“I realized with a start that despite twenty years of climbing mountains all over the world, the Cordillera HuayHuash was still the most beautiful mountain range I have ever laid my eyes upon.” – Author and mountaineer, Joe Simpson
I’ll never forget it.
It happened when I stumbled upon a photo.
In it the barbed shoulders of a glaciered mountain range towered over three cerulean lakes. It’s the kind of image that succeeds to both humble and inspire, to stir both the eyes and heart.
That photo possessed me.
It wasn’t until after we arrived to Peru we put a name to those vivid pools of water.
The Siula Lakes, located about four days deep on the Cordillera HuayHuash Circuit.
Although we had been training and prepping for the Cordillera Blanca, plans were immediately changed.
The Cordillera HuayHuash has left an imprint in my life that can hardly be articulated with words.
The intense beauty we witnessed rekindled in us a sense of childlike wonder. The challenge nourished a newfound sense of confidence.
It was one of the more profound experiences of my life.
If this nine day trek isn’t already on your bucket list, the time to add it is now. It will give you a reason to train, a reason to travel, and a reason to light your brain up in a completely new way.
Table of Contents:
Part I: Basics
- Why the Cordillera HuayHuash Circuit?
- Going Without A Guide
- Budgets (Time & money)
- Trail Facts: Mileage, Elevation, Days, Fees
- Acclimating: Why the Big Deal?
- Home Base: Huaraz
- How difficult is the hike?
- How safe is the trail?
- How much Spanish do I need?
- When to go
- What we packed.
- What’s the whole point of hiking? It sounds lame.
Part II: A breakdown of our 9 day trek.
- Days -3 to 0: Acclimating and Prep
- Day 1: Huaraz to Pocpa to Camp Quartalhain
- Day 2: Camp Quartalhain to Mitococha
- Day 3: Lake Mitococha to Lake Carhuacocha
- Day 4: Lake Carhuacocha to Camp HuayHuash (Siula Pass)
- Day 5: Camp HuayHuash to Atuscancha (Hot Springs)
- Day 6: Atuscancha to Huallapa
- Day 7: Huallapa to Susucocha
- Day 8: Camp Susucocha to Pampa Llamac
- Day 9: Pampa Llamac to Llamac
he HuayHuash circuit features some of the best alpine hiking has to offer. Ask any local mountaineer in Huaraz and they’ll tell you this 8-10 day trek is by far the most beautiful in Peru, if not the world.
The trail is punctuated with azure lakes, waterfalls, imposing glaciers, and 20,000 foot peaks. There is an impressive range of plant life along the trail. It’s not unusual to hear the thunderclap of a cracking glacier, and then watch the proceeding avalanche roar into the lake below.
The trail is not crowded. Unlike the more popular Santa Cruz or Inca trail treks, the Cordillera HuayHuash doesn’t receive as much lip service (and, in turn, foot traffic). It’s also higher, harder to get to, and more strenuous than its neighbors to the north. For the most part, you’ll have the place to yourself.
What’s also great about the Cordillera HuayHuash is it doesn’t require a significant amount of time, making it a great option for those who are unable to swing the time off for something like the John Muir Trail.
Finally, Peru is safe, affordable, and easy to travel!
ost who attempt the Cordillera HuayHuash do so with a guide. The average cost for this runs at a whopping $3,000 per person. Of course, this includes food, gear, pack mules, and a guide who does just about everything except wipe your butt.
However, if you’re reading this article, I’m assuming you thrill in taking ownership of all aspects of your adventure.
Flying solo does require its fair share of prep. We brought all our own food (we got all ours from Outdoor Herbivore) and gear from the states. We purchased a map in Huaraz from Cafe Andino. And, of course, we busted our butts to make sure we were in great shape for the trek.
The HuayHuash circuit is a very straightforward trek, replete with well marked trails and plenty of designated camp zones to choose from. GPS came in handy a few times (we used Gaia) but more for verifying location than actual guidance.
All in all, one needn’t be an expert to make it on this trek, but we recommend you have backpacking experience and are in great physical shape.
Recommended travel time:
From the time you step onto the plane to the time you’re back on home soil would require about two weeks. Let’s break it down:
1 day travel to Huaraz
3 days to acclimate
9 days on the trail (includes travel to/from Huaraz)
1 day travel to Lima
*note: this is an estimated itinerary for someone with intentions to only explore the HuayHuash Circuit.
