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I stopped in my tracks my breath coming in ragged and fast while my eyes scanned through the darkness. It was our third day on the Ausangate route, and the day we were looking forward to the most for the famous viewpoint overlooking the two lakes above camp. We had set our alarms for 3:30 am, but I had spent the majority of the night doubled over with altitude sickness. I tried to rest, but I couldn’t resist the urge to witness the first mornings light over the stunning Ausangate peak. I dragged myself out of the tent, and through pure stubbornness and determination set out after Americo and Monica. Distant clouds were approaching quickly, the snow capped Ausangate Peak becoming less an less visible by the second. I was beginning to wonder if we’d make it.
Ausangate Mountain is considered by the Quechua people to be one of the most holy mountains in all of the Andes. As a result, the Ausangate circuit not only offers otherworldly natural scenery, but a spiritual pilgrimage for those that enjoy the challenge of high altitude trekking. With snow capped peaks, untouched glaciers, turquoise lakes and windswept valleys, it’s no wonder why the Ausangate circuit is renowned for being one of the best high altitude treks in Peru and around the world,
The general route covers a distance of around 70 km throughs the Cordillera Villcanota region and is generally done over 5 days and 4 nights of strenuous hiking. After doing a little research and knowing we were short on time, my friend Monica and I had mapped out the area we were most interested in photographing and through the exceptional knowledge of Killa Expeditions, decided on an alternate route that included finishing our trek at the incredible Rainbow Mountain.
Best Time to Trek in Peru
May through September is the dry season in Peru and is therefore the recommended trekking season. Warm and dry days partnered with cold and clear nights allow for the opportunity to see this regions landscapes clear and unobstructed by clouds or rain.
Do you need a guide for the Ausangate Trek
The easiest answer, especially if you have a considerable amount of treks under your belt is no. But do you want a guide? 100% Yes!
Given the Canadian Rockies are my home base, I am no stranger to challenging multi day treks and carrying heavy gear. But the difference between trekking in Canada versus Peru is the altitude. It is no joke! Altitude sickness doesn’t care how fit you are, how young you are or how healthy you feel to be. I encountered its brutality firsthand and was incredibly grateful to have our guide and support team help me through this trek to completion.
Americo from Killa Expeditions
A few other reasons why I recommend hiring a guide for your treks in Peru
1. You don’t need to worry about route finding: While the trail is generally easy to follow, grazing alpaca and livestock have zigzagged different side paths leading off the main trail creating definite grey areas. And while a gps device should keep you on track, nothing can replace a locals intimate knowledge of the area. We also found peace of mind not needing to constantly check the route allowing us to be more present in the moment amongst the circuits incredible scenery.
2. You don’t need to carry your heavy overnight gear: When booking our trek with Killa Expeditions, they supplied us with an English speaking guide, a chef and two local horseman. Everyday the horseman would pack up our tent and belongings, transporting it to our next base camp where it was set up upon our arrival. This was the most freeing feeling, especially for those that might be carrying a camera a drone or a lens or two. While I didn’t find the trail technically challenging, we climbed mountain passes every day. On the third day we covered two. Carrying a lighter bag made such a difference in our overall enjoyment of the trek,
3. The food is delicious: Every morning one of the horseman would bring hot cocoa tea to our tent as we packed up our belongings for the day, followed by a breakfast spread that literally blew our minds. Fresh fruit, eggs, and bread was the perfect way to start the day in preparation for the kms ahead. Lunch was either served at the halfway mark on the trail or at our next camp. The variety of dishes and the amount of food always surprised us, especially as we have become accustomed to eating our camp meals out of a bag. Dinner was always a three course meal and began with hot soup. A welcomed treat once the sun dipped under the horizon.
4. Its a great way to support the local economy: I am typically one to explore alone, but booking your trek through a local agency like Killa Expeditions not only cuts out the grunt work of planning and preparation, but more importantly directly supports and leads to positive impact amongst local families and communities. I believe this not only helps the economy thrive, but leads to a deeper connection with the land and the people that call it home while enhancing your overall travel experience. The team joining you on your trip not only helps to support your comfort and enjoyment, but quickly become like friends over shared meals, long distance trekking and conversation.
