Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash is the adventure that trekkers could only dream of. As an avid hiker and chaser of views, trekking the Cordillera Huayhuash circuit was something that had been on my bucket list for years. When I left Peru at the end of my first backpacking trip, I couldn’t help but feel a deep regret that I hadn’t allowed myself enough time to visit the northern part of the country. When the opportunity opened up to head back down to South America, I promised myself that I wouldn’t let the opportunity pass 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 tears. The Cordillera Huayhuash was among the most challenging yet rewarding feats that I had ever accomplished. There were plenty of moments along the way that made me question my sanity and my capabilities. Step by step, I pushed forward. Step by step over 140 kilometers, across grueling high-altitude mountain passes, battling the sizzling sun, blustering winds, and shivering through every night and every 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 is everything you need to know about this once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
How To Prepare For The Cordillera Huayhuash Trek
Preparing Physically For The Cordillera Huayhuash Trek
The Cordillera Huayhuash is no walk in the park. You also don’t need to be an ultramarathon runner to be able to do it, but there is no denying that it will be a lot easier if you are in good physical shape. Unlike other touristy activities, this is not something that you can just impulsively decide to do. You should have experience with trekking beforehand and be aware of your capabilities and limitations. In the midst of a lengthy multi-day trek is not when you want to realize that you done screwed up.
There are a number of hikes in Huaraz that you can do to help yourself acclimatize and build up physical strength and endurance. At the very least, doing four of the following should help you prepare and gauge your fitness levels.
Laguna Paron is a good first acclimatization hike. At 4,200 meters above sea level, it is much higher than the city of Huaraz and is just below the average altitude that you will be dealing with at the Cordillera Huayhuash. The hike itself is quite short and easy, making it a good starter hike. It is less than 2 hours round trip from the parking lot to the viewpoints at the top. Anyone can do this hike, but if you find yourself breezing through it, then it is a good sign that you might be ready for the Cordillera Huayhuash.
This was the very last hike I did before taking on the Cordillera Huayhuash and it was one hell of a confidence boost. After three weeks of trekking around the Huaraz area, I found Laguna Churup to be quite easy. It takes you up to 4,450 meters above sea level but by this point, the altitude did not bother me at all. I was able to cruise through this hike. I definitely would not be able to say the same had I started with this hike, though.
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. As far as day treks go, Laguna 69 will be the best indicator for whether or not you are ready for the Cordillera Huayhuash. 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 Circuit that are significantly more difficult than Laguna 69.
While the quick trip to the Pastoruri Glacier isn’t much of a hike, it does take you to about as high as you will be along the Cordillera Huayhuash. The glacier sits at around 5,000 meters above sea level. I did this following Laguna 69 and knocked out the hour-long hike in about thirty minutes. If the altitude doesn’t bother you here, then there is a good chance that you will be okay with most of the Cordillera Huayhuash.
Nevado San Mateo was the hardest thing I did before taking on Huayhuash. At 5,150 meters above sea level, requiring crampons, ice axes, and in the midst of a blizzard atop the mountain, Nevado San Mateo was unlike anything I had ever dealt with before. I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I agreed to go, 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, taking on the Santa Cruz Trek is probably the best way to gauge your readiness for Huayhuash. It is only half the duration of Huayhuash’s eight 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 on the Santa Cruz Trek is at Punta Union, which sits at about 4,750 meters above sea level. You will go up to 4,750 meters or higher about 5 or 6 times during the Cordillera Huayhash trek. I wouldn’t say it’s a good indicator for whether or not you are physically ready, but it is definitely a good introduction into what you will be living like for eight days.
You never truly feel ready for something like the Cordillera Huayhuash. Looking back, all of these small preparations added up. Had I gone into the Cordillera Huayhuash without properly preparing, it would have been exponentially more difficult. All of these made a difference. Each hike was like a mini-boss before taking on the final boss battle.
Preparing Mentally For The Cordillera Huayhuash
When it comes to an 8-day trek, you need to be as prepared mentally 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 is more than just confidence. It is mental fortitude and the willpower to keep going despite the challenges you face.
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. Despite being one of the slowest in our group, he was relentless. Mental fortitude.
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 is just walking. Or at least, try to think of it that way.
How To Find A Trekking Group For Cordillera Huayhuash
Spending eight 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 knew beforehand. Depending on your style of travel, it may or may not be easy to find a group to do Huayhuash with. As a backpacker who frequents hostels and other highly social establishments, it did not take long for me to gather a group.
However, everyone has different schedules and plans would often fall through. At one point, I managed to put together a group of six people who were keen to take on the trek. After a few days of rain, three of them backed out. We scraped together another two people at the last minute and managed to book a tour together as a group of five, lowering the costs significantly than if we had booked alone.
Booking and Planning The Cordillera Huayhuash Trek
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. And no, I didn’t get a free or discounted trek from them or anything.
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. Here’s how to get to the Cordillera Huayhuash from Huaraz on your own, which involves a bus to Llamac and hours of walking to the first campsite at Cuartelhuain.
