The classic Santa Cruz trek through the Cordillera Blanca in northern Peru is one of the most popular multi-day hikes in the region. It delivers lush valleys, a daunting chain of enormous, jagged, and snow-capped peaks that combine the most dramatic elements of the Alps and the Himalayas, and challenging and satisfying trails. Here’s what you need to know about this spectacular Peruvian adventure. And don’t miss our awesome drone travel footage and time-lapse starry sky video for added inspiration.
What is the Santa Cruz trek?
The classic Santa Cruz trek, named for 20,535 foot (6,259 meter) Santa Cruz mountain, is a 32 mile (51 km) one-way trail that can be trekked from either end in either direction in three or four reasonable days. It travels through Huascarán National Park which protects a huge portion of the Cordillera Blanca area of the Andes including nearly 20 peaks over 19,000 feet (6,000 meters), all covered with more 700 glaciers (hence the name Cordillera Blanca which means white mountain range in Spanish). Walking the Santa Cruz trail from Cashapampa to Vaqueria (as we did) you’ll ascend about 13,000 feet (3,900 meters) and descend about 10,000 feet (3,000 meters), reaching a high point of 15,616 feet (4,760 meters). Ready?
Finding a trekking company in Huaraz
You can do the Santa Cruz trek on your own. No guide is required, the trail is clear, and the camping areas are obvious. But to do that you’ve got to be happy carrying your tent, food, stove, and fuel (water is available in streams at camping areas, but must be boiled or purified). We’ve spent many months of our lives schlepping fully loaded packs through big mountains, but not this time.
Instead, we started sifting through the dozens of trekking tour companies in Huaraz that provide varying levels of support and service including tents and food and pack animals to carry it all.
We ultimately found Orlando Quito, owner of Eco Ice Peru. Orlando is a certified mountain guide who was born near Huaraz and he also worked and trained in tourism in Lima. He was offered a tourism job in Germany but he wanted to return home and do something in Peru so he started Eco Ice Peru in Huaraz a few years ago.
Eco Ice Peru is not the cheapest tour company in Huaraz, but we liked that since you get what you pay for and once you’re out on the trail that can mean bad food, bad guides, bad tents, and, ultimately, a bad trek. Eco Ice Peru is also far from the priciest company in town. They occupy a middle ground that allows for traveler’s expectations and needs to be met without frills.
We also liked Orlando’s commitment to hiring local guides (including a female guide-still a rarity on the trail), and his more than passing concern for the environment.
So, how did it go?
The classic Santa Cruz trek: day by day on the trail
Here’s a map of the classic Santa Cruz trekking route followed by details about each day on the trail.
Day 1: Cashapampa to Llamacorral camp
- Total distance and time: 6.7 miles (10 km) / 5 hours
- Total climb: 4,719 feet (1,438 meters)
- Total descent: 1,987 feet (605 meters)
- Max elevation: 12,549 feet (3,824 meters)
Our first day started with an on time early am pickup from our hotel (Villa Valencia) in Huaraz in a comfortable private van just for our group of seven trekkers. Some of Orlando’s steps to do what he can to protect the environment were also apparent from day one when we were each given a reusable, washable, locally made fabric bag full of trail snacks which we used every day instead of plastic bags.
An important thing to remember about the first day of this trek is that it begins with quite a drive out of Huaraz to the trail head. We left the city around 6 am and didn’t start walking until 11:30. Our starting point, Cashapampa, is also at a relatively low elevation of just 9,550 feet (2,910 meters) which means temperatures can get hot–especially with a start time of high noon and a 2 mile (3 km) uphill climb to kick things off. The hot, sweaty work was exacerbated by a nearly shade-free trail. Be prepared for heat and sun.
The slow climb is part of the reason this relatively low mileage day took nearly five hours. Camp was all set up when we arrived and we were happy to find new Doite tents (a solid Chilean brand). We were also delighted to see that Orlando provides three person tents but only puts two people in them so there’s plenty of room for bodies and bags. Orlando’s sleeping mats were great too. Instead of inflatables, he provides thick foam pads inside a grippy fabric sleeve that helped keep our sleeping bags in place and really kept out the ground cold.
Add in a basin of warmed water to wash hands and face, tea time with hot drinks and snacks, and chocolate balls for dessert after dinner and we could get used to this…
Below you’ll find our time-lapse video, shot with our Brinno camera, which we set up overnight at the Llamacorral campground where the valley walls framed the sky perfectly.
Day 2: Llamacorral camp to Arhuaycocha Lake then Taullipampa camp
- Total distance and time: 12.5 miles (20 km) including the side trip to Arhuaycocha Lake / 9 hours
- Total climb: 3,501 feet (1,067 meters)
- Total descent: 2,308 feet (703 meters)
- Max altitude: 14,492 feet (4,417 meters) at Arhuaycocha Lake
This was the longest day of the trek that started with a lovely gentle walk up a valley followed by a switchback climb to a stunning picnic site. Then it was onward and upward to Arhuaycocha Lake, fed by one of the more than 700 glaciers in the Cordillera Blanca. This side trip is not always included and all trekkers in the group need to be well acclimatized and reasonably fit to get there.
Luckily, Orlando did a fantastic job of compiling our group to ensure that the seven of us (three Canadians and four from the US) were like-minded with pretty much comparable fitness and experience levels. This is not an easy thing to do and a mismatched group of trekkers with mismatched desires and abilities can make for an awkward trip. Everyone in our group, however, had the will and the way to get to Arhuaycocha Lake which turned out to be a highlight.
