From July 2015
After doing the Lares and Salkantay treks, we were keen for one more trek before leaving the Cusco area. The 4 days we spent circling the Ausangate massive have been one of the highlights of our South America trip so far. Amazing campsites below crumbling glaciers, grazing vicuñas and colourful hills.
We started early, and had planned to leave our Cusco hotel at around 5am. It took us about 15 minutes to wake up the boy at our hostel so that he could let us out the front door. Even when I physically shook his shoulders, he just grumbled and turned over on the couch and went back to sleep. After a few more shakings, I managed to get him into a sitting position on the couch, but he continued to fall back asleep. And here I was thinking Samara was slow to wake up in the mornings….. He eventually woke up enough to find the key and let us out onto the empty street.
We jumped in a bus heading to Tinqui (10 soles each, approx 3 hours). It was full of locals wearing their colourful, shiny, traditional hats. I am continuously amazed at how each region has such unique styles of hats. Unfortunately, we chose the seat right below the only functioning speaker on the bus, which was blaring out the unbearably high pitched sounds of the Huayno music that is typical of the Andean highlands.
We were glad to get off the bus when we arrived in the small town of Tinqui a few hours later. We wandered the markets and grabbed some extra fresh fruit and vegetables. Outside, a young boy stood behind a wheel barrow full of alpaca heads, proudly shouting “Cabezas, cabezas!” (This image may be disturbing to some readers. View image here.).
We headed down to Hotel Ausangate where we met Cayetano Crispin, who we had been told about through the South American Explorers Club in Cusco. If you need to organise donkeys for your Ausangate trek, he is the man to talk to (see bottom of this article). We had decided that we would do the trek without any pack animals, but Cayetano Crispin was happy to give us a few tips for the walk and point us towards a good little place to have lunch.
We headed up the track out of town and paid our 20 soles entrance fee. A dozen or so alpaca skins had been laid out in the sun to dry. I wondered if these bodies belonged to the heads that we had seen in the market earlier. (This image may be disturbing to some readers. View image here).
We chatted to a local, and I asked him the best direction to Upis, where we were headed for our first night. He seemed pretty confident in the direction he was giving us so I felt no need to check my map. 45 minutes later we were climbing over rock walls and plodding through paddocks, and had seemed to have lost the track altogether. After consulting my map and checking with another passerby, we confirmed that indeed we should have gone right after the bridge and not left as the first man had told us.
Once we re-found the main road, it was a bit of a boring slog up the small hill. The local kids ran from their houses asking for sweets. Up ahead towered the powerful Ausangate mountain. What a sight!
We soon headed down into a nice wide valley, which led us up to some hot springs and our campsite for the first night.
The next morning we headed up towards the first pass of the walk. A group of vicuñas were keeping an eye on us from a nearby ridge. They looked very majestic. As we headed over the pass we got some fantastic views of the coloured hills that this area is famous for. We passed some stunning glacial lakes and grazing alpacas. One man had to guide us past his stock, warning us that his dogs would attack us if we didn´t stick close to him. The dogs are very protective in these areas.
We had lunch overlooking a beautiful lake, with views up towards some amazing glaciers. We watched one family with two small kids walk past. The dad was pulling behind him a special trolley to carry their extra gear, which I was quite impressed about. As we headed up the second pass, the mountains seemed very close, as if you could easily reach out and run your fingers down the glacier. We stumbled down towards our campsite at Laguna Ausangate.
In the morning we had to pay 20 soles for using the campsite to a shaggy man, with a very shaggy dog. We climbed the steep hill towards the highest point on the trek (approx 5100m). As we climbed the hill we got some great views back across the valley towards some amazing coloured hills. In the distance, I could spot one particularly coloured hill that I had seen photos of online (look up “coloured hill ausangate” on google – this was what had originally made me want to come to the Ausangate region). I thought about turning around and trying to get to it, but considering that we were nearly at the top of the pass already I thought it might have been a bit too much effort for just one photo….
I felt better about missing out on the coloured hill when we got to the pass. It was almost as stunning, with a brightly coloured orange and brown hill off to one side and the towering snowy mountains just to the other side. It was one of the most beautiful places that I have ever been to, and we spent over an hour on the top just admiring the view.
We headed down the other side past some more vicuñas (they are definitely my favourite Andean animal), and enjoyed some lunch with some local dogs. We set up camp in the valley, next to a nice river and watched the last of the day´s sunlight disappear from the tops of the surrounding mountains.
We headed up the valley and towards the last pass for the trek. Quite a few alpacas were grazing near the top. The walk down from the pass was rather pleasant and it wasn´t long before we arrived at the thermal pools at Pachanta. We were keen to try to make it back to Tinqui before the last bus back to Cusco left, so we passed by them and started along the dirt road. Luckily, a kilometre or two down the road, a passing tourist van offered to give us a lift all the way back to Cusco. We waved goodbye to the beautiful mountains behind us, and jumped aboard.
Trip type: Independent trek. Can be done with a group organised with a Cusco agency, but it can be hard to find a group to do it with as not many people do this trek. Alternatively, you can organise your own donkeys and arriero in Tinqui. Talk to Cayetano Crispin Gonzalo at Hotel Ausangate (on the main road in Tinqui), or the guys at the South American Explorers club house in Cusco.
Trip highlights: Stunning mountains, vicuñas, glacial lakes, high passes, colourful hills.
Trek difficulty: Moderate. Make sure you are well acclimitised before heading off.