The Cordillera Blanca, or ‘white mountains’ in English, are one of the most naturally astonishing mountain ranges on Earth, and an absolute masterpiece as far as serious hikers are concerned.
This gorgeous 120-mile off-shoot of the Andes mountains in northern Peru is home to Huascaran, the 22,205-foot giant and the highest mountain in Peru. And if you are big on records, it is also the tallest tropical mountain on Earth, and the fourth in South America!
There are 33 peaks over 18,000 feet – 12 of which climb higher than 20,000 feet – a tropical ice cap, a mountain that has often been dubbed the most beautiful in the world – and then a glorious 3 – 4 day tramp down the middle of it known as the Santa Cruz Trek. And I assure you, it is one of the most spectacular hikes out there.
This 31-mile point-to-point hike can be completed in either direction, beginning at Vaqueria or Cashapampa. Most people begin at Vaqueria, which involves less climbing. Quite a bit less actually. In fact, 2,625 vertical feet less, which might not sound like a great deal, until you factor in the altitude.
I have read more than one article now describe this hike as easy (the writers either haven’t done it or were born on Krypton), but the Punta Union Pass sits at 15,580 feet above sea-level. And as anyone that has been that high before can attest, nothing is easy at that altitude. Nothing.
You have about half as much oxygen to play with as someone having a pleasant dip in the Pacific Ocean. This is a moderate to difficult hike because of the altitude.
That being said, there is nothing technical about this hike, and would be an ideal choice for your first foray into the world of high-altitude hiking.
It is a long and uncomfortable bus journey to the start of the trail. It takes about 5 hours to get from Huaraz to Vaqueria – longer if you stop for breakfast, as we did – but it is easy to get distracted by the views, as the bus struggles over never-ending cutbacks, as steep as any road out there, bouncing over boulder-sized rocks and dodging recent landslides. But the views!
You have Huascaran for company the entire time, while you struggle to adjust your eyes to the glacial world you are about to enter.
Buy last-minute supplies in Vaqueria (12,140 feet) before setting off for the Paria Valley (12,700 feet), camping at the base of the 18-thousand-foot peak Mount Paria. It is a fairly easy ramble on the first day, just enough to stretch out those legs from the bus ride, and to prepare yourself for the next and most difficult day.
Vertical Gain: 558 feet of elevation gain.
How Long?: 3 – 4 hours
Stuff as much food down as you can and strap on your boots for one epic day in the mountains. You will walk in the company of giants this day, with six stunning Andean peaks seemingly within touching-distance.
The climb up to Punta Union Pass will throw nothing too technical at you, but the altitude and lack of oxygen will become apparent. There are some lovely little ponds around the place that offer the chance for reflection photography. If it is not too windy and that is your thing, take a break and suck in the big ones.
It is an unbelievable feeling as you take the pass, and not just because of the elation of achieving something that is so physically demanding. But also because of the view in front of you, with a handful of unique snow-capped peaks dotted around the visible horizon. Glaciers and pristine lakes grace the mountainsides, but sadly here I just have to say one thing:
This is a tropical ice cap, and the most at threat come the onset of global warming. In the last 35 years, the glaciers of Peru have shrunk by more than a third. They retreat about 60 feet every year. In 50 years, they will be gone, unless we all help to reverse this horrible trend immediately.
The view down the valley ahead is mind-blowing. It is hard to gauge the scale of what is in front, but you just know that it is awesome. Eat some lunch at the pass before thankfully surrendering some of that hard-fought altitude as you drop quickly down to the next campsite. It could take another two hours and it is rough on the knees, but at least you will be able to breathe a bit better!
It really is one of the most spectacular campsites I have come across, with a quaint, meandering river rolling gently along a wide valley floor, with incredible views up to Alpamayo, and back to the Punta Union Pass.
Vertical gain and loss: 2,890 feet of elevation gain and 1,260 feet of elevation loss
How Long?: 6 – 9 hours
Ah, day three. What a day it was. Lessons learnt. Views that make you drool. What more could you ask for?
