Ausangate Trek – Lodge to Lodge along the Camino del Apu Ausangate
Our Ausangate trek started with a picture, a mind-blowing image circulated on Facebook of a surreal rainbow mountain, which I assumed had been photoshopped beyond belief. (Could something really be that beautiful?) When I saw the image, I initially thought it was the Zhangye Danxia mountains in China, but something about the shape of the hill looked slightly different. Dragging the picture into Google image search revealed that I was looking at formations near Ausangate mountain just a few hours from Cusco, Peru. Yay!
The Ausangate circuit is featured on many lists of the world’s best high-altitude treks. One of the holiest mountains in Incan mythology, Ausangate features windswept valleys, snow-covered peaks, glaciers, panoramic views… everything a serious trekker could want. But much to our surprise, we discovered that that rainbow mountain was not on the well-known camping circuit. Further digging revealed that the Camino del Apu Ausangate, an alternative lodge-based Ausangate trek run by Andean Lodges, combines the stunning mountain scenery and high-altitude passes of Ausangate with the little known technicolor landscapes around Vinicunca to the southwest. Start packing, people!!!
Ausangate Trek, Day 1 – Cusco 3,399 m (11,152 ft) to Chillca Tambo 4,368 m (14,331 ft)
Fast forward a couple months, and we suddenly found ourselves in an Andean Lodges’ van bouncing up and down on a dirt road into the Cordillera Vilcanota, a Peruvian mountain range boasting several 6,000+ m peaks including Ausangate (6,384 m / 20,945 ft). The drive from Cusco to the trailhead had included a quick stop in Checacupe to visit a colonial bridge and a reconstructed Incan bridge as well as the town’s gorgeous church, one of the most ornate in the Sacred Valley. From Checacupe, the gradually deteriorating road wound its way through a series of river valleys taking in the ever-more-spectacular Andean landscape.
The drive itself was a highlight. We passed isolated Quechua villages with crumbling adobe dwellings and herds of sheep, llamas and alpacas. Women dressed in colorful Quechua clothing slowly walked along the road, the silver ornamentation on their oval hats glistening in the momentary sun. Eventually, we rose above the Peruvian tree line. With little warning, the van stopped.
“We’re here!” announced our guide Jesus. Sebastian, playing the role of second guide, jumped out of the van and started taking hiking poles out of the back of the van. British walkers Malcolm and Sue sat staring out the windows unsure of where “here” was. Daisy, an American working for a trekking company, started packing up her daypack. Thomas and I stepped out of the van and examined the tiny path which crossed a small river and led off into a snaking gorge. From the first step, it was clear the Ausangate trek was going to be stunning. Little did we know.
The first few minutes of the trail were a good test for trekkers; the narrow, gravely path clung to the steep walls of the gorge and required some sure footing and focused attention. But after about thirty minutes, the rocky gorge opened up into a broad glacial valley filled with herds of llamas and alpacas, which made for much easier walking. Two Andean geese, symbols of devotion, swooped in and landed along the banks of the river; we would see these birds, known locally as huallatas, over and over during our five-day, 45-kilometer Ausangate lodge trek.
Off to the left, the small Quechua village of Chillca seemed dwarfed by the sweeping slopes. Colorful figures drifted about tending their herds and doing their daily chores. In the distance, we could see Chillca Tambo, our first lodge, backed by the spectacular snowy peaks of Puca Punta and Jatun Jampa. As we approached, llamas carrying our bags arrived via a different path – perfect timing! We were greeted at the lodge with hot drinks, alpaca slippers, snacks and a warm fireplace. Later that evening, we dined on a delicious meal of stuffed trout, steamed vegetables and mashed potatoes as Wilma, a local member of the staff, serenaded us with traditional Quechua tunes.
Ausangate Trek, Day 2 – Chillca Tambo 4,368 m (14,331 ft) to Machuracay Tambo 4,814 m (15,797 ft)
As would happen every day on the Ausangate trek, Wilma’s tiny voice outside our door woke us with more Quechua songs. It was one of her responsibilities to wake the trekkers each morning. Jesus and Sebastian later explained that Wilma was so shy about talking to foreigners that she preferred to sing them awake. I joked that I was going to record her voice and use it as the alarm on my phone. (Her singing is featured in the lead video.)
