I’m sitting in a coffee bar in Miraflores, Lima. I’m figuring out what adventurous things I should do in Peru. The Inca trail and Salkantay trekking are listed in practically every top 10 list I find. Would I than still want to do this? Or will it be one big polonaise towards Machu Picchu? I’m not sure. Anyway, these are booked out until as far as I can plan. Let’s go for a challenging hike alternative in the Peruvian Andes: El camino del Apu Ausangate (the road of Apu Ausangate). I have no regrets!
3410 meter altitude
I’m standing on the rooftop of my home-stay house in Cusco. Looking southeast I can see the snow capped Ausangate mountain in the distance. That’s where I’m going! I’m acclimatizing for a 5-day hiking expedition around the third largest peak of Peru (6372 meters). Ausangate is an Apu, meaning sacred mountain. This Apu has traditionally been a place of worship in pre-Inca times. Still, every year in June Ausangate draws 10,000 (mostly Quechua) people from rural places in the Cusco region for the pilgrimage of Senor Qoyllur Rit’I . The area is home to alpaca and lama herding communities that manage to survive here with very little since decades of years. These herding Quechua people use high mountain trails to trade with other communities. The road of Apu Ausangate is one these trails. A few years ago this camino (route) has been made accessible to travellers as a way to support and improve the lifestyle of these Andean communities, while good care is taken for conserving the regions cultural and natural heritage.
Ausangate Trek Map
3956 meter altitude
I‘m at the starting point of the Apu Ausangate trekking trail in the rural community of Tinque, a 3-hour scenic drive from Cusco. We register and get ready for the 55 km camino! It’s me together with 8 muchachos from Lima (Juan, Juan, Juan, Carlos, Oscar, Giancarlo, Jorge & Coco), the guide (Willy), the chef, and few horseman/camp-builders/sous-chefs, and 8 horses of the local Chillca community. This is going to be fun!
Vamos! Packed with coca leaves, candy, water and six layers of clothes we’re off. The horses carry the rest. Despacio, despacio… says Willy, meaning slowly, slowly. I started to notice why…
4451 meters altitude
I’m looking up to the three snow-capped 6000m sacred mountain peaks of Apu Ausangate. I breath in deeply. At this altitude my lungs already are on a constant quest for oxygen. We all arrived safely at the first camping place, the Ausangate basecamp of Upis. I’m full with impressions, and already got two blisters. It’s all worth it. The scenery of the Cordillera Vilcanota mountain range in which the Ausangate is located is breath-taking! This first day we’ve been hiking through a soaky, green valley surrounded by hundreds of lamas and alpacas that are grazing freely in the wild. We have jumped over countless streams of meltwater, talked, laughed and taken photos like there’s no tomorrow. We’ve met traditionally dressed Quechua communities. The Andean woman wear colourful skirts and flatboard hats, while carrying kids or food in their tied cloth on their back. We made some kids happy with candies and bread. These poor kiddos with their faces constantly burning under de Andean Sun, waved us kindly and shyly goodbye
4675 meter altitude
I wake up with ice on my sleeping bag. After overcoming the challenge to get out of this warm nest, I’m soaking up the scenery of this morning: frozen waterfalls, huge ice-caps and a gletcher lake. Wow. This is Ausangatecoccha, the highest campsite of the trekking. We have hiked 22.2 km so far. It doesn’t seem much for two days but it has been demanding. By taking it very easy, drinking a lot of water, eating chocolate, and chewing coca leaves, we try to avoid altitude sickness, a very serious mountain disease for which the only cure is to go down! Unfortunately one of us got altitude sickness and got guided down on an emergency horse by a local to the nearest road.
5131 meter altitude
I’m throwing a snowball at 14 degrees latitude, 5131 altitude. I’m at the Palomani pass of Apu Ausangate. I’ve never been this high and definitely never stood in snow this close to the equator. This is the highest peak of the trekking. With views like this, stopping for breath is a joy! I’m so amazed by how incredible diverse the trail is. Around every ‘corner’ or hill there’s a completely new scene to be captured. Green valleys, blue gletcher lakes, red sand stone formations (Nevado del Inca), and white peaks, contrasting with the deep blue sky. It’s unspoilt nature and wilderness at its best!
4326 meters altitude
It’s 4 AM and I’m in a natural hottub. The full moon brightens up Apu Ausangate. Stars are falling for the sky. Damn, I feel alive! It was worth getting up early before the last part of the trail, which is only a short hike back to Tinque, the starting point of the expedition.It has been 5 days and 55 km of hiking. I can count the other hikers I’ve seen on one hand. It’s that remote. On the opposite the amount of wildlife we have encountered is countless: Llamas, Alpacas, Vicuñas (Camel sort), condors, birds. It was tough: we got blisters, fell in rivers, got altitude sickness symptoms, got lost, almost fell off cliffs, got blue lips of the cold and conquered some challenges. But it was a legendary experience of a lifetime! If you want an off the path, unique, challenging but o-so rewarding adventure in nature, go on a hiking expedition around Apu Ausangate!
DIY Apu Ausangate trekking
When is the best time to hike the Apu Ausangate? Between April – November
The route can be done in 5 or 6 days. Also two short routes have been developed
Be in good shape. The trek is tough, cold and high! It’s not for couch potatoes.
Acclimatize by being on altitude a few days before the trekking
Bring warm clothes and a good sleeping bag (for – 15).
Bring (coca) candies, leaves and chocolate. This helps you to deal with altitude sickness.
Take extra camera batteries and keep them warm. Cold batteries empty quicker.
Support the communities by bringing clothes, paper/pencils, and bread.
Learn a few words of Quechua and exchange culture with the indigenous!
Go with a group tour. It’s more fun, informative and safe. I recommend SATS Peru, a small locally owned travel agency that organizes the trek, responsibly, at a competitive price. They organize a superchef balancing out a perfect menu, camping material, knowledgable staff, and horses. All very well taken care off. Check out Ausangate trekking operators.
Be aware it’s an adventure in a remote and developing area. Stay flexible, positive and eager to take on the trekking as it comes! The trail is not set in stone, neither is the weather and your ability to deal with altitude.
Where to stay in Cusco before the adventure? Pick you accommodation in Cusco wisely. There is a lot to choose from. Go for the responsible accommodation option in Cusco so your money stays in Cusco and contributes to those in need. Locally owned accommodation in Cusco and/or hotels involved with community projects I recommend: