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Peru’s Cordillera Blanca is one of the most concentrated collections of big peaks in the Western Hemisphere, with 33 summits topping 5,400 meters (18,000 feet). The most popular way to experience this mountain range is to hike the Santa Cruz Trek, considered by many as one of the best hiking routes in the world. This 50km (31 mile) trail takes you through open valleys, passed high snowcapped mountain peaks along rivers and the shores of brightly colored lagoons.

There are numerous great treks that take you deep into this mountain range but the Santa Cruz offers a little bit of everything in just three to four days. We had just come back from hiking to the laguna of El Altar in Ecuador a few weeks prior and were ready for another high altitude adventure.

 

 

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Hiking Gear Course

 

 

We had only been in Huaraz, the hiking capital of Peru, for a few days and the mountains were already calling us. There’s an endless possibility of trekking and cycling routes in this region of the country, which makes choosing where to start difficult. Santa Cruz is not too long (3-4 days) and reaches a max altitude of 4,750 meters (15,580 ft) which makes it a perfect acclimation hike.

The trail can be walked in either direction, but we started in La Vaquería. Starting here means we would climb less, something I didn’t mind. The journey there by minibus is an adventure within itself. You wind up into the mountains on a dirt road for hours. The views are just a sneak peek at what’s to come.

From Vaquería, we walked up and down the grassy slopes passing tiny villages. An old woman shears a sheep, piglets take a nap in a dog pile, ladies knit woolen gloves and beanies to be sold to tourists and kids yell out “Hola!”. As we pass through, we get a quick glimpse of daily life in the Andes.

After 3 hours of walking we reached Paria Valley and set up camp near the stream. The full moon lit up the night sky. It hung above the mountain peaks for the first few hours of the morning.

 

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THIN AIR & AN A STEEP ASCENT

We woke up early and set off through the Huaripampa Valley. The suns rays illuminated the snowcapped peaks, which make the mountains appear even more spectacular. Eagles soar over crystal clear lagoons and I think to myself, I could walk this trail forever.

 

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When we began the ascent to Punta Unión, this daydream died. The long and steep climb (at least not as seep as the Choquequirao Trail in the Cusco region) would take us to the mountain pass and highest point of the trail, 4,750 meters (15,580 ft), which is higher than any peak in the contiguous U.S. For myself and many other hikers, it would be a personal record.

As we inched our way up the rocky path, we seemed to be going in slow motion. Each step became a challenge as the altitude took it’s toll on me. Donkey trains carrying supplies for camp trotted up the trail with an arriero (mule driver) running behind them. How could they make it look so easy when I felt like I was going to keel over and die any moment?

 

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I’d experienced altitude sickness before and knew the warning signs. My head pounded, breathing was difficult and I had an increasingly sharp headache. I knew it was time to slow down and drink more water before the symptoms got worse.

We had already been hiking for 3 hours and I was loosing steam. Then I heard Antonio shout, “Don’t stop now, you’re almost there!” I looked up and he was standing on a rock just above the last stretch of trail to reach the pass. A few steps more and I made it to Punta Unión.

 

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A new valley laid before us, Mt. Taulliraju towered in the distance and it’s lagoon made an ultramarine colored puddle below. The hardest part of the trail was behind us and it would be all downhill from here. We made our way down the gradual descent into the valley, where more spectacular views awaited us.

 

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THROUGH THE VALLEY

The last part of the trail follows the river down the valley. We had a long day of walking ahead of us, as we planned to finish in 3 days. The trail was wide in most parts which made it nice to chat with other hikers and enjoy the surroundings. We passed another lagoon and the peaks of the Andean giants Alpamayo, Santa Cruz, Taulliraju and Rinrijircas, among others.

Walking in valleys are an enjoyable way to experience nature. You are surrounded by towering peaks and the terrean is mostly flat. Here, several waterfalls dropped hundreds of meters, making the landscape even more impressive. 

