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Soaring glacier peaks scrape the sky to the left. A valley plummets to the right. Front and center is a mound of earth striped with intense turquoise, rust red and golden yellow. The colors flow like a wave so perfectly that you would believe they were painted by the gods. The only way to get to this secret corner of the earth is the Ausangate Trek.

From our perch, the Andean winds gust wildly as if to prevent any mortal from staying too long in this unworldly place. It’s not an easy path but the views are the rewards for those who are up for the challenge of hiking days over high altitude passes.

It’s a trail that cuts through a land seeped in legend. Wild, remote, beautiful and surreal. Nature is god here. Take a journey to this place and you will see why.

 

 

Hiking Gear Course
Hiking Gear Course

 

 

AUSANGATE: THE SACRED MOUNTAIN

For the Quechua people of the Andean region of Cusco, Ausangate is an “Apu”, a sacred mountain. At 6,384 meters (20,944 feet), it’s the highest in the area, making it the most sacred of all the Apus. As the glaciers and snow of the high peaks slowly melt, they form rivers, sending water to the villages below. Water means life, therefore these mountains are the givers and origins of life.

The trails that surround the mountain were used by the Incas as a pilgrimage route. They would take this long journey to ask the Apu questions to problems they were unable to solve and to give offerings in hope the mountain would bring them good fortune.

 

3 Ausangate llamas with mountains (1 of 1) copy

A morning view of Apu Ausangate. 

 

HIKING THE APU’S TRAIL

For us, these trails would provide a route into a world that we never knew existed. Our goal was to go around Ausangate following a path that is over 4,000 meters above sea level.  

There are many ways to do the Ausangate trek. We chose to do it in 5 days, starting from Chillca and finishing Trapiche. The trek covers an approximate distance of 54 km (34 miles). Each day we would stop off at one of the four lodges called “tambos” build by Andean Lodges that are tucked into the mountains.

These lodges are not simple refuges but luxury accommodations complete with private bathrooms and hot showers. After a long day of hiking, a warm fire place to sit by, a delicious meal and bed are much appreciated. 

From Cusco, we had done other hikes before like the impressive Choquequirao Route. This time, we took a road into the Cordillera Vilcanota to reach the trail head. After a roadside picnic we set off through a gorge. We came to a glacial valley. A man fished for trout, kids ran home from school holding hands and alpacas grazed. As we walked by, a few “vizcachas” (chinchillas) darted over the rocks. The houses that make up the town of Chillca dotted the mountain and further ahead was the lodge.

 

 

school kids in Ausangate

 

Orlando, the guardian who looks after the lodge, greeted us at the entrance with a big smile and pair of alpaca slippers. It was time to rest for the night. After dinner the house keeper, cook and guardian transformed into musicians and entertained us with Huayno style music, popular in the Peruvian Andes.

 

lodge horses in Ausangate

 

LIVING CULTURE

The trail that we followed would not only transport us to incredible landscapes, it would serve as a time machine. Along the way we met Quechua people, believed to be direct descendants of the Incas. These people continue to live as their ancestors had centuries ago, with very few influences from the modern world. 

The people of this region are one of the few true shepherding communities left in the world. They raise alpacas and llamas, using every part of the animal to enable them to survive in this harsh climate. The wool is used for clothes, hides are used for sandals, the meat is eaten and the feces are fuel and fertilizer.

 

Woman dyes in Ausangate Trek

A woman making a dye using the acid from cochinillas, insects that live on cactuses.  

 

LOOKING INTO THE HEAVENS

The days were spent hiking through the extreme landscapes and soaking in the views but once night fell, the routine was much different. After a hot shower we’d change clothes and head outside. On clear nights, the sky would be illuminated by millions of stars. The Willkamayu (Milky Way) stretched across the sky, creating a direct path to Ausangate, believed to be a cosmic connection with the Apus. 

 

Ausangate stars lodge

Machuracay Tambo, the highest luxury lodge in the world (4,800 meters) under the night sky.

 

BLESSED BY THE MOUNTAINS 

Before we set off to climb Palomani Pass, the highest of the trek at 5,150 meters we gave an offering to Ausangate and asked him to protects on our journey. The process involves collecting sweets and coca leaves. Each person takes four coca leaves and blows on them in the direction of each mountain peak while thinking good thoughts.

