Ausangate Circuit (part 1)

At 6372m, Nevado Ausangate is the highest mountain in the Cuzco Region. The mountains were sacred to the Andean people and Apu Ausangate was considered one of the most important deities, the origin of alpacas and llamas and the source of many legends. It stands somewhat isolated from the rest of the Cordillera Vilcanota, a massif with several distinct peaks and many glaciers lining the hollows and slopes between them. To circumnavigate this massif, you need to cross four major passes, two of which are over 5000m, while the valleys that head off in different directions are home to quechua-speaking mountain people whose daily lives have changed little in centuries. To trek the Ausangate Circuit provides not only the opportunity to experience the alpine landscapes of the high Andes, but to see how life was, and still is, like in its harsh environment. It would be a great complement to the Choquequirao-Machu Picchu Trek.

Getting there

At 8.30am we were picked up from out hotel in Cuzco by our guide, Yamil, our cook, Cecilio, and our driver, Rolando. We headed out of the cobbled streets of colonial Cuzco, with a quick stop at the local market to buy a half kilo of coca leaves (after all this was going to be a high altitude walk).

Nevado Ausangate (6372m)

The road to Ausangate took us south along the Puno Highway, where we made brief stops to buy sweet bread and pork crackling for snacks on the way, before turning eastward to climb steeply up the bare slopes of the Vilcanota Valley. Cresting these hills, we had our first glimpse of the 6370m massif of Nevado Ausangate, shining white in the morning sun, and the long range of the Cordillera Vilcanota to the east. If the weather held, this promised to be a very nice trek indeed.

First views of Nevados Ccallangate, Collaque Cruz and Ausangate

We were on the new road into Brazil and it was a work in progress; much of the dirt part had been upgraded, some parts had been sealed, and all along other sections were being rerouted or being readied for eventual sealing. We followed this route down into the next valley, passing several small villages. As it was a Sunday, the central plazas had all been converted into markets, with people from the hill communities resplendent in multi-coloured traditional outfits and hats in town to do the week's shopping.

Patchwork work of agricultural plots in
the Vilcanota Valley

Old colonial bridge over the River Pinchimuro
Mayo with Ausangate in the background

Local market - Tinqui

Peruvian cowboy on the way home

At Tinque, the last town on our route, we stocked up with a few more supplies, after which Rolando drove us another 3 kilometres up a narrow and rough country road, the glacier-capped peaks of Nevados Ccallangate, Collaque Cruz and Ausangate getting ever closer. Finally, we stopped and set up camp in a field surrounded by stone-walls and adobe huts, as Rolando headed back to Cuzco.

The adobe huts and stone walls at our campsite near Huarmisaya

Mountain caracara

The mobile craftshop arrives at the tent door

We had barely set up camp when a "shop" appeared - a mother, daughter and two young sons arrived and laid out their alpaca handicrafts at our tent door and sat there. They were impossible to ignore and the fair Nello now sports a warm alpaca scarf. We sat and watched the locals come and go on foot and on horseback in the changing light. The warm late afternoon glow of the snow covered mountains changed to a ghostly cold appearance as the sun set and the temperature plummeted. Still, this is the norm when the sky is clear and you are at 4160m; it was definitely going to be a three-dog night.

The warm glow of the mountains in the late afternoon sun .....

..... changes to a ghostly white after it sets

Day 1 - Tinqui to Q'ollapampa
(14 km - 600m ascent - 250m descent)

Nello and Jamil enjoying the first trek breakfast

We were woken by bright sunlight shining into our tent. It had been a cold night but the morning sun was warm and we enjoyed our first trek breakfast outside with the impressive backdrop of a sunlit Ausangate. While we were eating, our arriero, Silverio, arrived with his daughter, Lydia, and three packhorses to load up our gear.

Lydia leads the way up the stone-walled road

Ausangate calling us on

Locals going about their business

Soon we were off on the trek, with Yamil and Lydia leading us up the stone-walled road between the houses scattered in the rolling green hills. It was a pleasant climb, with the odd stop to chat to schoolkids setting off on the long walk into Tinqui and check out their books. Men in sequinned hats strolled by, weaving as they walked; others passed on horseback and colourfully-clad women herded alpacas in the nearby fields. Life in the country was stirring.

