a view of a light blue laguna next to a mountain on the Ausangate trek

Peru is famous for being home to many exhilarating treks. Though not as popular as some of the other trails accessible from Cusco, the Ausangate trek is just as worthwhile. In fact, being less crowded with tourists is part of its charm. It guarantees travelers who venture on this remote journey a more unique experience. While you won’t come across Incan ruins, it makes up for it with breathtaking natural scenery and spiritual significance. Spot spectacular snow-capped peaks, gorgeous lakes, and wonderful wildlife, including herds of llamas and alpacas. The centerpiece of the trek is the mighty Apu Ausangate, one of the tallest mountains in Peru.

*Cover photo by Serge, used under CC BY 2.0

Table of Contents

Overview

Before embarking on the Ausangate trek, it is important to know what to expect. This will help you decide whether this trek is best suited for you. Firstly, it’s useful to compare Ausangate to other trekking options in the Cusco area. Ausangate does not conclude at Machu Picchu, making it less crowded compared to other treks. This means it is ideal for travelers looking to get off the beaten path.

Most tour companies recommend at least 5 days for the trek, or 6 if visiting Rainbow Mountain. The average elevation during the hike is 13,000 feet (4,000 m). Thus, it’s important to give yourself sufficient time to complete the trek. Taking some time to rest will decrease your chances of getting altitude sickness. Because of these challenges, previous experience hiking at altitude is recommended.

Basic Information

  • Length: 4-6 days
  • Distance: 43 miles (73 km)
  • Highest altitude: Palomani Pass – 17,000 ft (5,165 m)
  • Average altitude: 13,123 ft (4,000 m)
  • Elevation Gain: 9,406 ft (2,867 m)
  • Difficulty: Challenging

Comparison With Other Treks

The Ausangate trek doesn’t end at Machu Picchu. If you want to combine a trek with a visit to the ancient citadel, consider one of the treks to Machu Picchu. The most popular are the Inca Trail, Salkantay, and Lares treks. That being said, there are several other reasons visitors choose to hike the Ausangate trek. Especially those who have already seen Peru’s World Wonder, or travelers aiming to avoid the large crowds.

  • Unlike the Inca Trail, there is no permit needed for Ausangate. It is thus much easier to organize and does not require booking months in advance.
  • Ausangate is not as popular as other treks in Cusco, meaning fewer tourists can be found on the trails. You are guaranteed a more tranquil experience, even during the high-season from June to August.
  • Ausangate gives you the unique opportunity to explore Vinicunca, the Rainbow Mountain. Vinicunca is not included on other treks and normally must be visited on a day trip from Cusco.

How Long is the Trek?

The recommended length of this trek is 5 days. This gives you enough time to relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery. It also accounts for time to rest, in case you are suffering from symptoms of altitude sickness. Adding a visit to the Rainbow Mountain will require an extra day, making it a total of 6 days. If you are short on time, some tour companies organize a 4-day Ausangate + Rainbow Mountain trek. This shortened trail takes you back to Cusco after visiting the Rainbow Mountain.

Difficulty

Ausangate is considered to be a hard trek. It is important to consider the challenges carefully before embarking on your trip. 

While the hike itself is comparable to other Andean treks, the average altitude is over 13,000 feet (4000 m) above sea level. Lower oxygen levels at this elevation can trigger altitude sickness and shortness of breath. There are a total of four steep passes to cross measuring up to 17,000 ft (5,182 m). Previous experience hiking at high altitude is highly recommended.

Located in a very remote area, it can be difficult to navigate the trail. To avoid getting lost, hiking with a professional guide is suggested for all but the most seasoned adventurers.

A road leading down a dirt mountain and snowy peaks in the background on the Ausangate trek
Snow-capped peaks jutting into the clouds. Photo by WaSZI on Pixabay

 

Trail Highlights

The Ausangate trek is different to other treks, mostly because it does not offer a visit to Machu Picchu. Nor does it visit other Incan ruins. Instead, its highlights are natural attractions, including glaciers, colorful lakes, and precious wildlife. Being so close to Rainbow Mountain, it even offers trekkers a chance to visit this popular attraction. In addition, you will encounter remote Andean villages that still retain their traditions. Read more below about the highlights of hiking the Ausangate trek.