 

 

For the last stretch of the track, the sun pounded on us. The trail is mostly sand and rocks. Cactus covers the slopes. The only indications that we weren’t in the desert is the snow covered mountains and the nearby raging river. After 3 days of walking we came to the end of the trail.

I dunked my head in the river and met up with Antonio and our hiking buddies. A five minute walk later, we reached the town of Cashapampa. After a celebration of cold drinks we caught a bus back to civilization, leaving the Andean giants and out of this world colored lagoons of the Santa Cruz trek behind us. 

 

RECOMMENDED GUIDE

Peru's Cordilleras Blanca & Huayhuash: The Hiking & Biking Guide

 

If you are looking for a guide to do the Santa Cruz Trek and many other cycling and hiking routes around the Cordillera Blanca & Huayhuash, the new guide written by Neil & Harriet Pike is without a doubt the best up-to-date and most detailed resource on the market. It’s written by adventurers for adventurers.

 

CHECK IT OUT

 

WHERE TO STAY IN HUARAZ

Alojamiento Soledad – Budget

Clean, cheap and centrally located. The budget-friendly Alojamiento Soledad is probably one of the best values in Huaraz. The staff is super friendly and you feel like at home. Wi-fi connection is included. A great place to stay if you are traveling on a budget.

 

Guesthouse La Aurora – Mid range

Comfy beds, great views, professional service and excellent breakfast make the Guesthouse La Aurora one of the reader’s favorites in Huaraz. A perk is there are free hot beverages and a restaurant on site. 

 

Andino Club Hotel – High End

The Andino Club Hotel boasts a lovely atmosphere, caring staff and large beautiful impeccable rooms. Located at a 10 minutes walking distance from town, it has some of the best views in Huaraz. A big breakfast with eggs made to order is served. 

 

 

 

 

If you want to go on a high altitude hike with beautiful views, this hike is for you. The Cordillera Blanca is home to some of the best hiking in the world, so if you are traveling to this area of Peru, don’t miss this trek. 

3 – 4 Days. If you go with a trekking company, you will only carry a small day pack, this allows you to comfortably walk longer distances. If you plan to go on your own, plan for 4 days. 

This trek is best enjoyed during the dry season, from May to September. April can also be a good choice.

You can start the trail from either Vaquería or Cashapampa. We highly recommend starting from La Vaqueria because the trail climbs much less. Trekking operators organize transportation to the trail head. If you want to do it alone, you will need to take two colectivos (local vans). One from Huaraz to Yungay and another from Yungay to La Vaqueria.

 

 

WHAT WE LIKED THE MOST

+ The diversity of scenery: you pass through valleys, forests, and high passes.

+ Impressive high mountain views.

+ Feel close to nature

+ Climbing to Punta Union is a challenge but doable for all experience levels.

 

WHAT WE DIDN’T LIKE THAT MUCH

 You pay to enter the national park however the road to reach Vaqueria is in a poor state. Also, there is no maintenance of the toilet facilities. Because of this, there is toilet paper littered around the campsites. 

 

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

The Santa Cruz Trek offers some of the best views of the peaks of the Cordillera Blanca without technical knowledge. Even though this is the most popular trail in the area, it didn’t feel crowded. If it’s your first time hiking at high altitude or looking to acclimate for higher trails, this hike is for you.

 

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MORE INFORMATION

Location: Huascarán National Park. Start: Vaqueria – End: Cashapampa

Price:

National Park Ticket (Valid for 21 days): 65 Nuevo Soles.

Guided Tour: Around 140 USD depending on the company including sleeping bag, mattress, tent, bag for mules, transfers, local guide services, mules and mule drivers, cook, breakfasts (except for the first day), lunches and dinners (except for the last day), separate kitchen and dinner tents with tables and chairs.

Useful Notes: If you are coming from sea level or anything less than 2,500 meters, we suggest spending 1-2 days in Huaraz to acclimate before you set out on this trip.

Be prepared for heat, sun, rain and cold. Bring good hiking shoes. If you go with a tour company, mules will carry your big pack. In a light daypack carry toilet paper, headlamp, personal things, camera, sunscreen, fleece, water bottle and snacks. 

