Back in October while scrolling through Instagram, I landed on a photo of the Cordillera Blanca mountain range in Peru and was instantly hooked. The lake looked so blue, and the mountains so dramatically-shaped and snow-capped. It looked like Peru’s version of Patagonia. When I researched it more, given my time constraints, the 4-day Santa Cruz trek out of Huaraz looked like the perfect way to see the best of it.
When I first started planning my Santa Cruz trekking experience I knew that I wanted to do it on my own. As fun as it can be hanging out with a group, there’s something wonderful about packing up your own bag and going at your own speed through the mountains. You get to make all of your own decisions and it’s possible to get a lot more solitude on an otherwise very popular trail.
I found plenty of blogs and websites online before I started the hike myself, but most of them left out incredibly important information or even made irresponsible suggestions.
After having a gorgeous and issue-free hike on the Santa Cruz trek myself, these are all of the things I learned about having the best possible experience out there:
1) Benefits of doing the Santa Cruz trek solo vs. with a tour
If you’re still weighing the options, these are the pros and cons of doing the trek with a group versus independently:
With a group:
- Benefits: The biggest benefit of taking a guided tour is not having to carry your own gear. Donkeys are used on the trail, the food is already planned out, and you don’t have to do much planning at all. You’ve also got a guide with you so if anything goes wrong, you’re taken care of.
- Drawbacks: You’ll be going at the pace of the slowest person in the group, and will not experience any solitude. You’ll also pay more to do it this way. Expect to pay between 350 to 400 soles. If you’re being asked to pay more, go and ask at another shop.
- Benefits: You get a lot more solitude, especially if you follow the route I suggest below, and the biggest thing for me was being able to go at my own pace. I also got way more time at the famous Laguna Arhuaycocha, waiting until the tour groups left and getting it to myself. That was more than worth it to me! It was also cheaper. Between renting a tent and buying my own food, plus the transport, it cost about half of the tour price. It’s not a big enough difference to make a decision solely on finances, I think, but my purpose was to have more independence.
- Drawbacks: You have to carry everything, do all of your own prep, and be totally self-reliant.
2) You already know, it’s at altitude
But in case you didn’t – surprise!
The highest point of the trail is at 4750 meters (about 15,583 feet!), and most of the trail, particularly the hard parts, takes place over 4000 meters.
If you’re considering doing this trek independently, this probably isn’t your first rodeo, but still, don’t take the altitude lightly. Give yourself plenty of time to acclimate in Huaraz before you go, do preparatory treks like the Laguna 69 first to see how you do, prepare to be out there for an extra day if need be, and don’t go if you don’t feel well.
Some people advise taking medication for the altitude. I have personally never done this, even while hiking the Annapurna circuit in Nepal and Rainbow Mountain outside of Cusco, both of which are higher. Everyone has to decide this for themselves, but I personally want my body to be able to communicate with me, and the side effects are dehydration and sensitivity to sunlight, both of which are incredibly unhelpful at altitude!
To be completely honest, I had no problems whatsoever with the altitude. I took 3 days/4 nights in Huaraz to acclimate, hiked Laguna 69 the day before, and drank plenty of water all along the trail. While I know that everyone is different and a lot of people struggle on this trail, the biggest reason is not giving themselves enough time to acclimate.
3) What to bring
I wrote this list as I packed so that I couldn’t possibly leave anything out. Here’s everything I brought:
I decided to err on the side of caution and bring enough food for four nights in case I had issues on the trail with altitude and needed to take it slower. This made my pack a bit heavier but I think it’s worth it to be prepared for a worst-case scenario when you’re trekking independently. If shopping in Huaraz, I recommend the Novaplaza for one-stop shopping, although if you’re a kind soul who wants to support the small guys too, buy your candy bars and dried fruits at the smaller markets:
- 500 grams pasta
- 4 85-gram pasta sauces (I would have loved powdered soup instead since it’s lighter but could only find pre-made sauce)
- 300 grams oatmeal
- Powdered milk and chocolate milk
- 4 Snickers bars (hiker’s gold)
- 400 grams dried fruit and nuts for lunches
- 4 small packs of Oreos
- 1 small salami
- Coca leaves
- Enough ziplocks to portion out each meal
I brought my own gear with the exception of the cooking equipment and tent. I do wish I’d had my own tent. You never really know if you got a leaky one until it’s too late, which unfortunately for me, meant drying out my tent every afternoon:
- Trekking poles
- Light tent
- Lightweight sleeping bag for 0-C or under: It’s very important that your bag keeps you warm and doesn’t weigh much!
- Sleeping mat (this is so worth the money! How did I ever use anything else?)