Apu Ausangate

For the Incas, mountains served as a connection between the middle and the upper worlds. Important mountains were called “Apus“, named after protective spirits they believed to live inside them. Apu Ausangate is the tallest peak of the Vilcanota Mountain Range in the Cusco region. It is also the fifth tallest mountain in Peru, measuring 20,940 ft (6,384 m). Though the trek does not take you to the top, you will get unrivaled views of its majestic, snowy peak.

Glaciers and Lakes

Apu Ausangate’s nickname is “Creator of the Waters” because of its many glaciers. They are the source of several lakes and rivers that supply water to other parts of the country. For example, the Vilcanota River goes on to feed the famous Amazon River. Thus, Ausangate has a special significance for Peruvians to this day. On the trek, you will come across gorgeous lakes, each of which with its own unique color. The colors range from green to blue, turquoise, and even red.

Rainbow Mountain

One of the biggest attractions of Ausangate Trek is a chance to visit the famous Rainbow Mountain. Mineral rock sediments found in the sandstone give this mountain its iconic colors. While not on the trail itself, a visit can be easily arranged on a one-day detour. See the day-by-day itinerary below for more details on how to incorporate it into your trek.

a path leading up rainbow mountain with blue skies and a few white clouds
The road to Rainbow Mountain. Photo by Alicia Gonzalez for Inca Expert Travel

 

Flora and Fauna

The Ausangate trek passes through remote areas untouched by mass tourism. This has preserved it as a habitat for many wildlife species found in Andean Mountains. Come face to face with llamas, alpacas, vicuñas, and vizcachas (South American rabbit-like rodents). There are also various types of birds, such as Andean condors, black-chested buzzard eagles, and hummingbirds.

alpacas standing next to a blue lagoon with mountains in the background
Image: Curious llama on the Ausangate circuit” by Serge, used under CC BY 2.0 / Compressed from original

 

Andean Culture

Several Andean villages are dotted across the trail of the Ausangate trek. These remote Andean communities still retain their rich culture and traditions. Once a year, 10,000 pilgrims gather to celebrate Qoyllur Rit’i, the festival of the “Snow Star”. Several pilgrims climb Apu Ausangate searching for the legendary snow star. At the base of the mountain people celebrate with traditional dances. This event takes place over four days at the end of May or early June, coinciding with the full moon. Visitors who travel at this time are welcome to join the festivities.

Guided Tour vs. Independent Trek

Many hikers enquire whether it’s possible to do the trek on their own, or whether they need to go with a guide. In theory, it is possible to complete the trek without a guide. However, due to the high altitude it is only recommended for those with advanced hiking experience. While it may be more expensive, hiking with a guide will make the experience much more enjoyable. Especially for travelers who do not consider themselves professional hikers. See below for a full comparison of the advantages of hiring a guide vs. hiking solo.

Ausangate Trek With a Guide

  • All logistical details, including transportation are taken care of. You will be picked up and dropped at your hotel in Cusco.
  • Trekking companies provide tents and other items required for the trek. This will save you having to travel with bulky gear that is difficult to transport.
  • Extra staff members on the trek can improve your experience. Chefs cook nutritious meals to boost your energy. Porters help you carry some of the heavy gear, including your tent.
  • Hiking with a guide will give you a local’s insider knowledge on the trek. You will gain a deeper understanding of the significance and importance of Ausangate’s role in Andean culture.
  • The presence of a Spanish speaker who is familiar with the area is valuable in case of an unexpected event.

Lodge to Lodge Ausangate Trek

  • While camping is the standard on the Ausangate trek, some tour companies organize a lodge to lodge tour.
  • On this version of the trek you will stay in basic, yet comfortable, tambos (Andean lodges) each night.
  • Be aware that this will change the itinerary of the trek, as the tambos are located off of the main trail.
  • Also, the lodge to lodge version can be significantly more expensive than the standard trek.

Ausangate Trek Without a Guide

  • If you are a very experienced hiker, you may prefer trekking on your own.
  • There is no strict schedule to stick to. You are free to make your own itinerary and move at your own pace.
  • The cost is significantly lower than traveling with a professional tour company. Especially if you already have your own gear.