After a hearty breakfast of oatmeal and fruit, a group of women from Chillca gathered outside to demonstrate their spinning and weaving techniques and sell their traditional textiles. Chillca is quite remote and there are few opportunities for locals to earn money, so as part of their cooperation with communities along the trail, Andean Lodges organizes such weaving encounters. There was no pressure on us to buy anything at all, and it was a fantastic opportunity to watch the women work and to take photographs. It was also much more authentic than anything we experienced in Cusco and the Sacred Valley, and the sight of the women weaving in the open fields backed by snow-capped mountains was worth the whole trip.
Setting out for the day, we headed up the Phinaya Valley. The weather seemed to be changing by the second: sun, rain, sun, hail, sun, snow. Fearing heavier snow, Jesus made the decision to reroute us directly up the Pampacancha towards Ausangate. While we certainly missed a bit on the usual path up via the moraines and glacial lakes, we did have the opportunity to walk for several hours with a direct view of Ausangate’s eastern face. The weather added to the drama as the veil of snow gradually lifted to reveal the holy mountain as well as breathtaking views of Mariposa.
Every day, the Andean Lodge staff walks ahead of trekkers and sets up a tent to provide shelter during lunch. That tent was much needed our first full day out on the trail because a rainstorm broke out and it poured while we feasted on potato soup and stuffed avocados. Bizarrely, just as we finished eating, the rain ended and the sun-filled skies returned. (Now, that is some serious planning!)
We continued our hike up the rocky trails to our second lodge Machuracay Tambo taking in the gorgeous views of the surrounding glaciers, peaks, and lakes. At 4,814 m (15,797 ft), Machuracay Tambo is the highest lodge on the Ausangate trek, and Andean Lodges markets it as the “highest lodge in the world.” Nepal and Tibet fans might scoff at that claim, but the statement is really more about the level of comfort they have achieved at such extreme altitudes. Having spent months on trekking trails in Nepal, Tibet and Northern India, Thomas and I raved about how clean and perfectly white the Andean Lodges’ bedding was. Our fellow trekkers didn’t seem to understand our extreme happiness over fresh bedding, but a trek or two in the Himalayas would definitely clarify that for them.
Ausangate Trek, Day 3 – Machuracay Tambo 4,814 m (15,797 ft) to Anantapata Tambo 4,750 m (15,584 ft)
The third day started with a series of Quechua offerings to Apu Ausangate meant to protect us on our climb to Palomani Pass, the highest pass on the Ausangate trek. Officially listed at 5,200 m (17,060 ft), the jury is still out on the exact height as GPS devices disagree. Regardless, it was a steep, slow climb up with sensational views over Ausangate’s walls, crumbling glaciers and jagged peaks. I also couldn’t stop looking back and photographing Mariposa which seemed to get more beautiful the higher we climbed.
Beyond scenery, we spotted a number of vizcachas, animals which look like a cross between rabbits and chinchillas, darting from rock to rock. We also saw a small herd of wild vicuñas grazing in the distance (Yes! That was a major goal of ours to see vicuñas!!!). Once at the top, we paused to celebrate our achievement and take in the epic panoramas. I have to say here that we were in awe of Sue and Malcolm who were doing their first high-altitude trek at the ages of 67 and 71. Fantastic!!!
Crossing the pass, the rocky eastern face of Ausangate gave way to the incredible snow-covered south face, which looked like the world’s biggest pile of whipped cream. It was one mind-bending mountain view after another as we descended alongside a massive glacier towards Ausangate Cocha, the lake at the glacier’s base. At one point, I fell behind the group while I was taking pictures. The small group ahead of me dwarfed by massive chunks of ice and frozen waterfalls is a view I will remember forever.
Descending into the valley, alpacas dotted the cliffs and slopes, tiptoeing along tiny paths like fearless mountain ballerinas. At every curve, they danced across the trail in front of us curiously staring at us with rabbit-like, pursed lips that made us laugh over and over again. Below, hundreds of alpacas grazed in a broad glacial valley bisected by a small river which flowed out of Ausangate Cocha. How many times can I repeat the word beautiful?
