The circuit is an extremely high-altitude 70-km hiking trail face-to-face with the gigantic, snowcapped peak of Ausangate. Unlike the Inca Trail and others nearer to Cuzco, it stays very high in alpine puna habitat and does not pass through forest. Because of its distance and difficulty, it is less popular than other treks, but far more adventurous, with passes up to 5100 m (16750 ft). Although non-technical, it takes you to eye level with glaciers, jagged Andean peaks, and unparalleled stargazing. The trail begins in Tinqui, a small town about 3 hours southeast of Cuzco, and ends in the hamlet of Pacchanta a few kilometers further east. It has minimal historic sites; its attraction is the mountain itself.
Hiking is best in the dry season, approximately May-September, although the mountain creates its own weather. The trek is generally hiked counterclockwise, from Tinqui to Pacchanta, as this is slightly less demanding; however, transportation into and out of Tinqui is easier than Pacchanta.
Guided tours are offered by an array of online agencies as well as in Cuzco, and even out of Ocongate, the nearest bigger town, or Tinqui if your Spanish is decent and you are willing to network very quickly. They are advisable for all but the most experienced hikers and useful even for seasoned mountaineers, since they provide navigation and often packhorses, and carrying a pack over steep terrain well over 4000 m is more difficult than you would expect. Despite the short distance, the trail typically takes 4-5 days because of the altitude and steep terrain; any shorter tour is likely a day trip or out-and-back rather than the full loop. You can rely on your guides to have a good knowledge of the route, the mountain conditions, Spanish and Quechua, but not necessarily anything else.
Ausangate is possible to walk independently if you are acclimated to the altitude (at least to Cuzco) and if you’re an experienced backpacker with excellent route finding skills and winter equipment. The trail is not always marked, and the topography is harder to navigate than a glance at a map might suggest; the Andes are big. Additionally, the mountain will likely be trying to kill you. The Ausangate circuit is higher and colder than anywhere in North America or Europe. Expect daytime temperatures of 5-15°C and nights at -10°. Snow, rain, hail, sleet, or all four at once are frequent, although snow rarely accumulates on the trail. You will not be completely alone on the trek, but it is remote. Local people are friendly and helpful but speak no English and sometimes don’t speak Spanish. Place names are Quechua and have conflicting transcriptions and even pronunciations (for instance, Jampa, Qampa, and Campa are the same pass; Pacchanta is generally pronounced like Spanish Pajchanta), which makes navigation confusing.
If you start Ausangate on your own and decide you wish you weren’t, it may be possible to rent space on a packhorse from, and thereby join, a tour group for as little as S/50 a day, but the mountain is not crowded enough to count on finding one.
Buses (S/15) leave for Tinqui in the morning from a small yard south of the Coliseo Cerrado in Cuzco (see map); it’s best to reserve a day in advance just to mark the location, as it can be hard to find. Ask for Ocongate, if necessary.
Buses to Tinqui generally stop near the Plaza de Armas, where you can find a few restaurants, shops, and a small market (but bring your supplies from Cuzco). The trailhead is across the river; there is a S/10 fee for backpackers.
This description divides the trail into sections based on established campsites, but the independent trekker could camp virtually anywhere along the route.
Day 1: Tinqui - Upis
Follow a good dirt road that twists across the river and round the hills up from Tinqui. Passing motorcyclists will likely try to sell you a ride further uphill. Although the first few hours’ walk is approach through farmland without much to see, it is unwise to accept their offers unless you are very well acclimated; otherwise you risk gaining over 1000 m in less than a day. Walk past a very small town, Upis, and continue left up through the hills, as the farmhouses become scarcer and further apart. The road eventually levels out, with decent campsites; soon after, turn right and follow a faint trail for a few kilometers across the edge of a broad, marshy valley until you hit a small outpost with horses and a few buildings; this is Upis Alto, with primitive bathrooms and even more primitive lodging (from S/10). The owners speak Spanish and Quechua only and are somewhat taciturn, but may rent packhorse or even hire a guide depending on their availability or mood (from S/30-50/day).
