The month I spent in Huaraz might have been my favorite of all my travels. In this small mountain town, I had everything I needed. World-class mountains, good friends from all over the planet, and an abundance of bars and clubs where I could celebrate each successful trek in the Andes. Out of the many treks I did in the area, the 4-day Santa Cruz trek stands out as one of the best. It takes you right through the heart of Peru’s Cordillera Blanca. Outside of the Cordillera Huayhuash circuit, the Santa Cruz trek was my favorite. Let’s face it, the Cordillera Huayhuash is in a league of its own, but Santa Cruz came the closest to even comparing.
There was no shortage of unforgettable views throughout our four days in the Cordillera Blanca. Best of all, it isn’t too difficult. The Santa Cruz trek is doable for hikers of all fitness levels. The 50-kilometer route typically takes around four days, although you can go at your own pace and take as long as you need. Surrounded by the stunning mountains in the secluded wilderness of the Peruvian Andes, you can’t ask for much more from an adventure like the Santa Cruz trek.
Here’s the low down on this breathtaking adventure through Parque Nacional Huascaran.
Sendero Santa Cruz: Preparing For The Trek
There are a few things you need to know before heading off into the mountains of Peru. First of all, the altitude is no joke. On this trek, you’ll be reaching heights of 4,750 meters above sea level. Properly acclimatizing is a must before you set off. Thankfully, Huaraz is a perfect place for adjusting to the altitude. At 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) above sea level, Huaraz serves as a good base before setting out.
There are plenty of incredible day trips from Huaraz to help you acclimatize for the Santa Cruz trek. My personal favorites are Laguna Paron, Laguna Churup, and Laguna 69. Those will take you to altitudes ranging from 4,200 meters up to 4,600 meters, so while not quite as high as Punta Union, you’ll be able to build yourself up to it. It doesn’t hurt to get your legs ready for some high-altitude trekking, either. Another good attraction is the 5,200 meter high Pastoruri Glacier. Despite its high altitude, the brief hike only takes an hour round trip and the trail is almost entirely on a wooden ramp.
If the altitude does affect you, check the local pharmacies for altitude pills. Diamox and Dexamethasone are two of the most recommended medicines. Coca leaves, coca candy, and coca tea are also recommended by the locals to help with the altitude, and I personally can vouch for their efficacy.
Next up, setting up the trek itself. If you’ve got wilderness experience and plan on doing without an agency, then all you need to do is pack for a four-day trek and head to the trail head. You can catch a bus to either Vaqueria or Cashapampa. Starting at Vaqueria is the usual route, because it is much easier. You’ll be going downhill towards Cashapampa at the end. Starting at Cashapampa means you’ll be battling uphill from 2,900 meters instead of 3,700 meters from Vaqueria. Trust me, it makes a monumental difference.
Booking Santa Cruz With a Trekking Agency
If you decide to book with a trekking agency, you’re typically looking at around 350-450 soles ($110-140) for the four days. That should include rental equipment, food, guides, and porters. It’s not a bad price, especially if you didn’t bring your own camping equipment. It can be just as expensive to rent the gear for four days as it is to go with a trekking agency. It takes care of a lot of the logistics as well. That includes entrance fees (about $18 total for the 4 days) and transportation which can be unreliable.
If you aren’t comfortable with being out in the high altitude wilderness of Peru, a trekking agency is a good option. As a solo traveler, it was also a good way to make some friends that I could do further treks with while in Huaraz.
Keep in mind the time of year, as well. The dry season in this part of the world is from May to September. These are also the winter months, so it will be colder. Demand will be higher during those months, and with the abundance of trekking agencies in the area, it will be cheaper due to the competitive prices. I went in October at the beginning of rainy season, and had good weather outside of the first day. I paid 350 soles or about $110.
What to Bring on the Santa Cruz Trek
This section looks a whole lot different if you’ve booked with a group or plan to do it solo. If you’ve booked with a trekking group, they’ll provide the majority of what you’ll need.