One of the main deciding factors for this trip was affordability.
Peru is a very inexpensive country and there are always killer deals on flights to Lima. Here’s a rough break-down on some costs:
- Flight to Lima: $200 – $1000 US (ours were $550 from San Francisco)
- Bus rides between Lima and Huaraz: $7/person in a very comfortable double decker.
- Room and board: $7-20/night.
- Bus rides between Huaraz and trail: $15
- Food: $
- Permit fees: $60 (200 soles in SMALL BILLS)
- NOTE: It is ESSENTIAL you bring this amount in small bills as exact change is demanded from rangers. Keep in mind that Peruvian ATMs only dispense large bills. We suggest dealing directly with a teller otherwise you’ll be stuck scrambling around town buying gum to break your large bills
I’ll be the first to tell you that hiking at elevation is no joke.
At 15,000 ft ten steps with a 35 lb backpack feels like a marathon. Muscle recovery slows, sleep and hunger become elusive, and the higher you ascend, the more you’ll be gasping for air like a chain-smoking granny at the top of a stairway.
The only solution for immediate relief is to descend to lower elevation, which sucks in situations like, say, hiking a circuit on a time crunch
Now, I’m not trying to scare you away from hiking near the Gods. I’m just saying it’s imperative that you take the time to acclimate before going guns blazing at HauyHuash.
Everyone’s level of sensitivity to altitude is unique to themselves, so it’s important to know where you lie on the spectrum.
Indicators of altitude sickness:
- Loss of energy/weakness
Tips for treating altitude sickness:
- Drink tons of water.
- Sip on coca tea.
- Keep altitude sickness tablets on hand, which help reduce symptoms.
- Acclimate. Did we already say that? We’ll say it again. TAKE A FEW WARM UP HIKES FIRST!
uaraz is a bustling town of 100,000 inhabitants located in North Central Peru. The city sits at 10,013 ft in the Callejón de Huaylas valley with incredible views of the Cordillera Blanca to the north an east, including Huascaran, the highest peak in Peru (22,205 ft).
As far as tourism goes, Huaraz isn’t as blown out as, say, Lima or Cuzco. This has its ups and downs.
On the plus side, Huaraz doesn’t feel stripped of its authenticity in the way extremely touristy cities can. Peddlers and beggars were few and far between. People were friendly and generous with their knowledge. It’s less expensive and very safe—we never got scammed or taken advantage of.
On the down side, fewer people here speak English.
All in all, we fell in love with Huaraz. While the city isn’t rich by any means, it’s safe and population here appear comfortable enough to be enjoying life with a sense of purpose.
As far as difficulty goes, it’s not the mileage that will get you, it’s the elevation. To us, 6 miles on HuayHuash circuit felt like 12 miles in the Eastern Sierra (our stomping grounds) and our packs felt heavier. The HuayHuash circuit is a great reason to seize those fitness goals!
Overall, the HuayHuash circuit is very safe, but that’s not to say you shouldn’t exercise some common sense. Keep your valuables with you and/or inside the tent and don’t leave your stuff scattered about like some hipster yard sale.
Once you leave Huaraz you will be hard pressed to find anyone who speaks or understands English. If you don’t know any Spanish and you’re too damn lazy to at least learn the basics, I would recommend at least having a translation app on your phone handy.
Most popular trekking months are between March and September. However, we went in November and experienced perfect weather. If you plan on going in the off season make sure your waterproofing gear is on fleek.
- wool base layers (it gets very cold and windy)
- socks (1 pair heavy wool for night, 2 pairs hiking for day)
- waterproof jacket and pants
- undies (not cotton and not too many)
- hiking shoes
- beanie & hat
- hiking shirts (collared hiking shirts were life savers. Popped collar = sunproof neck and a revisit to your 8th grade style guide)
- hiking pants (convertible came in handy for Karl)
- 0 – 20 degree sleeping bag (you’ll want a silk liner if you go 20)
- sleeping pad
- silk liner
- inflatable pillow/fleece lined stuff sack
- Jetboil & fuel
- 3 liter bladder
- 1 liter Nalgene
- 4lb two-person blackpacking tent
- reflective ground cloth (insulation)
- Steripen & Sawyer Squeeze & tablets
- backpacking mugs
Extras & backup:
- extra string for guy lines
- backup tent stakes
- extra AAA batteries
- phones (for photos and GPS)
- Kindles (for not losing your mind)
- portable chargers for phones & kindles (to keep your electronic sidekicks alive)
- 9 days worth backpacking food (repackaged in freezer bags)
- toiletries (keep it basic)
- first aid kits with extra antihistamine and extra ibuprofen (Karl suffered from severe allergies on the trek)
- duct tape (for blisters and general gear repair)
- bug spray
- chapstick w/ sunscreen
- toilet paper
- map &/or GPS
Anything we needed for travel but not the trail we left behind at our B&B (shampoo, Peruvian tabloids, etc).
