Photos taken in collaboration with Quin Schrock.
Trekking Peru’s Ausangate Trail
I flopped down on the ground gasping for air. It was the fourth day of our Ausangate Trek, and we had chosen to veer off the traditional loop itinerary to catch sunrise at Rainbow Mountain. Famed for its multicolored stripes, the view was currently obscured by a wall of thick grey fog. At just over 17,000 ft, Rainbow Mountain was the highest point on our 4-day trek, and I was feeling it. We had hiked to Rainbow Mountain in the dark, and now, as the fog drifted in and out, I caught my first peek-a-boo views of the surrounding landscape. In front of me, the first hints of rainbow-colored earth, behind me, the tip of Ausangate peeked over the pass we had hiked through the day before.
The Ausangate Trek is renowned for its otherworldly natural scenery. It’s considered by many to be one of the world’s best high-altitude treks. Recognized as sacred in Incan mythology, Ausangate features windswept valleys, snow-covered peaks, glaciers, panoramic views. . . basically an alpine wonderland. But after a little bit of research, it became clear that the one thing the Ausangate circuit did not actually include was Rainbow Mountain.
Traditionally, the trek starts at the beginning of the Vilcanota mountain range and then loops approximately 70km around Ausangate. The trek is generally done over 5 days and 4 nights of moderately strenuous hiking. But we didn’t take the traditional loop route. We simply didn’t have time. So after doing some research on the locations we wanted to photograph on the trek and talking with our guide at Killa Expeditions, we decided to do the first three days of the Ausangate Trek before heading to Rainbow Mountain and then hiking out. It was our hope that this truncated itinerary would give us the best bang for our buck on a tight timeline. As I sat on top of Rainbow Mountain basking in the early morning light, there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that we had made the right decision.
Do You Need A Guide For The Ausangate Trek?
After Quin and I did the Huayhuash a couple years back, everyone wanted to know if we used a guide or not. So I figured I’d spare you the suspense and tackle this question head-on for the Ausangate Circuit. Obviously, the answer depends a little on who you are, how much long-distance trekking experience you have, and how you handle high altitudes. But putting all those variables aside, here’s my advice:
Do you need a guide to complete Ausangate? No. Do you want a guide? YES!
Here are just a few of the many reasons I would suggest hiring a guide for the Ausangate Trek:
1. You Don’t Have To Worry About Route Finding: The trail was a lot clearer for Ausangate than it was for Huayhuash, but there were still grey areas. The entire region is used for grazing alpaca and other livestock. That means animal tracks are going this way and that way, zigzagging across the landscape. Yes, I know you could just use GPS to keep you on track. But technology will never replace a local’s intimate knowledge of the area. Plus, there’s something very freeing about not having to constantly worry if you’re going the right way.
2. You Don’t Have To Carry Overnight Gear: When we decided to complete the Ausangate Trek with Killa Expeditions, they provided us with a guide, a cook (more on that later), and two local horsemen. Every morning the horsemen would pack up our overnight gear and deliver it to the next basecamp where it would be waiting in our tent for us! That means that all day, every day, all we had to carry were our day packs. And that can make the difference between a real slog, and an enjoyable day in the mountains when you’re at high altitudes.
3. The Altitude Is No Joke: Altitude sickness is the real deal, and it can be dangerous. It generally occurs when you don’t give yourself adequate time to acclimate to the environment, the change in air pressure, and the lack of oxygen. This happens when you climb to high elevations too quickly. But the truth is, altitude sickness can happen even if you give yourself time to acclimatize. It can happen to anyone at any time. And I can pretty much guarantee you that if you are coming from most other places in the world, you are going to feel the altitude on this trek. Having a guide to help set an appropriate pace, make sure you’re taking adequate breaks, and transport most of your gear from camp to camp will make your battle with the altitude significantly easier.
4. The Food Is Delicious: Now I’m sure this specific bonus depends to some extent on the guide company you choose. For instance, the food that Killa Expeditions fed us on the Ausangate Trek was far yummier than the food we had on the Huayhuash Trek. Regardless, hot three-course dinners are always going to be better than the typical backpacking food that I would make myself.
5. It’s A Great Way To Support The Local Economy: Responsible travel doesn’t have to be complicated! Nor does it have to ruin all the fun. On the contrary, many of the tips I included in my recent post about How To Be A Responsible Traveler will enrich your travel experience by helping you connect deeper with your destination and the people that call it home. And one of the easiest ways you can travel more responsibly is to support the local economy! I’ll be the first to admit that my impulse when I backpack is to explore on my own. But more recently, I’ve been making an effort to hire local guides like Killa Expeditions. Sure, it might be a little more expensive than doing the trek independently, but it’s a great way to ensure your contribution to the economy will have a more direct and positive impact on local communities.