The leaves are then collected with the other offerings, then set on fire. If they burn well, Ausangate has blessed you. If it doesn’t, you’re on your own!

 

Apu Ausangate ceremony offerings fire

 

Once the ceremony was over and Ausangate gave us his blessing, we were off. We climbed up and up to reach the pass of 5,150 meters. While it was high, one of the best aspects of this trek is that the passes are relatively easy as you only gain a few hundred vertical meters unlike other treks we have done in Peru such as the Santa Cruz Trek and the Huayhuash Circuit.

 

glacier lake st catalina

 View of Santa Catalina, the wife of Ausangate.

 

THE PAINTED MOUNTAINS

The climax of the Ausangate trek would come on the fourth day. As we climbed to the top of the pass a mountain appeared in the distance like no other I had seen before. It had intense pastel colors in a layered pattern.

 

Ausangate Trek

 

Hours later we came closer to the mountain. Our guide told us to climb a steep hill near by for the best view of our lives.

 

When we reached the top, I told Antonio, “This is why we’re here”.

 

It was clear this view was the reason we had spent four days hiking through the mountains. The painted mountain was right in front of us, with it’s ridge of colors continuing on into horizon.

 

 

AN OUT OF THIS WORLD HIKE

The views didn’t stop after we passed the painted mountain. Every turn and corner of that day continued to amaze us.

 

Stone warriors in colorful mountain

 

DREAM TO REALITY 

The lodges were built between a joint effort of the communities of Chillca, Osefina and Andean Lodges. The people from these communities have lived for centuries herding llamas and alpacas. Before the government built roads through the Andes, these people made their living by transporting goods in between towns with their llamas. Once the roads were made, their llamas were replaced by trucks.

Instead of going to nearby Cusco to look for work, the communities found away to stay in the mountains in the 21st century. They did this with the help of Roger Valencia, the director of Andean Lodges. He plotted a route through the mountains that would give hikers the best views and raised 1 million dollars to build three lodges. The fourth would be funded by the community through a grant by the Peruvian government. This gave the members a financial stake in the project. 

 

andean lodge llama

 

andean lodges crew

The Andean Lodges Crew

 

The communities’ llamas were put to work again, carrying guests luggage from lodge to lodge. This enables hikers to only worry about taking pictures and having a good time.

The entire staff at the lodge, aside from the guide are from one of the two communities. The idea was that local populations should be active agents in the company’s operations, to share their culture and natural resources with travelers, thus creating employment and improving their quality of life. Andean Lodges gives a portion of the profits back to the communities which is used for education and health projects.

 

Ausangate painted mountain

 

 

WHERE TO STAY IN CUSCO

THE GRASSHOPPER HOSTEL – BUDGET

The staff at the Grasshopper Hostel are among the best you can find in Peru. Rooms are clean, new and very spacious (no bunk beds here!). The Wi-Fi connection is pretty decent and breakfast includes coffee, tea, bread, cereal and yogurt. A fantastic place for those on a budget.

 

LA CASONA LES PLEIADES – MID RANGE

Located in the heart of the San Blas neighbourhood, La Casona Les Pleiades is a charming boutique hotel. Rooms are comfortable and clean, the staff is super friendly and the Wi-Fi is lightning fast. A gourmet breakfast of fresh juice, eggs made to order and toasts is included.

 

ILLA HOTEL – HIGH END

The Illa Hotel is the best option for those looking for a high end hotel, centrally located and with high standards. Built around a wonderful old colonial court, the place has been recently renovated and includes a few nice touches like bottled water, heater and free hot drinks. 

 

 

 

 

Allow enough days to acclimatize to the altitude before starting this route. You will be hiking over several 5,000+ meter passes and sleeping at over 4,500+ meters each night. Acclimatization is crucial for your enjoyment of this hike. It’s possible to hike the trails around Ausangate on your own or with a tour group, however groups do not take the same routes as Andean Lodges does. This means you will miss the painted mountains, which in our opinion was the best part of the trek. 

