The Ausangate Circuit, a 70km trek around a towering peak of the same name, is easily accessible from Cusco yet remains delightfully undiscovered by the masses. Cramming in every possible trek to our itinerary, though, means that we really only have time for an abridged version of this incredible trek before we have to zip off to Huaraz for the main event (the 10-day solo Huayhuash Circuit).
Over two days, joined by my dad and stepmum, I’ll ascend to Pucacocha Pass for what’s been called the absolute best view of Nevada Ausangate and traverse the colourful scenery to visit the famous Rainbow Mountain for sunrise, an experience that leaves me both intensely awed and itching to come back for the full circuit.
Trail stats: Alqatari to Anata via Pucacocha Pass
Elevation gain: 440m
Highest elevation: 4,990m
Trail hours: 3hrs
Highlights: Amazing colourful scenery; views of Nevado Ausangate and its lagunas from Pucacocha Pass; only one other person on the trail all day; camping in cute little huts in a colourful valley
Our first views of the Ausangate Circuit
Views of Ausangate at Pucacocha Pass
Dad, Eileen, and I are picked up from our Airbnb at 4am— I honestly can’t remember the last time I woke up after sunrise on this trip, and it’s almost becoming habit to roll out of bed and get dressed in the dark. Thankfully, the Flashpacker Connect van is incredibly spacious and comes with cozy blankets, so we spread ourselves out on the seats and snooze for the next 3 hours en route to Alqatari.
We didn’t plan this trek as a private tour, but it has amazingly turned out that way. Our guide Delia tells us that it’s quite rare for her to have a group of less than 8 people, so we really must be lucky to have picked a rare quiet day during the high tourism season.
Setting off on the Ausangate Circuit
A sea of colour on the Ausangate Circuit
Me and our guide, Delia
Rainbow mountains beginning to appear
After a big breakfast and some local entertainment provided by 2 large turkeys that set off our car alarm about 80 times, we get back in the van and drive a further 20min up the road. In a seemingly random spot, we throw our packs on and hit the trail.
“Trail” in the loosest sense of the word… Our first hour or so of walking is over grassy hillsides and steep dirt mounds that don’t bear any resemblance to a planned trail. When we do eventually reach a trail of sorts, it’s only a very narrow stretch of dirt that is slightly more compacted than its surroundings.
So far, the Ausangate Circuit is more than living up to its reputation of being incredibly off the beaten path, as we haven’t seen a single other person out here. The scenery is otherworldly— red and green painted mountains rise alongside enormous pearly glaciers and the region’s highest peak, Nevado Ausangate. Undoubtedly, it’s only a matter of time before tourists are arriving by bus load to hike the Ausangate, just like they do to Rainbow Mountain, so we relish the opportunity to explore in relative solitude while we still can.
Since we began our walk, Eileen has been battling a headache that seems only to worsen as we ascend. The most obvious diagnosis is altitude sickness, but she doesn’t improve with Diamox, Agua Florida (a popular local remedy), or even the administration of oxygen by our guide, which leaves us to believe this may just be a garden-variety headache. Aided by ibuprofen and buoyed by the promise of a long rest at Pucacocha Pass, she pushes onwards and upwards.
Rainbow mountains as we approach Ausangate
Eileen taking a few puffs of oxygen
It’s not long before we are ascending the final stretch of dirt trail to Pucacocha Pass. We’ve been walking in the shadow of beautiful Ausangate all day, but that certainly doesn’t prepare any of us for the scenery that awaits at the top of the pass. Countless blue lagunas sit beneath the 6,384m peak and it feels as if we could reach out and touch the enormous glacier spilling over the rock face.
Cairns at Pucacocha Pass
Pucacocha Pass on the Ausangate Circuit
Dad enjoying a snack at the pass
Me and Eileen at Pucacocha Pass
We enjoy an extended snack break at the top of the pass, just trying to take it all in. Save for a single arriero, we have the vista entirely to ourselves, which truly makes it even more spectacular.
Tearing ourselves away from Ausangate, it’s only a short 1.5hr descent to our camp at Anata, passing quickly as we all chatter about the hike. The scenery remains breathtaking all the way to our tents and we are delighted by the views we will enjoy throughout lunch and dinner from the cozy little mountain hut.
Brisbine family on the Ausangate Circuit
Rainbow scenery on the Ausangate Circuit
Approaching our campsite
It’s just after 2pm when we arrive into camp and it’s definitely been a short day on the trail, but the early morning alarms are starting to catch up with me— I pass out in my tent after lunch, delightfully sheltered from the elements by a straw structure.
I have to force myself to head into the mountain hut for dinner, but it’s not long before I’m back in my sleeping bag. The dreaded 2.45am wake-up for tomorrow has thankfully coincided with pre-existing exhaustion, so I easily fall asleep before 8pm and dream of rainbow-coloured mountains.