Bikepacking Ausangate

Most people come to Cusco to visit the mighty Machu Picchu, highlight of countless South American trips and dream destination for many. It’s therefore almost with a sense of guilt that I tell people I haven’t bothered to go and see it, but my visa clock is ticking furiously (4 weeks overstayed and counting) and to be honest my real interest lay elsewhere; the mighty Ausangate. This beast of a mountain lies just to the south of Cusco and its trekking circuit has been on my radar for sometime as prime bikepacking territory.

Time constraints almost meant this final Peruvian mountain foray didn’t happen, but Mike, one of the few to have biked this challenging route, did a good job of changing my mind. His words were somewhere along the lines of “best place I’ve ever ridden a bike”. A bold claim, but despite a bizarre episode of bike theft and the usual rainy season battering, I’d have to concur; it’s a true Andean epic.

Here’s how it went down:

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Although fleeting, my time in Cusco was enough to get a feel for the place and nod approvingly at the many remnants of Incan stonework. If incredibly precisely cut stonewalls are your thing, Cusco’s historic centre is the place for you…

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Then it was back to the job at hand, winding through small villages en route to Ausangate.

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A new region signals a new variety of outlandish headwear and linguistic quirks. In Peru complete strangers have a habit of referring to you as a relative, in Ancash province it was ‘tio’ (uncle) and in Cusco region I’ve now been upgraded to full on ‘papa’ or ‘papita’; “hey papa” “here’s your change papa”. All a bit bizarre.

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The following day saw me leave the roads and start the trekking route encircling Ausangate. All quite normal, except I’d brought a bike (newly pimped out with blue cabling and bag systems)

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Easing me in, the first stretch was on a dirt road, climbing towards the hulking mass of rock and ice looming ominously in the distance.

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Taking advantage of the favourable morning weather, I tried to beat the system by setting of at the crack of dawn. This saw me pitching camp at 11am, probably a new record, but at least I had a pretty reasonable view to gaze at. That is, until the afternoon deluge got underway.

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Tucking into some local cheese…

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…With Ausangate starting to peak through the clouds later just before disk.

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The next morning I awoke to a snowstorm and, of slightly more concern, no bike outside my tent….

The Bike Theft Saga:

Struck by a mix of disbelief and despair it took a few minutes to fully process what had happened; the single entity around which my whole trip is based had just been nabbed. A bit of a bugger to say the least! Camped in what was effectively mountain wilderness, with only a handful of small shepherd shacks around, this hardly seemed a crime hot spot, and having survived countless ‘dangerous’ metropolises, the irony of it all was almost laughable. Far from being in a laughing mood though, I started pacing around like a frantic mother who’s just misplaced a child, chasing down any roaming shepherd I caught sight of. Fitting the crazy gringo stereotype perfectly, the ‘have you seen my bike?’ question was met with understandable surprise. As expected, leads were fairly non-existent, with the ‘bad men who live high in the mountains’ generally being blamed, the almost certainly fictional characters that it seems are consistently the source of problems anywhere in rural Peru…

The hours ticked by and following a fruitless ‘house to house’ search I’d just about given up, when, by an absolute stroke of luck, I spotted the bike stashed down at the bottom of a small ravine. Half covered in foliage and nestled amongst rocks, it was barely visible, but there was no mistaking it. Some manhandling later and I was able to retrieve it, thankfully to find it full working order. Overcome with relief tinged with confusion, I didn’t hang around to try and unravel the mystery, instead packing up as quickly as I could and getting the hell out of there. A bizarre episode that could have easily changed the course of the trip and one I was pretty glad to see the back of…

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Trying to make up for lost time it was onwards and upwards to the first pass on, at least initially, some fairly rideable singletrack.

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Compared with previous hike a bike escapades, notably Huayhuash, this was a relative piece of cake and I arrived the 4800m Abra Arapa feeling suitably de-stressed.

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Following a series of alpaca tracks the decent down the other side wasn’t too shabby either…

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Passing the odd ‘shepherdess’ wandering the remote mountainsides whilst spinning some wool. Great multitasking.

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By this point I’d looped round to the backside of Ausangate…

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…And was greeted by a series of stunning lakes.

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Keen to avoid a repeat of last night’s incident I decided to push on past all signs of human activity and optimistically made a bid to tackle the second pass. Progress was brought to an abrupt halt though by the onset of a ferocious hailstorm, which gave me little choice but to throw up the tent where I happened to be and take cover.

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After an hour of listening to wind and ice batter my ultralight tent, I emerged to complete change of scenery…

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Time to put my new beer can stove (basically a beer can as the name suggests) through its paces and rustle up some dinner. Boiling ice at 4750m, not bad going for a $1 bit of kit.

