Peru is famous for the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu; but have you heard of the Santa Cruz Trek? This 50km trail winds through some of the most breathtaking scenery in the Cordillera Blanca range of the Andes. With incredible views of the Alpamayo, a 4750m high mountain pass, deserts, rivers, glacial lakes, and endless herds of wild horses and other animals, this trek deserves your attention.
Where: Huascaran National Park in the Cordillera Blanca, Peru
Closest City: Huaraz, Peru via Lima (LIM), Peru
When: Too busy in the summer (May through September) but weather is typically more reliable. Better to go from September through April to find some peace on the trail!
Length: 50km, 3-4 days
Hiking Trip Base Cost: $30 for Park Fees, $10 transportation to and from Huaraz, $10-infinity/day for food = ~$80 for a 4 day trip. You can also go with a local company, which will run you between $200-$350 for everything (including donkeys to carry your stuff!)
Additional Variable Costs: fuel for your stove, any new camping gear, a flight, accommodation outside the hike in Huaraz and/or Lima, beer, etc.
Santa Cruz Trek Itinerary and Route
Day 1 – Vaqueria to Paria Valley, 10km
From Huaraz, first thing in the morning: take a 1.5h mini bus to Yungay (ask the locals how and where) then another 4h collectivo/minibus to Vaqueria (ask anyone how and where). You’ll pick up a park permit on the way, and arrive at Vaqueria sometime around lunch. It seems like a big effort, but it’s honestly not hard and worth the savings. The hike from Vaqueria to Paria Valley is an easy to follow, well trodden trail through small villages and meadows, ending by a river. Even though it’s only 10km, the elevation changes and early effects of altitude may stretch this day longer than you expect.
Day 2: Paria Valley to Taullipampa via Punta Union, 11km
Today, you reach the highest point on the Santa Cruz Trek over Punta Union pass, high at 4750m! Weather dependent, the views are incredible with unforgettable views of the lake and valley below. In the valley after the pass, you’ll trek through desert landscapes impossible to believe without seeing it for yourself.
Day 3: Taullipampa to Llamacorral + Aruaycocha Lake, 22km
After coming over the pass, take an optional side trip to Mt. Taulliraju’s glacier – this will add a couple of hours to your day, but it is worth it! Before hiking all the way down the valley, take the trail that skirts right and takes you through grassy meadows to reach the Arhuaycocha Lake below a dramatic glacier with views of the Alpamayo.
Day 4: Llamacorral to Cashapampa, 6km
A half day of downhill walking is an easy and satisfying way to end the Santa Cruz Trek. Enjoy the views while you still can! In Cashapampa, it’s easy to find someone to take you to Caraz (1.5h) from where you will take a minibus to Huaraz (1.5h). Back in time for a shower, drinks, and dinner, you’ll be both totally satisfied and hungry for more of the untouchable beauty you have just been privy to.
Roses n Thorns
Rose (the best part)
Alpamayo. There is good reason this mountain is often called the most beautiful mountain in the world. By taking the side trip to Arhuaycocha Lake, you are rewarded with views of the dramatic peak. Seeing it in its glory has inspired plans to return to conquer the entire Alpamayo Circuit, or perhaps one day to climb to its summit and walk along the ridge!
Thorn (the worst or most hilarious part)
So this isn’t really a thorn, but it is entertaining! Before leaving for the trek, we had gone to a local dairy shop in Huaraz to pick up some cheese that we could enjoy on the trail. Speaking little to no Spanish, we picked one that was wrapped in wax paper. On the second night, after coming down from the highest point, I was ready to indulge. I unwrapped the cheese, took a generous chunk, and ate it with crusty baguette. “This is incredible. This is the best cheese I’ve ever had in my life. So creamy. So delicious. YOU MUST TRY THIS CHEESE,” I gloated. Sam was feeling beyond ill, and profusely refused despite my pleas. I went on to eat another few chunks, until a realization crept over me: this was not cheese, and it was no accident it was so creamy. This was butter. I had, by myself, in its salty and soft wonder, just eaten nearly half a stick of butter. Nice!
Bud (the new friend)
French people are so efficient! From the moment we got on the collectivo from Huaraz that would take us to the start of the trail in Vaqueria, a French couple (a pair of doctors, or otherwise Medical Professionals) would be a step ahead of us the entire journey. Their packs were light and perfectly organized. They wore proper hiking pants, not GapFit joggers that were bought two Summer sales ago. Suave Peruvian hats, clearly bought on the trip but somehow managing to look intentional and authentic. Soup as an appetizer for their pasta dinners, and I had just eaten half a stick of butter on stale bread. They were nice, funny, calm, and totally prepared. It’s important to have role models in life.
Gear and Food List
The Santa Cruz Trek is a proper backpacking route that requires a cook set and sleeping kit. See my Gear for the Trail list for somewhere to start. If you choose to go with a company, however, you will be able to rent most gear (sleeping bag, mat, tent, stove, etc.) with them and thus need only clothes, boots, and a day pack.
Since you can’t carry gas on a plane, you’ll buy fuel in Huaraz. Ask hostels/guesthouses for fuel that others have left, buy from one of the few outdoor outfitters, or ask to buy leftover fuel from trekking companies.
Here are some ideas: Food on the Trail. In general, my days look like this…
Breakfast: hot oats on short days, cold granola with milk powder on long days
Lunch: snacks throughout the day including pepperoni sticks, tortillas, a LOT of peanut butter, granola bars, GORP, and dried fruit
Dinner: prepared dehydrated meals when I’m feeling fancy, or deluxe instant noodles/Sidekicks when I’m not
If you will be grocery shopping in Huaraz, you will be limited to what they have (i.e. no powdered milk, of course). That said, they are fairly well stocked and you shouldn’t have a problem finding good eats. They have lots of instant oat options and pretty amazing local cheeses and cured meats that will last the few days, especially at the low temperatures.
Make it Happen
- Understand the route and pick a time of year you want to go.
- Choose your route/itinerary: there are lots of ways you can extend this trek by taking side trips, and lots of hikes around Huaraz as well! Take two days in Huaraz to acclimatize, and longer if you have the time.
- Once that is locked in, book your flights and/or transportation to and from Huaraz.
- If flying, fly into Lima (LIM) and take a bus to Huaraz ($10-$30). Book it now to save you hassle later.
- Book accommodation in Lima and Huaraz.
- The fun begins! Plan your meals, get your gear in order, and start walking to work and taking the stairs to make your trip as fun as possible when you get there.
- Get outside and do the thing.
Have you hiked the Santa Cruz – or better, have you hiked the whole Alpamayo Circuit?? It’s high on my list to return and complete the entire circuit and relive the glory of the Peruvian Andes.