Let me start this off by saying that this hike is not for the faint of heart. I struggled monumentally on this hike and consider myself to be a pretty avid hiker. Laguna 69 lies at 4,600 meters above sea level (15,000 feet), meaning that the altitude, weather, and conditions can all play a big factor into how the hike goes for you.
For me, the weather and conditions were perfect. It was the altitude that ultimately made the hike much more challenging than it was. Although I’ve had a few issues with altitude in the past, Laguna 69 was the most I ever struggled with altitude since hiking Rainbow Mountain near Cusco almost three years ago. Earlier on this same trip, I hiked up to Cotopaxi’s base camp at 4,800 meters, but with that being only a one-hour hike, it was a lot more manageable than Laguna 69’s 6-hour excursion.
It was tough but most of all, it was rewarding. There’s a reason that this is one of Northern Peru’s most iconic destinations. Here’s everything you need to know to properly prepare yourself for Laguna 69.
Can You Hike Laguna 69 Without A Guide?
Most people choose to hike Laguna 69 by going on a tour to simplify the whole process, but it is possible to do it on your own. There is only one trail to and from Laguna 69 from the trailhead so it is nearly impossible to get lost as long as you stick to the main trail. There are a few detours that you can take to see smaller lagunas or other beautiful viewpoints but those are also clearly marked.
The benefits of doing Laguna 69 on your own is that you might have more time to spend in the park to do all of the little detours and spend a little more time at the Llanganuco Lakes just before the trailhead. It definitely helps if you have your own form of transportation. If you do, I would highly recommend doing it on your own as tour agencies only offer transportation and a guide, and one can go without a guide if you are just interested in taking in all of the beautiful scenery.
The benefits of doing Laguna 69 with a tour agency is that the whole process is simplified. You get picked up at around 5 AM and you’ll be back in Huaraz by 6 PM without having to worry about getting to and from Laguna 69. The price for most tours is 30-40 soles ($10-13), not including the 30 soles entrance to Huascaran National Park. There is a guide who will tell you all about the area and the lakes that you pass by but for the most part, they linger in the back with the slower hikers to make sure they are okay. If you are in good shape and have acclimatized to the altitude, you might not see your guide the entire trek.
What To Bring For The Laguna 69 Hike
Bring the typical hiking essentials. You will be out in the national park for about six hours and then spend another 5-6 hours in the bus or car, so bring everything you think you’ll need for a long 12 hour day.
I recommend bringing at least 2 liters of water. I brought two liters and went through both by the time I reached Laguna 69. I refilled both at the Laguna because damn, that water is crystal clear and refreshing as hell. If you have your own filter or don’t mind drinking fresh mountain water, then you can just refill at the Laguna without having to bring enough for the route there and back.
Definitely bring a lunch and snacks because the hike is long and you will need as much energy as possible to complete it. I only brought a small pack of Oreos, two mandarins, and a mostly empty bag of cereal. Be smarter than me. Bring bananas, sandwiches, peanuts, or whatever your favorite hiking snack may be.
Depending on the weather, what to wear for Laguna 69 can vary wildly. We had a perfect day where the skies were pretty much clear the entire time. It can get very hot when the sun is beating down on you at 4,600 meters above sea level. I wore three layers up top and two layers on the bottom, all covered by my poncho. I thought I packed gloves but for some reason, I only had one. I also decided to pack extra socks but for some reason, I also apparently brought only one.
If you get a crappy day, it might be even more miserable. If it is cold, you might need more than 3 layers. Definitely bring a rain jacket and a cover for your pack in case it starts to rain. We got a little bit of sprinkle at the end but were lucky for the entire actual hike. Also, bring sunscreen, a hat, and anything else you white people need to protect yourself from the sun.
How Hard Is The Laguna 69 Hike?
Hard. Remember when I said that the guide usually sticks around the back to be with the slower hikers? That was me. I was the slowest hiker. The altitude absolutely was killing me towards the end, and a combination of lack of food and getting only 2.5 hours of sleep the night before definitely did not help. I was dizzy and lightheaded and needed a break nearly every ten seconds.
