Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash range is the stuff of dreams. As an avid trekker and chaser of views, hiking the Cordillera Huayhuash circuit was something that had been on my bucket list for years. When the opportunity opened up to take a trip back down to South America, I immediately knew that I wouldn’t let the opportunity pass me by again.
As I took those final few steps towards the village of Llamac on the final day of the trek, I couldn’t help but shed a few happy tears. It was among the most challenging, yet rewarding, things I have ever accomplished. There were plenty of moments along the way that made me question my sanity and my capabilities but step by step, I pushed forward. Step by step, for 130 kilometers, across grueling mountain passes, battling the sizzling sun and shivering through every night and early morning. Step by step, we survived.
The Cordillera Huayhuash is one of the best things you can do in your life. It is yet another testament to the incredible diversity that Peru offers. For those of you who manage to make it up to Huaraz, it is a no-brainer whether to do the Cordillera Huayhuash or not. Here’s everything you need to know about this incredible adventure.
How To Prepare For The Cordillera Huayhuash
Preparing Physically For The Cordillera Huayhuash
The Cordillera Huayhuash is no walk in the park. You don’t need to be an ultramarathon runner to be able to do it but it will be a lot easier if you are in good physical shape. You should have experience with trekking beforehand and be aware of your capabilities or limitations when it comes to a lengthy multi-day trek like this.
There are a number of hikes in Huaraz that you can do to help yourself acclimatize and build up some physical strength and endurance. I think you should do four of these at the very least.
A good first acclimatization hike starting at 4,200 meters above sea level. It is less than 2 hours round trip from the parking lot to the viewpoints at the top but it is a good way to gauge your acclimatization and fitness levels.
This was the very last hike I did before taking on the Cordillera Huayhuash. I found it to be quite easy although it does take you up to 4,450 meters above sea level. By this point, the altitude did not bother me at all and I was able to cruise through this hike. However, it is a good preliminary hike before taking on the more challenging day treks like Laguna 69.
This is one of the most challenging day trips you can do from Huaraz. Although I felt absolutely awful after struggling my way through this hike, I felt invincible the following few days. This will probably be the best indicator for whether you are ready for the Cordillera Huayhuash or not. If you can do Laguna 69 without any difficulty, then you might be okay for the Cordillera Huayhuash. There are at least three days I can think of on the Huayhuash that are significantly more difficult than Laguna 69.
While this quick trip isn’t much of a hike, it does take you up to around 5,000 meters above sea level. That’s about as high as you will go during the Cordillera Huayhuash. I did this following Laguna 69 and knocked out the hour long hike in about half the time.
This was the hardest thing I did before taking on Huayhuash. At 5,150 meters above sea level, requiring crampons and ice axes, in the midst of a blizzard atop the mountain, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. But I conquered it nonetheless. It was a good reminder just how much more difficult something like Huayhuash could be if conditions were anything short of perfect.
4-Day Santa Cruz Trek
While not a day trip, doing Santa Cruz is probably the best way to gauge your readiness for Huayhuash. It is only half the length of Huayhuash’s 8 days but it gives you a good introduction to sleeping at high altitudes, camping in a tent, and the overall grind of a multi-day trek. The highest point you reach is 4,750 meters above sea level, which you’ll hit like 5 or 6 times along the way in the Cordillera Huayhuash. So I wouldn’t say it’s a good indicator for whether or not you are physically ready, but definitely a good introduction into what you’ll be living like for eight days.
You never truly feel ready for something like the Cordillera Huayhuash. But looking back, all of these small preparations added up. Had I gone into the Cordillera Huayhuash without properly preparing, it would have been extremely more difficult. All of these made a difference, like mini-bosses before taking on the final battle.
Preparing Mentally For The Cordillera Huayhuash
When it comes to an 8-day trek, you need to be as mentally prepared as you are physically. They go kind of hand-in-hand, as the more physically prepared you are, the more mental confidence you’ll have. But it’s more than just confidence. It is mental fortitude and the willpower to keep going despite any challenges.
