The Huascarán National Park is an absolute must-see while in Peru. It is a less well known hiking destination than Machu Picchu, but if nature and mountains are your thing, it should not be missed. We opted for the Santa Cruz trek; a 3-4 day backpacking adventure through the Cordillera Blanca offering stunning views of the Andes and glacier lakes. There are many tour operators offering a guided tour of this route with donkeys to carry all of your gear, but we opted to do a solo hike.
Guided or Solo
There are pros and cons to both options. Ultimately we were glad we opted to do this as a solo hike.
- Hike at your own pace – even with our heavy packs we finished each day before the guided groups and we would have hated having to wait for the group every few miles.
- Camping privacy – after a long hiking day we relaxed with each other without having to worry about others.
- Timeline – we cooked dinner and woke up when we felt like it.
- Flexible hiking distances – all three days we hiked longer distances than we originally planned.
- Cost – it is significantly cheaper to do the trek solo, the trail is safe and well marked.
- You achieve a well-earned sense of accomplishment.
- Cons – packs are very heavy and you must arrange transportation and gear rental on your own.
- Lighter load – you only need to carry a daypack, a mule will take all of your heavy gear.
- Camp is set up – when you finish hiking for the day the campsite is already set up – including your tent, dinner tent, and bathroom tent.
- Meals are cooked – Dinner and breakfast are prepared for you and you are provided a sack lunch for the day.
- Transportation and gear are provided
- A guide will handle any issues/concerns related to safety/injuries/altitude sickness, etc.
We planned to do this hike in four days. Based on the 2 drifting coconuts blog, we packed food for 5 days, just in case we needed to camp an extra day. We rented a tent and cooking gear from Huascarán Travel Agency. We opted for a 3 person tent (Eureka 2K-XT) so we could sleep comfortably and have our packs and gear inside the tent, safely away from hungry cows and dogs. When you rent your gear, be sure to assemble it at the rental place before you accept it to make sure the seams are closed and the zippers work – you don’t want to be caught in a mountain storm with a bad tent. The tent was our priciest piece of gear, but we felt it was worth it to have a good tent. Fortunately that was all we needed to rent as we had dragged our sleeping bags, mats, and poles from Seattle. As for the rest of our gear, we have his and hers gear list at the bottom as well as the pricing.
Where to start
There are two ways to do this hike. You can start in La Vaquería and end in Cashpampa or you can start in Cashpampa and end in La Vaquería. We opted to start in La Vaquería because it is easier to get a ride out of Cashpampa than it is out of La Vaquería, and the last thing you want to do after an intense backpacking hike is to worry about getting back to shelter. The other reason we decided to start in La Vaquería is because there is less elevation gain, while carrying full packs of gear less elevation sounded great. People say that the views are better if you start from Cashpampa, but we found that taking time to look behind us as we hiked offered great views and even better excuses to take a break. But also, the weather is extremely unpredictable and you could end up with cloudy and foggy days in which case you can’t even see the mountains. You can’t go wrong either way.
How to get there and back
Starting in Huaraz you will need to catch a colectivo to Yungay that leaves from the Terminal Huaraz-Carhuaz. Some people say it is safe to walk there in the morning since people are out and about but we opted for a taxi. The colectivo will cost S/5 per person (less than $2 USD) and it will take about an hour and a half. You will want to get there before 5:30 AM because you need to catch another colectivo from Yungay to La Vaquería and the colectivo leaves at 7:00 AM. To be safe, get to the terminal by 5:10AM. The colectivo will stop at the terminal in Yungay so you will have time to get your backpacks off the colectivo (at all the other stops you literally have to jump off the colectivo as it is pulling away). At the Yungay terminal the next colectivo operator will spot you as a gringo with a pack and swiftly direct you to the colectivo to La Vaquería. This next colectivo is S/20 and takes about 3-3.5 hours. This bus ride is unpaved the entire way and takes you through the mountains and has many hairpin turns, so be prepared. You will stop at the ranger station to purchase your park entrance, for foreigners it is S/60 per person for a 3 day pass, they required our passport numbers but did not need to see our actual passports. We got to La Vaquería just after 10AM. There are some stands there to purchase last minute provisions and snacks. We opted for some mandarins and coffee and then got started.