The Ausangate & Rainbow Mountain Trek Itinerary
At the beginning of this year, I decided that I wanted to keep a journal. Nothing to fancy, just something to keep track of my thoughts, trips, and to-dos. I completely failed! But, I did manage to keep one during the Ausangate Trek, and I think the entries from those four days are the best way to get a feel for what the trek is like.
DAY 1: Tinki 3,880 m (12,730 ft) – Upis (hot springs) 4,400 m (14,430 ft)
Killa Expeditions picked us up at our hotel in Cusco at 7:00am. Half asleep, we made the 3-hour drive to the small community of Tinki to start the trek. It was an easy first day. Mostly level. We hiked along a dirt road for most of the day that only locals are allowed to drive.
The weather was ominous from the beginning, and after about an hour of walking, our guide instructed us to put on the $4 ponchos we had purchased in Cusco the night before. Less than 2 minutes later, the sky opened up and hail showered down on us like angry bbs from heaven. I still don’t know how our guide nailed the poncho timing, but now I know we’re in good hands! It’s strangely comforting.
But even with the ponchos, we were getting slaughtered out in the open, so we made a break for the nearest shelter. The only refuge near us turned out to be a tiny farmhouse made from mud bricks and straw. We huddled under the small overhanging eve and waited for the deluge to subside. It didn’t, so we surrendered to the weather gods and continued on.
In the 10 minutes since the hail started, it had turned the trail into a river of chocolate milk. Not the watered-down kind you find at home, but the thick unsweetened chocolate dulce de leche I might have savored back in Cusco. Eventually, we made it to Upis and our basecamp for the night.
When we arrived at the camp the horsemen (we were traveling with two) had already set up camp for us! Our tent sat like a cherry on top of a picturesque knoll resting peacefully in the shadow of Ausangate. Or at least that’s what we were told. As was typical of our luck so far in South America, the mountain was entirely shrouded by low lying clouds, leaving us with nothing but a blank white canvas to imagine what she might look like.
There’s a small hot spring at Upis, and we decided to walk over and check it out after lunch. On our way to the spring, we ran into a solo traveler from Holland. He was the only other person we had seen all day except for our guides and horsemen, and it didn’t take much convincing to get him to join us at the hot springs. Unfortunately, when we arrived, the cement pool that I can only assume normally functions as a giant hot tub was empty, and only a few sad inches of water remained at the bottom. Cold, and with nothing else to do, we decided to climb down the usually submerged stairs to the bottom of the tub. Taking off our boots and soaking our feet in the warm water, we made the best of it. And I have to admit, there are far worse things than a hot foot bath with an interesting stranger after a long, wet day of trekking.
DAY 2: Upis (hot springs) 4,400 m (14,430 ft) – Pucacocha 4,500 m (14,760 ft)
We woke up to hot cocoa tea and clear skies this morning. Ausangate loomed over our tent, its snow-capped peaks piercing the white sky. After breakfast, we left Upis and headed up Arapa Pass. It was the first real elevation gain of the trek. The views unfolded and expanded as we climbed. At the pass, we stopped to snack on sour Mike & Ikes and apples. Why does candy taste sooo good in the mountains?
The views at the pass stretched out above and below us in every direction. After the hail storm and low visibility yesterday, it was a much-needed morale booster. The rest of the trail to our second camp followed suit, and the 12km passed quickly. We arrived early in the afternoon with plenty of time for taking photos, reading, and lounging around. Ausangate is considered one of the harder treks in the Cusco area, but I think the real challenge is just adjusting to the elevation. So far, it doesn’t feel nearly as difficult as Huayhuash.
Camp was meant to be down in the flats next to the lakes at Pacacocha. But due to heavy rains, the flatlands were saturated, and we were forced to set up camp on higher ground. The impromptu basecamp is a blessing in disguise. The views from this higher vantage point are mesmerizing, plus we were able to find shelter for our tent in a small grass-thatched A-frame.
The occasional thundering sound of the glacier calving on Ausangate in the distance is a stark reminder of how quickly these landscapes are changing. . . melting. . . breaking. Then again, there’s something timeless about this place. We are walking along Inca trails so old that even the locals can’t remember why or how they came to be here. The people who call these mountains home still live off the land, isolated from the outside world. Their lives pass in much the same way as their ancestors did. It’s difficult for me to wrap my head around what it would be like to exist out here. Miles away from your closest neighbor. No electricity. No technology to keep you tethered to the defining noise of modern life. I bet it’s a happy existence. . . or at least a content one.
I wonder if they watch tourists pass through these mountains day after day, snapping our pictures, logging our miles, checking off bucket lists, and wonder why? Is life really better lived quickly? I doubt it.
The natural conflict between change and timelessness is palpable on these ancient trails. I can’t help but wonder what it will look like when the two forces inevitably collide. Or maybe that’s what I’m already looking at.
