“I’m from Cusco”, says photographer Diego Nishiyama, “and Ausangate, as the tutelary deity and protector of Cusco, has always been a part of our lives. To have grown up with this mountain on the horizon with its white cape, is something you appreciate fully when you can finally walk among its foothills and feel its majesty”.
Ausangate is not just any mountain. It is a god, an apu, a being that gives life and is also capable of taking it. It is the source of water for irrigating fields, enabling Andean communities to grow crops and to from the nutrients of mother earth. Trekking to Ausangate is to experience the essence of Andean culture, to walk on sacred soil, and to understand the fundamental role it has in native local beliefs.
The challenging trip to Ausengate also requires great physical stamina. It is much more demanding than the Inca Trail, and passes through more difficult terrain. The highest pass on the Inca Trail is at 4,200 meters, while you’ll climb a pass of over 5,200 meters when taking the Ausangate is 5,200 trek. The trek passes turquoise lakes, glaciers, glacial valleys, moraines, and snow-covered peaks that make up the extraordinary scenery of mountains and Andean plateaus.
On the trek you can take advantage of the great option to stay at Andean Lodges along the way. There are four lodges on the route, which are located at an average altitude of 4,683 meters. The lodges, which have a different view of Ausangate, have rooms for sixteen people, private bathrooms with hot water, and feather duvets; providing comfort for exhausted walkers. They have been built to harmonize with their surroundings, following the aesthetics of local architecture.
Services, including meals, are the responsibility of members of neighbouring
Members of nearby communities are hired to offer services to tourists, such as cooking and cleaning. This gives travelers a great opportunity to interact with locals in meaningful ways. “Most people living nearby are herdsmen, the community of Ausangate and its inhabitants being one of only three societies of this type in the world.”, says Nishiyama.
The trek starts in the district of Checacupe, which offers visitors the chance to visit a colonial-era church that was built on Inca foundations. The church contains paintings and murals of the Cuzqueña School, as well as the oldest image of the Immaculate Conception in Cusco and probably the Americas. The route then takes you to Chillca, in Uyuni Pampa, where the first lodge is located. Local musicians welcome you at 4,368 meters, with a view of Mount Jatun Jampa in the background.
The next day you continue through the glacial valley of Phinaya, which is accompanied by thousands of alpacas and llamas. The route passes the Pjachaj falls, and after lunch you climb through an area of moraines, glaciers, and lakes. A caravan of llamas will carry your equipment as far as Machurracay Tambo, the second lodge. This one is located at a height of 4,815 meters and, according to the company, is the highest lodge in the world. This is where mountaineers start their ascent of the peak; the lodge acts as a sort of base camp.
The third day takes you to Palomichayoc pass at 5,200 meters, with some spectacular panoramic views, followed by a descent alongside the glacier to Ausangate Cocha. The day ends at Anantapata Tambo, in the upper reaches of Alcatauri Canyon and the third lodge, which is the only one built using the community’s own funds; further proof that tourism can be sustainable.
The next day you’ll climb another mountain pass. You’ll also make your way to Lake Kayrawiri, which is surrounded by mountains that offer a spectacular view of the valley. Here the mineral composition of the hills turns them into a classical multi-colored postcard view of the trek. On the trek to Huampococha Tambo you will see hundreds of geese, who nest in the slopes of Antay, the craggy rock formations of the apu Labrayani. The final day takes you across the Anta pass followed by a descent to the point where you are taken back to Cusco.
In the words of Eduardo Pedraza, mountaineer and former commercial manager of Lima Tours, the Ausangate trail is “for those seeking a serious mountain trek”. “What makes it special”, adds Pedraza, “is that you walk with the llamas that carry the equipment, which is how the ancient Andean people traveled. You walk for more than six hours a day and at one point climb to over 5,000 meters above sea level. Few people have been up to such an altitude. But although you suffer somewhat, the spectacular scenery is more than worth it. It’s an epic trek, world-class, for people who love mountains and are fit”.
The trek around Ausangate is a more solitary route compared to the Inca Trail. There aren’t many tourists and this produces a closer bond with the surrounding countryside. Trekking around the most important apu in Cusco generates a sensation of awe. Its size gives us a new perspective of things and will certainly give you a better understanding of life in one of the most extreme environments in the Peruvian Andes.
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