft) Pucacocha
Day 3: Pucacocha to Qampa 7.3 (2093 ft) Qampa
Day 4: Qampa to Pacchanta 10.6 (2073 ft) Pacchanta
Day 5: Pacchanta to Tinki 7 (272 ft) None (Cusco)

Ausangate Trek

AUSANGATE TREK DAY 1

The Ausangate Trek is a 43 mile backpacking trip that runs through one of the most beautiful landscapes in the Andes. Starting at 12,000ft and reaching high passes close to 17,000ft, the Ausangate Trek reaches some seriously high elevations. Along the way, you’ll pass by small villages, glacial lakes, towering snow capped peaks, and herds of alpacas. The Ausangate Trek is an adventure of a life time, and I’ll be covering all of the details in this guide.

Much like our first trek, we met at the Vidal Expeditions office the night before we left to hear of our itinerary. We also met our guide, Antonio, a guide Edith and I would both grow to love in the days ahead. Unlike the Inca Trail, which had six in the group, Edith and I would be the only people coming along for this one. We were very excited about that.
Antonio and a driver picked us up from our hotel early on day one of our trek to drive us from Cusco to the small village of Tinqui. The drive was about 3 hours long, and most of it was in the dark. I kept myself occupied reading Ken Follett’s World Without End while Edith slept. We arrived at a small market and stopped out front. The town of Tinque looked to have only a few hundred inhabitants, the buildings were of adobe construction with partially paved roads. The people were beautiful, with sun kissed skin weathered like golden raisins, and adorned with bright home woven alpaca garments. We arrived in the morning bustle at about 7 am, when people were buying food and goods for the day ahead. Our guide Antonio, jumped out and disappeared into one of the markets while we waiting in the car. When he opened the door to leave, I could feel the bite of the cold and crisp alpine air.

Wonderful Landscapes

Jose Antonio arrived with a large transparent plastic bag full of leaves. He told us they were coca leaves and a gift for the people we would come across on our journey. It was a gift from Pachamama, who the Quechuan people believe to be the goddess that birthed earth and time. One thing I instantly appreciated about Jose, was his connection to the real Andean and Quechuan way of life. In Cusco, we learned about the Spanish conquest and the way they tried to stamp out any of the local beliefs. It was very cool to see how some of the people living far from city centers, with the protection of Pachamama high in the Andes, held closely to their language and belief system. For the first time, I felt like I was seeing the real Peru. The glorious and beautiful Peru.

After lunch, the views on day one were nothing short of spectacular, with golden hills stretching to the horizon and alpacas sweeping the tops of every hillside. We stepped off of the dirt road, and begin walking on a series of single track grazing trails. The summit of Ausangate became shielded in a voluminous veil of clouds, and the temperatures started to drop. It was only at that moment that I realized how warm the day had actually been. Living at high altitude can bring large swings in temperature. The sun giveth, and the sun taketh away.

Stunning views

We arrived to our campsite and were surprised to find a solitary stone structure sitting outside of a natural hot spring. Every part of me wanted to jump in, but with the air being so cold, I just couldn’t make it happen. Instead, I explored the source of the hot spring a little, and waited for dinner. Our campsite at Upis provided incredible views of the snow capped Ausangate range, which began to clear as the temperatures fell along with the departing sun.

For dinner, we had an incredible meal with soup, rice, chicken, and potatoes. We also got our first taste of the local Quechuan radio station. It played a vibrant, chirpy brand of music that consisted of about five songs that seemed to play on a loop. It was like the soundtrack I remembered from an Alvin and the Chipmunks movie I watched as a kid. It set a very playful and authentic tone for the days ahead. One of the most interesting things Antonio told us about during our conversation at dinner was the story of the Quyllur Rit’i festival. This festival is held in a close by valley, and features dancing, food, and a lot of traditional aspects of Andean culture. I hope to make it back someday to experience this.

