INDEPENDENT HIKING GUIDE
The Cordillera Blanca in Peru’s northern Andes is an expansive playground with enough world-class hiking to last for decades. Of all the treks you can complete throughout the Cordillera Blanca, the Alpamayo Circuit will be the most mystical, challenging, and rewarding. This trek was my first completely solo multi-day backpacking experience. The mental and physical strain of hiking alone for eleven days straight was a humbling experience and taught me a lot about myself and my hiking style.
The most popular trek in this region is the four-day Santa Cruz Trek. Many hikers use the Santa Cruz Trek as a warmup for the Huayhuash Circuit. The Alpamayo Circuit is an extended version of the Santa Cruz trek, including all the same highlights as well as a tremendous amount of territory seldom experienced by visitors.
Many days will be characterized by complete solitude, nonexistent trails, and unmarked campgrounds. For some, this will be a welcome change from the typical buzz of people surrounding the world’s greatest hikes. Still, others might struggle with the almost intoxicating intimacy with your conscience you achieve after so long by yourself.
Hiking through the Alpamayo Circuit will expose you to some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. Challenging ascents up mountain passes are rewarded with breathtaking views reaching at most 16,500 feet in elevation.
9-11 Days, 8-10 Nights
Total Distance: 80+ Miles
Minimum Elevation: 9,619 ft
Maximum Elevation: 16,473 ft
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The Alpamayo Circuit is a giant horseshoe loop that will put over eighty miles under your feet. It takes eleven days to complete the full circuit but can be reduced to as little as nine days if you skip two of the optional day hikes. The two endpoints of the trek are the villages of Cashapampa and Hualcayán. My recommendation is to start the hike at Cashapampa and end at Hualcayán. The main problem with starting at Hualcayán is the ascent you will endure on the first day with a bursting-to-the-brim full pack. To get from Hualcayán to the first campsite will include almost 5,000 feet of elevation gain. My preference was to tackle this considerable elevation change as a descent at the end of the trip when my pack would be relatively lightweight.
To get to Cashapampa, first you need to travel to Caraz. If you are cramming the days in, you can take the earliest collectivo from Huaraz to Caraz, and then transfer to another collectivo to take you to Cashapampa on the same day. I dislike stressful early mornings, so opted to travel to Caraz, stay overnight, and then the next day take the morning collectivo to Cashapampa.
The best backpacking food, such as packaged meats, nuts, bars, and more, are found in the Huaraz supermarkets. Do not rely on finding anything besides produce in the markets of Caraz. I always prepare for the worst when it comes to food. Eleven days’ worth of food was stuffed in my pack and was a significant weight for the first few days. I’d recommend planning on having enough food for the whole time and not relying on a resupply.
Permits and Reservations
Permits are required for entrance into the Huascarán National Park. There is a control point at Cashapampa where you may purchase a pass, but instead I recommend purchasing your pass ahead of time at the National Park office in Huaraz. You will need the 4-30 day pass for 150 soles if you intend to complete the Alpamayo Circuit. It is most fortunate that these permits are easily attainable when you arrive in Huaraz. Advanced planning is not required.
Day 1: Collectivo From Caraz to Cashapampa. Hike to Llamacorral
Make your way to the collectivo stand in Caraz and find a driver who will be stopping in Cashapampa. It takes about ninety minutes to get from Caraz to Cashapampa. Keep your eye out for the trailhead “Ruta De Trekking Santa Cruz” on your right side as you drive through the tiny village.
From the trailhead, follow the small dirt path uphill until you reach the ranger station to present your Huascarán National Park pass. The trail follows the valley and river uphill for the entire 5.8 miles to Llamacorral. The first half of the hike up offers the steepest terrain, and then the gradient begins to level out as you approach the campground. The whole section is only 4.25 hours, so you should make it to camp with plenty of time to prepare for a much longer Day 2.
Llamacorral Campground: 12,172 feet
Day 2: Llamacorral to Taullipampa With a Side Trip to Alpamayo Base Camp and Laguna Arhuacocha
After a challenging warmup hike on Day 1, Day 2 is even more robust and offers the first views of Mt. Alpamayo and other giant ice-capped peaks. The entire day’s trek overlaps with the Santa Cruz Trek, so you will see neighboring tour groups tackling this day either in the same direction or reverse. The trail remains mostly level as you continue northeast from Jatuncocha, leading you across a surprisingly arid landscape. Choose your path as you traverse across this spine of desert-like terrain until you reach the Jatunquisuar Campground.