Our Nine Days on the HuayHuash Circuit
We spent about three days warming up for our big trek. We arrived to Huaraz late in the evening and booked the first hostel we found. Unbenowst to us (until it was too late), that hostel was also the Huaraz hooker headquarters. A prostitution den, if you will.
Needless to say, we didn’t get much sleep that night.
After that snafu we upgraded to Casa de Maruja, a nicer hostel just north of Huaraz. We had heard that the owner was a big-time mountaineer, so we hoped to pick his brain about HuayHuash.
As it turned out, this hostel was probably the most valuable asset to our trip planning. The owners, Gilf and Maruja, were more than happy to share their knowledge of the area. Gilf pointed us in all the right directions with regard to prep and travel and even sat down with us and a map and helped us devise our HuayHuash strategy.
The rest of our time was spent acquiring information, arranging bus tickets, and trying to locate the best vegetarian restaurant in Huaraz (Conclusion: Salud Y Vida, which is located next to Parque Pil. Go in at noon, ask for the almuerzo, and prepare to have your mind blown. You’re welcome.)
We also got to acclimating with an impressive day hike to Laguna 69 (15,091 feet).
It was here I had my first encounter with altitude sickness. Not fun. About an hour after our arrival I became lightheaded, nauseaus, extremely lathargic, and even had a moment where my hearing faded to a dull ‘womp womp’ sound for a few seconds. I popped my altitude sickness tablets and immediately got to descending (the only cure for altitude sickness).
Highlights: Finally being on trail. Mingling with sheep. Getting to camp.
At 5 a.m. we departed from the bus station Parada de Chiquian in Huaraz for the three hour bus ride to Chiquian (10 soles/person). At Chiquian we had a one hour layover, where we unloaded and waited outside for the next bus (15 sole/person). From here it was a four hour bone-rattling ride to Pocpa.
Pocpa is the final stop, so make sure you don’t unload before then!
Upon arrival to Pocpca we paid our first fee. Note: It’s important to keep all receipts handy for proof of payment should any ranger ask.
We moved along a dusty old mining road that followed along Rio Llanca for a bit before winding up and away. We passed through a checkpoint at Palca. Here we encountered a guard sporting an AK-47.
We flashed our passports, signed a book, and made sure not to make any sudden movements
Wildlife sightings included bumbling sheep, nonchalant cows, and a couple of vocal guard dogs (harmless).
Upon arrival to Quartelhuain we met an elderly Quechuan shepherd woman who pointed us to the best campsites. There was something about her that I found so endearing, so when she asked if we possibly had any cookies to spare, Karl was more than happy to offer his Louck’s sesame crackers. She was so delighted by the gift that she emphatically blessed our trek many times over.
“Your trek will be blessed! You will have amazing weather! May you be safe! It will be the best time of your life!”
In all honesty, I think that blessing went a long way.
Or, as Karl puts it, “Best 44 cents I ever spent!”
Highlights: Cacananapunta pass. Camping inside ruins. Sunset over Lake Mitococha. Avalanches thundering down Hirishanka.
Day two kicked off with a huge, steep pass over Cacananpunta. Fire breathing is not something I’ve ever considered, but that’s certainly what it felt like hiking up this section. Lots of cool alpine vegetation here if you keep your eyes peeled.
Once over the pass, the trail curves to the right (west) as it approaches a Rio Janca. It was in this section that we met a friendly shephard who warned us to always keep our belongings inside the tent, especially hiking shoes, which apparently are a hot commodity around here.
We passed through another toll booth before continuing on to the lake. There’s really no correct way to navigate this area, so we just followed along the river, which was fascinating in its own right.
Upon arrival to the lake we decided to set up camp inside some interesting ruins located on the hill just northeast of the lake. The old stonework came in handy for blocking out wind. But, most importantly, they made us feel like a couple of badasses straight out of Tomb Raider.