As with day two, the weather was all over the place. By the time we crossed the valley, the blue skies had been replaced with a mix of snow and hail. And once again, we stepped into the lunch tent at the precise moment it started raining. (How do they do that?) The climb and the altitude left some of our group picking at their meals, but Thomas and I stuffed our faces with delicious soup and Peruvian causas until the rain stopped and we headed back out on the trail. The cold, cloudy skies shifted and morphed revealing peaks and stunning mountain ridges. The weather created dramatic views back over Ausangate as fierce winds whipped up swirling clouds of snow backed by a sky of steel grey.
While three of the four lodges on the Ausangate trek are virtually identical in design, the lodge on day three was different. Anantapata Tambo was designed and built with Chillca community funds as their contribution to the joint venture with Andean Lodges. For us, this was an important opportunity to witness the community’s influence.
Some guests have commented on Tripadvisor that Anantapata Tambo is simpler and less glamorous than the other lodges on the Ausangate trek, but that really is the wrong way to look at it. The single-story construction, smaller rooms, and fewer windows reveal the practical design of a people who live at high altitudes in harsh conditions. Vaulted ceilings and full walls of windows are simply not part of their cultural vision or daily reality. And I did really think the bathroom was distinctly warmer here. I also enjoyed the cozy, central location of the fireplace in this lodge.
Ausangate Trek, Day 4 – Anantapata Tambo 4,750 m (15,584 ft) to Huampococha Tambo 4,800 m (15,748 ft)
Thomas and I have had the extraordinary luck to do many of the world’s greatest hikes and treks. When it comes to landscapes, we’ve seen the best of what the world has to offer. I say with very little hesitation that day four of the Ausangate trek will always be on our short list of the world’s most extraordinary trails.
We began by hiking up to the next pass which topped out at about 5,100 m (16,732 ft). Of course, there were mesmerizing views of the rocky peaks of Tacusiri the entire way as well as back over Ausangate rising up in the distance. Ascending to the pass, there were only slight hints of the colorful magic that lay beyond. But as soon as the next valley came into view, the extraordinary sight of Vinicunca, the rainbow mountain, immediately caught my eye.
“That’s it, isn’t it?” I blurted out at Jesus and Sebastian despite the fact that it was still miles away. My eyes were locked on the mountain for several minutes before I noticed the entire valley was a natural work of art. Yellows, oranges, reds, blues, greens, purples… alpacas everywhere… reflections in Kayrawiri Lake… mountain peaks… too much for a mind to process. As clouds floated over the valley, the colors shifted and transformed playing tricks on the eyes: squirming shades of apricot, aqua and violet morphed into coral, turquoise and magenta.
Moving along the trail was a surreal experience. In one direction, classic high Andes with soaring snow-covered peaks and glaciers; in the other direction, a painted desert of rainbow minerals. Our trail changed from grey to purple to green to red as we wound our way down rocky moraine past glassy lakes and back up cinnamon slopes in the shadow of towering blue-grey mountains.
On the far side of the valley, the trail narrowed to a tiny path which sliced across steep, gravely slopes of colorful earth. Ironically, at the very moment our eyes were most likely to wander due to the phenomenal landscape, we needed to closely watch every step. This was one of the few times during the Ausangate trek where people with a fear of heights might have had some issues. I had to stop several times to revel in the magnificence of a jagged layer of yellow and grey stone that jutted into the sky ahead of us. Malcolm, a retired geography teacher with an obvious interest in geology, listed all the formations he could name as we passed.
We wanted to rush forward to Vinicunca, but Jesus urged us up a bulge of layered yellow and grey stone, “The view you want is up there.”
Despite the altitude, Thomas and I shot up the hill knowing that our photo and video taking would eat up time. It was THE view, THE picture that had led us to Ausangate in the first place. And no, it was not a figment of some Photoshop artist’s imagination; it was even more spectacular in reality than in the Facebook images we had seen. The shades of turquoise in the mountain were especially unique and mysterious. And amazingly, we had the polychrome wonderland entirely to ourselves!!! In an era in which we suppose all the world’s treasures have been discovered and overrun, how is it possible that this viewpoint isn’t a household name?