Within my group, my two close friends and I seemed to have the most problems. Food poisoning, bad blisters, twisted ankles, and a brutal cold made our time significantly more difficult. The three of us were a shining example of powering through adversity. My German friend had never gone on a trek like this before, and after renting boots that gave him blisters after the first day, he ended up finishing the trek in tattered Nikes. On one of the days, he did not take a single break throughout a 1,300 meter elevation gain. Mental fortitude.
But at the end of the day, it’s just one foot in front of the other, over and over again. From your first steps at Cuartelhuain to crossing the finish line at Llamac, it’s just walking.
How To Find A Trekking Group For Cordillera Huayhuash
Spending 8 days alone in the wilderness can be both dangerous and lonely. Although I love hiking alone, I definitely felt more comfortable going with a group, especially with friends that I had known beforehand. Depending on your style of travel, it may or not be easy to find a group to do Huayhuash with. As a backpacker who frequents hostels and other highly social establishments, it didn’t take long for me to gather together a group.
However, everyone has different schedules and plans would often fall through. At one point, I had gathered about six people who were keen. After a few days of rain, three of them backed out. We scraped together another two people last minute and managed to book a tour together as a group of 5, lowering the costs significantly if we booked alone.
Booking and Planning
One of the hardest things about going on an 8-day trek with an agency is figuring out which agency is the right one. I spoke to a handful before deciding to trust the tour operator that had arranged a few of my other trips in Huaraz. We ended up being put together with a group from Huayhuash Expeditions, and I have nothing but glowing things to say about them as a company.
As far as booking goes, there is no need to plan too far in advance. We booked and paid for the trek the day before we actually left. Of course, preparations were happening in the days leading up to the trek but there was never a rush or necessity to book the trek that far in advance. If you are planning on doing the Cordillera Huayhuash without a trekking agency, then you can basically just leave whenever you feel like you’re ready.
What To Bring On The Cordillera Huayhuash
Doing Cordillera Huayhuash With A Trekking Company
If you are doing the Cordillera Huayhuash through a trekking company, they will likely cover most of the essentials for you.
What they will provide:
- Sleeping Bag and Sleeping Mat
- Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Snacks
- Donkeys to carry your stuff
That is typically the bare minimum, but some trekking agencies will go above and beyond.
- Emergency oxygen
- Coca leaves
- First aid kits
- Water filters or water pills
Which leaves you to bring
- Warm clothing (down jacket, waterproof pants, jumpers, etc)
- Winter clothes (gloves, hat, socks, thermals, etc.)
- Head lamp
- Spare shoes for hanging out at camp
- Extra snacks or water
- Bag for the donkeys
Doing Cordillera Huayhuash On Your Own
You’ll need to bring everything. A daunting task for an already daunting trek. Basically, you’ll have to stuff all of the above and then some in your tiny pack.
Cordillera Huayhuash: Day By Day Guide
Day 1: Let’s Have Some Fun
- Trekking Distance: 0 kilometers
- Trekking Time: 0 hours
- Altitude Gain: 1100 meters + (all driving)
- Campsite Altitude: 4,200 meters
- Mountain Passes: 0
- Difficulty Level: 0/10
This is the calm before the storm. There will be no trekking today. It takes about six hours to drive from Huaraz to the start of the Huayhuash circuit so by the time you get there, you won’t have much daylight left for trekking. Usually, you will leave Huaraz in the morning at around 9 AM. You’ll have a quick lunch break at a small town just before you reach the Cordillera Huayhuash and then will arrive at your campsite in the mid-afternoon at around 3 PM. If you have booked with a trekking company, then camp is already set up for you. Take the next few hours to chill, hang loose, and get to know your trek mates.
The long drive will have you itching to get going but take it slow today. Try to use today to practice your breathing and find a rhythm with the altitude. Mentally prepare yourself for the next seven days of trekking however you need to. Meditating, a bit of yoga, or nothing at all. Today will feel like the day before a very long Christmas. It might be hard to sleep with all of the excitement but keep in mind that that 5:30 AM wake up call will come sooner than you think.