 

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35 Responses

  1. Carmen | Carmen's Luxury Travel

    I’m not sure I was be up to hiking for three days. I just recently hike the top of El Teide in the Canary Islands which is at an attitude of 3718 feet and I thought I was going to pass out. I could hear my heart bounding and got the dizzies many times. Peru is very beatufiul and I hope to go visit it one day. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    • Amanda Zeisset

      Dealing with the altitude is tough work but if you acclimate properly it shouldn’t be much of a problem. That’s what’s great about this area of Peru, there are so many short day hikes you can do to ease your way into reaching higher altitudes. We hope you make it out to Peru one day!

  2. Kirk Beiser

    I didn’t hike Santa Cruz but I hiked the Cordillera Huayuash with Galaxia in 2008. One of the best experiences of my life. I hope to do all of the hikes in the Huaraz area someday.

    I will check out the Umapper.com program. That is cooler than my maps.

    • Amanda Zeisset

      Huayuash is on our list! Everyone has been telling us how beautiful it is and we can’t wait to do it. Yeah, Umapper is great and easy to use.

  3. Amanda

    Wow this was so awesome and informative to read! I had no idea about this trek and great to learn insider secrets! It sounds like quite the adventure!

  4. Carolann & Macrae - One Modern Couple

    Absolutely SPECTACULAR views!! We’ve only had minor and brief experiences with altitude sickness and what we felt was bad enough! Can’t imagine such an arduous trek feeling that way – but it looks like it was more than worth it!

  5. Antonette Spaan

    First of all – I just love your blog! There’s not too many people I know writing about multi day treks and such so really happy to have found you. About the trek: awesome! We’ve only done the Inca Trail in Peru and would just love to go back and try some different tracks. This one will definitely be on our list – but the list is endless … one day! Cheers from a fellow adventurer!

    • Amanda Zeisset

      Thanks Antonette! I had the same feelings when I discovered We12travel. You two would love this area of Peru, the hikes are out of this world. How did you like Inca Trail?

  6. Jennifer

    The views on that hike look absolutely stunning! I’m actually in Peru right now getting ready to hike Machu Picchu – can’t wait!

    • Amanda Zeisset

      Which trail are you doing? We are thinking about going for the Lares. The inca trail permits were all sold out but lots of people told us the alternatives are great as well. What are your plans after Machu Picchu?

  7. Dana

    Cordillera Blanca is stunning! I would definitely have to start with shorter day hikes to get myself acclimated to the altitude.

    • Amanda Zeisset

      That’s what is great about this area, there are so many beautiful day hikes to get you preped for a longer + higher one.

  8. Laura

    It sounds like a really nice hike, but I’m not sure I could do that steep climb with the altitude. Congrats on making it up there and on your highest peak! The photos are amazing so I’m sure the actual hike is breathtaking.

  9. Kate

    I did quite a few hikes around Peru and loved the mountain views. It’s incredible up there. This looks good for dedicated hikers but three days might kill me off right now! I wish other travellers wouldn’t ruin areas by littering and making toilet facilities gross. Thanks for sharing great photos and tips about a beautiful part of the world

    • Amanda Zeisset

      The only tough day is the 2nd and even then it’s only a few hours. If you ever make it back to Peru, I recommend you give this one a go! If you go with a company, they have donkeys that carry your pack, which makes it much more doable for every hiking fitness level.

  10. Ian

    Thinking of doing this mid October this year.
    did you guys do the hike by yourselves or with that guided hiking company that you listed?

    • Amanda Zeisset

      We went with Galaxia. While we do enjoy doing some hikes on our own, it’s nice to be taken care of every now and then. Galaxia was well organized, had good quality gear and have affordable prices. Are you thinking to go with a company or on your own?

  11. Inma

    Outstanding images! That scenery is making me so jealous of your adventures in Peru right now. Want!

  12. Wendy

    Planning a trip to Peru inMay hoping to hike the Santa Cruz trail

  13. N

    I am thinking of doing this hike in January. What time of year did you go, or do you know if January is feasible? Thanks!