 

AUSANGATE TREK DAY 2

On this day of the Ausangate Trek we woke up in Upis with  a beautiful sunrise. The alpenglow of the Andes is pure magic. For breakfast, we had some bread and a delicious quinoa and apple cinnamon porridge. I also stuck to my daily routine of starting the day with two cups of instant coffee, that I would make so thick it looked like tar on my stirring spoon. Antonio told us about our plan for the day, which would take us up and over our first of four passes on the trek. This one would be Pas Arapa Apacheta, at 16,150 ft. The total distance for day two would be a little more than 10 miles, with 3,000 ft of climbing.
The first mile of hiking was a bit boggy, and it wasn’t long before Edith dunked one of her feet into the ice cold glacial water we were trying so hard to avoid. Luckily, her feet dried quickly in the dry air.  We took a few pictures at the base of Ausangate before beginning our steep climb to the pass. This is also the moment I really started to appreciate Antonio as a guide. His timing was impeccable. One second he would be there giving us the history and geography background of the landscape, then he’d be off ahead giving us plenty of time to ourselves. Being an independent person that wasn’t so fond of having a guide on any sort of trip, I was a bit worried how things would play out. After the Inca trail, my fears abated as our guide was great, it was just the fellow trekkers that slowed our flow. On this trek, everything was perfect.

Ausangate Trekking

Near to our next goal

The climb to Pas Arapa Apacheta was steep but smooth, and we made it up without much of an issue. Having the time to acclimatize in Cusco and on the Salkantay trek must have really helped, because neither of us were feeling the effect of the thin air above 16,000ft. This was also the closest we had been to the 20,945 ft summit of Ausangate in our 24 hours of adventure. I was really starting to look forward to the next three days, where we would be making a counter clockwise loop around the massif.
We continued on from the pass and before me stood the most beautiful glacial lakes I had ever laid eyes on. They were a deep sapphire blue, surrounded by flickering blades of golden grass, set deep beneath the towering peaks above. It was a humbling experience to be embraced by so much untouched beauty, with only Pachamama to see us. The morning air was taut and calm, leaving the surface of each lake still and reflecting the world around it.
After fishing, we began a descent to the valley floor where we would be stopping alongside a creek to break for lunch. The views on our walk down to the camp site were spectacular, as much as the views of the alpine lakes blew me away, this was even better. I think that’s a reoccurring theme on this trek. Every view you see feels like the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen, and yet, it continues to be outdone with your very next step. If there is a heaven, it has to look like this.

Motivation is important

The second half of day 2 involved a shorter climb over another pass. We took it on with great energy and enthusiasm, as Antonio told us of the beautiful glacial lakes we would see along the way. He also started telling us about the entire camelid family and what we would see in this range. The camelid family in South America is made up of four species; the llama, alpaca, vicuna, and guanaco. Most of the camelids in the area are alpacas. Llamas can be found at lower elevation in the Cusco province. The Guanaco can be found further south in Argentina. The most reclusive, the vicuna, can be found in the Andes on the Ausangate trek. A vicuna scarf can go for tens of thousands of dollars, as it’s the softest and warmest of all the wools. They are a reclusive species, that don’t take well to domestication. They can also be hard to spot, as they only live at very high altitude. I made it my goal on this trek to see one, as doing so is considered a very good omen.
On our way over the second pass of the day, we saw a few stunning turquoise lakes. Lakes get this color from rock flour. Rock flour is bedrock deposited from a moving and eroding glacier.

After crossing over the pass, we made our final descent for the day to our campsite to another gorgeous golden valley. We set up camp and had a nice dinner before falling into a deep sleep from tired legs and satisfied souls and minds.

 

AUSANGATE TREK DAY 3

The temperature on the morning of day three of the Ausangate trek was the lowest of our entire trip. Despite the cold temperatures, Edith and I were excited to get moving as we’d be passing over Palomani Pass after a climb to start the day. Palomani Pass sits aside a series of impressive glaciers on the southwest side of the Ausangate range. The total distance for day 3 totaled 8 miles, with 2000ft of climbing to a max elevation of 16,800ft.It was a shorter day on distance, as we really took our time taking in the rapturous and empyrean vistas.
Straight from our campsite, the climbing began right away, and we got our first view of the “painted hills” that this trek is so well known for. It was quite marvelous to see such a spectacularly diverse range of colors splashed across every landscape we moved though. As we approached the end of the climb to Palomani Pass, the depth of snow began to increase.  As I looked up to see what lay before me, the entire sky went white, the ground beneath me appeared in grayscale, and all of the colors that aroused my pupils not one mile ago, fell silent and slipped away. I could see our horseman leading his steed ahead, and I could hear the breath of Edith and Antonio behind me. Like a cannon ball shot from the horizon, a hawk, called caracara in Quechuan, soared high above the pass and screamed in delight as I set foot at the apex of the climb. I was standing tall and could see down on the other side. I turned around and looked back at where we had started. Everything was so perfect.