Jatunquisuar marks the bottom of the optional Alpamayo Basecamp day hike. Beyond the southern Alpamayo Basecamp is the stunning Laguna Arhuaycocha, a glacier lake hidden away and towered over by Mt. Rinrihirca and Puchahirca Sur. This side trip will add another three hours of moving time to the day. I highly recommend adding this side trip for the incredible views at Laguna Arhuaycocha. Not many trekkers make this excursion, so it will also provide an opportunity to escape the crowds of the Santa Cruz Trek.
Trail Leading to Alpamayo Basecamp
The trail from Jatunquisuar heads north with a vigorous series of switchbacks rapidly gaining a healthy amount of elevation. It will take 1.25 hours of hiking uphill to arrive at the Alpamayo Basecamp from Jatunquisuar. The extra 300 feet of elevation gain to the lake pushed my endurance and mental fortitude. Every step was worth getting to spend time with this hidden gem. Laguna Arhuaycocha was spectacular. Push yourself up to this spot, enjoy a nice lunch, and then descend back to Jatunquisuar for the final segment of the day.
Laguna Arhuaycocha: 14,521 feet
The final section of the day includes one more burst of uphill climbing to the Taullipampa Campground. Even though it will take less than an hour, do not underestimate it. It was a significant relief unloading my pack, setting up camp, and taking in all of the beauty surrounding Taullipampa.
Taullipampa Campground: 13,593 feet
Day 3: Taullipampa to Tuctupampa via Punta Union Pass
The Punta Union Pass is the highlight of the Santa Cruz Trek, reaching 15,690 feet and offering stunning 360-degree views. Only after putting in a solid 2.5 hours of strenuous uphill climbing from Taullipampa will you receive the gift of this spectacular vantage point. From 15,690 feet, you can see all of the hiking done on Day 2 and look into the future where you will be during the high point the next day. Since this was a short day, there was ample time to truly soak in every inch of this view and etch it into memory forever.
Punta Union Pass: 15,690 feet
Once you are ready for the final descent of the day, hike down the eastern face towards Laguna Morococha. After 1.5-2 hours of hiking from the pass, be on the sharp lookout for a break off the trail downhill to the left from the main trail. This fork in the path is not marked at all and can easily be missed. After you turn left, the overlap that the Alpamayo Circuit has with the Santa Cruz trek is over. From the fork onward represents the start of more remote and wild sections. Tuctupampa Campground is located at the base of the valley and a bit further south than where the trail feeds into the valley, no more than twenty minutes from the fork.
Day 4: Tuctupampa to Huecrucocha Area via Alto de Pucaraju
Gone are the easy-to-follow trails. Day 4 is the first navigationally challenging portion of the Alpamayo Circuit. The freedom to create your own path can be a fun new experience for some used to highway trails. For others, the mental strain of deciding where to take your feet and dealing with all the uncertainty of where you should be going can be too much. Luckily, the path up to the Alto de Pucaraju is not hard to find. The trail heads uphill to the northeast from Tuctupampa. From the summit of the pass, there is an excellent view of the Punta Union pass towards the west, Mt. Taulliraju to the north, and a vast valley continuing down to the east.
It includes a pre-trip planning guide, practical trail maps with hiking times and distances, recommended itineraries, detailed elevation profiles, and all the insider tips you need to successfully trek these unforgettable adventures.
Alto de Pucaraju – 15,190 feet
There are a series of trails you can follow down to the valley floor. Once they reach the valley floor, the trails disappear. Even in the dry season, the ground was extremely saturated. You should aim for the trail that leads to the northern shore of the large lake. The trail eventually descends to the lake level as you continue east. My initial plan was to camp next to the lake but I was unable to find suitable ground for a tent. In search of a better campsite, I continued further along the trail into the next valley. The trail continues east with a large river outflowing from Huecrucocha on your left. I was able to find a great dry spot to set up my tent high on the east side of the river, about 0.3 miles up the valley from the river crossing.