    • Amanda Zeisset

      Hey Nora, I wouldn’t recommend it..Peru is in it’s rainy season then..it’s better to go in the dry season if possible. If you do go, be prepared for wet and windy weather!

  14. Robert Shaye

    Hi Amanda!
    Thanks for the great trip summary and awesome pictures! I’m heading down to Huaraz with my gf in a few weeks and we’d like to hike in Santa Cruz, but we too only have 3 days. We reached out to a few trekking companies but they are booked or don’t have a 3-day trip option.
    Just wanted to confirm that we can still do this on our own, and aren’t *required* to hire a local guide? (We are experienced hikers). Also, also recs for a place in town to rent gear (tent, bags, etc.)
    Can’t wait to explore the rest of your site!
    Cheers,
    Robert from San Francisco

    • Amanda Zeisset

      Hi Robert,

      Glad you enjoyed the article. The last that I have heard, you can do this hike on your own. If you’re going to spend more time around Huaraz and want some great info about other hikes, I’d have a look at the book I mentioned above, Peru’s Cordillera Blanca & Huayhuash Hiking & Cycling Guide.

      We didn’t rent any gear because we brought our own. Most of the agencies are in a plaza all together (Parque del Periodista). There are also lots on the main street. It’s probably best if you go in person to negotiate prices and to make sure the gear is in good condition.

      I hope this helps! Let me know if you have any other questions. Enjoy your trip and let me know how it goes 😀

      Amanda

  15. Darrell

    Really enjoy reading your trek Blogs and great Pics, will be going on a three day trek in the north of Sicily in two weeks, no where as high as the Santa Cruz but a good start to multi day trekking away from our little island Malta.
    PS what do you do about safety – wild animals and needy people.
    Thanks for the encouraging email.
    Cheers
    Darrell

    • Amanda Zeisset

      Hey Darrell! So happy to hear that you are enjoying the blogs. Enjoy you trek in Sicily. I’d love to hear how it went.

  16. Sam Woolfe

    Awesome photos! I am interested in doing this hike alone (or with other people if I can find them) but without a guide or donkeys. If acclimatised properly, would you say the trek is doable with a map and carrying all your gear and supplies? I’m fit and have done difficult multi-day hikes before.

    • Amanda Zeisset

      Thanks Sam! Yes you can do it on your own. You can find a map at any of the many trekking shops in Huaraz. If you want trekking buddies drop by California Cafe in town and put up a sign on their board. Enjoy!

  17. Kristien

    This hike looks amazing! I have never had a chance to visit Peru, but it’s on my list.
    On my recent hiking adventures in the Alps, I had a few moments when I was ready to give up: I’m not very good with balance, and can get very worried whenever I see a steep rocky path down ahead of me. A few times, we had to turn back because I thought I couldn’t do it. On the last day of our trail, the only way to go was steep and dangerous, with a 200m drop one foot away from us. I guess I became a different person, pushing through my fears and down a trail I would otherwise have skipped – strange how the mind works

  18. pesi

    It’s a great trek – relatively easy (huge trail, can’t be missed) and no problem to do without a guide, if you have the equipment & want to carry it on your back. If you have time I would advise to not rush through in 3 days but take 4 to 5 days & visit the Arhuaycocha lake as well. I just did a combination of the Santa Cruz trek & the Alpamayo trek without guides (almost two weeks with side treks and 3 easy days, the Alpamayo trek is sometimes a little difficult to find). If you hike only the main routes there is ways too much time in the valleys. Consider taking more time and do (dead end) side treks to visit Lagunas and come closer to the mountains… The scenery is great, there is not that much garbage but a lot of animal-poo – I even saw a dead cow in a river. Bring either a water filter or enough gas to boil all your drinking water at least 10 minutes (some recommend to boil it even longer). It’s because water boils at lower temperatures the higher you go (at 5’000m it boils at about 80°C and needs to be boiled longer)… And…. have fun!

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