During my July 2019 trip to Peru, I hiked the Ausangate Trek with my son and some family friends. Ausangate is not the most popular trek for visitors to Cusco and the Sacred Valley, but it might be one of the best. If you plan a trip to Peru, you might be wondering which hike you should experience while you are there.
The Ausangate trek is worth it for hikers seeking an alternative to the Sacred Valley. The trek offers magnificent panoramic views of majestic peaks, glaciers, and pristine lakes. There are few tourists on this trek compared to the Inca Trail.
If you plan a trip to Peru, then here are seven reasons you should seriously consider the Ausangate trek over the Inca Trail.
1. There Are Few Hikers on Ausangate.
Perhaps the number one reason why you would want to consider Ausangate is simply that you will often find yourself completely alone. The Inca Trail is so popular that it draws hikers from all over the world. Ausangate is a raw, natural hiking experience in Peru far away from the hordes found on the Inca Trail.
Our guides on the trek never pass on opportunities to take people around Ausangate, whereas with the Inca Trail, they will sometimes turn away clients. That should tell you right there the quality of the experience and how magical it is.
On our first day, we drove from Cusco to somewhere above Tinki. From there, we set out in our group, and after leaving, the final houses behind us were on the lower slopes of the mountains surrounded by nature. It was exhilarating, with the snow-capped peaks in front of us.
That whole afternoon we saw zero hikers until we arrived at our first campsite at Upis, where there are hot springs. We arrived after dark and retreated to our tents to avoid the frigid nighttime temperatures. The next morning we greeted a semi-domestic fox that was looking for handouts and perhaps companionship.
2. Ausangate Is High Elevation But Not Steep.
Our first full day of hiking involved two different passes. It was on this day that all of the months of walking and training really paid off. Our first challenge was Arapa Pass at around 4,800 meters. The pristine beauty of the mountain keeps you moving, and the trail is not steep.
After Arapa pass we descended and skirted around Hatun Pukacocha or the big red lake. From there, we tackled our second pass of the day, Apuchata, at more than 4,850 meters. Again, this was not a challenge for the steepness of the climb, just the high altitude.
High elevation hiking is a challenge, and adding in very steep climbs can spell defeat for many flatlanders. During the Ausangate trek, I was always able to keep moving forward as we tackled the high elevation passes. It was more the lack of oxygen than the physical exertion of walking that was challenging.
I brought my son, who was 10 at the time. He was able to tackle all of the passes even with a cold. He did ride one of the rescue horses down the backside of the passes to our next stop from time to time.
Acclimatization to altitude is critical before you start the Ausangate trek. We spent a few days in the Sacred Valley at Ollantaytambo, visited Machu Pichu, and then spent three or four days in Cusco doing acclimatization hikes before starting the trek. This prepares your body and your mind for Ausangate.
3. Ausangate Offers Spectacular Views.
Ausangate provides austere beauty as you trek around the mountain. The landscapes are otherworldly. We did not do the Rainbow mountain route, but portions were easily visible during our day 2 hike over Arapa pass and Apuchata pass.
Rainbow mountain is a sight to behold, but I was left with the impression that most internet photos are heavily filtered. Nonetheless, it is beautiful to see the pastel ribbons draped across the ridges in that area. You see the multicolored effects of different minerals from the main Ausangate trail without actually going on the Rainbow Mountain detour.
The glaciers and snow-covered peaks were awe-inspiring. Ausangate Apu is one of the holiest mountains in Peru, and you feel that energy and vitality in its shadow.
On the second day, we descended to Ausangate lake to camp at the base of a glacier. The setting was monumental. We thought we had been cold the first night. By nightfall in the vicinity of the glacier, we froze. The glacier was immensely beautiful.
When we arrived at the lake the small streams and rivulets in the area glistened in the setting sun. The next morning everything was frozen solid.
4. Ausangate Trek Offers Challenging Passes.
As I said, the walks are not steep, but they are of high elevation. On the morning of the third day, we started from the glacier base and walked uphill to Palomani Pass at 5,100 meters.
For most of that climb, my son and I used the rest step. He had a cold, and after two sleepless nights, freezing in my sleeping bag, I was tired. We never gave up. At the top of the pass, we offered coca leaves in appreciation to the mountain.
I found the Palomani pass to be the most challenging because it was the steepest. With some words of encouragement to my son, and the rest step we were able to keep moving and eventually conquered the pass.
The third night we slept in a valley full of boulders and chinchillas near a stream at the beginning of the ascent to Qampa Pass. On the fourth day, we began the long climb to the top of Qampa Pass at 5,100+ meters. This final pass was the most stunning since you walk among the three peaks of the Ausangate mountain with white, towering summits against clean blue skies.
