Laguna 69 is the most popular day hike in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca and is a consistent crowd pleaser for good reason. The hike itself passes through a valley in Huascarán National Park that sports gorgeous alpine scenery before heading up to an unbelievably blue lake nestled below a sheer wall of stone and ice that rises hundreds of meters above. The view of Laguna 69 is so grand, it’s impossible to fit it into your camera without using a wide-angle lens!
Sounds ideal, right? Well sort of.
The problem with this scenario is that most visitors opt to do the Laguna 69 hike as a day trip from Huaraz. Outfitters all over town hawk this popular group trip, which involves leaving at six in the morning and driving for three hours before hiking nine tough kilometers while gaining over 900 meters of elevation. Hikers arrive exhausted and then only have the chance to take in the enchanting lake for a relatively short amount of time (considering the tremendous effort required to get there) before having to turn around and hike back to catch the return ride home. As you might have already guessed, this makes for a long and tiring day.
Trust us when we say that scenery this gorgeous deserves more time and attention, especially if you are a photographer.
We think a far better way to enjoy the Laguna 69 experience is to make it an overnight trip instead.
With two days at your disposal, you are able to appreciate more of the striking scenery of this beautiful national park on Day 1. At night, you can relax in the cozy confines of a warm refugio while trading stories with fellow hikers and gutsy mountaineers before embarking on yet another unbelievable day of hiking on Day 2. After an early wake up, you approach Laguna 69 from above, seeing it in all its glory from a vantage point that most day trippers are too exhausted to venture up to. Plus, you’ll arrive at Laguna 69 well ahead of most of the folks coming from Huaraz, giving you more time to enjoy the lake and the chance to have it to yourself for a while. So pack your overnight bag and let’s go!
Day One: Cebollapampa to Refugio Perú
We were picked up bright and early at our hotel in Huaraz by a minibus for the long drive to Laguna 69. We stopped at hotels and guesthouses all over town picking up other hikers until the bus was full before heading north on the highway for two hours to the town of Yungay. From there, we bid farewell to the pavement and took a rough dirt road for nearly an hour into the park, with a quick stop for breakfast in the village of Huashao followed by a brief detour to the park office to buy permits to enter the park.
The drive into the park itself is spectacular with exotic foliage and phenomenal views of Huascarán, Peru’s highest peak at 6768 meters. Along the way we also saw Chinancocha (Woman’s Lake) and Horcancocha (Man’s Lake) before passing through Yurok Corral, a marshy area that the road traverses before reaching the trailhead at 3900 meters.
Right out of the gate, the trail started with a steep descent into an enchanted land of Quenual trees with their distinctive red, flaky bark, super-sized lupine bushes and a fast-flowing river before depositing us at Cebollapampa, a vast, flat meadow named after the flowers that grow here.
While all the other passengers on the bus took the trail to Laguna 69, we headed off all alone in the other direction, over the bridge and started climbing toward the base of Pisco, a popular climbing peak, where an Italian-style refugio would offer us a warm, dry bed and delicious meals for our night in the mountains. Score!
The trail climbed up, up, up as we ascended several hundred meters before stopping in a beautiful flat, meadow of grasses for our lunch break.
Finally, the thick layer of clouds enshrouding the mountains began to break up, and we got our first glimpses of the grand peaks all around us. With scenery like this, we weren’t exactly in a rush to get going.
From there, we followed a ridgeline straight up for an hour before reaching a series of switchbacks that helped to ease the steep ascent. Just before reaching the top, the gloomy skies opened up on us, and it started to snow. Welcome to July in Peru!
We sucked it up and put on our rain gear just before reaching the pass. Lucky for us, we could see that the refugio wasn’t too far away, perched high atop a moraine island below Pisco.
We headed for our shelter as fast as our tired feet could carry us. By the time we arrived, all the massive peaks surrounding us had disappeared in the clouds, and it continued to snow for several more hours. How nice it was to be inside the cozy refugio for the storm!
Upon entering, we took our boots off and exchanged them for a pair of Peruvian sandals made out of recycled tires. It was a challenge to find a matching pair that fit. After choosing a bunk in the large dormitory where all the hikers sleep, we headed to the dining room and cozied up by the cast iron stove/fireplace. We watched the conditions deteriorate outside as we warmed up with some mata de coca tea.
Refugio Perú was built by an Italian priest with the help of the local parishes of Operazione Mato Grosso. It was news to us that there is a small network of these mountain refugios in Peru. They are run by local villagers with the help of Italian volunteers, who cook up delicious pasta dinners for just 15 soles ($5). With bed and breakfast running a reasonable 60 soles ($20)/night, staying here is both affordable for hikers and good for the local communities. All proceeds from the enterprise go towards helping impoverished mountain people in the Andes—a definite win for everyone!
There were only a few other guests staying at Refugio Perú the night we were there. Over dinner, we chatted with Phillip, Phillip and Ben, a trio of avid hikers/climbers from California who had just summited Pisco that morning. One of the Phillips and his girlfriend are the founders of the 52 Hike Challenge, a very cool hiking organization that motivates people to complete 52 hikes over the course of a year, an idea that has become quite a phenomenon.