Killa Expedition Team
The 4 Day/3 Night Ausangate Trek Itinerary
Most nights as I wound down from the day, I would make a few notes on my phone that I hoped would serve as somewhat of a journal and recollection of our adventure. I don’t do this enough, and after returning home after 40 days of travel, I was very happy to have these little moments recorded
DAY 1: TINKI 3,880 M (12,730 FT) – UPIS (HOT SPRINGS) 4,400 M (14,430 FT)
Our guide Americo, and a representative from Killa Expeditions met us at our hostel in Cusco the evening before to go over the itinerary a what to expect on the trek. The following morning, both Americo and our chef, Justin, picked us up at 0730 and helped us load our gear into the van before departing on our 3 hour journey to the small village of Tinki. Here we we met up with our two local horseman, enjoyed a small snack and began our trek..
It was a relatively easy first day and mostly level as we followed a meandering dirt road through the breathtaking Upis Valley to camp. As we walked, Americo shared fascinating insights into the daily lives of the resilient locals who called this high-altitude region home. We gazed at distant homes nestled amidst the vast landscape and gained a profound appreciation for the challenges these communities faced in such an unforgiving environment. It was here, amidst this rugged terrain, that I felt a deep appreciation and connection to the cultural and spiritual significance of our surroundings. This place was undeniably special.
One particular highlight occurred as we rounded a bend and came face to face with hundreds of inquisitive alpacas. I’ll never forget their fluffy little faces and curious stares as we approached, set against a majestic snow capped Ausangate mountain.
Alpacas, Upis Valley
Upon arrival to camp we were greeted with guacamole and chips, followed by freshly baked garlic bread and a steaming bowl of soup. This was the perfect meal to cap off our first days trek. Engergized, we quickly organized our belongings in our tent before venturing out to capture blue hour. As we set up our equipment and framed our shots, the ever-shifting clouds provided a dynamic backdrop, occasionally parting to unveil a celestial tapestry of stars above. The temperature gradually dipped, reminding us of the high-altitude chill, but once we retired to our cozy tents with the two extra alpaca blankets that Killa Expeditions supplied, sleep came quickly.
Upis Valley Camp
DAY 2: UPIS (HOT SPRINGS) 4,400 M (14,430 FT) – PUCACOCHA 4,500 M (14,760 FT)
We woke up to hot cocao tea and clear skies with a crisp layer of frost covering the ground and our tent. After packing up our belongings we enjoyed the most delicious breakfast spread and coffee before starting the first actual elevation gain of the trek.
Cocoa Tea with a view at Upis Camp
Breakfast Upis Camp
Our guide Americo lead us off the main trail to a beautiful lake, where we finally met the sun and welcomed its warmth. The remainder of the day we took our time up the Arapa pass, enjoying small breaks where we took in the foreign landscape and widespread valleys. Chinchillas played peekaboo through the rocks before scurrying out of site with their long tails bouncing behind them. Their resemblance to our everyday rabbit was uncanny. They were cute, but rather unusual and shy little fur balls.
We stopped around the halfway point on the trail where the horseman constructed an elaborate chefs tent. We laughed and enjoyed conversation while our chef Justin and horseman Rocky and Sebastian passed food and smiles through the cloth window separating their cooking quarters from where we ate. What struck me most profoundly at this juncture was the sense of unhurried tranquility. As photographers, we often find ourselves navigating rugged terrain at a brisk pace, racing against the clock to reach a vantage point in time for that perfect light. We both felt oddly relaxed and present within each moment. A welcomed slowness we both were beginning to adjust to.
After lunch we continued to basecamp where we found our tents already set up only metres away from the impressive lakes shore. This location felt like a scene plucked straight from a dream as wild horses roamed freely beneath the towering majesty of Ausangate peak. We found ourselves engrossed in photography well into the evening before enjoying a late dinner. We turned in early for the night in preparation for an early start the next day.
DAY 3: PUCACOCHA 4,500 M (14,760 FT) – SURICOCHA 4,600 M (15,170 FT)
The third day and arguably the most visually appealing day of the trek, a storm blew in, as did altitude sickness. Our alarm went off at 330, but I had been lying awake since dinner the evening before. My stomach churned in what felt like acidic knots. I vomited shortly after. Americo and Monica instructed me to rest knowing that today was the most physically demanding of the circuit and that I was in no shape for the sunrise start we had planned for. But knowing myself and full well that rest would not come easily, we pressed on as planned. I’m mostly too stubborn for my own good, but the sky was mostly clear and the viewpoint was just 40min up the trail. I had to see it. What came after I would deal with later on.
As though the weather matched my health, it quickly began to deteriorate as we walked. Halfway up the pass to the viewpoint we paused and took a few images just as the snow started to fall. Americo thought it would pass quickly so we continued up the pass and made it to the viewpoint just in time to see Ausangate and then the entire landscape disappear through a thick cloud of white. We waited, huddled together sheltered by the wind under a large rock. We remained in hopeful spirits, sipping hot tea, but the weather never let up. It was time to move.