And, of course, marveling at the intense beauty of Jirishanka norte looming over the calm waters of Mitococha lake.
Highlights: First sight of Carhuacocha from north ridge. Majestic camp site. Making friends with baby sheep. Full moon.
We took our sweet time on the third morning, and even helped a passing shephard set the time on his old-school Nokia cell phone.
Despite the slow start, we made it to Carhuacocha with ample time to enjoy the afternoon and evening there. This lake is just insanely beautiful. I mean, there are no words to describe that initial sight of Carhuacochas piercing blue waters against the snowy HuayHuash range. You feel like you’re in a book. Or a movie.
There are two options for camping here—the Incahuain campsite that’s perched on the northern rim and the Corococha site on the east end adjacent the bridge.
While both sites are well-groomed and offer stunning vistas of the range, we opted for the Coroacocha site, mainly because I wanted to get a cool photo of the tent by the water with the range in the background. Results from my mission far exceeded expectations, as you can see below.
This was my favorite camp site on the trail. I found it to be the most beautiful (I mean, do you SEE these photos? The nostalgia is almost too much to bear) and very comfortable.
I will say that we HATED the flavor of the water here. If I was a water connoisseur, I would describe the flavor as having pronounced dimensions of mud and algae with a lingering fish-poo finish.
As it turned out, we also timed our night perfectly with the the full moon. Observing the range transition from a technicolor sunset to a florescent glow against an ebony sky is something I will never, ever forget.
Highlights: Azure lakes. Thundering avalanches. Siula pass vista
Ah, Day 4. This was, hands down, the most difficult yet most stunning day.
While our map did not indicate a trail through Siula pass, Gilf insisted there is a steep and somewhat hairy path that navigates over the pass. GPS confirmed this.
From Carhuacocha the trail meandered gradually up and along three jaw-dropping lakes that were such an intense color blue I was certain the sky felt envious (or at least a bit of FOMO).
Here I witnessed a massive avalanche plunge into Siula lake. On the south end of Laguna Quesillacocha is a gurgling hot spring. On the western horizon, the Yarupaja and Siula range appeared to claw at the heavens.
Once we arrived at the base of Siula pass, however, things got a little less romantic and a lot more painful. I found this to be the most unforgiving pass on the entire trek. Steep, crumbly—and I got backhanded HARD by altitude sickness, unfortunate timing considering the otherwise perfect circumstances.
I became increasingly nauseous, dizzy, and weak the higher I got. By the time I reached the summit I was stumbling, dry heaving, and unable to carry my pack. I will admit it was a bit scary, even in my state of overwhelming apathy (side-effect of AS). But by the time my symptoms got that bad I was so close to the summit (and to descending quickly on the other side) that it didn’t make sense to me to turn around and a lose a day.
And this, my friends, is the reason I stress the importance of acclimating! Altitude sickness can and will ruin your trip!
As soon as began descending other side I immediately began to feel better, although the last few miles felt like an E-TER-NI-TY! We were completely physically and emotionally drained by the time we limped into camp. As stunning as I found this day to be, I was happy to hit the pillow before nightfall.
Highlights: Laguna Viconga’s eerie voodoo. HOT SPRINGS!
Day 5 started out with a pass over Portachuelo de HuayHuash before gradually descended towards Laguna Viconga. This lake is equal parts intriguing and foreboding, with all kinds of interesting vibes going on.
From the lake it’s a short climb before dropping down to the hot springs campsite.
The hot spring are far from primitive. There are two large pools and even a fountain for washing clothes (yeah, we were stoked!). Both we and our sweaty clothes enjoyed a nice soak.
Highlights: Mind-blowing vistas of the HuayHuash range from Punto Cuyoc. Touching the sky at 16,400 ft above sea level. Waterfalls. Massive airplants. Beer and chocolate.
This was the longest day for us. Our initial plan was to camp in the valley, but knowing we could grab a beer (for Karl) and chocolate (for myself) in the tiny village of Huayllapa was enough to motivate us through the 10-hour day.
We started off by summiting the highest pass on the circuit, Punto Cuyoc. This area is WILD! If there was ever a good place to get abducted by aliens, this is it.
At Punto Cuyoc we stood eye to eye with the Cuyoc glacier and the formidable peaks of the HuayHuash range which stretched off into the distance behind it.
From here it’s a steep and crumbly descent. I fell flat on my tukus several times despite my best attempts at remaining vertical.