There are many different routes that can be done around Ausangate. The route we did was 5 days, 4 nights. 

This trek is best enjoyed during the dry season, from April to October. 

Andean Lodges provides transport to and from Cusco. 

 

WHAT TO TAKE WITH YOU

For the Ausangate Trek with Andean Lodges, you stay in lodges and llamas carry your personal belongings. During the day you only need to take a small day pack. Here’s our complete checklist for multi-day hiking trips.

 

MULTI-DAY HIKING GEAR LIST

 

 

 

WHAT WE LIKED THE MOST

+ Each day the views got better and better. 

+ Seeing the painted mountains is a truly unique experience. 

+ Experiencing Andean culture and having a knowledgable guide to explain their customs. 

+ We took a route that no other agencies take which gave us a sense of seclusion.

+ Every night we arrived to a lodge, where we had hot showers, warm meals and comfortable beds. A real luxury after a long day of hiking.

 

 

WHAT WE DIDN’T LIKE THAT MUCH

– The weather is very unpredictable, so if it’s bad you won’t see much.

 

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

The Ausangate trek is not only a hiking adventure but a journey through the spirit of the Peruvian Andes. The landscapes found here are unlike anywhere else. It’s not hard to see why this route is considered one of the top South America dream destinations

 

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35 Responses

  1. Sarah Ebner

    This really sounds an incredible experience – and the idea of a proper group definitely appeals as the painted mountain sounds as if it really shouldn’t be missed. Fascinating history and an amazing sounding place. Love all the detail.

    • Amanda Zeisset

      We enjoy both going on our own and going with groups. An organized group can be super fun and the guide gives a lot of info you would never know otherwise. The painted mountain was definitely the highlight of this trek for us, I would have been super disappointed if we missed it.

  2. Beverly Burmeier

    What an incredible adventure–and amazing photos. You’ve described it well (don’t think I’m up for this excursion, however!)

    • Amanda Zeisset

      Thanks Beverly! It was surprisingly a mellow hike, considering how high up in the mountains we were. Also, the guide was great at pacing the group so everyone could keep up. If you enjoy nature and are reasonably fit, you should give it a go 🙂

  3. anna

    Your photos are so stunning! This definitely sounds like an adventure that Tom and I would love to do. Heading to South America by next year!

    • Amanda Zeisset

      Cheers Anna! You should definitely check it out. Let me know if you have an questions. Where else are you going in South America?

  4. Laura

    What am incredible experience. The mountains are so beautiful, especially with the snow. No other hike will quite measure up from now on.

    • Amanda Zeisset

      Yeah, it’s always difficult not to compare! We just have to appreciate the differences in the beautiful places in the world.

  5. Gemma Two Scots Abroad

    This is just gorgeous. Well done not feeling the effects of altitude during the Palomani Pass. I felt like I was walking on the moon / through tar during the highest point of the Lares Trek, Peru but again well worth if for the view.

    • Amanda Zeisset

      We had been already 2 months in Peru, hiking in altitude so we were well acclimatized but if we hadn’t been it would have been a real challenge! Did you do any other treks in Peru?

  6. Lesley Carter

    I love the colored earth. We went to a place like this in Mauritius but it wasn’t as vast. What an amazing experience.

    • Amanda Zeisset

      That was our favorite part of the hike. Where in Mauritius did you see something like this? We’d love to make it there one day.

  7. Erica

    This experience sounds like no ther! Loving all the landscape shots! I felt as if I have been there looking through them all!

  8. chrysoula

    It looks like a great trail to hike. The nature around is awesome. I love your pictures. I will put it on my bucket list!

  9. Mags

    Thanks for sharing. I love the painted mountains. I’ve never seen those before, they’re just stunning.

  10. roamingpursuits

    Lovely unusual views of the mountains. I like the photo of the Andean Lodge crew best. All in all, it looks like a wonderful experience.

  11. Lewis

    Hi Amanda,

    Every time you put out a post about one of these hikes, I say, “we’re definitely doing this one when we get there!” We’re still in Mexico, cycling south, so it’ll be a bit, but I’m glad you’re putting all this info out there.

