Huascaran National Park is arguably the most beautiful national park in Peru, and it boasts the highest snow-capped peaks in the country. It is the heart of the Cordillera Blanca mountain range, which ultimately extends into the Andes Mountains. If you are a fan of snow mountains, alpine lakes, glacier rivers and unbelievable panoramas, you should now put Huascaran National Park on your bucket list. One of the most accessible hikes in the national park is the Santa Cruz trek, which takes three to four days to complete. Here is how you can complete the 3 day 2 night Santa Cruz trek on your own:
Base yourself in the city of Huaraz. If you are not acclimatised to high altitudes up to about 4000m, spend a day or two more in Huaraz as it is at about 3,000m above sea level. You can do short day hikes to nearby lakes such as Laguna Churup. This would help ease you into the multi-day Santa Cruz hike that you will take through Huascaran National Park.
As you will do the trek on your own, stock up on supplies in Huaraz. Huaraz is the climbing and hiking capital of Peru, as such there are many shops that provide camping equipment. You can easily rent a tent and sleeping bag as well as cooking equipment from the many shops in the city center.
Lastly, choose from which side you will start your trek. The two starting points are at Vaqueria and Cashapampa. I strongly recommend that you start from Vaqueria, because you will have a chance to camp at the foot of the Alpamayo mountain. This is the most beautiful campsite of all the sites along the route, and is the best place to wake up to a stunning sunrise.
Take a collectivo to Yungay. The collectivos leave from the center of the city. To catch the connecting collective to Vaqueria, you will need to leave Huaraz by 5.30am. The connecting collective to Vaqueria leaves Yungay at 7am, or when it is full. The ride to Vaqueria goes up a winding dirt road and takes about 1.5 hours.
At Vaqueria, you will start your hike through a village, before entering an alpine forest. The nature around here is green, lush and refreshing. You will first arrive at the Huaripampa campsite. As it will be around noon, you can choose to have your lunch here or move on. Eventually, you will arrive at the Paria campsite, where all tour groups stay for the night. My suggestion is to continue walking for an hour or so. You will reach another open pasture where you can pitch your tent in peace (and without the filth and stench from these poorly maintained campsites).
This open pasture also has clear views of the snow-mountains hovering around Punta Union, which is the mountain pass that you will have to cross on the second day. If you are in need of water, there is a glacier-fed river close to you throughout the hike. Water is not a problem on the first day.
Have your breakfast and set out early. The key is to beat the crowd when you are at Punta Union so that you can spend a peaceful and beautiful time at the mountain pass. Day 2 will be a strenuous uphill climb so be prepared for it. Pace yourself well and be aware that it is normal to feel breathless at this altitude.
The trail to Punta Union is rocky but wide and safe. Once you are at Punta Union, you will be able to see almost all of the peaks in the area. Enjoy the beautiful view, especially if there are not so many hikers at the top. At Punta Union, you will realise the difference between the two valleys. Over at Vaqueria, it is green and full of trees. However, once you cross the mountain pass, the environment changes into a sandy and bare valley.
The trail down Punta Union is also rocky, but wide. Once you reach the valley, you will be in a large pasture. This is Taullipampa, another campsite for the large tour groups. If you do not wish to be disturbed, there is a better campsite for you to spend the night. Continue on from Taullipampa and take the detour to Alpamayo. The detour goes on your right, up a plateau.
As soon as you hike up onto the plateau, you will understand why this is a beautiful place to camp. In front of you is the elegant Alpamayo mountain and behind you is the Artesonraju range. There is a vast pasture on the plateau for you to camp. Choose a beautiful spot and enjoy your second night. There are rivers in the area for you to cook and fill your bottles.
Wake up early to enjoy sunrise. This was one of the most beautiful sunrises I have seen in Peru, and worth the cold rise. Hopefully you will have a clear day because this would be the most spectacular view of your entire trek. If not, you can always have the option of spending another night there again (which I did to wait for a clearer sky).
Leave your bags aside and take a small daypack with you. If you continue further into the plateau, you will eventually reach Laguna Arhuaycocha, an alpine lake at 4420m. The views of this lake are stunning, and just so mesmerising. The lake is surrounded by towering snow-capped peaks, and is of a turquoise blue colour that I can never forget. Nature really amazes, and this pristine lake shows it. From the lake, you can also climb up to a viewpoint of the lake and of Alpamayo on the other side. From there, you can have an overview of the various peaks in the area, and give a visual treat to your eyes!
Once you are done, you can head back down the plateau and walk towards Cashapampa, the end point. The trail is a gradual descent and an easy one. You will see the wide valley and many waterfalls from the sides. Turn around and you will always see the mountain peak that stood beside you while you were at Punta Union.
From the plateau, Cashapampa is located about 22km away. Including the side trip to Laguna Arhuaycocha, this will take an entire day. If you find that you cannot reach Cashapampa before it is dark, you can choose to camp at Llamacorral campsite, where all the tour groups stay for the night. Alternatively, you can also stay at a guesthouse in Cashapampa or put your tent up along the way to town.
If not, there are taxi services from Cashapampa to Caraz. Do haggle and find a suitable price. Unfortunately, collectivo services are extremely rare and you will have to wait for the next day if you would like to take one. From Caraz, it is easy to return to Huaraz by taking one of the many collectivos that leave even after dark.
If you still have energy, I recommend that you visit Laguna 69. However, this is not a must-see, because you have already seen Laguna Arhuaycocha, which is equally beautiful and much less trampled on. If you really do want to see Laguna 69, I recommend doing it before attempting the Santa Cruz trek. This can be a warm up day hike and also saves you money. You can buy a 3-day pass to the Huascaran National Park and visit Laguna 69 first. On the second day, your pass is still valid for you to do the Santa Cruz trek. However, if you do it the other way round, your 3-day pass will not be valid for you to visit Laguna 69.
Hopefully this guide will help you with your Santa Cruz trek through the Huascaran National Park! This area is one of the most beautiful places in Peru, and definitely worth a visit if you are interested in hiking. The hike is moderately difficult, but can easily be done on your own if you know what you are doing. Moreover, this gives you flexibility to plan where you want to camp instead of the overcrowded and dirty campsites that the tour groups use. If you are thinking of visiting Machu Picchu in Peru, do also include a trek through Huascaran National Park.
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