Day 2: Chasin’ Some Views
- Trekking Distance: 18 kilometers
- Trekking Time: 7 hours
- Altitude Gain: 1100+ meters
- Campsite Altitude: 4,200 meters
- Mountain Passes: 2
- Difficulty Level: 6/10
Here we go. The first actual day of trekking. Your legs are fresh and you can finally release all of that energy stored up from the bus ride yesterday. You are going to need all of it because guess what, we’ve got two mountain passes ahead of us. That may seem daunting but most of the incline is very gradual with a lot of flat ground in between. The first mountain pass came surprisingly quickly and most of the group was able to reach it with relatively little struggle.
Between the first and second pass, there will be a lot of downhill and flat ground. The views so far are not anything to gawk at but it is beautiful nonetheless. Eventually, you’ll reach a little shack where the guides will have to pay some sort of entrance fee to the local people hanging around.
From here, the ascent to the second mountain pass begins. The short break here got to me a little bit as I struggled with the initial incline towards the second pass. However, the second pass came along really quickly as well. I don’t think anyone even realized we were at a mountain pass because it didn’t feel or look like one at all.
It is a long day and you cover a lot of ground before getting to the second campsite. But once you get to the second campsite, oh boy. This is one of the most scenic campsites of the entire Huayhuash trek. We had rain and fog for most of the first day until we reached the campsite. Then everything started clearing up and we were blessed with a sunset to remember. The view of the mountains reflected in the lake right next to camp is a sight I will never forget. This alone would have made the Huayhuash trek worth it, but there is so much more to come.
Day 3: Feelin’ Wild and Free
- Trekking Distance: 16 kilometers
- Trekking Time: 7 hours
- Altitude Gain: 600 meters
- Mountain Passes: 1
- Difficulty Level: 8/10
Day three of the Cordillera Huayhuash is one of the most beautiful days of the entire trek. Day two took you to the foothills of the snow-capped peaks of the Cordillera Huayhuash. On day three, you actually delve deep into the mountains. Today takes you to incredible viewpoints overlooking stunning glacial lagunas and one of the most epic mountain passes of the entire journey.
Today starts off pretty easy, walking on mostly flat ground along the lake that you spent the night next to. It stays mostly flat until you reach the foot of a lake from where you can take a quick 10-15 minute side trip up to a mirador overlooking your first glacial laguna of the day. This view is epic, and you’ll likely spend a solid 20-30 minutes here. Take it all in.
Once you head back down, the real challenge begins. For me, this was among the hardest inclines of the whole trek. Just one foot in front of the other nonstop up a mountain for what feels like forever. This incline is steep and there is not a single stretch of flat ground to provide relief for your burning legs. There is a brief break at the Mirador de las Tres Lagunas. This is the only respite in the steep and steady cline up to Paso Siula at 4,800 meters.
The Mirador de las Tres Lagunas is one of the most iconic views of the entire Cordillera Huayhuash. It’s easy to see why.
Once you get up to Paso Siula, the descent begins. We had a dance party up here to celebrate, which in hindsight, I wish I abstained from had I known just how much further we had until camp. This descent felt like it took forever, despite how much fun our group was having. With 5 Israelis in our group, it was no doubt going to be a party. We pretty much danced the entire way down to the Huayhuash campsite (4,300 meters) before feasting on lunch and preparing for what is arguably the toughest day of the entire trek.
Day 4: My Legs Are Sore
- Trekking Distance: 20 kilometers
- Trekking Time: 8 hours
- Altitude Gain: 1200+ meters
- Mountain Passes: 2
- Difficulty Level: 10/10
Another day, another mountain pass. But wait, there’s more! Tack on another mountain pass. The fourth day of the Cordillera Huayhuash is arguably the hardest day of the trek, taking you up to 5,041 meters above sea level. The El Trapecio Pass is the highest point of the entire trek. It is also one of the most surreal, providing views unlike anything you’ve seen thus far in the trek.
