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HUAYHUASH CIRCUIT

INDEPENDENT HIKING GUIDE

It won’t surprise me if you have never heard of the Huayhuash Trek. The Huayhuash Trek was initially not on my itinerary because it appeared too tremendous of a beast for me to tackle by myself. Blog after blog warned how trekking the Huayhuash is too hard to be completed independently. The logistics of getting there, the duration of the trek, and the incessant grind seemed like too big an apple for me to bite off. If I had listened to these warnings, I would have missed out on what was, without a doubt, the pinnacle trek of my Peruvian adventure. Nothing on the Huayhuash Trek comes for free. The Huayhuash (pronounced “why-wash”) is a physically demanding adventure that will test your ferocity, dedication, and command of the trail. 

 

The Huayhuash Circuit is home to some of Peru’s tallest mountains, including Yerupajá, towering to 21,768 feet, and the Siula Grande at 20,814 feet made famous by Joe Simpson’s thrilling climbing survival tale Touching the Void. The extreme harshness of the towering peaks that scatter this range are sculptures of the gods. Every day of the Huayhuash will blow you away with its pristine scenery. You will hike alongside the most beautiful turquoise lagunas, walk amongst giants that tower this range, and soak in nature that cannot be imagined.

The truth is that this trek, especially the route I completed, was tough to do independently. However, any trekker with multi-day backpacking experience can complete it. The pros and cons of hiking alone versus a guided tour are exacerbated on the Huayhuash because there is such a rich variety of itineraries and severe topography. The longevity of the trek adds the extra burden on independent hikers who will be responsible for hauling all of the food and gear they need for the entire seven to ten days.

 

When you study the Huayhuash Trail Map, it is evident that there are a ton of variations possible. The standard Huayhuash Trek makes a full loop around the entire circuit, skipping the spine of trails that run down its center. Our adventure to the Huayhuash Circuit took us off the beaten path from the conventional route and up through the center of the trek providing some breathtaking scenery. The way that we followed is known as the Alpine Trail within the Huayhuash range. This path covers territory that guided tours will not. The Alpine Trail posed dangers to us that would not be appropriate for unprepared and inexperienced hikers. Glacier crossings, loose rocks, and tricky descents might make my itinerary not fit for you, and depending on the current conditions, it might not be possible. However, I would not share the details of my recommended course if I were not confident that it could safely be done by those with proper experience. You are completely responsible for your own safety out in the wilderness. I seek to provide complete transparency about the risks associated with the path and give you an understanding of modifications you can make. 

Quick Stats:

 

9 Days, 8 Nights

Total Distance: 52 Miles

Minimum Elevation: 10,712 ft

Maximum Elevation: 16,818 ft

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Logistics

The Huayhuash Circuit is a loop that starts at the Quartelhuain trailhead up at 13,652 feet and ends in the village of Llamac down at 10,712 feet. The trek can be completed in as few as seven days but could be extended for the great explorers to two weeks. Technically, you could complete the trek in either direction, but I recommend starting in Quartelhuain so that you don’t initiate the trek with a brutal uphill climb from Llamac.

 

My recommendation for getting to the Huayhuash Circuit is to solicit a ride from one of the many tour companies in Huaraz that may have an extra seat. We walked around to every tour agency in town the day before we left until we could find one that had empty seats in their van. There is a little bit of risk with this method because they won’t commit the seat to you until they are sure they won’t receive a full tour fare paying customer. For us, this meant we didn’t know if we would have a seat until 20:00 the night before we left. We ended up getting lucky, but the worst case would have been not getting a ride with the company and instead going with the public transportation option. This ride cost 60 soles per person (~$19). 

 

Purchase and pack everything that you need for the trek in Huaraz. Make sure to pack small bills to pay the periodic tolls throughout the trek because the local collectors seldom have change to provide. There aren’t any resupply options throughout the Huayhuash Circuit. Huayllapa is the closest thing to a village that you may cross before reaching Llamac. But it only has extremely basic items and should not be relied upon.

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Day 1: Travel Day from Huaraz to Quartelhuain

It will take most of the day to arrive at the trailhead. With private transportation, we did not arrive at the trailhead until 14:30. If you are taking public transit, your arrival at the trailhead will likely be even later. On our trek, we started the hike towards Janca on the first day. I don’t recommend this because we couldn’t make it there before the sunset and had to set up camp in a rogue spot on the side of the trail. In hindsight, hiking on the first day doesn’t provide any benefit because either way, you will want to stay at Carhuacocha on the next night. Stay and camp at Quartelhuain to prepare for the epic journey ahead.

