Peru is a hiking paradise. The Peruvian Andes offer incredible trekking routes. Some as famous as the Inca Trail and many other possible ways to reach Machu Picchu on foot. But today, we will take you to another, less known and less traveled. Join us on the Apu Ausangate trail: a lodge to lodge trek in the Inca territory.
“Please be honest,” our guide, Dimas Tárraga, tells us on the first day of the trek. “We are going to walk over four and five thousand meters high, and I need to know how you feel at all times.” At 6,372 meters, Auzangate is the fifth-highest mountain in Peru, and for five days, we will hike its trails, valleys, and passes. For this, we have the help of a rural community tourism company with a network of shelters along the way and the service of mountain guides and luggage transport. And something significant: they respect a model that generates development in local communities, promoting fair trade and protecting local ecosystems.
Located in the Cordillera Vilcanota, Auzangate is considered a sacred mountain by the local people since pre-Inca times. An Apu, or living mountain characterized by its altitude and eternal snows, from which – according to Inca mythology – the masculine energy that fertilizes mother earth Pachamama is born, which directly influences the vital cycles of the region. It is still one of the most important pilgrimage centers for the descendants of the Incas. And the llama and alpaca herders of the communities in the area still consider themselves guardians of the pristine landscapes surrounding them. Many of these villagers have been trained to serve mountaineers from all over the world as muleteers, cooks, shelter guards, or housekeepers. We leave early by van from Cuzco, a Latin Kathmandu at 3,399 meters, where the altitude has already caused a troublesome sleep for me, on the night I welcome my 41 winters.
The van drives us along an unpaved road along the edge of a steep limestone canyon. “There in the background, you have Auzangate,” Dimas tells us. Its mighty glaciers capture our attention from afar, and we draw our cameras, aware that the weather forecast is not very flattering, and we may not see them again. We start walking, but not before tasting the first of much coca (Erythroxylum coca) infusions that we will drink throughout the trek. Among its many properties, coca oxygenates the blood, which is supposed to be a good stimulus for walking at altitude. We are 4,292 meters. An important fact, since in a trek in Nepal, we would typically have taken more than a week to reach this altitude gradually.
The trail enters a canyon. “When the river rises, we can’t do this stretch; the water completely covers the path,” Dimas tells us. After a few meters, we come across 11-year-old Abel, who is herding his alpacas and llamas. He was with his grandmother, but on seeing us, he came running, his feet barely protected by a pair of rubber straps, to browse and chat with us. “Tomorrow, I’m going to the Pitumarca party,” he tells us with a rascal face.
Leaving the canyon, we enter a wide valley where we can see two small villages on either side: Chilka and Machu Chilka. A large group of alpacas’ grazes in the huge ejido along the large meanders. “The people of Chilka fish for fresh mountain trout with atarrayas, round nets for shallow water,” Dimas tells me. A group of children plays, as free as dirty, giddily before going to the race. They barely communicate with me in Spanish. Quechua is the language of their home, and for some years now, it has also been the official language in schools along with Spanish.
“From the mountain of Ausangate comes the black cloud, but it is not a cloud; it is my lover who comes crying”.
A romantic pair of huallata geese watches us. “They are faithful for life. Or at least many years…” David, assistant guide on our hike, tells me. An Andean Matterhorn invites us to progress towards it at the bottom of the valley, where we already glimpse Chilca Tambo, the refuge that awaits us.
All the tambos have all the comforts to enjoy a well-deserved rest after a day of trekking. The rooms have bathrooms with showers, which can even be used with hot water briefly in the evenings. The dining room is perfect for resting, reading, or chatting in front of the fireplace on the first floor. Wines, beers, and pisco are available. As a tapa, our chef Hernán stands out with delicious tequeños with guacamole. The excellence in the details is noticeable. The service is like that of a hotel.
“From the mountain of Auzangate comes the black cloud, but it is not a cloud; it is my lover who comes crying.” Narcisa, our housekeeper in the shelters who accompany us during the Trek, is in charge of waking us up with a soft and melodic song in Quechua. “The music of the camp is always melancholic,” Dimas tells me.
The radiant sunlight hits the snowy slopes of the horizon, visible from the lodge’s windows. “A better day than in June,” Marcos, the shelter guard, tells me. Outside, a woman knits in the sun sitting on the grass, and we take advantage of the moments before the hike to buy hats and clothes knitted by her, with wool of different qualities. “There are two Inca concepts that are maintained in the Andean communities,” Dimas tells me. “Ayni, according to which people help each other, or put another way: today I work for you, tomorrow you for me.” “And Minka, a joint work in which many families work together, with the community as the beneficiary.
The Uyuni River’s marked upheavals run through the grasslands of the Chilka Valley, forming an aesthetic composition. As we progress, the background scenery becomes more and more imposing. It is hard to believe that the Amazon extends on the other side of these majestic peaks of the Vilcanota mountain range.
“It is hard to believe that the Amazon extends on the other side of these majestic peaks of the Vilcanota mountain range”
The muleteer’s horse, which closes the pass, neighs as it passes by the nucleus of barely six houses he identifies as his home and that of Pío, the muleteer. A shepherdess rests in front of the impressive view of high mountain glaciers reflected in the meadow ponds, where the adorable alpacas graze and stare at us with their friendly faces. It’s a beautiful sight, but are you aware of the natural wonder that is your home? A mountain of reddish profiles contrasts with the Mariposa and Santa Catalina glaciers that flank it. Precisely, we cross paths with a glaciologist returning from taking measurements on Auzangate in the company of a young inhabitant of a village in the area who acts as a guide along with three dogs.
We say goodbye, saddened by what we all know: the retreat of the glaciers is unstoppable. Vicente, the caller who accompanies us, does not need science to confirm it “every year it gets smaller,” he tells us with the certainty of someone who has been seeing it since he was a child.
The sun rises and hits the east face of Auzangate: 6,332 meters of pure Andean joy. An aesthetic silhouette of ridges, rocks, ice, and seracs. Several waterfalls falling from the Mariposa glacier add the soothing background sound, broken by a dog that approaches us with evil intentions and runs away when he sees me pick up a stone and threaten him with the gesture… intelligent dog!
We arrive at a large hut that looks abandoned but belongs to Marcos, the guard of the second refuge we are heading to. Despite the disturbing clouds that besiege him, the view of Auzangate from his patio is superb. Our chef, Hernán, has taken a cooking course at the hotel school in Cuzco, and I cannot help but congratulate him on the delicious Spanish omelet he has served us for lunch.
“What Pachamama likes most are sweets and alcohol”
We are at 4,600 meters, and we continue to stroll at a very gentle pace. It is what the norm dictates at altitude and drinking plenty of water, which aims to expel it; however, by not doing so, this would mean retaining liquids and could cause edema. A couple of small children run towards us from an isolated farm. We find coral fossil remains a little further on, surprising proof that this land was once flooded. We cross a stream of golden-colored water, evidence of sulfur sediments. The road steepens, and we pass by waterfalls that pour water from the glaciers around us and powerful torrents that descend through the grasslands until they flow into large streams. The view of Machuracay Tambo, at 4,850 meters just below the Auzangate glacier, comforts us with the knowledge that a fireplace and hot drinks await us there. Today, we can admire the Chilenita glacier from the lounge window, with priceless views!
“What Pachamama likes most are sweets and alcohol,” Vicente tells me as he prepares the Challa, a ceremony of reciprocity with Pachamama based on the act of watering the earth or another good with alcohol and symbolic elements. We have dawned with ten centimeters of fresh snow around the refuge, which forces us to do the ceremony inside the Tambo.
Vicente, the caller, has been in charge of preparing everything: he has brought a payment, inside which there are seeds, sweets, candies, gold and silver flakes, and, of course, coca leaves. From all of them, we each have to choose the three best ones we see to form the Koka Kintu: three coca leaves that symbolize the three worlds of the Andean people (the Gods, humans, and the dead) and are used as an offering in religious rituals to bring blessings, protection, and good harvests. We will use it to pray for good weather to the Apus: today is the most challenging stage -and at the highest altitude of the trekking, and it wouldn’t be a bad thing to do…
We walk at a snail’s pace on the virgin snow. Our fellow muleteers do it with their feet in the air, barely protected by rubber sandals. We stop, overwhelmed by the sound of distant avalanches and the roar of nearby glaciers from time to time. Curiously, it is in the pauses when I most notice that I am short of breath. Of course, any overexertion is paid for with a good tachycardia! But we reach our goal step by step: Abra Palomani, the pass on a pass at 5,100 meters, the highest altitude of the trek. Although the thick cloud that surrounds us prevents us from enjoying the views, we congratulate ourselves for reaching here without problems.
“The legend says that the Apu Auzangate got tired of men living alone in these valleys, and from the lagoons, he gave birth to alpacas and llamas, so they are also sacred places”
We have three hours left to walk to the next valley, along with a beautiful trail between green pastures, red slopes, and hundreds of alpacas wandering among numerous bofedales. “The legend says that the Apu Auzangate got tired of men living alone in these valleys, and from the lagoons, he gave birth to alpacas and llamas, so they are also sacred places,” Dimas tells me.
The truth is that we are impressed by the large number of them grazing everywhere, some of them tracing perfect diagonals on the reddish sand slopes. In the background, we acknowledge the profile of the snow-capped mountains we are heading for, and we see the refuge far away, a few hours away. Although we are trying not to lose height, we have gone from treading snow to treading mud, and I don’t know which is more slippery and dangerous. We pass by several remains of stones of cemeteries of uncertain times. We had already stepped on the valley of Alcatauri.
In the small villages, I am struck by the stone huts for dogs, protectors of livestock from predators such as foxes and pumas that prowl the landscapes we walk, as well as the piles of black manure that will be used to warm up in the cold winter months.