We completed the first pass within the hour and dropped down into a valley which we were told was red in colour to the eye, Unfortunately the heavy snowfall obscured our surroundings and limited visibility, but despite the lack of a clear view, I found solace in the sensation of the cold snowflakes against my feverish skin.
We paused for a well-deserved lunch break, taking shelter beneath an A-frame straw hut. I nibbled on the sandwich Justin prepared while relishing in the opportunity to recharge enjoying the peaceful serenity of the surroundings. The next leg of our journey would involve ascending yet another pass, and I knew that I would need all the energy I could muster.
Americo remained attentive, inquiring about my symptoms making sure I was capable of continuing. I had heard of trekkers being evacuated from the region due to severe altitude sickness and knew I wasn’t immune if worse symptoms appeared. I was grateful for his knowledge and expertise and felt comfort knowing I was in good hands.
We continued through the village and stopped to say hello to the locals while petting every puppy on the way. One dog in particular melted my heart with his soft brown eyes and speckled coat. Upon saying goodbye to the villagers and continuing up the pass, we couldn’t help but notice the same endearing dog trotting faithfully by our side. We half-expected him to turn back at any moment, but to our surprise, he remained determined to accompany us. Our loyal companion followed us all the way to our next camp and for the duration of our trek. We fondly nicknamed him Orso (an Italian word for “bear”).
As we started to descend from the second pass into camp, the weather slowly started to improve. Pockets of blue sky could be seen amongst dispersing clouds. The warmth of the sun on our skin was a welcomed sensation, and we seized the opportunity to enjoy our lunch outdoors before the clouds returned, prompting us to retreat to our tents for a much-needed afternoon nap.
This evening was not only our last basecamp, but the last time we would spend with our team. It was a bittersweet realization. Justin whipped up a cake in celebration and we were able to exchange our gratitude and have a small translated conversation with our horseman who would start the long journey home the next morning. I still hold dear the memory of their warm hugs and the genuine connection forged in these mountains. I truly believe that friendships cultivated in nature are truly priceless and etch themselves into our hearts for a lifetime.
DAY 4: SURICOCHA 4,600 M (15,170 FT) – RAINBOW MOUNTAIN 5,050 M (16,568 FT)
Another early wake up call at 0430 had us peeking out our tents to overcast skies. While our original plan was to trek to Rainbow Mountain for sunrise, we took our time at breakfast hoping that the morning sun would burn off some of clouds.
We began our ascent just after 6am, the beauty of our previous nights campsite becoming more and more picturesque as we climbed. The weather truly had not been on our side the last couple of days, but the clouds continued to dissipate as trekked on. I could feel my hope starting to bubble within.
The valley all around us was stained with hues of red and orange, providing a glimpse of what was to come. Each rich colourful layer revealed itself as the sun rose over the mountains. The trek to the summit was mostly level and quite enjoyable especially since I was starting to feel a little better from the height of my altitude sickness the day before. Our guide predicted the trek would take between 1-1.5 hours and he was bang on.
Golden hour was just beginning as we made our way to the viewpoint and what a sight it was. 360 degree views of pure mountain bliss! Not to mention we were the only people there. The silence was deafening and oh so beautiful especially given that in a few hours this place would be overrun with tourists. It was surreal to think, what took us 4 days to achieve could be done in a single days drive from Cusco. I have to admit, it was worth the effort, and if given the choice between trekking to Rainbow Mountain through the Ausangate circuit vs a bus from Cusco, I’d choose the trek every time.
Just as we were looking to move on, a heavy layer of fog rolled through the valley and for a short time encompassed the entirety of Rainbow Mountain before revealing the multicoloured landscape in the type of inversion you dream about once again.
As more and more people arrived, we descended from the viewpoint and made our way to the Red Valley. If your schedule allows, I wholeheartedly recommend this captivating detour, as we discovered that its landscapes held a unique charm with the added bonus of fewer crowds. We spent a couple hours here basking in the sun before returning to the main route to make our way back to the vehicle.
We watched as a steady stream people in the thousands made their way up the gravel path toward Rainbow Mountain. A sense of overwhelming contrast washed over us. It was a stark juxtaposition from the remote isolation we had enjoyed during the past three days . In that moment, I couldn’t help but realize the profound magnitude of what we had just experienced. Our trek had been a journey into unparalleled peace, simplicity, and beautiful disconnection from the bustling world. I was filled with gratitude.