Once in the valley we coasted along for a few hours. Here we saw some cool formations and even a decomposing cow that seemed to have passed mid-meal.
There was one last, VERY steep drop down along a tall waterfall. This section required all fours at various points.
Once we reached the bottom of this pass we noticed a sudden abundance of vegetation. Made sense, considering the whole place was flooded.
Huallapa was one of the highlights of our journey. I fell completely in love with this tiny mountain village of friendly Quechuans. Locals were very friendly and happy to help. If you are looking for a certain place or person, they won’t just tell you how, they’ll walk you there.
The downside? Huallapa doesn’t have any refrigeration, so don’t expect any cold beers!
We camped in the village soccer field located behind the school. Come to find, this field also doubles as the recess playground, which we found out as we were breaking down camp the following morning. The curious kiddos surrounded us, asking all kinds of questions (like, “Have you ever seen a puffer fish?”) and enthusiastically answering mine (like, “What do you do for fun without an iPhone?”).
Those kids made my day!
Highlights: Cool views of western peaks. Interesting birds.
I found this day to be rather uneventful compared to those leading up to it. It felt long, hot, and dry. We started with a laborious climb over Tapush Punta before dropping past Susucocha.
Highlights: Incredible vista from Yauche Punta. Laguna Jahuacocha.
By this point it became apparent to me that my muscles were not recovering well. I attributed this to the lack of oxygen. My legs fatigued easily, even while doing simple things like breaking down camp in the morning.
Day 8 kicked off with a climb over Yauche Punta which demanded mind over matter on my part (as well as frequent breaks and cursing). My stamina appeared to be waning.
From here it was a heel-pounding descent towards Laguna Jahuacocha.
From the trail emerged a stunning vista of turquoise pools adjacent the cascading glaciers of the northern HuayHuash range. This was, in my opinion, the second best vista on the trail.
Unfortunately, this lake is also the most crowded on the trek. This is because it is the main guided tour stop for the abbreviated HuaHuash trek (the 4 day mini-HuayHuash trek). From our vista point we spotted a village of tents capable of hosting as many people as the population of Huallapa (sans the beer and friendly locals).
Alright, maybe that was an exaggeration. But I was exhausted and not stoked on the prospect of camp congestion.
So we decided against camping at Jahuacocha (weather looked bleak anyways) and opted to forge onward.
We still had energy and hoped that by tackling a few more miles that afternoon we could grab a few more hours of sleep the next morning (Note: camping at Jahuacocha requires a 4 a.m. wake-up time to make the 9 a.m. bus out of Llamac).
Oh yeah, that energy I mentioned earlier? It decided to go on vacation soon as we began ascending the final and seemingly eternal pass over Pampa Llamac. I was finished.
By this point my ambilience about the end of our trek was beginning to set in. My desperation for it to be over already was not without angst over having to say goodbye to a life-altering experience.
You don’t go through that kind of pain, and joy, without a rewiring of the heart and mind.
We finally, and eagerly, set up camp on a small, grassy meadow just over the Pampa Llamac summit.
Highlights: Fresh fruit. An overwhelming sense of gratitude and accomplishment.
As planned we enjoyed a warm, leisurely morning on our final day. We woke up to the bright sun, shared a moment of silence for those hikers who had to wake up at five to suffer up the final pass in the dark, then enjoyed the vista of the range to warm coffee before taking off for our final descent.
Once we strolled into town we asked a local boy where the bus would come to pick us up, and he walked us to a small bodega one block west of the main square.
Here we waited, munching on mangos and chatting up the friendly locals, until about 11 am when the bus came to pick us up.
Cordillera HuayHuash Circuit. Check.
I believe the reason we choose to do things like this, as humans, as sentient beings, is to discover within ourselves a state of grace. We do it to hit the reset button on our hedonic scales, to renew our gratitude for the ordinary pleasures of life.
But most of all, I believe we do it to find that fire within ourselves, so that we may share it with those we love most and inspire them to do the same.
So what’s it going to be? You just going to sit there, or are you going to get out there and find that fire?
Laura Van Antwerp is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Tahoe Journal.
She is also an avid snowboarder, climber, hiker, backpacker, camper, distance runner, road biker, weight lifter, travel junkie, podcastaholic, and recovering wino.
Questions? Comments? If there’s something I left out or you have two cents to contribute, please drop a comment below!