When Is The Best Time Of Year To Do The Cordillera Huayhuash Trek?
The rainy season in this part of the country begins in late September and ends in late April. The ideal time of year to take on the Cordillera Huayhuash is during the dry, winter months between May and September. It is possible to still get great weather on the shoulder months of April and October as well. I did the Cordillera Huayhuash in late October when the rainy season had already started. We had rain on the first two days before having perfect weather for the final six days. The weather in the mountains can be a crapshoot, so you might be extremely fortunate or extremely unlucky no matter the time of year.
The rainy season is at its peak from November to March. While some agencies will still offer the trek, the demand is definitely lower around this time of year. Because of this, it will be more expensive and more difficult to find daily departures for the expeditions. Of course, if you are going it alone, then the Cordillera Huayhuash is open at all times of the year.
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.)
- Hiking boots (I rocked this fantastic pair of Oboz boots)
- Head lamp
- Spare shoes for hanging out at camp
- Extra snacks or water
- Bag for the donkeys
- Travel medical insurance
- And camera, duh. (I shoot with a Nikon D5600)
Doing Cordillera Huayhuash On Your Own
You’ll need to bring everything, which is a daunting task for an already daunting trek. If you have a lot of experience with wilderness backpacking, the Cordillera Huayhuash is more than doable on your own. Just remember, if anything were to happen, you will be days and days from civilization at some points of the trek.
I’m not saying that one way or the other is better, but unless you bring all of your own gear to South America, it might be just as cheap to go with a trekking agency, and having all the logistics taken care of for you.
Cordillera Huayhuash: Day By Day Guide
Day 1: Let’s Have Some Fun!
- Trekking Distance: 0 kilometers (if starting in Cuartelhuain)
- Trekking Time: 0 hours (4-5 hours if starting in Llamac)
- 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. If you are doing the trek with an agency, there will be no trekking today, as they drop you off directly at the first night’s campsite. It takes about six hours to drive from Huaraz to the start of the Huayhuash circuit so by the time you get there, there won’t be much daylight left for trekking. Usually, the groups will leave Huaraz at around 9 AM. There is a quick lunch break at a small town just before you reach the Cordillera Huayhuash. Usually, you will arrive at the 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 the 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.
Day 3 starts off pretty easy. You walk along the lake that you spent the night next to, with the terrain being mostly flat, if not a bit squishy and swampy. It stays mostly flat until you reach the foot of a laguna. From here you can take a quick 15 minute detour up to a mirador overlooking the 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. Holding back the caboose of the pack were me and my Israeli trekking mate, who kept saying aggressively inspirational things like “In the army, I learned that if it doesn’t kill you, you can keep going.” So we did.
You finally get a brief break at the Mirador de las Tres Lagunas. This is the only respite in the steep and steady incline up to Paso Siula at 4,800 meters. But what a view for a lunch break. 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. In hindsight, I wish I abstained from dancing so hard 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 (and the self-proclaimed partying traveler, of course) 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 relaxing before what is definitely the toughest day of the entire trek.
Day 4: My Legs Are Sore
- Trekking Distance: 20 kilometers
- Trekking Time: 8 hours
- Altitude Gain: 1300+ meters
- Mountain Passes: 2
- Difficulty Level: 10/10
Another day, another mountain pass. But wait, there’s more! Tack on another mountain pass. That’s right, we’ve got two grueling mountain passes today. 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. This part of the trek really drives home just how desolate and inhospitable this region is. As the symbolic halfway point of the trek, you are also likely as far away from civilization as you’ve ever been, with the nearest city now a full four days away.
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. You will be going up 600-700 meters in the span of about 90 minutes. However, 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 jaw-droppingly 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
Today is a breath of fresh air in the midst of a very long dive. After a challenging 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. That included plenty of time for snacks and breaks. The terrain starts flat before the descent comes into play. It gets rocky and steep as you descend alongside a stunning waterfall then it flattens out again until you reach the village of Huayllapa. In Huayllapa, you can relax and stock up on snacks and sweets. One can even take a “hot shower” for 4 soles.
Consider today to be the calm before the storm. 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 being correct, 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 child asking for chocolate. The group caught up. So did my brutal cough that I picked up back on day four. 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 of 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 his way 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 conquered trail behind you. The way down the campsite is stunning as well, with gorgeous mountains and even more 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. Or at the very 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 get any better. However, day seven gives the rest of the trek a run for its money. There is no comparing the diverse views along the way but day seven was easily one of the most enjoyable days of the trek for a number of reasons.
After day six, you feel like you can conquer everything. The morale of the group had never been higher. 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 a walk in the park. As far as the ratio goes between difficulty and rewarding views, day seven is a relatively easy day with a plethora of jaw-dropping views.
Once you cross the mountain pass, you walk along mostly flat or downhill ground to catch an epic mirador. From here, you can see your campsite for the night along three lagunas. 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 only takes about an hour to get down to the campsite from the mirador. 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.
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