Geography and Climate

Geography

Part of the Andes Mountains chain, the Ausangate trek runs at a very high altitude. Elevations range between 10,334 and 16,800 ft (3,150 to 5,120 m), contributing to the trek’s difficulty. The giant, snow-capped mountains and glaciers are the source of rivers and lakes. These bodies of water have formed lush valleys and limestone forests below the mountains.

rocky terrain with a small body of water, snow capped peaks, and clear blue sky
Image: A stunning landscape shot on the Ausangate trek” by Serge, used under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped and compressed from original

 

Climate

There are two distinct seasons, the dry season from June to August, and the rainy season from November to March. During the dry season it is very hot and sunny during the day. However, temperatures decrease rapidly after sunset and can drop to below freezing at night. 

The rainy season coincides with summer in the Southern Hemisphere. Therefore, nighttime temperatures are slightly warmer, though it can still get quite chilly. Rain comes in hard and heavy burts, often several times a day. This also makes the valleys much greener than during the dry season. 

The remaining months form the shoulder season, which is mostly dry, but with a few afternoon showers. Despite these general patterns, the weather in the Andes is unpredictable. It can be rainy or sunny on any day of the year, and thus it is always best to be prepared.

Weather

Dry Season – June to August

  • Daytime: 64℉ (18℃)
  • Nighttime: 28℉ (-2℃)

Should Season – April to May & September to October  

  • Daytime: 64℉ (18℃)
  • Nighttime: 35℉ (2℃)

Rainy Season – November to March

  • Daytime: 64℉ (18℃)
  • Nighttime: 39℉ (4℃)

Best Time to Trek

Most travelers choose to trek during the dry season, from June to August. During these months you can expect sunny, yet cool days and very cold nights. The ideal weather conditions attract hordes of visitors to Cusco. Yet, even during the busy season, Ausangate remains much less crowded than the other treks in the region. 

Hiking in the shoulder season, from April to May and September to October, is a good option. Crowds and prices fall, yet the weather remains pleasant. Most days are generally sunny with a few light showers in the afternoon. 

Few travelers decide to trek during the rainy season. From November to March It can often rain heavily for hours at a time. For those who don’t mind getting wet, temperatures are slightly warmer at night and crowds are almost non-existent. 

Trekking in February is not recommended because excessive rainfall can create bad hiking conditions on the trails. This can even lead to potentially dangerous mudslides. Peruvian authorities often close the trails and carry out maintenance on them.

Altitude Sickness

Altitude sickness is a common health concern for Andean trekkers, and for good reason. The average elevation of the Ausangate trek is very high at 3,123 ft (4,000 m). This means it is something to take seriously before setting off on your hike. Read more to find out what altitude sickness is, what are the most common symptoms, and how to prevent it.

A chart showing a timeline of the elevation on the Ausangate trek in both meters and feet.
A timeline of the elevation on the Ausangate trek.

What is Altitude Sickness?

When moving to high altitude in a short period of time, your body may react to the lower level of oxygen in the air. This could result in a few mild, yet unpleasant symptoms for the first couple days. Over time, the body is able to adjust and these symptoms fade. The time it takes varies from person to person, but in general it’s around 2 days. In extreme cases, a more serious condition can develop and medical attention is required.  

Symptoms

Mild symptoms of altitude sickness are similar to a hangover and include:

  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea

If you experience any of these more serious symptoms seek medical assistance:

  • Shortness of breath, even when resting
  • Dizziness 
  • Loss of consciousness

How to Prevent Altitude Sickness

  1. Before departing the US you can get a prescription for Diamox, a pill containing Acetazolamide.
  2. Once you arrive in Peru, look for a very popular pill called Soroche. It is available at any major pharmacies, such as Mifarma or Inkafarma.
  3. Spend some time in Cusco before your trek to give your body a chance to acclimatize. Plan for at least 1-2 before partaking in any strenuous activities.
  4. Take natural remedies such as coca or muña tea that help reduce symptoms. 
  5. Avoid drinking alcohol and eating heavy meals for the first few days at altitude. 
  6. Stay hydrated at all times. Dehydration can worsen the effects of altitude sickness.  

What To Pack

The weather in the Andes can be unpredictable. Bringing the right clothing and gear will prepare you for any weather conditions you might encounter. Some electronics will be useful to document your trip, while others are best left at home, or at your Cusco hotel. In case of injury, it’s always essential to bring a well-equipped first aid kit. Read the suggested packing list below to get an idea of what to take with you on the Ausangate trek.

