Eight Days Hiking Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash Mountains
Not everybody would agree that a week trekking up and down mountain passes sounds like a dream come true, and fair enough. I’ll be the first to admit that hiking the 100-some kilometres of trail that weaves through Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash mountains was punctuated by highs and lows, both figurative and all-too-literal. But despite the struggle, this trek remains one of my South American highlights and a must-see for anyone with a love of the outdoors.
Hiking Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash Mountains: The Basics
Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash is a mountain range nestled in the Peruvian Andes, in the department of Ancash, about three hours outside the travel hub of Huaraz. The main circuit of the Huayhuash Trek spans around 130 kilometers (with plenty of opportunity for smaller detours and excursions) and winds its way in a large loop through sheer peaks, stunning glacial lakes, and surreal valleys. The entirety of the hike takes place above the tree line and varies in altitude between 3,500 and over 5,300 metres above sea level, making it a difficult trek even for the most seasoned hikers.
The Huayhuash Circuit is considered one of the best alpine treks in the world, yet it attracts far fewer annual visitors than other well-known treks in Peru. Most days we saw fewer than a dozen people outside our own group, and most of these were locals herding sheep (which outnumber people a hundred to one) and mules or tending campgrounds (compare this to the thousands that visit Machu Picchu and Rainbow Mountain daily). Peak season for hiking the Cordillera Huayhuash stretches from May to September, when the weather is cold but relatively dry. In summer heavy precipitation can block access to some passes. Be warned though, no matter when you go, the weather is unpredictable. I did the trek in early September and encountered rain, snow, intense sun, freezing cold, and howling winds. It pays to be prepared with plenty of layers.
Hiking Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash Mountains: Guided or Solo?
For those interested in tackling Huayhuash, the first decision to make is whether to go with a guided tour or attempt it on your own. While the trail is absolutely accessible without a guide, let me repeat: it is not a trek for the faint of heart (whether you take a guide or not). I opted for the guide, and booked a tour with Galaxia Expeditions in Huaraz. Many companies in Huaraz offer tours of the Huayhuash, and vary more in price than you might imagine. At 950 Peruvian Soles (~330 USD), Galaxia was one of the cheaper options I found, and this was more or less reflected in the service provided. Equipment was well-worn, meals were basic (especially for vegetarians) and the guides had very little English comprehension. While inclusions vary from company to company, the basic benefits to hiring a guide boil down to a few considerations.
Pros and Cons
First, obviously, you get a guide. Your guide is responsible for leading you through the mountains and determining if and when certain areas might be unsafe. Trails in the Huayhuash are well marked and mapped, and easy to follow for the most part, so while I never felt like I would be lost without one, having a guide provided a certain peace of mind. Your guide should also have a horse or pony in case of emergencies.
Second, tour companies will provide any gear you need for the trek. This includes tents, sleeping bags, mats, waterproof gear, and sometimes even personal comforts like trekking poles or extra jackets. Keep in mind that rental gear will rarely be of the same quality as your personal equipment.
Third, in addition to the guide, you’ll have a chef, a team of mules and a mule driver, or arriero. The chef will plan and prepare all your meals for the trek – usually breakfast, lunch, an afternoon snack, and dinner – as well as boiling drinking water every day. The mule driver looks after the pack animals carrying all the gear and food you don’t need while physically hiking.
This is, in my opinion, the most compelling reason to hire a tour guide. Eight days of meals is a lot to plan for, and even more to carry in addition to all the layers and camping equipment you’ll need. Even if you decide to attempt the trek without a guide, I highly recommend hiring an arriero from either Huaraz or one of the small villages around the Cordillera Huayhuash. However, if you do hire your own arriero, know that you’ll be expected to provide his or her meals.
Note: If booking a guided tour, make sure you know whether the price includes park and camping fees while on the trek. If not, or if you’re going without a guide, expect to pay between 200 and 300 Peruvian soles in fees to the various communities whose land you’ll be camping and trekking in.
Hiking Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash Mountains: The Route
Day One: Huaraz to Llamac to Quartelhuain
I set out on a Thursday morning from Huaraz, my five-kilo duffel packed full of Oreos and layers of clothes for every occasion. I was the last to arrive at the bus, where nine other hikers and our guide were already waiting. After winding through mountain roads for several hours, we arrived in Llamac, and sleeping heads popped up one by one as our guide collected the first of many fees and we entered the park. When the bus stopped again, we made our first camp at Quartelhuain (4,170m) and settled in for a rainy afternoon. Huddled in the dry teepee where we shared all our meals, the ten of us got to know each other and psyched ourselves up for the trek ahead.