It almost feels like something you would find along Patagonia. There are swarms of glacial lagunas that seem like puddles from the viewpoint you’ll get at the pass. It comes out of nowhere, as one minute you are trudging along the rocky terrain and as soon as you turn the corner, you catch a marvelous and unforgettable view.
The descent down to the campsite is one of the rockier terrains you’ll encounter along the trek. As difficult as the Cordillera Huayhuash is, the trail is never too challenging. It is always well-marked and pretty easy to walk on. Not today. Lots of rocks and your feet and knees will take an absolute beating on the descent. There are plenty of beautiful photo opportunities and stops to take a break, though, so you can take it slow today. But not too slow because…
After a quick lunch break, you will be going back up to 5,000 meters. This time, there will be no easy stretches or any flat ground. Basically, you’ll be going up 600-700 meters in 90 minutes or so. This is one of the most iconic views of the entire Cordillera Huayhuash. Take your time but whatever you do, don’t skip it. It might be tough to drag yourself up here after the exhausting El Trapecio Pass just hours before but you aren’t going to want to miss this.
Today is the hardest day. There’s no doubt about it. It is also the most beautiful. Also no doubt.
Day 5: Just Tryna Survive
- Trekking Distance: 15 kilometers
- Trekking Time: 4 hours
- Altitude Gain: – 900 meters
- Mountain Passes: 0
- Difficulty Level: 3/10
Consider today a breath of fresh air in the midst of a very long dive. After a challenging first few days, we finally have what could be considered an easy day. The fifth day is entirely downhill, although it comes with the compounding sense of guilt and worry as you can’t help but think ahead. What goes down must come up, after all.
Our group breezed through this day, wrapping up at around 11 AM. It took us under four hours to crush the 15 kilometers of distance today, including plenty of time for snacks and breaks. The terrain starts off flat and smooth before the descent really comes into play. It gets really rocky and steep as you descend alongside a stunning waterfall before flattening back out again until you reach the small village of Huayllapa. In this village, you can relax the entire rest of the day and stock up on snacks and sweets and even have a hot shower if you feel like shelling out 4 soles.
Consider today to be the calm before the storm, though. You’ve gone down from 4,350 meters to just under 3,500 meters. And tomorrow? You’ll be going back up to a 4,800 meter mountain pass. If my math ends up, then…
Day 6: Today Sucks Dicks
- Trekking Distance: 13 kilometers
- Trekking Time: 6 hours
- Altitude Gain: 1300+ meters
- Mountain Passes: 1
- Difficulty Level: 9/10
I don’t really need to say much more than that. After the easy day yesterday, it is back to the grind. In the span of about four hours, you climb back up to 4,800 meters from your campsite down at 3,477 meters. On the bright side, the first couple of hours are at a significantly lower altitude than what we’ve been trekking at so far. I felt completely superhuman during the first hour or so, zooming ahead of the group for the first time all trek.
Then, I got distracted by a cute Quechua girl asking for chocolate. The group caught up and then so did my cough. Once I got back up to 4,200 meters or so, my lungs started getting punished by the altitude yet again. Eventually, I was having to stop every minute or so because of coughing convulsions that were significantly made worse by the altitude. Despite this, we still reached the mountain pass in about 4 hours, with me at the caboose.
There is no denying that today is one of the most difficult days of the entire trek. However, after this, it’s pretty easy cruising. Just put one foot in front of the other over and over again. My friend who struggled with blisters and the altitude a lot along the way literally did not stop once on this day. The mental fortitude on that guy… The rest of us would take breaks and even though he started the day off way behind us, he tortoise and the hare-d today and made it to the finish line without stopping. Keep a steady pace and remember, just one foot in front of the other over and over again.
Once I arrived at the mountain pass, I told the guide to go ahead down to the camp while I took in the view for a while. This mountain pass isn’t anything stunning but there’s nothing quite like relishing in one’s accomplishments while staring at the trail behind you that you just conquered. The way down the campsite is stunning as well, with gorgeous mountains and surreal landscapes.