Clothing
  • Long sleeve hiking shirt
  • Hiking pants
  • Thermal shirt and pants for sleeping
  • Impermeable raincoat
  • Underwear
  • Warm socks
  • Gloves
  • Hat
  • Sports bra for ladies
  • Sunglasses
Gear
  • Backpack – minimum 50 L
  • Rainproof backpack cover
  • Purifying tablets
  • Water bottle
  • Zip-lock bags for storing money and documents
  • Hiking poles – recommended
  • Sleeping bag and mat (can be rented from trekking company)
  • Tent (if trekking independently)
  • Cooking equipment (if trekking independently)
Electronics
  • Camera
  • SD card
  • Phone
  • Flashlight/headlamp
  • Spare battery back
  • Headphones
First Aid Kit
  • Paracetamol
  • Diamox (for altitude sickness)
  • Imodium
  • Antiseptic cream
  • Band-aids
Toiletries
  • Travel towel
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Deodorant
  • Soap
  • Toilet paper
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Sunscreen
  • Lip balm

Day-By-Day Itinerary

This 5-day itinerary covers the most common route used by trekking companies. Follow this day-by-day description to get an idea of the distances covered, and sites visited each day. Keep in mind that there are several different versions Ausangate trek. Thus, you can consult with your trekking company if you would like to make any modifications.

The itinerary below does not cover the Rainbow Mountain visit. See the note on Day 2 explaining how to incorporate an extra day to visit the colorful mountain.

Day 1 – Cusco / Tinqui / Upis

  • Distance: 7.5 miles (12 km)
  • Elevation Gained: 2,346 ft (715 m)

Start your day early, driving along the highway south of Cusco. Observe the breathtaking scenery of the Andes with a panoramic view of the imperial city below. Once you enter the town of Tinqui, start the first part of your trek. Pass through traditional Andean villages, until you reach the first campsite at Upis. The campsite is located next to thermal hot springs, which are used for medicinal purposes.

Day 2 – Upis / Lake Ausangate

  • Distance: 10.25 miles (16.5 km)
  • Elevation gained: 2,946 ft  (898 m)

Follow the trail until you reach Arapa Pass – 15,900 ft (4,850 m) – the first of four mountain passes. Once you reach the top, behold a spectacular view of Apu Ausangate. Descend from the peak until you arrive at the turquoise Puqa Q’ocha lagoon. Begin your second ascent to Apuchata Pass, located at 16,000 feet (4900 m). This path is surrounded by native vegetation and covered with rocks, moss, and lichen. At the top, enjoy more panoramic views of Ausangate and the snowy peaks that surround it. Eventually, you will arrive at Lake Ausangate Q’ocha. This is a gorgeous, turquoise lake named after the snowy peak and the source of its water. 

Note: If you want to add a visit to Rainbow Mountain, you will require an extra day here. In the morning, hike to the Rainbow Mountain and then end the day back at Lake Ausangate.

Horses carrying provisions standing on a grassy hill with a snowy mountain in the background
Horses help carry equipment on the trail.

 

Day 3 – Lake Ausangate / Q’ampa

  • Distance: 7.3 miles (11.75 km)
  • Elevation gained: 2,093 ft (638 m)

Climb the third, and highest, point of the trek – Palomani at 17,000 ft (5200 m). Then, head downhill again into Pampacancha and the Qampa Valley. This lush valley is home to wildlife, such as condors, chinchillas, and herds of vicunas. Set up camp here for the night.

Day 4 – Q’ampa / Pacchanta

  • Distance: 10.6 miles (17 km)
  • Elevation gained: 2073 ft (632 m)

Marvel at the giant glaciers and huge ice blocks that are part of the snow capped Qolque Cruz Mountain. Continue until you reach the Ticllacocha Lagoon and then cross Qampa Pass at 16,400 ft (5,000 m). This is the fourth and final pass, which is covered in small stone towers called “apachetas” in Quechua. At the top, make your own stone tower as a way of asking the mountain for good luck. On your descent you will pass by Lake Qomercocha, known as the “Green Lake“. Andean priests have long believed that this lake has a very special energy. Finally, arrive at Pacchanta, a small Andean town that is home to hot springs. An evening bath in the relaxing waters is a must after your arduous trek!