We had a lot of fun talking travel, hiking and blogging with them. We probably could have stayed up all night talking shop, but, knowing we had an early departure for Laguna 69 in the morning, we bid our new friends goodnight and tried our best to get some sleep in the communal dormitory room where we all stayed.
Day Two: Refugio Perú to Laguna 69 to Cebollapampa
In the morning, we woke up at 5:30 to a beautiful sunrise and were relieved to see that most of the snow from the night before had melted. After a quick, simple breakfast, we headed out on the trail, but we didn’t get far before stopping to take tons of photos around the refugio now that we could finally see all the mountains around us. What a beautiful scene it was!
Laguna 69 is situated at 4800 meters, the exact same height as the refugio, so we imagined that the four kilometer trail to the lake would be a piece of cake. Boy, were we wrong!
The narrow, icy trail turned into a boulder field almost immediately after leaving the refugio as we descended to a small, ice blue lake.
We continued boulder-hopping for what felt like forever before the trail took us on a steep traverse of the glacial moraine we were crossing. This was followed by more boulder-hopping, switchbacks, steep inclines and several false passes.
We were still getting used to the extreme altitudes, so it was slow-going for most of the way. This, of course, gave us plenty of opportunity to check out some of the curious flora along the trail, which was still covered in snow from the previous day. For a long time, we followed the fresh tracks of a small fox, but we never managed to see him.
Thank goodness this tough hike was also accompanied by some seriously stunning alpine scenery! It was almost impossible to stop pulling out the camera around every turn, but we feared we might never reach Laguna 69 and somehow managed to show some restraint.
When we finally reached Laguna 69, the incredible view from the ridge above the lake made up for all of our hard work.
We enjoyed lunch from this amazing vantage point that we had all to ourselves. After trying to capture the mesmerizing lake from every possible angle from above, it was time to get a closer view. We descended a steep trail for fifteen minutes down to the lake where all the day-trippers from Huaraz were congregating to rest and take in the stunning lake.
Unbelievably blue and surrounded by delicate lupine and a sheer wall of stone and ice, Laguna 69 is the stuff that nature photographers’ dreams are made of. The sun had just crested the top of Chacraraju looming high above the lake making the shooting conditions pretty tough during our midday visit to the lake, but we still couldn’t put the cameras down. Our guess is that it would be best to be here in the late afternoon, but, with the long hike into the lake and no camping allowed anywhere near it, this would be a tall order. Have no fear, Laguna 69 is simply stunning at any time of day.
While sitting on the shore alongside loads of other hikers making the trip to Laguna 69 in just a single day, we were extremely grateful for the extra time on the trail and the solitary approach we had taken to arrive at the lake. We couldn’t believe that not a single day-tripper tried to escape the crowds and take the trail up to the ridge above the lake where we had enjoyed our lunch all to ourselves. But once we started down the 9-kilometer trail back to Cebollapampa, we found out why. This hike was tough, too!
A long series of switchbacks led us alongside a sheer stone wall where giant lupine grew on the hillside below it. Regular old lupine on its own is quite a sight to see, but this mutant-sized Peruvian mega-species had us doing a double take!
We stopped at an outcropping of large boulders just below the Brogi Lakes to look for viscacha and found this little cutie enjoying a nap in the afternoon sun.
The trail then headed up to a small lake before making another monster descent past grazing cows, impressive waterfalls and more grand views on its way down to Valle Llaganuco.
Our tired legs were relieved when we finally made it back to Cebollapampa, the expansive flat meadow where our journey to Laguna 69 began the day before.
There we hopped in a mini-van for the three hour-long journey all the way back to Huaraz. Utterly exhausted from the long day of hiking, we enjoyed the quiet time in the van to process and absorb all the magnificent alpine beauty that we had seen in the past 36 hours. It’s no wonder that Laguna 69 is considered a “must-do” hike in the Cordillera Blanca, but it’s even more magnificent as an overnight!
The Bottom Line
Length: Cebollapampa>Refugio Perú: 9 km; Refugio Perú to Laguna 69: 4 km; Laguna 69 to Cebollapampa: 9 km
Elevation Gain: Day 1: 3900 meters>4780 meters (+880 m); Day 2: 4780 meters>4800 meters>3900 meters (+20 m/-900 m)
Time Taken: Day 1 = 3+ hours from Cebollapampa to Refugio Perú; Day 2 = 8+ hours from Refugio Perú to Laguna 69 to Cebollapampa
Difficulty: challenging, due to altitude
Pros: popular day trip from Huaraz that is easy to book with local outfitters, stunning scenery, chance to stay in an alpine refugio if done as an overnight (fun!)
Cons: most easily done as an organized excursion from Huaraz (though possible to do independently for the intrepid traveler), relatively expensive, high popularity=tons of other hikers, time pressure to return to van on time for return to Huaraz, thought of as an acclimatizing hike but altitude and difficulty is problematic for many just arriving to these extreme altitudes
Overall Impression: a challenging but great introduction to the Cordillera Blanca, a wonderful option if time in the area is limited or an extended trek is not possible, avoid if crowds aren’t your thing, better as an overnight