Once you walk into Cashpampa you will need to take a colectivo down the mountain to Carhuaz. It should cost about S/8 per person, we paid S/10 because our drive started at S/15 and we were too tired to haggle anymore. Say your prayers before you go because it is quite a ride down the mountain. There were 6 of us in a tiny station wagon that looked like it was on its last life. There were cars that were broken down in the middle of the mountain road that we barely got around. It was a 45 minute hell ride into Carhauz. We celebrated our survival with empanadas and beer. Once you’re ready to go, head to the Carhuaz-Huaraz terminal and hop on a colectivo. It is S/6 per person, we had to pay for 4 seats because our backpacks took up a seat each. It was a small price to pay to get home. It took about 2 hours but we finally made it!
Day One: La Vaquería to Laguna Tucto
The first day is a warm-up day. You start in La Vaquería and hike through agricultural villages for 3 miles. Here you will encounter gradual inclines and declines as well as local villagers requesting money.
Once you make it through the villages you will come to the ranger station. You will need to register and provide proof of your park entrance.
The rest of the hike is a tranquil walk through the valley until you reach the main camp area, Paría. We were anticipating on camping here, but we were feeling strong and knew the next day would be tough so we opted to keep going. But before we left we took a long break to bask in the sunshine and enjoy the stunning views.
It is an uphill trek to the next campsite at Laguna Tucto and it is the last place to get water before you cross the mountain pass the next day.
Unfortunately Laguna Tucto was filled with gnats, we had to eat and stay inside our tent in the evening and morning because the gnats were so unbearable. Sergei ended up with really bad bites over his entire body. Although the gnats were so bad and it was not relaxing in the slightest, we were still glad that we pushed an extra 1.5 miles from Paría to give us a shorter hiking distance the next day.
The stats for day 1:
- Difficulty: Easy
- Distance: 8.6 miles/ 13.8 km
- Walking time: 3.5 hours. Total time to camp: 5 hours.
- Elevation gain: 2,113 ft/644 m
- Garmin link
Day Two: Laguna Tucto to Quisaur
We knew this was going to be our toughest hiking day, and it certainly was. Immediately from the campground we started on a gradual ascent. After walking for 2 miles, the pass we would need to cross came into view. At this point we were already exhausted from battling the gnats and weathering the rain in the morning and it honestly looked insurmountable.
Our motto the entire trek was “slow and steady” and that is exactly how we hiked. The pass is clearly marked and the trail is very well maintained, it is just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other in order to get over it. Once you reach the top of the pass you are treated to incredible views that make it all worth it. You are treated to 360 degrees of stunning mountains and two teal lakes.
Here you get a glimpse of “the Paramount mountain.” (Artesonraju) It is the perfect place to rest and have lunch before you begin your descent.
From the top of the pass you have a 2 mile descent into the Taulipampa campground which is situated on the river.
This will be your first place to grab water since leaving Laguna Tucto. When we arrived at the campground we still had some strength left and decided to move on to the next campground, Quisuar. We decided to do this because the guided groups all stop at Taulipampa, it isn’t crowded by any means and there are lots of places to pitch your tent, but we prefer to have a place completely to ourselves. The second reason was because we could then chop off another 1.5 miles that we would otherwise have to do the next day. The Quisaur campsite is on a very rocky river wash, so we had to walk about 100 yards up the mountain climbing trail to find a flat place to camp. Thankfully there were no gnats and it was a wonderfully peaceful place to stay. It was a difficult 8.5 mile day. We hiked for 4 hours, but it took us about 7.5 hours to get from one camp to the next with all of our breaks.
The night Quisaur was really clear and we got some great pictures of the valley.
The stats for day 2:
- Difficulty: Difficult
- Distance: 8.45 miles/ 13.6 km
- Walking time: 4 hours
- Total time to camp: 7.5 hours
- Elevation gain: 2,339 ft/712 m
- Garmin Link
Day Three: Quisuar to Cashpampa
We had anticipated hiking to Llamacorral and camping and then hiking from there to Cashpampa on day four. We left Quisuar at 7:15AM and arrived 6.7 miles later at Llamacorral just after 10AM. We felt it was too early to finish for the day and it was quite windy at the campground so we chose to go for the gold and finish the trek the same day. Although the hike to Llamacorral was basically flat the whole way, 6.7 miles is still significant with a pack. The trail is sandy and rocky so you also need to pay close attention to your foot placement. We were ready for a break at Llamacorral and much to our delight we found a pack of puppies waiting for us there. Incredibly there is also a shack selling snacks and provisions. We already had way too much food since we packed for five days and were finishing in three so we opted to share some treats with the puppers and play a little bit. This provided a much needed morale boost and we were back on our way.