    You mention that you would take a different route with a different group, but would we be prohibited from that route if we did it solo?

    • Amanda Zeisset

      Hey Lewis,

      I’m so sorry for my very late reply! I must have missed the comment notification. You must have made quite some progress since December. Where are you now?

      You can look up the Vinicuna Trek if you just want to see the colorful mountain. I’m not positive about if you can go it alone or not. Guides have told me that the land is owned by the community and that you can’t so I don’t want to lead you in the wrong direction!

  12. Annika

    Hi guys, what is the offical name of the painted mountains? We would like to do the Ausangate Trek, but including this painted mountains, but I can’t find them in other operators programs.. Andean Lodges is a little bit to expensive.

    Thanks and warm regards from Cusco
    Annika

    • Amanda Zeisset

      Hey Annika,

      The name of the mountain is Vinicuna. There are a few operators that offer this trek, just search Vinicuna Trek.

      Good Luck! Let me know how it goes.

      Amanda

  13. Archana

    I was planning a trip to Peru next year and I think I need to move my whole trip around to include this! Thanks for the great write up! The weather looks gorgeous, may I ask which month of the year was your visit? I wanted to see the lush green Sacred Valley, so was planning a trip in April (giving some buffer to account for some rain), but assuming that may still be risky if this trek is included? Getting rained out on this trail, as you mentioned, would be such a bummer 🙂

    • Amanda Zeisset

      Hi Archana,

      This trek is definitely worth changing your plans for. I visited in September and we had one day of rain. Even in the dry season, the weather is very unpredictable in the mountains. April can be hit or miss so having those buffer days will come in handy!

  14. Rodney

    Thanks for this!! Never heard of this place before, I just feel that I must go there and experience this myself.

    Just spoke to my GF and she loved the idea, so hopefully by this October 2016, we will be heading there!! thanks for sharing this amazing experience.

  15. Leigh | Campfires & Concierges

    Loved this post! I am planning a South America trip next year and trying to figure out what to do besides Macchu Picchu – I googled Painted Mountains and found your blog. This looks amazing…definitely a contender for my trip!

    • Amanda Zeisset

      Thanks for the feedback Leigh! There are many more hikes besides Machu Picchu. Check out the Cordillera Blanca. We have a few articles on here about the hikes that we’ve done there. Let me know if you have any questions..I’m happy to help 😀 Enjoy!

  16. Campbell

    Hi guys, we spent a month around Cusco and did several hikes in the area. Ausangate was our favourite. We don’t like group tours and did it alone. Other than 2 local lama herders we saw not one person in 5 days! For info how to hike Ausangate independent http://stingynomads.com/642-2/ safe travels!

  17. Crystal

    Hi Amanda, I’m hoping to do this trek later this month…may I ask if it is possible to backpack it solo. Unfortunately, I’m on a backpackers budget and cannot afford luxury lodging. I hope to get to Cusco and buy a topo map. I’m an experienced backpacker from Colorado and just finished the Santa Cruz/Laguna 69 trek successfully.

  18. Jennifer

    Hi Amanda,

    First of all, I want to let you know that I love your website! It is by far one of the most informative trekking websites I’ve found. I love your personalized write-up of your trips. I only have a short amount of time so looking for a 4 or 5 day trek like the Ausangate trek. Doesn’t have to be in Peru. I’ve already done the Inca trail. Which are your favorites in South America? The Ausangate trek looks awesome.

    • Amanda Zeisset

      Hi Jennifer! Thank you for your kind words 🙂

      I’d recommend the Ausangate or the Santa Cruz trek (in the Cordillera Blanca)…those are some of my favorites in South America. I also really love the Huayhuash Trek but you’d need more days (at least 8). If you like seeing big peaks you can also check out Bolivia. I have never been trekking there but it’s supposed to be incredible.

      I’ve also been hiking in Colombia (the Lost City Trek). It’s through the rainforest and you get to some ruins…pretty cool too. I hope this helps! Have a great trip.

  19. Laura

    Hi – your blog was incredible! Really enjoyed it 🙂

    Not sure if i missed this information, but did you do this trek independently or did you use a Tour company? Do you have a recommendation for companies that do this trek?

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