Day 5 – Pacchanta / Tinqui / Cusco

  • Distance: 7 miles (11.25 km)
  • Elevation gained: 272 ft (83 m)

Continue for about 3 hours until you arrive back at Tinqui. From there, board the bus or van that will take you back to Cusco.

Trekking Tips

When hiking the Ausangate trek, following certain guidelines will help you stay safe. Choosing the right time to visit is important to avoid torrential rain and mudslides. Adjust to the altitude before you trek and stay hydrated to prevent altitude sickness. Purchasing travel insurance will help you in case something goes wrong. Read the trekking tips below for more details on safety and other useful information to help you plan your trip.

Safety 

Pick the Best Time to Travel For You.

Excessive rain from December to February can erode the trail and even create mudslides. Not only is it unpleasant to hike in these conditions, but it can also be dangerous. If hiking during the rainy season, listen to any updates from the Peruvian authorities regarding the conditions on the trek.

Be Prepared for High Altitude. 

Spend at least 2-3 days in Cusco or the Sacred Valley before embarking on the trek. You will enjoy the trek more once your body has had time to acclimatize. If you feel yourself getting symptoms of altitude sickness, take a break and don’t push yourself too hard.

Tell Others About Your Plans.

When traveling independently, keep an itinerary of your trip at home with family and friends. There is no phone reception on the Ausangate Trek, making it impossible to communicate in an emergency. Informing others of your plans will allow them to seek assistance if they haven’t heard from you.

Practice Your Spanish.

Most locals in these remote Andean villages do not speak English. Knowing at least a few basic phrases, or having a dictionary handy, can help you communicate if necessary.

Drink Plenty of Water.

If hiking through a reputable travel agency your trekking company will be able to provide you with water. If hiking on your own, be sure to use water purifying tablets before drinking water from natural sources. Staying hydrated is especially important in order to prevent symptoms of altitude sickness.

Purchase Travel Insurance.

As with any outdoor adventurous activity, the Ausangate trek can be unpredictable. Cancellations due to weather, mudslides, etc. may occur. There is also risk of injury or illness. For peace of mind, invest in a comprehensive travel insurance plan that will cover you during your entire trip.

How To Get There

Lima is the nation’s bustling capital and travel hub, where all but a few international flights land. From there you need to connect to a domestic flight to Cusco There are many flights per day and the journey only takes about 1 hour. Several airlines fly this route, including some low-cost options. However, the most reliable option is LATAM.

Cusco is the base for most popular treks in the region. From here, arrange the Ausangate trek with a reputable travel agency, which will take care of all logistic details. Your guide will meet you at your hotel and take you to the trailhead. At the end of the trail you will be dropped off back at your hotel.

If you prefer to trek independently, make your own way to the small village of Tinqui. It is located about 100 km from Cusco. You can either arrange your own private transportation or take a public bus. Buses leave from Terminal Paradero Livitaca and the journey takes about 2.5 hours. From Tinqui, follow the signs until you arrive at the trailhead.  

Accommodation In Cusco

You will need to arrange accommodation in Cusco for before and after your trek. There is a wide variety of hotels available, ranging from cozy, family-owned inns, to luxurious 5-star resorts. While there are options that fit every budget, it may be worth splurging on your hotel. After such an adventurous trek, arriving somewhere comfortable for some well-deserved rest will certainly feel worth it.

Rainbow Mountain

If you would like to visit the Rainbow Mountain, be sure to plan ahead. When organizing your trek with a travel agency, let them know in advance. Not all trekking companies include it in their itinerary by default. The dry season is the best time to see the vivid colors on the mountain as pictured in photos. During the rainy season, it can often be covered in snow, leaving travelers disappointed. Unlike the rest of the Ausangate trek, Rainbow Mountain is very popular with tourists so be prepared for large crowds.

Snow mountains to the right and the Rainbow Mountain to the left, with a cloudy sky
Snow covering the area around Rainbow Mountain. Photo by Aarom Ore on Unsplash

 

Hiking the Ausangate trek is an incredible adventure, best suited for those who already have experience hiking at high altitude. It’s essential to be well prepared for the high altitude, and remoteness of this trek. Hiking with a professional guide, organized through a reputable travel agency can make the experience much safer and more enjoyable. If you are up to the challenge, it’s sure to be an unforgettable journey.

Share: