Almost exactly a year ago we stood at the turnoff to Ausangate for a good 20 minutes, agonising over whether to take it. We’d had every intention to, but a solid day of overdoing it on the Salkantay trek a week before had left my knees in bad shape. Fine when walking, but barely able to cycle except on the smooth, relative flatness of pavement. Feeling pretty dejected we took the paved road south and vowed to come back to see to this unfinished business one day. Much sooner than expected we found ourselves back here, feeling giddy with excitement. We planned to make the most of our second chance, riding as much of a circuit as we could, rather than a traverse of the western side.
Our arrival in Checacupe, on the main road running south out of Cusco, feels a world away from Arequipa province. We’ve seen very few tourists for weeks, and the reception in these quieter places was always friendly and curious. Respectful greetings are the norm, and we’ve been gifted things much more than we’ve been asked for anything. School is out when we pull in to Checacupe and we’re pummelled by a barrage of shouts of ‘¡Gringo!’, small hands pushing and pulling on bikes and bags and trying to snatch at clasps and buckles, or outstretched and asking for money. The adults are not shy of trying this either. This doesn’t seem like a poorer area, but maybe it’s the much greater exposure to tourists that gives the locals we pass a sense of being somewhat less content with their lot in life. We make a hasty escape and roll through to the nice little town of Pitumarca for the night to sort out supplies.
The climb up the valley is on a lovely dirt road with increasingly good views. Glimpses of glaciers and peaks quickly dial up the level of excitement – we’re finally here! Turning off, a rougher road leads us deeper into the valley and closer to an impressive line up of mountains, then stops abruptly. A sudden, steep hike-a-bike section has me heaving and panting and tired within minutes, wondering what the hell I’ve gotten myself into. Fortunately this is not how Ausangate means to carry on. Quickly we’re back into rideable territory, with some hike-a-bike and weaving through rocks to find a hidden campsite among some boulders.
One of these things has hair like a llama but is not quite a llama
Ausangate, sadly, has earned a reputation for robberies (as far as I know they’re of the sneaky-in-the-nighttime-from-the-tent-vestibule variety, rather than the violent gunpoint variety). We’re on higher alert than usual, locking the bikes together and to the tent and daisy-chaining all of our belongings in the vestibule. Unsurprisingly we don’t encounter any issues, though admittedly a few of the people we meet are of a slightly stranger variety than the generally lovely Peruvians we’ve come to know over our five months roaming the Andes here.
The first odd encounter occurs in the morning, when a shepherd traversing high on the side of the valley starts to make his way down as we are packing up. A friendly greeting quickly turns into demanding payment, at first for camping (we protest his price of 20 soles is the same as what we’d paid for a room the previous night and give him 5) then he claims it’s the entrance fee for visiting the nearby Rainbow Mountain, which we explain we haven’t been to. He then claims its for entrance to Ausangate, and when we ask for a ticket in return he says we can receive the ticket later in Pitumarca. I explain we’re happy to pay for any necessary tickets, from any actual ticket sellers, and if they’re in Pitumarca we’ll pay for it there. He seems to run out reasons to charge us, and we all agree everything is ‘todo bien’ (all good) but instead of leaving he just sits himself down on a rock and stares at us until we leave…
A morning of mostly taking the bikes for a walk inches us closer to Abra Campa (at 5072m it’s the highest pass on our circuit) and the glorious peaks surrounding it. If one is going to push a bike, surely this is the place to do it. Drawn to the beautiful spire of Puka Punta and some tantalisingly rideable terrain we veer off course, and only when we see the pack horses high above us do we realise we’ve been traversing when we should have been climbing. Always climbing.
A new set of brake pads are installed on the pass in preparation for the downhill. It is stunning, rideable, flowy, spine-tinglingly good singletrack almost all the way down with spectacular views of lakes, glaciers and spiky peaks. It’s enough to make us forget the slog up – A pattern that will repeat over the next few days.
We camp on the crossing between the east and west trails, spending the afternoon gawping at Ausangate’s north face when the clouds lift. It towers about 1800m above us.
The following morning everything is shrouded in a low fog and we quickly find ourselves a little off-track again. No matter, we think, we’ll just plough straight through and join the track on the other side of the valley. We bump through swampy wetlands, cross some small streams and run into rock wall after rock wall, eventually giving up on trying to get around them and instead just going straight over, restacking the rocks we knock down in the process. Shortcuts are rarely any shorter.
On paper the next pass after Upis is a short one, but the morning’s huffing and puffing and detours see us taking our time to enjoy the scenery and stopping for snacks all the way up.
Snacking, snacking, more snacking
The trails from the pass are fun and flowing, with lots of smooth narrow traversing and constantly changing views. A steeper, looser downhill section follows that has me on and off the bike a few times, while Andy blasts down and is unable to contain his ear to ear grin.
The first of several stunning turquoise lakes has sadly been spoiled by the obscene presence of rubbish bins. I can’t fathom who they thought might be coming to empty them. Despite very little of the rubbish being contained in the bins, and just being blown and scattered around the area, new bags of rubbish seem to have been ditched. There’s evidence of tourists being responsible for it, with western food brands visible in the trash. I’d love to camp here but the sight of this is enough to put us off.
A satisfactorily epic camp spot is found for the eve of my birthday. With it being near the end of the circuit I decided birthday cake wouldn’t survive this long, but packed some Oreo’s instead. We polish them off throughout the day, starting with sprinkled over the morning’s porridge.
Obviously Ausangate missed the memo about my birthday, and dishes up one of the worst days of weather we’ve had in Peru. Given the pretty uniformly excellent weather this just means a bit of snow, tiny hailstones and thick grey skies. Kind of magic in its own way.
The last pass proves to be the most straightforward with some rideable sections to go with a face-full of glacier views. Ausangate’s glaciated west face seems to stretch for kilometres. It’s a seriously epic sight, vast amounts of ice tumbling down from the sky scraping heights. A steep descent spits us out at a camp where a woman comes to collect the 10 soles pp fee for something (Ausangate entrance?). It has a legit ticket and everything.
The cold makes progress fast and resting unappealing. We’re back in Pitumarca in time for a hot cooked lunch and the beginnings of a fiesta. Warming cups of tea in hand it’s easy to entertain the idea – and we do – of restocking and going again when the weather clears.
Pitumarca to Pitumarca, anticlockwise, following the Ausangate section of Cass Gilbert’s Tres Cordilleras route.
~126km over 4 days.
In this direction you have a stunning singletrack downhill after Abra Campa, and the last climb is fairly rideable. Although doable the other way, this seemed preferable. Coming from the south, if you were just doing a traverse, I think riding either side would be excellent, with the east probably offering more continuous riding after the pass. It would make an excellent hike too, with the only downside being some road sections at either end.
Water and food
Water isn’t hard to come by but was often not very clear with lots of sediment. A filter would be preferable to a Steripen. Pitumarca is well stocked for food.
There’s a good, clean, cheap hospedaje in Pitumarca downhill from the plaza. Camping is easy and beautiful on the route, though there are a lot of houses around. We were asked to pay 2 out of 3 nights and if you are close to someone’s house this seems fair.