- Backpack that can fit all of your gear inside. It will rain, a rain cover often isn’t enough to keep your sleeping bag dry, especially if it’s windy and the cover blows right off.
- Hiking boots: I love this pair, even after 8 days in Alaska I didn’t have a single blister, and they keep my feet warm and dry
- Camp stove, lighter, and one gas canister
- Camp pots and fork, plus sponge
- SteriPEN, or some other method to sterilize your water
I always just bring one set of clothes for hiking in, and one for sleeping in, with enough undies and extra socks. Keep the weight down!
- 1 pair waterproof gloves
- 4 pairs of thick socks
- 2 warm merino layers
- 1 sports bra
- Enough underwear to change daily
- 2 pairs of yoga pants or whatever you prefer to hike in
- 1 waterproof ski jacket
- 1 pair hiking boots
- 1 pair camp shoes
- 1 beanie
- 2 thin neck warmers that can double as ear warmers
- 1 hat with brim
- Diva cup
- Bug spray (wasn’t necessary in May but I’ve heard it can be buggy at times)
- Compeed blister bandages
- Small first-aid kit with medical tape
- Waterproof map
- Toilet paper and baby wipes and a ziplock to keep them in when you’re done using them. Pack them out!
- I also insure myself with a travel insurance that covers adventurous activities like hiking, because you simply never know!
4) Getting There
My story of getting there was interesting, and will also prove informative: After quickly packing up and leaving my hostel the first morning of my planned trek, I realized that every blog I’d read, and my map, advised getting a collectivo in Huaraz (combi taxi) but failed to mention where that happened.
I walked around town in the dark, bound for the center, figuring that must be the right track. A couple of locals I asked saw an opportunity and suggested I take an expensive taxi, claiming that the last collectivo left at 4am. This is false. A kind soul overheard and walked up next to me and quietly said, ‘three more blocks.’
Thankfully, just as the clock hit 5:30 I saw a collection of collectivos and asked at the first one, ‘Yungay?’ The driver briskly nodded a quarter of a centimeter and started rolling forward. I jumped in and marked down the spot where I found him – it’s here you’d probably like to know. It costs 5 soles, and not an extra 3 for your bag like the guy tried with me. (I gave him a quick, ‘bruh, nah,’ and he dropped it).
For the next hour and a half we regularly pulled over to pick up and drop off passengers. I made it to Yungay close to 7am and was immediately greeted by an enthusiastic driver who beamed, ‘Vaqueria?’ and escorted me to his van. He knew why I was there. This ride should cost 20 soles and he will stop at the park entrance for you to buy your 60 sole-ticket. Go for the 3-day one, they only check your ticket once at the beginning.
The drive was the most terrifyingly beautiful of my life. The pass was snowed in, and I was pretty sure that beat up old van didn’t have winter tires, if they even had tread. Two sharp curves had snow so deep he got stuck, backed up on a blind curve with no railing and a bunch of crosses (others who didn’t make it on that curve) and made it on the third try. I tried not to pee my pants.
To get back out, you’ll hike to Cashapampa where a collectivo picks up right at the end of the trail, bound for Caraz. This should cost 10 soles and chances are good you’ll be in a sedan packed with 8 people – no joke. The drive from Caraz to Huaraz should cost 5-6.50 soles.
5) Route planning
For the most part, the trail is obvious although it does branch in some parts and you need to know when to be looking for a fork in the trail and what to do if you get to the higher elevations and the trail is covered in snow.
It is helpful to have a waterproof topographical map. Anything else will just disintegrate. I bought mine at Quechuandes and thought it was great to get a sense of the elevation gain and loss and to know when to anticipate the forks in the trail. However I did not follow the exact route they suggested.
I highly suggest downloading the route on the maps.me app as well. Not only will it help you out when you have deviated from the trail, it has all of the other campsites listed on it that the tour groups do not camp at. This was incredibly useful for me to avoid having to ever share my campground with anyone else. It was awesome.
This is my suggested route:
- Day One: Take the 5:30 AM collectivo from Huaraz to Yungay and onwards to Vaqueria. You should be able to begin hiking at around 11 AM. Keep a good pace and go beyond Paria to the first unofficial campsite on maps.me. (Note: I made sure this was fine with the Ranger before doing so. However please only camp in designated campsites. They are clearly marked on maps.me. These campsites do not have facilities so it is incredibly important that you practice Leave No Trace principles, including taking your toilet paper out with you).