Day 5: Huecrucocha Area to Jancapampa via Tupatupa Pass
The navigational challenges continue on Day 5 as you try to find the way up to the Tupatupa Pass. There are no trail signs nor human-made markers of any kind, indicating where in the valley you should cross to the east side of the river and hike north uphill to the pass. Forging a path uphill through the thick brush was tough. If you are using GPS to guide you, aim for a small unnamed lake. Once you find this lake, the path is obvious to the summit Tupatupa Pass. This pass might be the least visually impressive of the circuit, but there are still some great views of the surrounding peaks and valleys.
The summit of the Tupatupa Pass will be an optimal break for lunch before heading down to Jancapampa. As you approach the village, you’ll see private farmland with tons of animals grazing and beautiful flora with Mt. Pucajirca in the background. There is no preferable way down; keep walking downhill until you either reach the Jancapampa village or the valley floor.
If you are craving a beer or something sweet, walk into the village along the dirt road and find the building with a “Se Vende” sign posted on the outside. After five days of hiking, a couple of candy bars and a bottle of coke was heaven.
Once you have gotten a quick snack, hike west on the dirt road across the valley to the very end. Again, there are no trail signs or human-made markers indicating where the camping area is. Cross the river to the north side until you find suitable land for a tent. There are no official markings for the campsite, but some clear flat spots located a bit uphill from the river will provide adequate shelter for the night.
Day 6: Jancapampa to Huillca via Yanacon Pass
Day 6 is the third and last day of navigation difficulties on the Alpamayo Circuit. With more than 3,500 feet of elevation gain, this is also the most physically brutal day. The trail starts with a steep climb with the river flowing downhill on the left until it crosses the river to the west side, heading north. The next 2.8 miles up to the summit of the Yanacon Pass include a wide valley without a clear trail heading uphill and a bit of a scramble, finally leading to the summit. Follow any of the herding trails up near the end of the valley traveling west. The final section leading up to the pass finally provides a well-trodden path.
All of the hard work reaching the Yanacon Pass is rewarded with stunning panoramic views. Enjoy a highly deserved break before making the final push of the day descending to Huillca.
Huillca Campground: 13,133 feet
Day 7: Huillca to Jancarurish via Mesapata and Gara Gara Passes
Two challenging passes separate the start and finish line on the seventh day of the Alpamayo Circuit. Fight gravity trying to keep you low and hike uphill on the high right side. Half of a mile after the fork, pivot your trajectory northwest and follow the trails uphill to the first pass of the day, Mesapata Pass.
Mesapata Pass Looking South: 14,650 feet
Don’t take too long resting at the Mesapata Pass because there is an even harder one coming up. Cross the valley to the northern side and find the path that traces the direction of the pass a bit elevated from the floor. It is a steep climb to bank this pass just under 16,000 feet. After three days of challenging navigation, it will be a relief to have an easy to follow path reaching the Gara Gara Pass despite it being a significant physical test.
Gara Gara Pass: 15,922 feet
The views from Gara Gara are among the best anywhere on the Alpamayo Circuit. At this high vantage point are some of the first sights of Mt. Santa Cruz and the massive Laguna Jancarurish. Getting to camp from the pass only takes an additional 1.25 hours, so depending on how early you arrive at Gara Gara, you can potentially afford to enjoy a significant break at the top of this vista. If you do not plan on completing the optional Day 8 hike up to the Santa Cruz Sanctuary, hike up west for a stellar view of Laguna Jancarurish before crawling into the tent.
Jancarurish Campground with Mt. Alpamayo in Background: 13,878 feet
Day 8: Optional Day Hike to Santa Cruz Sanctuary
There are two options to extend the Alpamayo Circuit beyond the loop. The first day hike opportunity up to the Santa Cruz Sanctuary should not be missed. Most hikers I encountered along the way only climbed high enough for pictures of the beautiful Laguna Jancarurish and skipped the hard part: getting up to the sanctuary.
Uphill, south of the campground, is the trail leading southeast from Jancarurish Campground up to Laguna Jancarurish. The trail climbs uphill significantly past a tranquil waterfall until you reach the Alpamayo North Basecamp. After the basecamp, continue southwest along the valley floor. This area is particularly saturated and lacking a distinct footpath until you reach the river crossing.
Somehow, there are more cairns marking the next section of the path than will be found throughout the entire Alpamayo Circuit. Keep following the path along the valley. It is about a mile in between the river crossing and the bottom of the steep climb leading up to the moraine overlooking a huge unnamed lake.
