Most people who travel to the Cordillera Blanca come to enjoy the Santa Cruz Trek, a popular 4-day hike which passes over Punta Union (4750 meters/15,584 feet) at its highest point. We wanted to stay longer in the Cordillera and see it from all sides, so we opted instead for the Cedros-Alpamayo Circuit, which combines the Santa Cruz Trek with the Alpamayo trek in the adjacent valley. Beginning in Cashapampa and proceeding counter-clockwise to the end point in Hualcayan, this route allows you to immerse yourself in the mountain culture of Peru and experience this spectacular range of peaks from nearly every side. Our itinerary had us complete the circuit over the course of 11 days, allowing us to hike and photograph at a leisurely pace.
What follows is a detailed description of our first three days on the trail. We hope that this first-hand information will be valuable to those planning to do this hike. If that’s not you, we hope that you’ll enjoy looking through the photographs anyway. Happy trails!
Trail Description: Our guide, Eliseo, picked us up at our hotel in Huaraz at 8 am. After a 3 hour-long drive, we arrived in the small mountain village of Cashapampa (population 500), met our arriero Shefi and our team of 5 donkeys and headed to the the trailhead. After passing the park checkpoint, we hit the dry, dusty trail, heading up Quebrada Pacharura for 3 hours. Finally, the trail leveled out, becoming soft and sandy, as we continued to follow the river for the final two hours into our beautiful camp at Llamacorral.
Meeting Shefi and the donkeys that would carry our heavy loads (so we don’t have to!): Don’t get us wrong—we absolutely love backpacking—but sometimes the little luxuries of a supported trek make a huge difference, especially when hiking consistently at altitudes averaging over 12,000 feet. We loved seeing crate after crate of real food being loaded up on our burros. What a luxury to eat freshly-prepared meals with fresh fruits and vegetables in the middle of nowhere, especially when we don’t have to carry them!
Having your trek blessed is super cool, especially if it is accompanied by a cup of neon yellow Inca Kola.
We toasted our crew and tried our best to drink the sickeningly sweet concoction. Matt’s stomach was already giving him trouble that morning, and the syrupy good luck brew was nearly impossible to get down, but we live for memorable travel moments like these. Bottoms up!
Trekking in a foreign country means you get to try all kinds of fun, new trail snacks. Who knew quinoa could make a tasty and energetic trail bar? Will it be enough to get us up and over these passes? Only time will tell…
Arriving at Camp Llamacorral at 3800 meters just as the sun was setting was the perfect end to a tough day on the trail.
We raced to set up our tripod to capture the beautiful scene in HDR. What a place to call home for the night! We love it when the reality of not being in Chicago anymore hits us smack dab in the face.
Drinking hot tea and listening to local Andean huaino music on the small, portable radio carried on the trail by Shefi. You would be hard-pressed to find an arriero in Peru without a way to listen to music in camp and on the trail. A definite plus for us!
As soon as the sun went down, the temperature dropped to freezing, and having a warm dining tent to relax in before going to bed is going to be key to enjoying this experience!
Matt’s upset stomach: Something Matt ate in Huaraz the night before we left didn’t agree with him, and he had to put on his game face for the long, windy car ride and tough first day on the trail. Eliseo picked some medicinal herbs he found on the trail which he later made into a tea to help settle Matt’s stomach.
Here’s hoping Eliseo knows what he is talking about…
Hitting the trail at 11:30 am on a hot, sunny day and hiking for hours with little shade in sight was a tough start. We were really hoping we would be hiking up the shaded side of the canyon, but no such luck!
Not only did the heat slow our progress, but the bright, contrasty scenes were tough to photograph. Here Matt finds a tiny patch of shade under a big boulder for our lunch break.
Trail Description: The trail started easy today as we continued to make our way out of the quebrada. After a few hours, we arrived at Ichiccocha (Small Lake), a small, dry “lake” full of reeds and the occasional grazing cow. Naturally, Jatuncocha (Big Lake) followed, and the trail took us to a ridge high above the shoreline for fantastic views of the 30 meter-deep, emerald blue lake. At the end of the lake, we crossed a ridge before descending into a giant alluvial plain, where we trudged through soft sand for over an hour.