We began by climbing out of our little sheltered campsite and held a debate on a ledge, where the path divided into two.
Half the group, it seemed, could not work out why the trek should continue for another night, when they had already seen the best bit of the hike – the Punta Union Pass – and could put in a long day and get back to Huaraz that same night. Why should they tramp pointlessly up another valley and waste another day in the mountains?
Well, as it turns out, it is not a good idea to turn away from Alpamayo, famously dubbed The Most Beautiful Mountain in the World for its disgustingly attractive features. You wander easily up that valley with Alpamayo, just there, in front of you. And when you reach the end, a short climb up some glacial debris brings you to, in my opinion, the most spectacular part of the entire trek.
Mountains rise in a haunting basin around you, like competing players in a card game, while a glacier crunches down the slope on the far side of a deliciously-blue expanse of water. The glacier continues, in this sheltered space, until it merges with the lake, meaning if you hang around long enough, you are likely to see some calving (as in ice-bergs breaking off the glacier’s snout, not a baby cow being born).
“I can’t believe those guys left the trek early.” I mumbled out loud, and a fit German man in his sixties looked at me and replied:
“Sometimes to save a day, is more expensive.”
Lessons learnt. To compound their unknown misery – ignorance really is bliss – we spent the next few hours wandering back toward the mountain Artesonraju, that crazy-looking pyramidal rise that is often accused of being the Paramount Pictures mountain. Well, I don’t know anything about that, but it is surely a spectacular rise of land.
In case you are interested, I just did some intense research (Wikipedia), and the Italian side of the mountain Monte Viso is another Paramount Pictures candidate, although it is far more likely to be based on the summit of Utah’s Ben Lomond, where Paramount founder William Hodkinson grew up.
Keep your eyes open in the afternoon for the spectacular algae-covered ponds, that range in color from pink to yellow to dark-green and provide some surreal colors to the landscape.
Vertical loss: 1,608 feet of elevation loss
How Long?: 7 – 8 hours
Today is the day where feet and knees will be tested on the constant descent to Cashapampa (9,500 feet). It is today when you look at all those hikers, laboring their way up from the bottom of a hot valley, with full packs on their backs, sweating and struggling, and congratulate yourself for doing it the easier way. Because it does not look like a great deal of fun.
You descend through a dramatically steep valley – so steep that it is almost resembles a canyon, with luscious waterfalls fueled by Andean melt water dropping over the tops of ridges. The contrast is unreal as you wander into a pine-and-eucalyptus forest, before finally coming across the villages below. Agriculture reigns supreme here, as you wander through corn plantations to the end of the trek.
It is about a three-hour bus ride back to Huaraz.
Vertical loss: 2,822 feet of elevation loss
How long?: 3 – 4 hours.
Do I need a guide?
This is the million-dollar question. If you are unable to carry your own bags, including food, camping gear and clothing, at high altitude over a high pass, then I would recommend going with a guided group. It will not cost you more than around US $120, which will include a mule to carry your gear, a guide, transport from Huaraz to the trailhead and back, all your camping equipment and three meals per day.
The quality of the gear will vary from operator to operator, and I have heard many a horror story about trekkers waking up drenched in the middle of the night because they were sleeping in tents with gaping holes in them.
However, it is easy enough to get to the trailheads independently, and the Santa Cruz route is so easy to find that you could nearly do it with your eyes closed. So, if you like peace and quiet and have high-altitude trekking experience, I would recommend going solo for this hike.
By the time you arrange transport, buy your own food and a national park ticket ($20), the money you save going it alone will be negligible, so you are essentially doing it to avoid a schedule and the crowds.
I hiked this trail in 2018 with a tour group and had a wonderful time. The group was small and varied, with people of all ages from all over the world, while we were not condemned to walk together in a long line, and were given our freedom to go at our own speed, something that is essential when climbing at altitude.
Acclimatizing in Huaraz
Huaraz is to northern Peru what Namche Bazaar is for the Nepal Himalaya. At 10,012 feet above sea-level, it is the epi-centre for all things trekking, and the perfect height to begin the altitude acclimation process.