I started the hike off extremely upbeat and was practically jogging along the flat parts. But the higher you go, the harder it gets. The combination of the incline and the altitude slows things down real quick. You gain about 800 meters of elevation from the trailhead. It didn’t sound like much until I did the actual conversion in my head and realized we’d basically be hiking an incline of 2,500 feet across 7 kilometers in 3 hours. That last sentence probably pissed off both Americans and non-Americans.
Basically, the hike is hard. You finish off at 4,600 meters and start at around 3,800 meters above sea level. I had acclimatized to about 4,000 meters having done Laguna Paron and spent 5 days in Huaraz at this point. Once I got past that, I started to really struggle. The hike can be broken up into three parts.
Part 1: Easy Peasy Pisco Squeezy
The first 45 minutes of the hike is mostly flat and the incline is negligible. It basically feels like taking a pleasant stroll along the river in a valley surrounded by snow-capped peaks everywhere you look. The fluffy cows are grazing everywhere, the grass is green and views are spectacular. It is an idyllic scene that feels like what paradise would be like. The terrain along this stretch is mostly soft dirt or grass. This is by far the easiest part of the hike and you should enjoy everything while you can.
Part 2: The First Ascent
All good things come to an end. Eventually, you will have to start the switchback portion of the hike. While I was moving slowly along this part, I didn’t really feel like I was struggling too much. I was among the tail end of the pack but I attributed that mostly to stopping to take pictures every few seconds. The scenery as you continue to ascend gets more and more beautiful and keeps you motivated, especially as you see the snow-capped peaks, a gorgeous waterfall, and the vast valley behind you urging you on.
The terrain starts to get rockier, but still relatively easy to walk on. The incline is flat and steady. There aren’t any frustratingly long stair-like switchbacks that you’ll find on other hikes. However, towards the end of this first switchback stretch, it gets much steeper. Once you’ve wrapped up this stretch of switchbacks, you will be rewarded with a stunning view before dropping off into a flat stretch for about 10-15 minutes.
Part 3: Death
Enjoy that final flat stretch because from here, the hardest portion of the hike comes into play. This long stretch of switchbacks can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour depending on how fit you are and how the altitude is affecting you. Despite being a pretty fast hiker who thought I had acclimatized properly, I couldn’t help but to watch as the slowest hikers in our group passed me one by one. I struggled severely at this point, and had to sit down a few times just to let myself breathe for a few minutes. I was extremely lightheaded and would often lose my footing just because of how dizzy I was.
Take this part as slow as you need to. The three hour suggested hiking time allots for about an hour spent at Laguna 69 itself. Even if you have to spend a little less time at the Laguna, just make sure you get there in the first place. Take as many breaks as you need. All this pain will be worth it in the end.
The Journey Back
The way back is entirely downhill, except for a stretch or two that only lasts about a minute. After my recovery sesh at the Laguna and my lunch of 4 Oreos, I was feeling a lot better. I was practically running down the mountain. It took me about an hour and a half to get back to the start of the trailhead, including two several-minute long breaks to enjoy the scenery and dip my feet in the river. I was also walking barefoot for the last 20 minutes or so which was unnecessary and painful. Basically, you could probably make it back in less than an hour and a half.
It gets easier the lower you go. Once I could breathe normally again, I felt superhuman. By the time I made it to the final stretch of flatness, I pretty much was jogging just to remind myself that I am a physically capable person and not the snail struggling up the mountain just two hours prior.
Most tours will leave Huascaran National Park by 3 PM to be back in Huaraz by 6 PM. The bus ride was both a blessing and a curse. I was blessed to be able to finally sit after that long hike. But I could also no longer ignore the pounding headache that I had gotten from the altitude. The winding, swerving, bumpy mountain roads had me doing my absolute best not to throw up on the bus ride back. I managed to get a solid nap in to alleviate the pain a little bit but I was definitely feeling the hurt.
Take the altitude seriously and do your best to acclimatize to it. When you are actually out there hiking, never push yourself harder than your body can take. The altitude sickness can strike out of nowhere, no matter your fitness levels. I could be walking slowly and all of a sudden feel so lightheaded that I needed to sit down. I can’t imagine if I was actually pushing myself and had a bad bout hit me when I was already struggling to breathe.
All in all, now that I’ve finished it, Laguna 69 was an unforgettable experience. It is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life and worth the entire struggle.