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I remember sitting at my desk at work something like 7 or 8 years ago and seeing a friend’s photos on Facebook of something called the Santa Cruz trek… I’d never heard of it, but the mountains made my jaw drop and I promised myself that I would one day see those mountains with my own eyes.
Soon thereafter I started taking once a week Spanish classes in coffee shops in downtown Washington D.C. after work and dreaming of the day I might get to travel to the Andes. Problem was, I could only take one week of vacation at a time, which wouldn’t be nearly enough to this region justice.
My dreams of the Santa Cruz trek sat on the backburner for many years. Until finally, so many years later, I made it to the place that started my dreams of Latin America. It was a journey that initially brought me to Colombia, to living in Medellin and meeting Andrea, and then driving across Central and South America…
It was the Santa Cruz trek that started it all for me, and it feels so good to finally have done it, to finally have seen it with my own eyes, from snow-capped peaks, big mountain passes, and night skies full of stars. Thanks to my buddy for planting the seed so many years ago.
About the Santa Cruz Trek
The Santa Cruz Trek is a popular 3 or 4-day backpacking trip through the heart of Peru’s stunning Cordillera Blanca mountain range, and most travelers use Huaraz Peru as a place to base themselves.
But why dash through it so quick? Andrea and I had the time, and this was a place I’d been long dreaming of… We opted to give ourselves an extra night, doing the trek in five-days, four-nights.
The Santa Cruz trek is the Cordillera Blanca’s most popular trek, offering incredible alpine scenery, canyons, big mountains, lakes, and more.
Huaraz is the center for outdoor activities in the region, so you can easily rent or buy gear that you need in order to complete the trek, or you can find a cheap tour group that will provide you with everything.
Many travelers to Huaraz make the trek either guided or unguided along this popular route, but you definitely don’t need a guide. The route is pretty obvious, and it would be tough to get lost here.
The standard route is approximately 31 miles (50km) with elevations ranging from 9,500 feet (2,900m) to 15,580 feet (4,750m) at Punta Union, while the majority of the trek is above 12,800 feet (3,900m).
Despite the low-mileage, this isn’t necessarily an easy hike (especially if you’re carrying your gear, rather than using mules). The Punta Union pass is a solid climb no matter which side you approach it from, and most of the trek is at high altitude.
The biggest challenge is probably the altitude, so you should be sure you are well acclimatized before setting off on this trek by spending a few nights in Huaraz and completing day hikes in the area.
The best time of year, weather-wise, to hike the Santa Cruz Trek is from May-September, but if you go in the shoulder seasons, you’re likely to see fewer people.
We went in July, and if you don’t count the occasional big group, there were relatively few independent hikers on the trail. Most of the time it was just the two of us.
Which Way to Hike?
This is a point-to-point hike, not a loop so you will have to decide whether you want to travel eastbound or westbound.
The hike connects the towns of Cashapampa and Vaqueria. The Classic Santa Cruz Trek begins in Cashapampa and hikes to Vaqueria, but since we were going solo, we opted to hike it in reverse for a few reasons:
- Since we were carrying all of our gear (don’t miss my trekking packing list), we’d be better off starting at a higher altitude (3,700m in Vaqueria vs 2,900m in Cashapampa) and we could get to Punta Union quicker (the hardest part).
- Using public transport, it is simply easier to start in Vaqueria on the first day (a good four hours of travel to reach the trailhead), and easier to return to Caraz from Cashapampa, even if you’re arriving in the afternoon. If you end in Vaqueria in the afternoon, you may need to spend the night there.
Santa Cruz Trek from Vaqueria to Cashapampa
So we’ll be outlining the trek by starting in Vaqueria.
We started in Caraz, but whether you’re starting in Huaraz or Caraz, the first step is to get to the town of Yungay. It was a 30-minute ride from Caraz and cost 2 soles per person.
In Yungay’s bus station, you’ll need to ask for Vaqueria or Yanama (the vans go to Yanama, but you’ll hope off before you get there in Vaqueria). The ride was 20 soles per person and took nearly four hours, but we also got held up because of traffic on the Peruvian Independence Day.
The drive to the trailhead is spectacular as you enter Huascaran National Park, pass the Llanganuco Lakes, and wind up the switchbacks to Portachuelo de Llanganuco. Along this road is also the starting point for Laguna 69.
Vaqueria is a little, almost nothing town, with about three buildings on a dirt road. Be sure to mention to the driver that you are getting off there, or pay attention to your GPS map after you go over the pass.
Hiking to Paria Camp
You’ll begin the trek by dropping down into the valley across the road and winding along a little stream, alternating between road hiking and trail hiking.
For the first 45 minutes or so, you will be hiking alongside a village where kids will be running around asking for cookies or chocolate, clothes will be hung out to dry, and farm animals meander around.
This isn’t really my idea of hiking, but it’s also an interesting insight into the local culture and seeing how people live even in these remote areas.
But eventually you come to the ranger station that marks the start of the Huascaran National Park, a guard will be there to check that you’ve got your tickets (or sell them to you). It is 65 soles for a three-week pass to the park.
Eventually, you make into the Huaripampa Valley, where you will see snowcapped mountains calling you ahead.
Paria Camp is the normal end day for Day 1, approximately 11 kilometers into your first day.
BUT if you’re going self-guided, you don’t have to stay in the camp with the crowds, actually, I’d recommend NOT staying in the camp, but rather just before or after the camp.