The alpaca-herder and her animals

Small group of farmhouses on the plateau north of Ausangate

Without realizing it, we had soon climbed 250m to reach a long, green, waterlogged valley dotted with alpacas grazing in the rich pastures. We followed a well-constructed water canal to eventually reach a deeply eroded stream that rushed down from the glacier-clad north-western face of Ausangate directly ahead.

Alpacas scattered on the marshy flats

The track following one of many water canals

Crossing the rolling grassy hills

Stream flowing through the boggy flats

Morning chat


More herds of alpacas of various shades and combinations of white, grey, tan and brown, some woolly, some dread-locked, watched us pass, as the local dogs lived up to their reputations (their bad habits are written up in the Lonely Planet Guide) by rushing out to bark us off the premises.

Ausangate dogs behaving badly

Alpaca - proud to be a "rasta"

Heading towards the glacier on the north-west face of Ausangate ...

.... under the curious gaze of the locals

The boggy stream edges of Quebrada Upismayo

Scalding water bubbling up at the Upis hot springs

The north-west face of Ausangate and its glacier

Continuing on, we followed Yamil and the brightly coloured hat of Lydia across the boggy pastures to round the perched village of Upis, entering the Quebrada Upismayo and follow its spongy stream banks to the Upis hot springs a little further up. Steaming sulphurous water bubbled up at at a range of temperatures from pleasant to scalding at several points along the stream edge - the main one being channelled in to a large concrete pool for soaking in.

The thatch-roofed huts of Upis

Time to soak feet in a hot spring

Unfortunately, we only had time to soak our feet in one of the very small natural pools and have a quick bite to eat before heading off for the ascent of our first pass, the 4760m Arapu Pass.

Llareta wetlands above Upis


The track took us past some curious llareta wetlands, the bright green of the cushion plants divided by channels of orange-tinted water, an interesting contrast to the clumps of stumpy white-spined cactus growing amongst the rocks on the slopes next to them.

Leaving the wetlands, we headed closer to the base of the glacier clinging to the northwest face of Ausangate, its surface buckled under the immense pressure of the ice above.

Channels in the llareta

Stumpy high altitude cacti

Not long after, we reached the start of the serious climb, turning away from the glacier and upwards, alternating between rocky moraine and green spongy bogs, speckled with tiny alpine flowers and hairy caterpillars that must have had some form of anti-freeze to survive the icy nights above 4400m.

Perched glaciers on the flank of Cerro Cayco Orjo

Our pace slowed and our breathing quickened, as we climbed steadily up beneath even more glaciers perched high above us on the mountain flank. Behind us the long snow-topped line of the Cordillera Vilcanota appeared and the glacier-topped peak of 6110m Nevado Collaque Cruz rose majestically above the horizon as we ascended.

6110m Nevado Collaque Cruz

Nearing the top of the Arapu Pass

Eventually the slope began to round out and the landscape became drier. We had reached the apacheta-lined pass and stopped for a while to chew on a few leaves of coca and take in the superb views of the polychrome barren slopes of Nevado Queullacocha to the north of the pass and the hanging glacier of Cerro Cayco Orjo above.

Time to chew a few coca leaves on top of the 4760m Arapu Pass

Apacheta-lined Arapu Pass and the barren polychrome hills of Nevado Queullacocha

Hanging glaciers high above

A long traverse above 4700m on the barren ...

... and eroded sandy hills to the west of Arapu Pass

Leaving the apachetas, we traversed across the northern slopes of the arid spur leading down from Ausangate, before eventually starting to descend again. Ahead lay the saw-toothed profile of Nevado Sorimani; we were about to take a walk on the wild side of the Ausangate massif, entering a world of superb alpine lakes; first the dark waters of Yanacocha (Black Lake), followed by a small tarn-dotted wetland whose still waters reflected the jagged peaks of Sorimani.

Starting the descent on the wild side of Ausangate

The brilliant colour and folding of Cerro Ausangate Apacheta

Laguna Yanacocha and the jagged profile of Nevado Sorimani

View westward towards Sorimani

From here, we could see the distant turquoise waters of Uchuy Pucacocha (Green Lake) below us, while, rounding the next corner of this rocky landscape, we found ourselves just above the dark surface of Cochapata (Up Lake).

