The Ausangate circuit is one of the most challenging adventure treks in the Sacred Valley and Peru. Rising 6,372 meters above sea level at its highest point, it is the fifth highest mountain in the country. Waters from the glacier flow east into the Vilcanota River, and eventually into the Amazon; they also flow to the south into the Azangaro River which goes to Lake Titicaca. Located 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Cusco on the Vilcanota mountain range, its proximity makes it an attractive option for trekkers looking for a mountain adventure that is definitely off the beaten track.
Historically and in the present, Ausangate is one of the two most important mountains near Cusco – Salkantay being the second. According to legend, Ausangate and Salkantay were brothers who lived together near Cusco. A time of famine and scarcity came upon the people and the brothers dispersed to different points to look for food and provisions.
Salkantay went north into the jungle, where he met Veronica and became distracted by romantic pursuits. Ausangate went south to the highland plateau, where he found quantities of potatoes, corn, and llamas, which he sent back to Cusco, thus saving the people from starvation.
Today, local people who have retained their cultural traditions make an annual migration to honor the Ausangate apu, or mountain spirit, in the annual festival of Qoyllur Rit’i, which means star snow in the local Quechua language. This festival occurs in June before Corpus Christi and thousands of Quechua migrants climb the peak, braving the dry winter cold of the highland plateau to arrive to the church of Qoyllur Rit’I in Sinakara, several kilometers from the peak. European attempts to summit the peak began in the 1950s and continued into the 1960s and 70s. The first Peruvian male summited in 1983 and the first Peruvian female in 2006.
Currently, because of the technical elements involved, most travelers do not visit Ausangate with the attempt to summit the peak. Instead, most people do the Camino del Apu Ausangate, or the Path of the Ausangate, a 4-day trekking circuit that circles the glacier and passes by brilliant blue-green lagoons. The trek is beautiful and definitely not for the faint of heart. From Cusco, there are two ways to access the mountain. The first way is to take a bus to Chillca, a community of llama and alpaca shepherds. From here, it is a 4 or 5 hour trek to the first base camp.
The second method is a bus Tinke, then transport to Pacchanta, followed by a 8 to 10 hour trek through Acero gorge to the base. Days 2, 3, and 4 are long and taxing hikes up and down the passes surrounding Ausangate, some of which reach over 16,000 feet (5,000 meters). Cold weather gear is definitely needed for the chilly nights. The fifth day completes the loop to end at the thermal baths in Pacchanta and then the return to Cusco.
Throughout the trek the vistas are unique, gorgeous, and stunning. The trek can be done independently, although it is advisable to go through a trekking company given the technical aspects of the trek. It is also entirely possible to summit the glacier, but this is a highly technical venture and should not be done without the proper training, acclimatization, and expertise with glacial conditions.