Hike along the path leading to the summit of the basin. Do not be fooled into thinking that the top of the basin is the finish line. From the top of the basin, continue west 0.5 miles until you reach a large rock shelf marked by a myriad of cairns indicating the summit of the Santa Cruz Sanctuary. The views all around from this vista are enchanting and are the ultimate setting for a significant lunch break.
Santa Cruz Sanctuary: 16,473 feet
At 16,473 feet, the Santa Cruz Sanctuary is the highest point anywhere along the Alpamayo Circuit. The 2,600 feet of elevation gain required to reach it is exhausting, and by Day 8, what might have been routine on fresh legs will feel more strenuous.
Day 9: Jancarurish to Osuri via Vientunan Pass
Day 9 has a bit of a different feel than most days because it starts with a descent and ends with a tough upward climb. Depart Jancarurish Campground and find the same path leading to Laguna Jancarurish but turn west towards Ruinapampa. After two hours of beautiful trekking with a downhill gradient, you can take a break at the Ruinapampa Campground along the river. The morning hike to Ruinapampa brings you down 700 feet to 13,163 feet and is just a warmup for the beast of an ascent to finish the day.
From Ruinapampa to the summit of Vientunan Pass is a seemingly endless series of switchbacks climbing almost 2,500 feet. It takes about 2.5 hours to reach the top of the pass from Ruinapampa and requires a lot of determination and hard work. At the summit, enjoy the view for as long as you wish because only thirty minutes of hiking remain.
Vientunan Pass: 15,617 feet
There are two different sites known as “Osuri” that you have the choice between. The first site, which I camped at, is the smaller of the two and is closest to the Vientunan Pass. There is a small stream to fill up water. I shared this spot with a tour group, so it was a bit cramped, but there was adequate space for six to eight tents. If this campground is full, continue five minutes further down to the larger, official Osuri Campground that has a more extensive flat ground.
Day 10: Osuri to Laguna Yuraccocha via Osuri Pass
The penultimate day of the Alpamayo Circuit includes fantastic alpine views, a chance to fully immerse yourself into a glacial lake, and a roller coast hike with ups and downs the entire way. It is easy to follow the trail to the Osuri Pass, but several false summits will make this hike mentally and physically demanding. When you reach the top of the pass at 15,948 feet, the views are pretty impressive.
Osuri Viewpoint: 16,142 feet
Continue from the Osuri Viewpoint and Pass down about a mile to Laguna Cullicocha. The path snakes around the edge of the valley following the river downhill. It is effortless to follow the trail about an hour from Cullicocha to the fork leading either to Laguna Yuraccocha or down to Huishcash and eventually the end of the circuit at Hualcayán. Look for a concrete block that used to hold a sign marking the fork.
I highly recommend continuing on to Laguna Yuraccocha because it will give you one last night of camping in paradise. Complete solitude at this dazzling oasis is worth the extra 4.0 miles it adds to the day. Just before Mile 7, the trail loses a steep amount of elevation that you have to stubbornly gain again before reaching the laguna. Hike uphill and a bit to the right until you find the small reservoir immediately south of the lake. Walk along the north side of the pool over the concrete duct, and out of nowhere, the entire Laguna Yuraccocha will reveal itself in all of its splendor.
Laguna Yuraccocha: 15,233 feet
Day 11: Laguna Yuraccocha to Hualcayán. Ride back to Caraz.
The final day of the Alpamayo Circuit is highlighted by almost 5,000 feet of elevation loss down to the village of Hualcayán. Start the day very early because the sooner you arrive at Hualcayán, the easier it will be to find a ride back to Caraz. From the fork, turn left and descend towards Huishcash. Descending to Hualcayán takes 2.25 hours from the fork and will be a punishment on the knees for those who did not pack trekking poles. Endless switchbacks are the only thing in between you and the finish line.
The village of Hualcayán is tiny, with a few shops but no restaurants or lodging. There are three options for returning to Caraz. Ideally, you will find a tour group that has a private bus heading to Caraz and solicit a ride. If that fails, the next best option is to find a private taxi ride or collectivo from the village square. The unfortunate truth about these small villages is that transportation is unreliable. The worst-case scenario is walking about four hours along the dirt road back to Cashapampa, where there are more regular transports to Caraz.
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