Claire Milner hikes the Ausangate Lodge to Lodge Trek: the Apu’s Trail.

“That was well done, fantastic!”  opined encouragingly our chief guide, David, as he welcomed me with a warm handshake at the door of the lodge.  This was getting to be a bit of a ritual;: the llama train with all our personal gear and food would arrive first, followed by the main group of trekkers accompanied by David and the emergency horse, and, ten minutes or so later, I would roll up,  alongside the doe-eyed Saul,  ultra-patient second guide and trainee.  

But that tells you a lot about how this adventurous expedition is organised. It’s a strenuous hike, mostly between 4,500 and 5,000m above sea level, and precious little of it is flat. So even the strongest trekkers can have their moments of breathlessness or aching limbs.  Ever mindful of this the guides made sure that everyone’s progress was well monitored, and the horse (not used on this outing) standing by.   

First class service at over 5,000m

En route, we never go hungry. At lunchtime we reach a sheltered spot where a tablecloth-clad table has been laid up for a sit-down meal of nutritious soup, salads and dessert.  On arrival at the lodges we are offered hot drinks and tapas, followed soon after by a beautifully presented candle-lit three course dinner, all prepared by the chefs and  ever-smiling, locally-recruited house-keepers who accompany the trek in their skirts and open toed sandals, charging ahead of the Goretex-clad hikers.  After dinner the guides entertain us with anecdotes around the wood-burning stove before we shower in sizzling hot water and tumble into our huge comfy beds, cocooned in duvets, feet warmed by hot water bottles.  Chocolate on the pillow? Tick. Upon waking it would be another gourmet meal – breakfast with cereals and a cooked dish.

Cosy and comfortable Andean Lodges

The lodges are a work of love. It looks like no expense has been spared to create cosy, long lasting accommodation, with well crafted, heavy wooden furnishings. No flat-packed stuff here.  Three of the four lodges are nowhere near a road or track – all the materials have to be brought in by horse – no wonder it took Andean Lodges, in partnership with co-owner local communities, three years to complete the project. Simple they are, but basic they are not.  So much more elaborate and welcoming than a typical mountain refuge: we really looked forward to arriving at our new lodge every night.

You have to be fit to hike the Ausangate Trek, but not a mountaineer

On the whole, in spite of my speed, I was pleased with how I got on. I had been a bit worried that my hip replacement might have been a hindrance, but it turned out just to be a phoney excuse for my lagging behind. Anyway, frequent stops to look at the views are mandatory.  And what views!  I have done quite a few treks in the Andes, including the classic Inca Trail and Salkantay trek in Peru, the Takesi and Choro treks in Bolivia, and various hikes in Patagonia.  But there you see nothing as staggeringly monumental as the vast bulk of ice-jacketed Ausangate, the 6,380m peak around whose skirts the Apu Trail winds, brooding over lake-pitted russet plans, pea-green wetlands, dark ravines and boulder choked streams.

Ausangate’s  other-worldly scenery

To say it is other worldly is an understatement. Mars has nothing on this: the kaleidoscopically coloured mineral-striped cliffs are almost as free of life as the red planet, except for hovering condors or grazing guanacos, tiny specks dwarfed by the enormous scale of the surrounding landscapes. The silence of the glaciers reflecting the translucent eggshell blue sky, purple ashy plains yawning off to the horizon: the panoramas are extraordinary. And we are virtually alone - I don’t know if it is the altitude which discourages people, or the unwillingness to camp at such a rarefied altitude if not staying at the lodges (which accommodate up to 18 guests only), or the fact that it doesn’t end at Machu Picchu,  but this magnificent trail is almost deserted. At the start and end of the trail we pass through simple adobe farmsteads or hamlets, but so rare are visitors that giggling children come running out of school to greet us (maybe in the hope of a sweetie, it is true).

Rainbow Mountain

On the last day we leave early to climb for a close-up view of what is popularly known as Rainbow Mountain, a 5,000m peak where layers of minerals have been upended into a cone by volcanic activity. It’s very photogenic: visitors flock here from Cusco on the other side of the mountain on harrowingly exhausting day trips, only to take selfies if themselves   facing away from the mountain.  We are so pleased that it took us four days to get here, without having to form a queue of visitors, and full of respect for the sheer majesty of nature.  

By the way, the apus are the spirits of the mountains.  Fortunately for us visitors, they seem to be benign and welcoming… 

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