Thanks to our late start (again due to the Peruvian Independence Day traffic nightmare), we stayed just before the camp, but I would recommend hiking beyond the Paria Camp. This way you get a jumpstart on Punta Union and can ascend early in the day before you get tired, and arrive before the afternoon clouds move in.
There is an ample water supply all through the Huaripampa Valley, but be sure to treat it!
Hiking to Taullipampa
Day two will see you winding your way up into the mountains, as Taulliraju starts to make an appearance, and it is a steady climb all morning long.
The hiking was pleasant and scenic all day long.
We stayed at a lodging (really a person’s house) in Vaqueria the week before, and I accidentally left my headlamp behind. We stopped to talk to the woman who runs the place before starting out, but she said her husband left to lead donkeys to Cashapampa and took my headlamp with him…
But that we might run into him on the trail as he did the return trek to Vaqueria. AMAZINGLY, we actually did run into him, and I was able to get my headlamp back (Andrea had hers, but her batteries died on the first night, we were without light).
You will eventually reach a series of lagunas which will be your last water supply until you’ve gone up and over Punta Union — the intimidating pass that lies ahead.
Since we were taking our sweet time and moving slow, we opted to camp early along the edge of the laguna before the pass. It was early afternoon when we reached the lake, and we thought it best to take on the pass in the morning.
This wasn’t our plan originally, but this campsite was one of my favorites from the trip, with the imposing Taulliraju above, and the mirror-like lake beside us.
The laguna camp sits at around 4,400m (higher than any mountain in the Continental USA).
Punta Union 4,750m
The next day we got an early start and reached the top of Punta Union in just an hour and a half.
The hike was a steady climb up granite slabs and switchbacks to reach the saddle that leads to the next valley.
Unfortunately, we had a huge group of obnoxious people at the top who brought a speaker for their music and were actually dancing. But we moved off further onto the rocks and found our own space.
Punta Union is, as of now, the highest point I’ve reached on foot… If you don’t count the short hour-long hike I took from Chimborazo’s refuge (starting at 4,800), which I don’t.
From here it is a steady descent the rest of the way to Cashapampa, which will see you losing almost 2,000 meters of elevation in total.
Camping in Taullipampa
Like Paria Camp, there will be a large area where the guided groups set up miniature cities, but you can camp either before or after.
We camped before reaching Taullipampa so we could have this big alpine meadow and the imposing face of Taulliraju all to ourselves.
It was a worthwhile choice, I think.
The views were amazing on all sides of the camp.
The Taullipampa campsite sits at around 4,200 meters.
Hiking to Llamacorral
We have now entered the Santa Cruz valley, Taulliraju is at our backs and we are making our way west, toward Cashapampa.
Soon after passing the Taullipampa campsite, the trail will split to the left or to the right. If you take the trail to the right, you will head toward the Alpamayo Basecamp (an out and back side-trip).
It is supposed to be beautiful and was our original plan for the third night, but it didn’t work out.
Instead, we took the left trail and started dropping in elevation as we wound along the river.
Soon after crossing a little footbridge the valley turns into what can best be described as a dusty desert.
This section was probably my least favorite of the trail (along with the initial village hiking).
It was hot, dusty, and windy around here.
We stopped in a little hut just before the lake for a lunch and midday sun break, while we hung out with the cows and donkeys and fought off the horseflies.
Eventually, we made it to Jatuncocha Laguna, which was a verdant bluish-green like so many high altitude lakes in the Cordillera Blanca.
The dry desert disappeared, and the trail turned into pleasant valleys again.
Llamacorral was our last campsite (or the first camp if you’re coming from Cashapampa). Here you’ll even find a little shack selling all manner of snacks (for a markup) to the tourists passing through.
We couldn’t resist two little bags of Doritos.
We pressed on just beyond Llamacorral and found a little spot tucked into the bushes and below a waterfall — this was Andrea’s favorite campsite of the trip.
Hiking to Cashapampa
The next morning we began what was supposed to be a three-hour hike to Cashapampa.
The trail follows the river and the valley scenery is as spectacular as ever, even though there are no more glimpses of snow-capped mountains.
The trail starts by dropping slowly in elevation and then reaches some dusty canyons and begins plunging down quite steeply, dropping down to 2,900 meters.
At this point the trail grew somewhat tiresome and hard on the knees, and annoying as we had to keep stepping aside for all the donkey making their way up the trail and loaded down with tons of gear.
But approximately four hours later we finally, finally rounded a bend and saw the limit of Huascaran National Park!
We made it!
Returning to Civilization
As you round the bend, you’ll follow the signs for Cashapampa. The trail will spit you out right into the arms of awaiting taxi drivers.
We grabbed a collectivo to Caraz which cost us 10 soles per person (it seemed a little expensive considering it was only 20s all the way to Vaqueria).
Another hour of winding through a dirt road in the mountains and we set foot in Caraz. We made our way straight to Entre Panes to celebrate with a real meal after completing the famous Santa Cruz Trek.
Santa Cruz Trek Map
Here is a map of the route the Santa Cruz Trek takes, along with my GPS track of the trail (the signal got a bit scattered in the canyon near Cashapampa).
Final Thoughts on the Santa Cruz Trek
I’ve hiked in a lot of pretty amazing places over the years, and while it would be impossible to say which is my favorite, the Santa Cruz Trek is easily among my top choices.
The trail has incredible, head-turning scenery almost every day. But of course, the highlights are the areas immediately before or after Punta Union. I’d highly encourage you to spend an extra night nearby to really take in the scenery.
If you have any questions, comments, or insights about current conditions, please sound off in the comments below.
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