Day 3: Taullipampa camp to Punta Union Pass to Ranger Station camp
- Total distance and time: 9.7 miles (15.6 km) / 8 hours
- Total climb: 2,602 feet (793 meters)
- Total descent: 4,128 feet (1,258 meters)
- Max altitude: 15,616 feet (4,760 meters) at Punta Union Pass
The third day of our trek started with views of Punta Union Pass looming over our campsite as we packed and hustled to get warm and get on the trail. The climb up to the pass was long and filled with switch backs along a trail that was pretty chewed up by pack animal hooves. The pass itself rewarded with great views before we crossed over and began the steep descent down which was far longer than the ascent.
Throughout the trek the food was plentiful and tasty and cooked with love by Orlando’s sister Domi who was usually laughing in the kitchen tent. Domi hiked with us each day carrying a pack full of lunch and a thermos of coca tea. On this day she had pasta salad with tuna in her pack and it got us down the rest of the day’s long trail which continued steeply, then slowly eased to a gentle valley descent to our final campground just beyond a small national park ranger station where we had to show our entrance tickets again (so don’t leave them behind).
At camp, enterprising women from nearby villages set up “pop-up shops” on blankets on the ground to sell hand-made socks, hats, and even bottles of beer. We were clearly getting closer to “civilization.”
Day 4: Ranger Station camp to Vaqueria
- Total distance and time: 3.3 miles (5.3 km) / 4 hours
- Total climb: 1,630 feet (496 meters)
- Total descent: 1,495 feet (455 meters)
- Max altitude: 11,930 feet (3,636 meters)
This relatively short and gentle day was bittersweet as we left the mountains and national park behind and walked through a few tiny villages including the home village of our guide Yumer. It was great to watch him interact with his neighbors and family members and it was fun to meet his mother. Yumer is 27 and has been guiding for about four years. He’s enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and easy-going with good English skills. The fact that he grew up on the edge of the national park added a lot of context and passion along the way.
Then it was time for the five hour drive back to Huaraz along the shamefully bad main road through Huascarán National Park (though there were signs of road work about to begin, so fingers crossed that this trip might be faster and more pleasant soon).
All in all, this trek was just the right combination of challenge and comfort for us with world-class scenery and all of our food, shelter, comfort, and safety expectations well met.
Check out our drone video, below, for a gorgeous new perspective on the classic Santa Cruz trek.
Trail tips for the Santa Cruz trek
At these altitudes it gets cold the minute the sun goes down. On the other hand, at these altitudes the sun is blazing strong whenever it’s out. So, layers are the answer and don’t forget the sunscreen (minimum SPF 30) on anything exposed (that includes lips, ears, and hands). And speaking of altitude…do yourself a favor and allow at least a few days in Huaraz (or nearby and much more charming Caraz – we recommend Los Pinos Lodge) to acclimatize before you start any trek.
Be sure to talk to your trekking tour company about including the side trip (about four hours extra, round trip) to Arhuaycocha Lake as part of your Santa Cruz experience. It’s a highlight.
In addition to the fee paid to your trekking tour company you will need to purchase your own entry to Huascarán National Park. We paid 65 soles each (about US$20) for a park pass that was good for 21 days. You can buy the entrance ticket at the park on the first day of the trek, or get it at the national park office in Huaraz near the main plaza.
Be aware that on January 1, 2018 Huascarán National Park entrance fees are set to double. We can only hope that part of that increased income will be put toward repairing and maintaining toilet facilities at camping areas on popular trekking routes like the Santa Cruz trek. Years ago round stone squat toilet facilities were built at the major camping areas, but they were never maintained and quickly became revolting, unsafe, and impossible to use.
Now trekking groups dig shallow holes inside narrow toilet tents for trekkers to use. Some areas of some camping sites are a mine filed of divets from dozens of toilet holes. This is clearly unsanitary and unsustainable and best replaced with well-maintained composting toilets. Unfortunately, none of the guides or locals we talked to were very hopeful that park officials in Lima would approve the construction of such toilets.
Glad we had
Each trekker is limited to 10 pounds (5 kilos) of gear (including your own personal sleeping bag) for the donkeys to carry in addition to whatever you want or need to carry each day in your day pack. So, it’s important to only take only the most vital things and your trekking company should provide a solid list of must-brings.
We can vouch for the importance of the following items that we were really glad we had: plenty of Point6 merino wool socks to keep feet blister-free while walking and warm and cozy in camp, body wipes (unless you don’t mind trail stink or you’re brave enough for a dip in the freezing cold streams at camp), our fleece mini pillow cases which we stuffed with our down coats to create comfy pillows, a PlatyPreserve booze bag full of Macchu Pisco pisco to share with everyone on the last night, our Crocs to put on with socks in camp, and, of course, the OruxMap app for Android that allowed us to track each day’s walk to get the geeky stats in this post. We also brought along some Farbar energy bars which are made by the folks behind Cerveceria Sierra Andina craft brewing company. Look for Farbars at Trivio restaurant or Casa de Guias all around Parque Ginebra in Huaraz (4.50 soles or about US$1.40 each). Our DJI drone and Brinno time-lapse camera were indispensable as well.
We also picked up a great new must-pack trail trip from fellow trekker Allison. She brought a can of Pringles with her. After enjoying the addictive snack on the first day of the trek, she used the sturdy yet lightweight can with the secure lid as a trash container. Genius.
Eco Ice Peru hosted us on a 4 day/3 night Santa Cruz trek so that we could experience the company’s service, gear, and guides and tell you about it.
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