At 4,730 meters, we come across Anantapata Tambo, in a beautiful esplanade under the feet of Surini and Takusiri, whose summits we sense mighty under the clouds. It seems that our morning prayers to Pachamama have had no effect. My head hurts quite a bit, perhaps because I haven’t drunk half as much water as yesterday.
The horses carry oxygen and even an emergency hyperbaric chamber. “We have never had to use it,” Dimas tells me, “The most common problems are stomach problems.” Of course, in case of an emergency or simply tiredness, the possibility of riding a horse can always help. ‘Plan A’ was to wake up at four in the morning to get to the colorful mountains first thing in the morning and thus avoid the hordes of tourists from Cuzco every day. Still, the bad weather makes us choose to sleep until six o’clock and take it easy since the day will be extended: about 11 kilometers.
“We see a solitary vicuña, a Peruvian national symbol whose kilo of fiber can reach €500 in the market”
Exhausted, I begin the ascent, where small plants contrast with the volcanic rocks covered with freshly fallen snow. “They are pupusas,” Dimas tells me, “In infusion, they are good for pneumonia.” We see a solitary vicuña (Vicugna vicugna), a Peruvian national symbol whose kilo of fiber can reach €500 in the market. The sun fiercely fights with the clouds to come out when we get the Abra Warmisaya, the pass at 4,985 meters, which gives us passage to the Cauri valley. When it finally does, it illuminates the impressive stone mass of Apu Surimi, which watches over the lagoon of the same name in which we distinguish a pair of Andean coots.
Radio Pitumarca appears on Vicente’s transistor, the llamero who descends beside me with colorful llamas. The announcer mixes Spanish and Quechua with astonishing naturalness. Rocks constantly fall from the vast wall. My co reason loses the rhythm of my breathing from time to time, and I suffer minor arrhythmias. It begins to drizzle when I distinguish a solitary figure that advances at a good pace alone in the distance. Narcisa takes advantage of the road to prepare the wool she will later weave.
VINICUNCA: THE SEVEN COLOUR MOUNTAIN
“Where are the tourists?” asks a companion, warned for days of the enormous number of hikers who flock daily to Vinicunca, the mountain of seven colors. We check it out, just taking a few more steps: a colorful pilgrimage invades the scene.
We climb a nearby hill and find ourselves surrounded by dozens of selfie-sticks and colorful ponchos communicating in languages from all over the world. Everyone is waiting for sunlight to take pictures of themselves on the photogenic mountainside. Interestingly, until not so long ago, this place was practically unknown. “Seven years ago, we were already passing by here, and no one was coming,” Dimas tells me. “Besides, social networks were not so powerful, and although we tried to keep it a bit of a secret, it was like putting fences around a field…”.
“We climb a nearby hill and find ourselves surrounded by dozens of selfie-sticks and colorful ponchos communicating in languages from all over the world”.
The truth is that today approximately five hundred people a day go up there. Most of them take buses from Cuzco on one-day excursions. For us, after having walked alone for days, the clash with mass tourism is brutal: the fight for selfies is fierce, so I suffer to inflict one on myself next to the sign that prohibits the passage to the mountain so that it does not erode with the passage of tourists.
THE RED VALLEY
Clouds, sun, rain, hail… the weather is as changeable as the famous Icelandic saying. After lunch, we climb up to the Red Valley viewpoint, a moving landscape of red and green mountains in which some curious rock formations stand out: the Pururaucas. Andean legend tells of a unique battle in which, when the Incas were outnumbered, they invoked their full deity Viracocha, who responded by turning rocks into soldiers. “Now they are supposed to await the arrival of the new Inca reign,” Dimas tells me. The views are breathtaking. We trace a long diagonal over sandy terrain as I think about the ski mountaineering potential of the area.
Skirting a hillside, we enter a new valley with fantastic horizons. The red of the slopes, the green of the fields, the black clouds, and the contrasts of their shadows across the Puna; not a single town in sight, no one. Every few meters, I have to stop to admire the landscape around me- I want it to be part of me and grasp it. It is seductive and chimerical. The red slopes have formations that seem to have been sculpted: water canyons, snow on the peaks, gray tongues descending from them, and bright green mallines next to the streams. When we arrive at Huanpococha Tambo, I realize that, indeed, the locations of the shelters have been well studied: surrounded by impressive rock formations sharpened by the wind, as well as two giant rock jaws and at the foot of a beautiful lagoon. What an awakening! If the night has been -again- abominable, the dawn has made me forget my hardships: the mere sight of the valleys that yesterday were hidden behind the inclement weather, today show themselves refulgent under the light of a sun that also illuminates mountains, glaciers, and summits of the area. It is glorious!
“I have to stop to admire the landscape around me- I want it to be part of me and grasp it. It is seductive and chimerical.”
How would our trip have been if the weather had accompanied us during the whole trek? That is something that I will only be able to find out when someday I return to walk through the Andean landscapes that, from now on, I feel are part of me.
Farewell Apu Ausangate.