A cluster of tarns high above the turquoise water of Uchuy Pucacocha

Wetlands in the valley below Q'ollapampa

Campsite in the llama corral at Q'ollapampa

The rocky path now lead us down fairly quickly to the stone walls of old llama corral set in a protected cleft below the glaciers of 5800m Señal Nevado Extremo Ausangate, the western-most peak of the massif. It was time for a late lunch and, as we were suffering a little bit of headache and nausea from the high crossing, it seemed a good place to pitch camp.

Nearby a group of vizcachas sported in the rocky outcrops surrounding a small wetland and we relaxed by watching their antics and wandering a short way up the valley to get a closer look at the turquoise waters of Uchuy Pucacocha, set in a bowl beneath an impressive icefall.

Vizcacha on the alert

The icefall above Laguna Uchuy Pucacocha

Panorama of Laguna Uchuy Pucacocha in the late afternoon

Western face of the Ausangate Massif with 5800m Señal Nevado Ausangate Extremo on the right

Moonrise over Ausangate

As the afternoon drew to a close, the weather showed its fickle side; from a bright clear sky, we suddenly found ourselves in a brief fall of sago snow, only to be followed by more clear skies as the clouds whisked by. We were glad to be in the shelter of our llama corral, protected from the winds by the sheer cliffs of the mountain. That night we were treated to the spectacular sight of an almost full moon high above the moonlit snows of Ausangate.

Q'ollapampa to Finaya (14km - 790m ascent - 870m descent)

It was an icy morning in the shadow of Ausangate; the shallow ponds of the wetland were frozen and the vizcachas watched us shivering in the corral while a cold mist rose up the valley, enveloped us for twenty minutes and then lifted as the cloud layer continued to climb. As quickly as we could, we headed off once again toward Uchuy Pucacocha and the needles of Sorimani, out of the the shadows and into the sunshine that had just reached the lake's surface.


Andean geese (huallatas) sunning themselves

Mist ready to overflow the valley

Waterfall between the upper and lower lakes

Heading towards the needle of Sorimani

A second wave of mist began to drift up the valley from below as we crossed the lake's outlet just above a small cascade, climbing up and around a large rocky outcrop towards the needle-like spires of Sorimani. Yamil and Lydia led us along the faint track that traversed a gentle slope leading down to the western edge of the lake; alpacas grazed in the green pastures as mists swirled about the lake's surface beneath the icy gaze of the glaciers of Extremo Ausangate.

Alpacas grazing in the morning mist

Mists rising from Uchuy Pucacocha beneath 5800m Extremo Ausangate

Rocky outcrops above the alpaca pastures

Morning stroll in the high valleys of Ausangate

Laguna Jatan Pucacocha beneath one of Ausangate's glaciers

Climbing gently around a further rocky outcrop, we reached an area of small tarns set in a green marshy bog. In the still morning air, they reflected the icefall above, tumbling steeply off the flanks of the dark massif. We sat a while to take in this marvellous alpine setting, and could hear the cracks and groans of the moving icefall; the mountain was flexing its muscles.

Reflections of Ausangate in an alpine tarn (sub-title: where Nello lost her watch)

Below these tarns, lay Laguna Jatan Pucacocha, the largest of Ausangate's lakes, while tucked in between it and the base of the icefall was a small morain-banked lake of exquisite turquoise colour. We traversed high across the grassy flats to the south of these lakes, dotted with grazing alpacas, climbing gently as we gradually began to head in a more easterly direction. Slowly the views changed to reveal different aspects of the glaciers and the mountain.

Looking east across the glaciers towards Pucapunta Pass

Looking west towards the needle of Nevado Sorimani

Alpaca-herder's hut above Jatan Pucacocha

Slow climb up to the pass

Laguna Jatan Pucacocha and the western flank of Ausangate

Ahead more glaciers appeared, while above them the pure white snowy cap of the main peak of Ausangate looked down on our passage from 6370m. Behind us the needles of Sorimani appeared even sharper, while to our left, nestled against steep moraine walls, lay Laguna Vinococha with its turquoise green waters, directly beneath the rugged face of Extremo Ausangate.