Lamas & alpacas everywhere

After we had spent some time walking around and taking photographs at the pass, Antonio began a traditional Quechuan ritual by giving thanks to Pachamama for granting us safe passage thus far. He reached his hand deep into the bag he purchased on our first day and took three coca leaves in his fingers. As he held them at his chest, he asked that we and the porters do the same. The people of the Andes believe Ausangate is a god, and in fact, each mountain is a deity. In his prayer, Antonio spoke their names, and blew a puff of breath over the leaves at the mention of each one. We repeated his words and listened with bated breath. At the end of his prayer, Antonio gave us all a hug, and then took a bag of confetti and baptized each one of us. It was a very special moment for me, and the kind of thing I never though would be a part of my trek. After the confetti, we placed our leaves into a hallowed at cairn at the lip of the pass, and Antonio sealed them up before giving a final blessing and guiding us on our way.

 

The views of painted hills and the valley floor below stole the breath from my lungs in a way that not even the high altitude was able to manage. This was truly heaven. Snow capped mountain peaks, living glaciers, celestial clouds, and shades of gold that would turn Rumpelstiltskin green with envy were all I could see.
Afterwards leaving Palomani Pass, we made our way back down into a valley via a series of alpaca grazing tracks.

Great food

After lunch, we began hiking towards our camping spot, and with perfect timing, the clouds began to clear. For this last section of day three, we hiked among the alpaca herds which were more numerous than I could count. The hills sparkled a gold and yellow only found in storybooks with the smells of ice and eternity in the air. After the elegance of Palomani Pass earlier in the day, I was floating on a cloud, drifting in and out of what I thought was real. Sometimes life is just too good to be true.
We arrived at our campsite fairly early in the afternoon and relaxed in a beautiful area with perfect views of Ausangate. We knew that day 4 would be our toughest climb of the trek and take us to the highest pass, so we got to bed early and rested up for what we knew lie ahead. Much like the nights before, the afternoon skies filled with steaming bands of cirrus clouds. As the sun disappeared, so did the clouds. In their absence, a cold hung heavy in the air, and the skies were crystal clear.

AUSANGATE

AUSANGATE TREK DAY 4 and 5

Day four of the Ausagate Trek started with another sublime morning. The sky was clear, and just starting to fill with wispy clouds.  Edith and I made our way to the main tent for a delicious breakfast of crepes and toast with jam. Antonio once again laid out the overview of the day’s hiking, and informed us we would be going over our final high pass, at 16,600ft. The day would begin much like day 3, with a steep climb, followed by a descent through mountain peaks and alpine glaciers.
The climb to the pass was steep, but also short, and after 3.5 miles, we were standing at the top. It was a phenomenal site with cairns placed everywhere like an army of stone soldiers. The wind started to howl in a constant flow of air, like it was forced from a broken main. The cold wind couldn’t dampen our spirits though, we stood there for quite some time enjoying what would be our final high pass. I walked around to explore a bit, when I noticed a bit of movement about 1000ft above the pass. “Could it be?”, I asked myself. “Have I finally witnessed the storied vicuna?” I pointed them out to Antonio, and he confirmed with excitement, that they were in fact vicuna.

The initial section of trail was single track, but quickly turned back into a series of trails, cut from the feet of the alpacas that graze here. I was once again left speechless by the unthinkable beauty of the Willkanuta mountain range of the Andes. Standing in place, I would turn and take in all 360 degrees of its majesty. There are simply no bad views here, and I wanted to remember it all.

Finally on the last part

We took a break half of the way into a descent, and sat right next to a small lake with grazing alpacas. The trails ran right along the sides of the hills here, and I almost started to feel bad for Antonio here with how slowly we were moving. There are moments and places in life that make you fully aware of the delicate and precious nature of our existence. You can never go back in time to change or redo things. On this trek, I wanted to make sure to slow down, and open my eyes to truly see where I was, and not just allow my body to move through it.
Our campsite for the night would be in the small town of Pacchanta. With only a few miles left for day 4, the trail flowed into a dirt road, and we started to walk by small structures and houses. I was astonished that people live out here, and at the same time, green with envy. As hard as life at 15,000ft must be, you can’t ask for a better backdrop to animate the story of your life.

On this day we  spent the evening walking around the village of Pacchanta, playing with a playful group of puppies who continued to beg for food, and standing in amazement of the last four days. The only downside to travel, is the moment of realization that you have to go home. This would be our final night on the Ausangate trek, and I just was not ready for things to end.

We woke up early and back to Cusco in our bus


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