The Ausangate Circuit is a classic Andean trek that features glaciers, hot springs, turquoise lakes, and traverses four high altitude passes. Despite the fact that it boasts some of the finest mountain scenery in Peru, it receives only a fraction of the foot traffic seen on the region’s more famous hikes, the Inca Trail and Salkantay Trek. I hiked the Ausangate Circuit with Ryan “Dirtmonger” Sylva in early August, 2017.
Distance: 70 km (43.5 miles) – Not including side trips.
Avg. Time: 5 days.
- That is the standard amount of time taken by guided groups . If you are fit, acclimatized and carrying a light pack, there are no big issues with doing the hike in three or four days.
Start & Finish: Tinqui
- As of 2017, virtually all organized groups start at Upis, which is now accessible by dirt road and cuts off around 12 km from the overall distance. We decided to begin our hike at the traditional trailhead of Tinqui, and hiked from there to Upis via a combination of trail, dirt roads and cross-country.
Highest Point: Palomani Pass 5165 m (16,946 ft)
Lowest Point: Tinqui 3800 m (12, 467 ft)
Season: Possible all year, though the dry season between May and October is ideal. During this period nights can be chilly (-5°C is common), but days are generally clear.
Difficulty: Moderate to Challenging. For the most part, the climbs are fairly gradual, and the trail is easy to follow. That said, virtually all of this trek is above 4500 m (14,764 ft). This is one hike for which you will want to be well and truly acclimatized beforehand (see below).
- Cusco to Tinqui – There are daily buses with Transportes Siwar (Av. Tito Condemayta 1613 – Situated behind the Coliseo Cerrado) from Cusco to Tinqui. They leave early morning, take around three hours, and and the cost is only 9 Peruvian Soles (around US$3) as of August, 2017. The bus will drop you off on the Tinqui plaza, from where you can start your hike. To return to Cusco, your best chance of getting a direct bus is by arriving in Tinqui by 730/8am.
Guidebook / Maps / Online Information:
- Guidebooks: The most recent option is Alexander Stewart’s, The Inca Trail (2013), which contains trekking notes and a basic map for the Ausangate Circuit (as well as other hikes in the region). I have not seen this book in person, but for what it’s worth, the reviews on Amazon seem positive. Older titles that include the Ausangate include: Lonely Planet, Trekking in Peru (2008) and Lonely Planet, Trekking in the Central Andes (2003).
- Topo Maps: If you are looking for someting a little more detailed, you can pick up the IGN 1:100,000 Ocongate (sheet 28-t) online at Omnimap.com (very pricey). Alternatively, you might be able to find a copy at the South American Explorer’s Club in Cusco.
- Useful Websites: Besthike.com contains an overview of the circuit, links to multiple trip reports, and lots of helpful tips if you prefer to go with a trekking agency.
Permits & Fees: No permits are needed to hike the Ausangate Circuit, though hikers do need to pay a 10 sole (US$3) fee at a hole-in-the-wall kiosk on the edge of Tinqui. Make sure they give you a receipt/ticket.
Food: There are a couple of basic stores in Tinqui, but you are better off bringing all supplies from Cusco. Once you leave Tinqui, there is nowhere to purchase supplies along the route.
Water: There is plenty of water available throughout the route, however, due to the prevalence of grazing animals (Ausangate is in the running for being the Llama capital of Peru) it is recommended that all water should be treated.
Guided Vs Independent: More than 95% of hikers that tackle the Ausangate Circuit do so as part of a guided group. However, if you have the necessary gear – due to the higher elevations it is colder than the Inca and Salkantay hikes – a reasonable amount of backpacking experience, and are well acclimatized (see below) there are no issues with doing the hike independently. If you would prefer to do a guided trip, as of 2017, you will be looking at around US$600 to $800. See Besthike.com for a list of recommended trekking agencies.
Acclimatization: Whichever direction you choose to do the circuit, chances are you will be camping at over 4500m on the first night of the trip. You will subsequently remain over this altitude for all but the final kilometres back to Tinqui. In order to avoid possible issues with AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), you need to be well acclimatized before starting the trek. Tip: In addition to a few days spent wandering around the regional hub of Cusco (3400m), try to do at least one of the area’s slightly lower altitude treks such as the Inca Trail, Salkantay Trek or Lares Trek. All of these hikes include passes over 4000m. For more information, see Tips for High Altitude Hiking.
- Terrain: With four high passes ranging between 4757m and 5165m, the Ausangate circuit is a topographical roller coaster. That said, with the exception of a few short stretches (the initial part of the climb to Campo Pass comes to mind), the gradient is rarely steep.
- Camping: In between the passes can be found plenty of great camping areas on the wide valley floors.
- Fauna: In addition to the llamas mentioned above, hikers can also spot alpacas, vicunas, black winged Andean geese, and if you are lucky, the incredible Andean condor. When taking a break on or near rocky slopes, it’s a good idea to mind your food, as there are plenty of opportunistic viscachas (chinchillas) lying in wait for unsuspecting trekkers.
- Hot Springs: There are two hot springs along the route, situated near the start and finish of the walk. Going in a counter-clockwise direction, the first is twenty minutes past the tiny village of Upis. The second can be found at Calachaca, from where it is an easy three hour descent back to Tinqui.
- Side Trip to Rainbow Mountain: It is possible to extend the hike by a couple of days with a side trip to one of the region’s most popular tourist destinations, the multi-coloured Rainbow Mountain. For details, see Trave2Walk – Ausangate & the Rainbow Mountains.
The Ausangate Circuit encapsulates a lot of what I love about hiking in the Andes. Jagged snow capped peaks, sweeping valleys, gorgeous lakes, and the opportunity to observe the shepherding culture up close and personal. Throw in some soothing hot springs and the fact that the trail remains relatively uncrowded, and I’d have to say that this is one of my favourite treks in South America.