Laguna Vinicocha

The pure white snows of Ausangate

Lake and mountain panorama

.... and another stretching across above the Pucapunta Pass

The large seracs at the base of the next glacier became more distinct as we slowly pushed on into this magnificent landscape beneath the reddish folds of Cerro Ausangate Apacheta - probably a bit more slowly than I would have liked, but I did not seem to be handling the altitude that well - no headaches, but a general lethargy prevailed as we climbed up towards the 4880m Pucapunta Pass.


Glacier reaching down to Laguna Vinococha

Icefall and seracs clinging to the rockface

Nello and Yamil on Pucapunta Pass dwarfed by the maroon ridge of Zanja Punta

View across Laguna Ausangatecocha to Palomani Pass

Finally crossing the pass, we were greeted with the magnificent spectacle of the blue-green surface of Laguna Ausangatecocha, far below the icy seracs on the black cliff at its rear. The lake drained out into the green valley of Quebrada Surapampa, whose steep grassy slopes were dotted with hundreds of alpaca. The southern side of the valley was topped by the long red rock ridge of Cerro Zanja Punta, adding a brilliant touch of colour to the scene.

Alpaca-herder weaving a very long scarf

Even the horses were tired at the thought of climbing Palomani Pass

Line of alpacas returning home

Laguna Ausangatecocha and its icefall

We descended the 200m to a field near to the lake for a long break in the midday sunshine before lunch. We would need all the energy that we could summon as the next pass was another 450m above us and would take us above 5000m for the first time ever.

Alpacas grazing on the slopes near Pucapunta Pass

The polychrome mountains of Cerro Ausangate Apacheta

Reluctantly we set off, slow steps and small steps, finding a rhythm for our breath, to climb gently at first and then more steeply; above the lake moraine, above the seracs and finally above the pastures into a strange desert of coloured clay. Less than two hours later we slowly crested the apacheta-lined ridge of Palomani Pass, a time for congratulations and team photos as, at 5120m, we had reached our new high point on Planet Earth.

5000m - time for a rest

Seracs at the face of a glacier above Ausangatecocha

Final stages of the climb up to 5120m Palomani Pass

Cecilio, Silverio and the horses heading up the pass

View to the east from the top of the Palomani Pass

We did not stay long as a cold wind whipped across the pass and the clouds had been building up during our ascent. Once over the other side, a whole new world opened up; new glaciers, new peaks and new valleys.

One of the few flowering plants above 5000m

The descent was rapid, first down the barren upper slopes, before cushion plants, mountain daisies and low cacti began to appear and finally eroded pastures and well-trodden tracks - we were back in alpaca country! From a ridge we looked down on the stone building of Ausangate Base Camp, used by mountaineers and ice climbers, before heading off towards the south-east.


The team on top of 5120m Palomani Pass

Starting the descent of the barren east side of the pass

All the while to or left, views unfolded of Santa Catalina, the 5808m easternmost peak of the Ausangate massif, and its impressive glacier reaching deep down into the valley below. To the left of Santa Catalina, and behind us now, the bulk of Nevado Ausangate itself became more and more apparent. The clouds spilling over the two mountains, however, were starting to take on a distinctly ominous appearance.

5808m Nevado Santa Catalina and its glacier

Green ice at the face of glacier

Colours of the south-eastern side of the Ausangate massif

Nello crossing the last bridge at Finaya

We eventually reached the valley floor, following it down, past several stone huts and through a narrow gap to reach the community of Finaya with its scattered stone huts, corrals and water canals. The campsite was already set up, in a sheltered end of the high valley (4470m) between a jumble of pink lichen-covered boulders and a cold mountain stream.

Panorama of the southern faces of Nevados Ausangate (6372m) and Santa Catalina (5808m)

We were glad to reach our tent, as light sago snow had started to fall. We crawled in and flaked out after our long two-pass day. When we emerged, the sun had already set but the sky had cleared and the ground was covered in white; an eerie snowy landscape in the pale light of an almost-full moon.

go to part 2 .....