Day 2: Upis - Ausangatecocha
From Upis, the trail continues on the right side of the valley, gradually climbing out of the valley and heading increasingly steeply to the right in a rocky ascent to the Arapa pass (4700 m). Continue through rolling terrain with icy spires looming above for a few kilometers, then descend a winding path down the side of the mountain to Puqacocha (Red Lake). The trail crosses a stream just below the lake; the stream is rocky enough that you need not get wet. Follow the right bank of the lake upward into the hills, passing several glacial lakes with spectacular views of Ausangate before entering hilly, marshy terrain. The trail continues at a steady climb up to the Apacheta pass (4800 m) but descends rapidly along steep switchbacks to a small lake with a campsite (S/10), bathrooms, and a storeroom, in the shadow of the glacier above.
Day 3 - Ausangatecocha - Qampa
Follow a winding trail upward through boulders and then through very steep scrubby slopes; the trail becomes braided but any way up will be the right one. The trail becomes clear when the slopes become a bit more gentle and the alpine tundra gives way to gravel and scree, and climbs the slopes of dark barren peaks to the Palomani pass, at 5100 m the highest point on the trail, with stacked stone figures and spectacular views in every direction. Descend gradually into a narrow valley with irrigation channels and alpaca herds; follow the channels for about 2 km before the valley opens into a broader plain. Turn left and follow the left side of the valley upward along a narrow fast-running creek for a few kilometers toward a boulder-strewn, marshy plain with camping and a small, intermittently open store with a friendly shopkeeper.
Day 4 - Qampa - Pacchanta
Continue gently gaining elevation on the left side of the valley, passing a small outpost with alpaca herds and dogs, which should be given a wide berth. The trail becomes steeper toward the Jampa pass (5000 m), with spectacular views of the glaciers both above and below the trail. After the pass, the trail drops into lower, greener terrain and becomes wider and better quality in the style of the old Inca roads, then winds through ponds and wetlands. Where the trail braids (often), stick to the widest path, and it will take you down to the hamlet of Pacchanta, with hot pools (S/5) and a restaurant.
Usual hiking precautions apply, but more intensely. Purify at least lower-elevation water sources; herds of alpacas and hikers are common below 5000 m. Take waterproof and quick-drying clothing; cotton kills. When approaching alpaca herds, beware of guard dogs.
Do not attempt the Ausangate circuit without a guide unless you have experience hiking and camping at high altitudes and very cold conditions. The trail is poorly marked, steep, and perhaps the highest-altitude trek of its kind; you will spend almost all of your time higher than the highest mountain in the contiguous US and likely sleep above the tallest of the Alps. The weather is changeable and vicious, and the altitude is about as high as anyone without technical mountaineering training can attain. There are no rescue services. On the trail you can expect a few groups daily; if you are lost and off the trail, you will see no one.
Make sure you are well acclimatized to the elevation before attempting the hike. It is recommended that you spend at least 2–3 days in Cuzco and ideally much more; the trail is far higher than Cuzco itself. A reasonable schedule might be to spend 2-4 days in the Sacred Valley and an additional 3-5 days in Cuzco before attempting the trail, and even then you will strongly feel the altitude. Make sure you are familiar with the effects and treatment of altitude sickness. Coca leaves have little to no effect; if you experience persistent headache, nausea, extreme fatigue etc. the best treatment is descent.
A few travel agencies and maps suggest variations on the trail that go even higher, such as going east over the Chumpi pass or toward the Singrenacocha lake. Hiking these independently would require extremely good route finding skills, and possibly river crossing and alpine climbing techniques.
Otherwise, taxis charge about S/40 for the short drive from Pacchanta to Tinqui. From Tinqui, take a bus back to Cuzco or east to Puerto Maldonado in the Amazon.