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No shortage of glaciers/ice caps for evening entertainment, with the occasional crashing icefall

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The following morning I was pleased to see the bike where I’d left it, albeit blanketed in snow…

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Quite the winter wonderland

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Setting off into the snowy landscape listening to Katy Perry sing about Californian sunshine. And, as if by magic, a snow free trail guides up the remainder of the 4900m pass

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Looking back from whence I came, before plunging down the other side on a slippery, semi rideable trail

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Before long Ausangate is at my back and I’m below the snow line, following a valley back to civilisation. Some of best descending in a quite a while. Job done!

All in all a pretty intense little adventure on a number of levels and a fitting ‘last hurrah’ in Peru before following more conventional routes to the border. With any luck, the next time I post I should have finally extracted myself from this incredible country and be in Bolivia…

Route Info:

GPX file saved here, although keep in mind there were a couple of points I strayed off route and had to correct course.

  • 120km ish from cusco to tinke (all paved), basically turn off the main road at Urcos and start a 1000m climb up to a 4200m pass. I stayed in ocongate a few km before tinke with hospedajes, restaurants etc
  • From tinke it’s a 15km steep dirt road (still under construction) to the Upis campsite at base of Ausangate (4450m)
  • From there it’s up to Abra Arapa (4800m) then following the trail round the the back of Ausangate via the lakes (including a stream/river crossing), route finding can be tricky here. You then reach the second pass (4900m). Both passes are fine to push rather than having to carry the bike.
  • From the second pass you descend to Laguna Ausangatecocha and leave the trekking circuit by following the valley down to your right. There are trails on the left side of the valley, although can be tricky to follow at times. For the Last couple of km there’s a dirt road. This takes you to the ‘main’ dirt road leading down to pitumarca. In total it’s about 40km from tinke to where you meet this road, then it’s 30km down to pitumarca and another few km of paved to reach the cusco-Puno highway.

Security:

Had I done the slightest research I would have discovered that this route is notorious for theft. In fact the only Trekkers I met had effectively been mugged for their sleeping bags and were thus forced to retreat. My advice would be to obviously lock bikes up together if travelling with others or attach to a tent pole so at least you’ll hopefully be woken up if someone tries to pinch it. The incident happened at Upis where the hot springs are. Also I recommend not leaving anything valuable in the vestibule of the tent, this is how my stove was taken in Huayhuash.

 

12 responses to “Bikepacking Ausangate

  1. That’s amazing that you got your bike back. Looks amazing and makes me want to come back with a bike that weighs as little as yours!

  2. Paul, sounds intense! I am back in California now after a bit of a detour over to Colorado by train. Navigating cities with a bike in a box and all my gear was quite the ordeal! I will be in San Diego in a few days before heading to Hawaii to meet up with the family for Christmas. Then in early January I will start my ride down the Baja, any tips for the Baja? I ended up getting a new tent because I couldn’t stand the ultralight one, it was too small so I ended up with a Hilleberg Akto 🙂 being from England I’m sure you’ve heard of this Swedish brand! I also ditched my whisperlite and went with a Trangia alcohol stove, much lighter but the big thing for me was I was tired of the soot and the nasty petrol! I had some new dry bags custom made for the front forks, long and skinny! much better than the small event sacks I had before!

    Anyways, sounds like you are having an epic time! One more question, I recently started vlogging my journey but I’m worried about adequate wifi speeds for uploading video in central and south america. Is this something I should be worried about or is there good wifi speeds there? thanks mate!

    Cheers,
    Patrick

    Alaska Down Under

    • Hey, yep that’s a nice tent! I’ve also just entered the world of alcohol stoves, certainly a more peaceful experience… You’ll have no trouble with wifi speed further south. As for the baja I was under pressure to meet a friend so just blasted down ‘the road’ but there’s some interesting looking dirt road excursions that could be worth looking into. Also there are some cool beaches around bahia de conception that are good for chilling out at for a couple of days.
      Cheers
      Paul

      • Yeah, much quieter and it can simmer! Something my whisperlite would never do! I will keep that in mind, I just don’t want to switch back to mountain tires too soon and be left pounding the pavement with wide nobbys. I have to be back in the states mid February and have mutual friends in La Paz so I might take a month to go down the peninsula.

        The tent has been awesome so far. For one pound more than my previous tent it is loads more durable and a very big vestibule!

        So are you still thinking you’ll be done with your trip in 18 months total? Sounds like it may be a 2 year or more trip eh? Whenever anybody asks me I say 18 months minimum lol

        Cheers mate!

  3. Amazing pictures increditable scenery. Sorry about your bike glad you found it in one piece. I’m amazed at your strength and courage and perseverance in this difficult torraine hoping for better days ahead for you.

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  5. Awesome!

    Glad to see you made it to the mighty Ausangate,and pleasing tomsee you got your bike back.

    Must have been that going blue cabling, we didnt have any problems.

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