Instead of heading straight to camp, we opted to take a detour to a viewpoint above the valley for the promise of some spectacular photography. We crossed a small river and followed the trail up towards Alpamayo Base Camp via a series of relentless switchbacks that took us up over 300 meters in elevation to a magnificent viewpoint.
From there, we took a lesser-used, single-track trail that traversed a steep slope covered in grasses to Taullipampa Camp, where we were greeted by the gorgeous views of Taulliraju and its surrounding amphitheater. What a campsite!
Our side trip led us to a commanding viewpoint of the valley below and many peaks hovering above us, making the extra effort we put in to get there well worth it.
Photographing Taulliraju in the late afternoon sun made our little hearts sing, especially since we were so close to camp and could take all the time we wanted to enjoy this amazing view. Wow!
Our campsite for the night left us pinching ourselves to make sure we weren’t dreaming. Do we really get to sleep here?!?!
Freezing in camp in the early morning is one way to get you eager to hit the trail, get moving and start building up some internal heat. Finally emerging into the warmth of the morning sun felt oh, so sweet!
An hour-long slog through soft sand at 4000+ meters was a lot harder than we anticipated. Even though this area was pancake flat and easy on the feet (hooray!), it made a tiring, tough walking surface (boo!). The massive lupine bushes at the end of the valley were a welcome sight. Who doesn’t love a good foreground subject?
Trail Description: The trail to the first pass of today’s hike started off easy enough, following a ridgeline with a valley to our left. It was a long, gentle climb over sand, grass and rutted packed dirt, and we definitely enjoyed this easy footing for our first hour on the trail. Eventually we hit switchbacks and started gaining elevation and increasingly impressive views of Laguna Taullicocha. After an hour or so, we went off trail to a viewpoint of the lake and the amazing views behind us.
From there, even steeper switchbacks continued for the next hour and a half up to the pass at Punta Union (4750 meters), an impressive rock fortress perched at the top of the pass where everyone—including the horses—stopped for lunch and a well-deserved rest.
It was a steep, rocky descent down the other side. The trail started with sheer rock and then quickly turned into a steep, winding stone staircase that looked like it had been ripped right out off of a medieval castle and stuck to the side of this Peruvian mountain.
Eventually, the steps gave way to sheer rock face again, but the surface was very grippy with our boots and not too difficult to traverse. The trail dropped down past two small lakes, Moricocha and Sakicocha. Just before heading down to our camp for the night, we took a short 5-minute detour to check out an unusual waterfall that cascaded 150 feet or so down an impressive slanted, sheer rock face. It was a final 30 minute descent to Camp Tuctu, which seemed like a scene straight out of Colorado with grazing horses and donkeys in front of beautiful snow-capped peaks.
From the incredible vantage point at Punta Union, we could see the laguna below and majestic mountains in front, behind and all around us, including: Taulliraju, Pucaraju, Contrayevas, Chacaraju and Artisonraju.
We spent at least an hour eating, relaxing, and taking it all in from our cozy little spot on the rocks. Sitting there, we wished we could spend the entire day in that exact place, not only because it was so beautiful but also because it was seriously scary to stand up and move around on the rock formations. The feeling of vertigo was strong and hard to ignore as we stared down at the sheer drop off down the other side of the pass.
The waterfall we detoured to right before heading down to camp was one of the most unique we have ever seen.
The scenery was undeniably gorgeous all day today. It is Day 3 on the trail, and the views just keep getting better and better. We have finally arrived at the in-your-face vistas we were hoping for, and we are excited for more!
Just after the pass, we were reminded of how tough hiking can be at high altitudes like these when we saw a poor woman coming up the steps from the other side who was having a terrible time of it. Her hiking buddy was carrying her bag, and she moved slowly, hunched over and throwing up as she slogged her way up the stairs. Just because we were feeling okay at the moment is no guarantee that this trip it is going to be smooth sailing the rest of the time. This was a good reminder to go slowly, drink lots of water and take frequent rest breaks. Lucky for us, that suits our hiking style just fine!
Believe it or not, this trek is only getting started. Stay tuned for more!