To put into perspective how high the passes are on this trek, there are only nine mountains in all of North America that are taller than Qampa and Palomani pass. Even the lowest pass we conquered on day one was 4,800 meters, which is about a quarter of a mile taller than the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states, the majestic Mount Ranier that towers behind Seattle in most pictures of the city.
There are plenty of reviews of Ausangate that claim that the hike is for experienced hikers or strong hikers only. I don’t think that is a fair characterization of the hike. I would say that you must acclimatize in Cusco or the Sacred Valley for a few days before you begin the hike if you don’t live at a high elevation.
We did have guides on our hike, but we also had three children, 9, 10, and 11. The 11-year old managed to complete the entire route on foot. The younger ones summited all the passes but did use the rescue horses for some of the long descents after the passes.
5. Ausangate Trek Features Wildlife.
On our first morning, we entertained a semi-domesticated culpeo or Andean fox. It had an old tattered lead around hits neck that hung loosely and had a length of only a few inches remaining. The fox brought joy to the kids after a night of shivering in our tents.
All throughout the hike, we were in view of alpaca that grazed on the arid landscape. The alpacas were tended to by local people who occasionally seemed to appear from nowhere and then disappear, leaving me to wonder where they lived. They are similar to llamas but have been bred specifically for their wool and are not used as pack animals.
A close relative to the alpaca, the vicuña is not domesticated. They are majestic camelids that added an allure and other-worldliness to the Ausangate trek experience. We saw them less frequently than the alpacas and in smaller groups.
There are other hikes in Peru with more condor than Ausangate. Despite our most diligent efforts, we never saw a condor, but they do live around Ausangate.
Finally, the favorite on the trip for the children, after the fox, was the large colony of chinchillas that lived at the campsite at the base of the Qampa pass. The chinchilla would dart and jump between the large hillock of boulders they called home.
6. Ausangate Is Remote.
From Cusco, it took us a few hours to get to the town of Tinki by van. After a quick lunch, we started walking along the main road uphill toward the mountain. After passing a few homes, we did not see anything else resembling civilization until the end of the hike at Pacchanta, a small town nearly within view of Qampa pass.
Along our hike, not only did we not see many other hikers, but we rarely saw other people. It is a remote, high alpine region that provides some pasture land for llama herders and little else.
On our first day, after passing fields of long, low barriers made of sod that crisscrossed the landscape, presumably for alpaca grazing lands. When you are on the hike, it is nice to be away from the hordes of tourists at Michu Pichu and other sites in the Sacred Valley
The remoteness of Ausangate is both an asset and a liability. We spent a few days in Ollantaytambo in the sacred valley acclimatizing and enjoying some easy day hikes. There are many tourists and locals in the towns along the sacred valley. Help is never far away. On Ausangate, on the other hand, if you get into trouble, you might be on your own.
Should you use a guide service for a high elevation hike? If you are a seasoned hiker that has planned and completed many multiday treks at high elevation, then you are probably fine to go without guides. If, on the other hand, you are not a strong hiker or you have people in your group who are not strong, then a guide service is a great way to stay safe.
The guides carry your gear with pack animals and help set camp at the end of the hikes each day. This greatly reduces the amount of energy you exert at high elevation. We paid a bit more and had meals included too. The meals were the highlights of our day. They even made us French toast with blueberries. It was glamour camping except that we walked eight hours per day over 4800-5100 meter passes.
7. Ausangate Trek Has No Inca Sites.
Sure, part of the allure of hiking in Peru is the presence of pre-Colombian architecture clinging to the mountains. After a week in the Sacred Valley and Cusco, I was enthralled with the names and dates of historical sites. I would imagine what was going in Italy when a certain ruler built a fortress that was I visiting.
Being on the Ausangate trek felt like a fresh start with being in the mountains of Peru. There was nothing to read in a guidebook. There were no ruler names to remember. You are simply on a sacred mountain, surrounded by its landscape.
There is an immediacy to Ausangate that I did not feel in Machu Pichu or the Sacred Valley. Ausangate is not a museum. It is a living, breathing entity that you share time with. It is no surprise that our guides often turn down requests, but they never turn down requests to take people on the Ausangate trek. It is special.
What Ausangate lacks in monumental Inca palace ruins, it more than makes up for with natural majesty in the form of glaciers, high elevation passes, and snow-covered peaks. We saw many different indigenous species mentioned above, including pairs of white Andean geese.
If you are going to Peru to visit Machu Pichu and the Sacred Valley, you should consider going on the Ausangate trek. There were many options in Peru, but I decided to go on this trek, and I am so glad that I did. We came away with a raw experience of high altitude hiking on one of Peru’s most beautiful mountains.