Tonight’s campsite was far from my favorite, made even worse by the late afternoon rains that dampened our clothes as well as our spirits.
Day 7: Almost Heaven
- Trekking Distance: 16 kilometers + 4 km with laguna
- Trekking Time: 6 hours
- Altitude Gain: 500 meters + 100ish with laguna
- Mountain Passes: 1
- Difficulty Level: 5/10
You’d think by day seven, you’d have seen all there was to see by now. Or at least, what would have impressed you on day one probably won’t impress you anymore. Following the unreal views on day four, I didn’t think it could possibly get any better. However, day seven gives the rest of the trek a run for its money. There is really no comparing the diverse views along the way but day seven was easily one of the most enjoyable days of the trek for me, for a number of reasons.
After day six, you truly feel like you can conquer everything. I had no doubts that I could do day seven with ease so I was actually able to take it slow and focus on the views instead of focusing solely on surviving. Today feels like just another walk in the park. As far as the ratio goes between difficulty and rewarding views, day seven probably takes the cake. Day seven is an easy day with a plethora of jaw-dropping views.
Once you cross the pass, you walk along mostly flat or downhill ground to catch an epic mirador overlooking your campsite for the night. This stretch boasts some of the most panoramic views of the entire trek. You can see everything, everywhere. Condors flying overhead, glacial lagunas in the distance, the snow-capped mountains blanketed in wispy clouds… It feels like a movie. Except it’s real, baby.
Once we got to the mirador, I went into full chill mode. There was no more uphill, camp was within view, and nothing was stopping me from doing absolutely nothing but sitting and taking in the views. Seriously, take it all in.
It takes about an hour to get down to the campsite from the mirador, although my friend and I ran down because we didn’t want to miss lunch. Walking into camp felt like crossing the (almost) finish line of a marathon. Both of us had pushed ourselves to beyond what we thought we could achieve and absolutely crushed it. The adrenaline even allowed me to go on another quick side trip to Laguna Yerapaja, a turquoise glacial laguna that was one of the most beautiful I’d seen along the way. A perfect ending to an unbelievable trek.
Camp tonight is at 4,000 meters and is one of the most beautiful of the entire trek. Again, take it all in. You only Huayhuash once.
Day 8: We did it, mates.
- Trekking Distance: 15 kilometers
- Trekking Time: 5 hours
- Altitude Gain: -700 meters
- Mountain Passes: 0
- Difficulty Level: 2/10
Well, here we are. The final day. It is all downhill from here, literally and figuratively. As you leave the Huayhuash range in the dust behind you, it is nothing short of bittersweet. While every second of actual trekking might feel like a lifetime, the actual eight days themselves will fly by. Although I thought I would be missing civilization, cell signal, and partying by the time those eight days were up, I felt like I could have stayed in these mountains forever. Life was simple out here and I was living without a care. But those eight days did come to an end.
Day eight is arguably the easiest day. The trail is entirely downhill or flat and the terrain is easy to walk on, for the most part. You’ll be walking along a cliffside for most of the way before descending down into the valley where Llamac is located. It is definitely bittersweet taking each step closer and closer to the end of the Huayhuash trek. You’re on the home stretch of this high altitude, high difficulty marathon and you’re only minutes away from being able to say you absolutely f*cking crushed it.
It’s almost impossible to describe the feelings I had as I reached Llamac. I mean… I’d never done anything like this before. I didn’t even know if I could do something like this at all. I spent months preparing physically and even on the first day, I still didn’t think I was ready. But here I was, at the finish line. Despite the blisters, despite my cold, my exhaustion, my cough, my headaches, my inner mental battles and everything else. I was there, and in desperate need of a shower, as all conquerors tend to be.
The Cordillera Huayhuash is an experience of a lifetime. Don’t second guess yourself. As soon as I arrived at the start of the trek, I began to wonder why I ever debated doing it in the first place. There’s no debate. Do it.