But the wonders didn’t stop there. As we walked along the rainbow slopes of Vinicunca, we spotted another herd of vicuña galloping through the valley below us. Further on, Jesus stopped to show us ancient fossils which proved the entire area had once been part of a great ocean. We walked for hours along those narrow, gravely paths through a spectrum of reds and oranges. Simply awesome! We had had no idea from pictures how extensive this painted desert was. Late in the afternoon, we stopped to have lunch at the base of a mountain that looked like the back of a purple tiger. And just before sunset, we arrived at our last lodge Huampococha Tambo.
As we approached, the legendary caretaker Tio Mario, known to the Andean Lodges’ guides as the last of the Incas, greeted us by blowing a conch shell. The sound echoed off the surrounding mountains and floated across the entire valley making our magical day even more magical. All of the Andean Lodges’ caretakers are great, but Tio Mario so obviously loves and values his interaction with guests that his hospitality transcends language barriers. If you do the Ausangate trek, take a moment to sit with him and talk with him (even if you do not speak Spanish or Quechua). Tio Mario is a real highlight in a trip filled with highlights.
Our last dinner on the Ausangate trek matched the perfect day: we feasted on BBQ, shared a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, and enjoyed a dessert in the shape of Ausangate created by Tio Mario himself. Afterwards, we all plopped down by the fireplace and toasted our feet as we reminisced over a very memorable if somewhat tiring day.
Ausangate Trek, Day 5 – Huampococha Tambo 4,800 m (15,748 ft) to Cusco 3,399 m (11,152 ft)
I had been so tired and overwhelmed by color when we arrived at Huampococha Tambo, that I hadn’t really noticed how beautiful the setting was. Before breakfast, I walked down to the mirror-flat lake and soaked up the otherworldly reflections of the surrounding burnt orange and purple flatiron formations. Ducks crisscrossed the lake and a pair of Andean geese flirted with each other off to my right. Was it the same pair of geese that we had seen on our first day? Had they followed us and re-appeared on each day of our trek? If so, they were as devoted to us as they were to each other.
After a super breakfast of pancakes, we started the climb up to Anta Pass paralleling those astonishing layers of rock. We were all moving a bit slowly on our fifth day, or perhaps we were just reluctant to hurry towards the end of the truly amazing Ausangate trek. We paused at the pass to take one final look at magnificent Ausangate. The holy mountain was ringed in dramatic black clouds, framed for our memories as we stepped into the valley beyond.
On our final descent, our motley crew of trekkers merged with the llama caravan and support staff. Another magic moment as the train of people and pack animals wound its way down into the narrow valley. A couple of our fully loaded llamas decided to celebrate by taking a dirt bath in a dusty hole. We made good-natured bets on whose bags had suffered most. Luckily, our clothes and supplies were carefully packed in a double layer of waterproof protection, so any dust coating (or rain) was only superficial. Continuing our descent, the reds and purples of the surrounding hills muted into browns and yellows as we followed a river almost 1,000 m (3,200 ft) down.
That river wound its way past isolated adobe houses and llama corrals. The houses gradually became larger, more structured adobe villages with women and children crisscrossing our path. Most of the locals just smiled at us shyly or said “buenos dias,” but we found it quite amusing that the herds of llamas and alpacas seemed to immediately notice we were VERY different. They stared at us like we were an army of alien invaders marching into their lands. We laughed at their reactions the whole way down the trail.
The Ausangate trek ended just after we passed the tree line. We had one final lunch feast; the cook even prepared an extra pachamanca, a traditional meal of Peruvian potatoes slow-baked in an impromptu earthen oven. (Hint: eat the ashy potato skins – it actually tastes quite good.) We took tons of pictures, and said our goodbyes. Exhausted by the perfect trek, we all crashed in the van on the drive back to Cusco. It’s amazing that the world-class Ausangate trek lies a mere three hours from one of the most touristed areas in Peru. What a discovery!
More about the Ausangate Trek and the Rainbow Mountain, Peru
Andean Lodges markets itself as the premier lodge to lodge hike in the Peruvian Andes. I have no doubt that that is true, but it is much more than that. Hardcore trekkers, especially those who have seen the Ausangate trek listed as one of the world’s greatest hikes, might worry that a lodge-based trek means sacrificing some of the epic landscapes. THAT IS NOT THE CASE AT ALL. Daisy had done hikes along the conventional Ausangate hiking route before and she assured us that these trails were every bit as rewarding, and then some.