If you have just come from sea level, base yourself here for at least three nights before attempting any of the serious hikes. There are some unbelievable day hikes from Huaraz, and the most famous is Laguna 69.
Laguna 69 Day Hike
Length and time: 8 miles, 4 -6 hours
Highest elevation: 15,092 feet
Vertical gain: 2,625 feet
As with all things, you need to listen to your body when it comes to altitude adaptation. Common symptoms are nausea, headache, dizziness, tiredness, loss of appetite, and shortness of breath. It is not recommended to climb any higher if you are experiencing any of the above.
Best time to visit the Cordillera Blanca
The best time to visit the region is between May and September, when you are far more likely to attract clear skies and sunny days. There will of course be more trekking groups on the trail, but I would not let this bother you. There are plenty of camping sites along the way, and easy enough to find your own patch of solitude, if that is what you want.
Keep in mind that the best months (driest) to visit are the winter months, so the evenings from June to August can be exceptionally cold. In the depth of winter, keep an eye on the forecasts, but expect overnight temperatures to be colder than 15°F. You are going to need a good sleeping bag and thermals to be comfortable during the night.
Summing Up the Santa Cruz Trek
It is not often you can wander in the mountains, and feel so very close to the mountains. These Andean peaks of the Cordillera Blanca feel close enough to kiss.
This trek is stunning, challenging, rewarding and technically not too difficult either, and anyone with a good level of fitness and the right amount of altitude acclimation will be able to successfully complete this trek.
The National Geographic calls the Santa Cruz Trek one of the world’s best, and I tend to trust those guys. Now that I have seen it for myself, I fully agree. With huge peaks reaching for the sky everywhere you look, and glaciers that stubbornly defy the global warming temperatures, and beautiful lakes and rivers and.. and so much more.
I was on this hike in peak season, and it felt empty. I had just been hiking the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu, with every other person ever born, through dust clouds lifted from thousands of trekking boots, thick enough to shield peaks from view. And the Santa Cruz Trek was so, so much better than that. Quieter. More remote. You can get closer to nature, and to the mountains.
It is so beautiful that I barely have the words to describe it. Go and see for yourself.
I booked this trip through the tour operator at Big Mountain Hostel in Huaraz, for a total of US $120. The entrance fee to Huascaran National Park was an additional $20.
In some cases, it will actually be cheaper to do this as part of a guided tour, particularly if.. erm.. you do not speak Spanish. And get ripped off.
Other Multi-Day Hikes in the Cordillera Blanca
Alpamayo Circuit Trek
If you have made it this far in this article, then I suppose I should be honest with you. I actually wanted to undertake the 10-day Alpamayo Circuit Trek instead of the Santa Cruz, but I could not put a group together in Huaraz to keep the costs down. There are a number of operators in the region that have websites that you can sign up to, hoping that other people join the hike with you.
However, I had no such luck. The route takes in the classic northern-face of Alpamayo, and from the pictures, it is easy to see why many people believe it to be the most beautiful on Earth. In fact, do yourself a favour and type “the north face of Alpamayo” into Google and look at the photos. Then come back and finish this article!
The route itself is challenging, and takes you into remote areas over high altitudes. It is only for the highly-experienced to go it alone. I have been hiking for many a year now, and would not even contemplate doing this hike without local assistance.
Huayhuash Circuit Trek
If there is a trek I will return to Peru to complete, it is the world-renowned Huayhuash Circuit, a gargantuan journey that can span between 8-14 days, and takes in some of the most spectacular alpine scenery on Earth. It is remote, beautiful and virtually untouched, and being away from the commercial tourism hub of Peru, this is one of those few places left in the world where you can get away from the crowds and immerse yourself in the beauty of the mountains.
Competent hikers with high-altitude experience and a lust for adventure need only apply.
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As a travel writer and photographer, Gordon spent the better part of 2018 visiting 13 different countries as far apart as Chile, Morocco and Vietnam. He is in New Zealand in 2019, writing a third travel book, while exploring pretty much anything that forms a bump on the Earth’s surface.