The hike from Llamacorral to Cashpampa is mostly downhill, we felt that in some places it was significantly steeper than the descent down the pass, which was all switchbacks. It ended up being a hot, sunny day and there was very little shade on the route so make sure to have good sun protection.
We arrived in Cashpampa before 2PM and at end of the trail we were treated to a live band and villagers selling ice cream and snacks. From here you need to walk another quarter mile to get into the town where you can grab a colectivo. If there is not a colectivo waiting already, grab a beer and some shade while you wait.
The stats for day 3:
- Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult
- Distance: 14.97 miles/ 24 km
- Walking time: 5 hours.
- Total time to Cashpampa: 6.5 hours.
- Elevation gain: 187 ft/57m, but you descend 3,346 ft/1020m
- Garmin Link
The total cost
$264 for two people – In comparison you can do a guided tour with 5-8 other hikers for $240 per person (the price increases if the group is smaller) with a highly rated company – Eco Ice Tours.
The cost breakdown in $USD for two hikers:
- Transportation: 2 taxis & 4 colectivos: $32
- Food for 5 days: $40
- Park entrance: $36
- Paper map: $14
- Rented gear: $142
The packing list
- Personal locator beacon, bivy sacks, first aid kit & scout survival kit
- Sleeping bags, inflatable sleeping mats and inflatable pillows
- Hiking poles
- Maps.me downloaded, paper map, & a compass
- Camelbak water bladders, water filter, iodine tablets, two empty water bottles for filtering
- 3 person Eureka tent & plastic tarp
- Face and body wipes, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, floss, toothpaste, toothbrushes, & many plastic bags – leave no trace!
- Bug spray, sunscreen, chapstick
- Cell phones, extra battery charger, camera, & a drone
- Cooking stove with small propane canister, matches, & a lighter
- One large cooking pot, 2 small pots we used as plates/bowls, 2 mugs, 2 forks, 2 spoons, 2 knifes
- Food for 5 days (oatmeal, coffee & coca tea for breakfast, top ramen for dinner, nuts, dried fruit, chifles, granola bars, empanadas, and pastries for lunch)
- Playing cards
- Hayley’s Clothing:
- 4 pairs of underwear, 4 socks, 2 sports bras
- One pair leggings, one pair of sweatpants, t-shirt for sleeping
- One pair of hiking pants,
- 2 short sleeve hiking shirts, 2 long sleeve hiking shirts
- Baseball hat, beanie, sunglasses, 2 pairs of gloves, face mask
- Fleece jacket, down jacket, rain jacket, rain pants
- Sleeping mask & ear plugs
- Hiking boots
- Sergei’s Clothing:
- 4 pairs of underwear, 4 socks
- One pair of hiking pants
- 2 short sleeve hiking shirts, 1 long sleeve hiking shirt
- Midweight base layer, down jacket, rain jacket, rain pants
- Wide brimmed hat, sunglasses, beanie, 2 pairs of gloves (one fleece, one Gortex)
- Hiking boots
Things we wished we packed:
- Anti-itch cream for bug bites
- Bug repellent lotion – we really underestimated the bug situation
Things we wished we left at home:
- The two pots that functioned as plates/bowls. We ended up sharing all of our warm meals and just eating directly out of the cooking pot.
- Slight North – Solo Hike Complete Guide
- That Backpacker – Hiking the Santa Cruz Trek
- The Adventure Junkie – Santa Cruz Trek
- Travel Outlandish – Santa Cruz Trek
- Be My Travel Muse – 10 Things to Know about the Santa Cruz Trek in Peru Without a Guide
- 2 Drifting Coconuts – Santa Cruz Trek… Unguided
- Active Peru – Santa Cruz Trek – good overview map