Moreover, the conventional Ausangate trek does not enter the phenomenal multi-colored landscapes southwest of Ausangate or visit the Vinicunca rainbow mountain, two attractions which are on locally controlled community lands and are not open to other trekking companies. Andean Lodges has spent years developing this joint venture with the communities of Chillca and Osefina, earning their trust, and ensuring that their lodges have the highest environmental standards to prevent their trekking tours from damaging the extraordinary landscapes in the area.
We kept our eyes peeled for greenwashing or unintentional environmental mistakes by the company, but we did not witness anything questionable. Trash is packed out, biodegradable soaps and shampoos are provided for guests, and solar-powered lamps and candles are used to light the lodges. The lack of electricity also means that you cannot easily recharge camera batteries during the trek. Luckily, a solar-powered charger is available at the Anantapata Lodge on day three of the Ausangate trek. Andean Lodges is planning to equip the other lodges with similar charging stations.
From what we saw, Andean Lodges did an exceptional job on the environmental front. One moment in particular really impressed us. One of our fellow trekkers threw a plastic wrapper from a chocolate bar into the fireplace and Sebastian reacted with a gut level “No, no, don’t throw that into the fireplace.” His reaction was so genuine, so concerned that it immediately conveyed serious dedication to and understanding of what a green business should be. We were highly impressed.
Altitude Issues during the Ausangate Trek
The Ausangate trek involves some serious elevation gains. It is essential that trekkers understand this and take time to acclimatize before they begin the trek. Even high-altitude Cusco still sits 1,000 m (3,200 ft) below the first lodge. Experienced trekkers know sleeping 1,000 m above the previous night is a BIG JUMP. For this reason, it is highly recommended that you do some higher day walks in the Sacred Valley to acclimatize. Daisy recommended the San Jeronimo to Señor de Huanca walk near Cusco to acclimate. Andean Lodges also organizes acclimatization options including a half-day Huanacaure trek as well as a Yanacocha Lake add-on option to give trekkers an additional day at the first lodge in Chillca.
Because of the 1,000 m jump on the first day, Thomas and I both decided to take Diamox for the Ausangate trek despite the fact that we had been in Cusco for quite some time. (We generally don’t like Diamox because of its side effects, but we knew that 1,000 m was a lot.) We were the only trekkers on Diamox, and we were the only ones not to experience altitude-related issues. Of the other trekkers, nobody experienced serious altitude sickness, but they did experience headaches, loss of appetite (which was a bummer because the food was great), and difficulty sleeping in the highest lodges. Two of the other trekkers eventually started taking Diamox and their symptoms improved.
Andean Lodges is aware of these altitude issues and takes safety measures seriously. In case of altitude sickness or any other health emergencies, the guides are always in contact with Andean Lodges’ medical director via satellite phones.
Plan your Ausangate Trek
When to Go – Best time for the Ausangate trek is May through September, with April and October being the shoulder seasons.
Book Your Trip – We highly recommend that you book the Ausangate trek in advance. You can either contact Andean Lodges to ask for their rates and availability, or you can book this 5-day trek directly on Viator.
Accommodation – Most visitors stay in vibrant Cusco (or Cuzco) or relaxed Ollantaytambo before or after their Ausangate trek. Both towns are a great base for exploring the gorgeous Sacred Valley; in addition, they have plenty of accommodation options. To find great hotel deals, check out Hotelscombined.com, a site which offers the best deals across numerous top hotel booking sites, including agoda.
Guidebooks – We normally travel with a Lonely Planet guide book. During our six months in Peru, we used the Lonely Planet Peru guidebook and quite liked it. It’s great for cultural and historical info, hiking tours, maps, itineraries, and also includes highlights such as Lake Titicaca, the Peruvian Amazon, the Salkantay trek, Machu Picchu, Colca Canyon, Huaraz treks, and many others. For a more visual guidebook, we recommend the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Peru. All guidebooks can be conveniently purchased on Amazon.
Travel Gear – One piece of equipment we highly recommend for exploring Southern Peru is an action camera such as the GoPro to capture everything on film. We also recommend a comfortable pair of hiking socks and good trekking poles; they will be one of your best investments for your knees and back. And since you will be trekking with poles, a GoPro head strap may be useful.