- Day Two: Having completed part of the uphill already by pushing beyond Paria, it will be easier getting to the Punta Union pass. I would still leave right at dawn. I made my way down to the first Taullipampa campsite — there are two — by 2 PM. This is the campsite in the photo above, and is less crowded than the second Taullipampa campsite where the tours camp. That said, I wish I had realized that there is another, better campsite at Alpamayo Base Camp. I could have reached it by 4:30pm or earlier. That would’ve given me an opportunity to see the Laguna Arhuaycocha at sunset and sunrise without having to share it. It would be an incredibly long day to get there but I will power through if there’s a next time.
- Day Three: Since I hung out at Laguna Arhuaycocha for most of the afternoon, I stopped at a campsite an hour before llama corral so that I could have more solitude, and it was perfect.
- Day Four: I really powered through so that I could be in Cashapampa before the final collectivo, which is usually around 3 PM. In hindsight I could have walked a bit slower, but it’s a lovely downhill which gets a bit steeper at the end through a gorgeous valley to the end.
If you’re a fast hiker and experienced with backpacking, feeling good, and you make it to Alpamayo Base Camp on day two, it’s possible to combine days three and four and finish the trek in 3 days. I would still go into it planning on 4-5 days just in case.
6) Which direction should you go in?
You can reverse the directions I suggested above if you wish. Many people do. There are pros and cons:
I had heard that starting in Cashapampa and finishing in Vaqueria was the less popular option but I don’t think that’s really true. I might have even met more people going that route.
You also have two additional uphills in the lower elevations where it’s hotter if you begin in Cashapampa, which are downhills instead if you begin in Vaqueria. Some people have said the trail is more beautiful if you begin in Cashapampa because you are hiking towards the mountains, but if you can turn your head, you get the best of both worlds.
If I had it to do over again I’d still begin in Vaqueria.
7) How difficult is the Santa Cruz trek, really?
Difficulty is hard to measure, because it’s subjective, however I feel this hike would be moderately easy at sea level, and moderate at altitude with weight. That said, multiple accounts I read online rated it as moderate to difficult.
The trail is nowhere near the steepest I’ve experienced. If you’ve hiked in Patagonia, it’s much less steep than Fitz Roy and overall, easier than Torres del Paine, however both of those are low-elevation hikes, and altitude is a major factor.
If you’re properly acclimated and you hike often, this should be fine for you. If not, it will be challenging.
8) There are many animals
I never realized what goofy animals cows are until I encountered them on trails, I also never realized how much they deeply love salty things and how willing they are to eat absolutely anything. This includes shoes, the little baggies your tent stakes come in, and seriously everything else.
I slept with everything in my tent, including my backpack, my shoes, and definitely my food. Had I realized how tight it would’ve been, I would have brought a two-man tent like the one pictured above, however I had a one person tent and it was cramped in there!
Unfortunately putting your shoes or your backpack or anything under the rain fly and not zipped up in your tent is a bad idea. It would not be much fun to wake up and find your shoes are missing or you don’t have food anymore!
9) When to go and weather
Trekking season begins in May and finishes in October. Otherwise it’s the rainy season, which means snowy season in the mountains. I began my hike on May 5 and encountered snow at Punta Union, and a very wet and muddy trail. For most of it, water was running all down and through the trail itself. It was unavoidable. If you didn’t have waterproof hiking boots on, you were pretty much guaranteed to have wet feet. However I did, so I was happy.
All that said, I think it was the perfect timing because there were few others on the trail. For the whole first day, I was almost entirely by myself. By stumbling upon several better selections campsite-wise, most nights I didn’t have to share my campsite either.
Does this mean that if you go at the very beginning of the season that you will be all alone? I met a few other hikers who were also doing it independently and we joined forces. Generally you won’t be alone out there because this is a very popular trek, which is why I had the confidence to go solo.
I’m sure the weather is much nicer in July, I am also sure that there are hundreds of people on the trail.
I’m a photography buff, which means a lot more weight on my back, but I can’t imagine going without taking tons of photos and video! It would pain me. So if you’re like me, I suggest the following:
- Camera (here’s a guide for what I use)
- Solar charger – this is super useful since batteries do weird things like drain super quickly at altitude.
- Lightweight tripod (I know, I’m kind of crazy but how else will I take good selfies?)
Nearly 3000 words later, that’s everything I learned while solo and independently hiking the Santa Cruz trek in the Cordillera Blanca mountains in Peru’s Huascaran National Park. I’d been told it was one of the most beautiful trails in the world and, though it has some really tough competition in my book, it was one of the nicest trails I’ve done. I highly recommend it both for the challenge of hiking at altitude and for the gorgeous views and laguna after stunning laguna.
I learned about so many more lakes and trails while I was there, so watch this space, because I’ll be going back!
Happy hiking! I hope this helps you to plan an epic Santa Cruz adventure.