What they will provide:
- Tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping mat
- Breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and water
- Donkeys to carry your stuff
- A guide, a porter, and a chef (sometimes, the same person)
That is typically the bare minimum, but some trekking agencies will go above and beyond.
- Emergency oxygen and first aid kits
- Blankets and pillows
- Coca leaves and coca tea
- Water filters or water pills
This leaves you to bring:
- Warm clothing (down jacket, waterproof pants, jumpers, gloves, etc)
- Hiking boots (I rock this sturdy pair of Oboz boots)
- Head lamp
- Shoes for hanging out at camp
- Bag for the donkeys
- Travel medical insurance
- And a camera, duh. (I shoot with a Nikon D5600)
The Santa Cruz Trek Day-by-Day
Day one of the trek starts at 3,700 meters from the village of Vaqueria. You’ll be going downhill for a stretch through some other small villages. For now, the trail is mostly just dirt road and you’ll pass through some backyards and be greeted with laughing children and friendly dogs. The landscapes don’t seem particularly mountainous at this point, but just be patient.
You’ll pass through the Huascaran National Park office where you’ll pay your entrance fees of 60 soles ($20ish) for the four days you’ll be there before continuing on to your campsite. Most of the way is flat or low incline until you get to the campsite. The mountains surround you in every direction, and are a reminder of the epic views to come.
This is where the fun begins. From your campsite, you’ll be trudging all the way up to Punta Union mountain pass at 4,750 meters. The journey up here is absolutely breathtaking. I think this might be one of the most beautiful days of trekking one can have in their lifetime.
The star of today’s show is the awe-inspiring Taulliraju, a mountain that will be omnipresent in your sight throughout the day. Pace yourself because today’s uphill battle can be tedious. Stop and enjoy the views as often as you can.
The way down from Punta Union is just as fun. Like I said, the star of today’s show is Taulliraju, towering at 5,830 meters tall. it never leaves your sight throughout the entire day. Once you get to your campsite, there’s nothing to do besides relax and take in the unbelievable panoramic views. You can even take a swim in the neighboring creek. Just keep an eye out for horse poop, as they roam freely in these wide-open spaces. This campsite is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever camped in. The horses grazing in the open pastures while flanked at every side by snow-capped peaks makes you feel like you’re living Red Dead Redemption in real life. It’s a surreal feeling, only rivaled by the unbridled bliss of being out in the open wilderness.
The third day begins with a side trip to the beautiful Laguna Arhuaycocha. This laguna is one of the highlights of the trek, and the last stretch where you’ll find yourself surrounded by snow-capped peaks at every angle. The stunning peaks, including the stunning Alpemayo, reach upwards of 6,000 meters above sea level and is one hell of a sight to behold. It’s also one of the last challenging stretches, as it’s literally and figuratively, all downhill from here. That’s not to say that the rest of the trek isn’t amazing, but the next few hours are a long, flat grind.
You’ll pass through desert landscapes, which is weird because you look back and the snow-capped peaks are still very much there. Those lagunas seemed a lot smaller from Punta Union, didn’t they? After hours of walking through the valley along the lagunas and other surreal landscapes, you’ll finally be rewarded with tonight’s serene campsite. As soon as I arrived, I slipped my boots off and gave my legs a nice ice bath in the roaring river.
We’re almost at the finish line. The journey down to Cashapampa is only a few hours of walking and it is mostly downhill. You’ll be dropping down to 2,900 meters and you will feel superhuman thanks to the dip in altitude. Soak it all in. Make sure to put on some sunscreen before soaking it all in, though. The high altitudes and strong sun can burn your ass real quick.
The landscapes today mostly consist of riverside views, forests, and waterfalls as you walk along the cliffside back towards civilization. Congratulations, you are a champion.
Once you reach the end, all you need to do is hitch a ride back to Huaraz, and celebrate with a drink at 13 Buhos. If your legs still have some energy in them, salsa the night away at El Tambo. For the bold, why not prepare for the next trek? Do you have what it takes to take on the grueling Cordillera Huayhuash circuit?