DAY 3: Pucacocha 4,500 m (14,760 ft) – Suricocha 4,600 m (15,170 ft)
Today was the type of day in the mountains that we dream about waking up to. It’s not often that conditions align with a location perfectly, and this morning was one of those special occasions. It rained all last night, and even when we had first arrived at the camp, most of the mountain had been covered in clouds. But not this morning. This morning was glorious! Blue skies, with wispy clouds framing Ausangate. The mountain itself glowed in the early morning light, and two perfect alpine gems glittered at her base.
The third day of the Ausangate Trek has arguably the most extraordinary views, so the timing could not have been better. We hung around camp a little longer than planned, taking photos with that frenetic energy that happens when everything is perfect, but you’ve got places to be and miles to cover. After breakfast, we began to climb up Puka Pass (16,370 ft), the first of two passes for the day. All the rain the night before had flooded the trail and created small tarns that dotted the landscape, creating small reflection pools everywhere we looked. The effect was stunning. At the right angle, Ausangate’s brilliant reflection bounced off the surface of the water as if to assure us that it was indeed the fairest of them all.
At the pass, we basked in the sun for a while before starting the long descent down into the next valley. I’m not sure what the valley was called, but it was home to hundreds of Alpacas of all shapes and sizes. Something about them just makes me smile. Quin ran around trying to get a photo of them – I think he’s even more smitten than I am – while the rest of us ate lunch outside an Andean Lodge.
Halfway through lunch, we heard the first crack of thunder in the distance, and I knew by now that it wouldn’t be long before the rains started again. There was a clear pattern at this point. Every morning was bright with promise, and every afternoon was a race to beat the inevitable evening downpour. All things considered, if it had to rain, it was a pretty ideal setup – as long as we made it to camp before the rains did. Our luck ran out today. Halfway up our second pass (Warmisaya, 14,370ft), the sky turned black, and the hail quickly followed. There was no shelter this time. No eve to hide under. So we booked it to camp just in time to enjoy some hot soup, tea, and popcorn.
DAY 4: Suricocha 4,600 m (15,170 ft) – Rainbow Mountain 5,050 m (16,568 ft)
I can barely remember this morning. It feels so long ago. We woke up at 4am so that we could make it to Rainbow Mountain for sunrise. The hike was actually pretty short. Maybe an hour and a half at most, and only a small portion of that was uphill. We didn’t quite make it for sunrise, but it didn’t matter. There wasn’t one anyway. When we got to the top of the viewpoint, a thick wall of fog was waiting for us. That, and our cook with hot cups of cocoa. I still don’t know how he beat us up there. But it was freezing, and nothing has ever tasted so good.
There was another reason for leaving camp so early – other than just trying to catch the sunrise. We also wanted to avoid the crowds that would apparently descend on Rainbow Mountain come mid-day. After days of not seeing anyone outside our little crew, it seemed incomprehensible that this spot that had taken us 4 days of trekking to get to would be flooded by hundreds of selfie-taking visitors in a few hours. But our guide assured us it was true. While we waited for the fog to lift, he told us about the ever-expanding network of roads that were being cut into the landscape to make this popular site more accessible. Each little community in a battle to claim the closest access to the colorful mountain. What once could only be reached after days of trekking was now a popular day trip from Cusco, with buses scooping people up and then depositing them at the end of whichever road had managed to sneak its way furthest up the mountain pass.
Eventually, the fog did lift. Rainbow Mountain was everything I had thought it would be – but nothing more. Perhaps I’ve just seen too many pictures of it. Or maybe the untouched beauty of the preceding days overshadowed it in some ways. Or maybe the fact that you can practically drive up to it now somehow detracted from its appeal for me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a cool natural phenomenon, and fun to photograph, but I sure am glad that we got to experience everything that came before it as well!
What To Pack For The Ausangate Trek
It’s always important to think in terms of layers when you head into the mountains, but this is particularly true at high altitudes when you never know what you’re going to get! During our trek, we had some combination of sun, rain, and hail, every single day. Granted, we did the trek in March (which is technically the wet season), but regardless of when you hike, I’d be prepared for potentially cold wet days and freezing nights. With that in mind, here is a complete packing list for the Ausangate Trek.
If there are items on this list that you are missing, Backcountry.com is a great resource. Not only do they carry a large variety of widely respected outdoor brands, their expert Gearheads are always available to answer specific questions you might have about the right gear for you. Plus, you can get 15% off your entire order by using JESS15 at checkout. Remember, you’re not just purchasing gear for this adventure, you want to invest in items that will stay with you for years to come!
For more gear check out my complete Hiking & Camping Gear Guide! It’s chock full of tried and true gear that has passed the test of time. Please note that there might be some affiliate links in this post. If you do choose to purchase something, I may earn a small commission – at no additional cost to you. As always, all ideas and opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own.
Happy adventuring! I appreciate your support!