Day Two: Qaqanan Pass
After a long, cold first night, we woke before sunrise and demolished plates of eggs and rolls with coffee. We set off just after dawn, leaving our tents to be taken down by the arriero, and began immediately to climb the first of many passes. The feeling of triumph as we crested Qaqanan Pass (4,750m) was one I came to be very familiar with over the next week, as was the vague building dread of the descent. An unavoidable truth of the mountains is that what goes down, must eventually go back up. After stopping in a valley near Mitacocha and eating a sack lunch of sandwiches and fruit with a chocolate bar, we started up the second pass we needed to cross to reach our campsite at Carhuacocha (4,138m).
We arrived just as the rain did. Rain turned to snow as we huddled out of the damp and cold for another night of hot tea and card games next to the stunning azure glacial lake for which the camp was named.
Day Three: Mirador de las Tres Lagunas, Carnicero Pass and Campomente Huayhuash
Day three started with shaking the snow off of our tents trudging off to the first of the popular viewpoints, Mirador de las Tres Lagunas. By the time we’d crossed Carnicero Pass (4,630m) and started down towards camp the weather had cleared, and snowy jagged crags turned to strange glacial marshes and cow pastures. We enjoyed our first dry night at Campomente Huayhuash (4,300m) and took advantage of the sun to toss a disc around before dinner.
Day Four: Pasa Trapecio and Campomente Elefante
The next day saw a massive climb to our highest pass yet, and my favourite, Pasa Trapecio at over 5,100m. Some groups take an extra day’s detour to a natural hot spring before the paths converge at Campomente Elefante (4,450m). I’ve heard the hot springs at Viconga are lovely, but I wouldn’t have traded the view at Trapecio for anything.
Days Five & Six: San Antonio Pass, Huayllapa and Tapush Pass
The next morning our group elected to do a detour up another steep pass for the spectacular viewpoint of San Antonio Pass (4,990m) before continuing on the trail for a relatively easy downhill trek into the small pueblo of Huayllapa (3,500m and the lowest point on the trek).
In Huayllapa we enjoyed the relative comfort of civilisation for a night, pitching our tents in a football stadium and buying beers in town to enjoy with dinner. Some of my fellow trekkers even splurged on a hot shower. Having officially crossed our halfway point, and with the weather improving every day, spirits were high on our sixth morning. A long uphill climb took most of the day, regaining the altitude lost yesterday. After cresting Tapush Pass (4,800m) late afternoon, we cruised the last few kilometres down to camp at Quashpapampa (4,500m).
Day Seven: Yaucha Pass and Jahuacocha
Our last full day of trekking passed much like those before. The short climb to our last mirador (Yaucha Pass at 4,850m) seemed routine by now, as did our usual sack lunches and the relief of arriving to camp and laying out bedrolls before hunkering down against the cold evenings. Jahuacocha, our final campsite (4,070m), was gorgeously situated on the bank of a glacial lake where locals caught fresh trout to sell to hikers. The hard part was over, and we laughed and joked much later than usual into the night, passing around small celebratory flasks of rum and reminiscing on the trek.
Day Eight: Back to Llamac and Huaraz
On our final day, we slept in until a luxurious six o’clock before started the easy half-day hike down into the town of Llamac that we’d passed through 8 days before. Seeing the town come into view in the valley below and knowing we’d finally come full circle, I couldn’t help but feel that something had changed. We were far dirtier and carrying the exhaustion of seven nights uneasy sleep and six days of gruelling climbs and steep dusty descents, but more than that, we felt different. To unplug from the world for a week and pit yourself against the elements leaves a sense of accomplishment that’s hard to describe, but harder still to ignore.
The bus ride back to Huaraz was quiet and introspective. Upon arrival, the car horns and bustle of the city seemed alarming by comparison. Even now, hundreds of kilometres away breathing the luxurious seaside air in a hostel in Lima, I think often of the simplicity of life in the Cordillera Huayhuash. The Huayhuash Trek was the first serious multiday trek I’d ever attempted, but it won’t be the last. I look forward to my next adventure into the Peruvian wilderness.
Are you travelling to multiple countries over the next few months? Looking to share your story and get a little extra pocket money? Apply to become a Travltalk contributor now!