Recommended Itinerary

Miles

Elevation (feet)

Quartelhuain: 13,652 feet

Day 2: Quartelhuain to Carhuacocha via Cacanapunta & Carhuac Pass

 

Two passes separate Quartelhuain from one of the prettiest campsites you will ever set you tent upon, Carhuacocha. Immediately from the Quartelhuain Campground begins the steep ascent to the top of the Cacanapunta Pass. The steep incline and rate of ascent make this a challenging climb. Over just 1.6 miles you will gain over 1,700 feet.

 

From the Janca Campground, there are at least two different paths to choose to get to Carhuacocha. Heading straight south uphill leads to the Mitococha Pass, which was incredibly beautiful but led to an overly risky scramble that I do not recommend to anybody. I would recommend staying on the eastern pass, which a gradual ascent to the top of the Carhuac Pass at 15,174 feet. Carhuacocha is a mesmerizing lake with incredible mountains in the background. A fresh dip in its glacial waters was precisely the refreshing wakeup that my body needed after a full day on the trail.

Carhuacocha: 13,707 feet

Day 3: Carhuacocha to Huayhuash Campground via Siula Pass

Few places earn the right to make the cover of a trekking guide. Day 3 is home to what remains to be the most beautiful sight that I have ever seen. The Mirador de las Tres Lagunas is the most wonderful vista with jagged peaks, massive glaciers, and the deepest blue lakes coming together like a dream. Part of the joy from Day 3 is derived from the challenge of reaching this natural wonder. Mileage is an inappropriate metric to describe Day 3. With over 2,100 feet of elevation gain, only trekkers with real grit deserve to bathe in this incomparable scenery.

 

The day’s trek begins by hiking clockwise around the southern shore of Laguna Carhuacocha until reaching the southwest corner. After you hike south past the second lake, the trail starts to get quite steep and through some more dense with flora than characteristic of the previous trail. Even when your legs are burning from the mighty uphill you face on this segment, keep pushing on until you have reached the coveted Mirador de las Tres Lagunas (-10.28489, -76.86452). Plan on spending a full break at this stop to completely absorb the majestic beauty of the Siula Grande and Yurpajá giants towering over the three beautiful turquoise lakes. 

Mirador de las Tres Lagunas: 14,951 feet

The uphill trekking for the day doesn’t end at the Mirador de las Tres Lagunas. You will go uphill, cross over a short flat section, and meet a steep rock face staring you down as you try to ascend up to 15,860 feet reaching the Siula Pass. It will take about an hour to reach the Siula Pass from the Mirador de las Tres Lagunas depending on your pace. 

Siula Pass: 15,860 feet

 

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Day 4: Huayhuash to Cuyoc Campground via Trepecio Pass

Day 4 is the first opportunity for you to deviate from the crowd and choose the road less traveled. Our original plan was to go the conventional route over the Portachuelo Pass, ending at the Viconga Campground where hot springs await. If you go through the Trepecio Pass, you will miss out on the hot springs at Viconga, but the superior scenery is worth it. Most of the tour groups hike the Viconga route, so if you want to escape the crowds, this alternative is the way to go. The Trepecio Pass is physically demanding, but we found no significant navigational challenges.

 

Finishing the almost 2,300 feet of elevation gain up to the Trepecio Pass will make you feel like you’ve reached the ultimate summit of the day. But the real summit is a scramble from the pass up to the Trepecio Glacier. Even though this side trip adds an additional 45 minutes of hiking and 300 feet of elevation gain, it is worth it.

Views of the Trepecio Glacier: 16,845 feet

From the Trepecio Pass, the trail descends towards a gorgeous set of lakes with Mt. Puscantrurpa in the background. It is a bit of a rollercoaster hike going up and down until it finally makes a big descent to the Cuyoc Campground. 

Path Connecting Trepecio Pass and Cuyoc Campground

Day 5: Cuyoc to Cutatambo via Santa Rosa Pass

 

Even though this is the shortest day of the Huayhuash Circuit, it doesn’t make it the easy or lackluster. From the Cuyoc Campground, there are two parallel uphill paths to similar passes. On the western side is the San Antonio Pass hovering to 16,462 feet. This is an option if you would like to hike up and then back down and onto Huayllapa. It might be possible to hike from the San Antonio Pass to Cutatambo, but every guide I spoke to shut down that idea because of how dangerous the northern side of the pass is. Each guide that I interviewed recommended the equally beautiful and much safer Santa Rosa Pass.

 

From the Cuyoc Campground, the ascent up to the Santa Rosa Pass is a two-hour grind testing your physical and mental toughness. The only challenge navigationally is finding where it starts. There is a serious false summit after an hour of hiking that will tempt you to believe that the hardest part of the day is over. After countless switchbacks, the Santa Rosa Pass sneaks up on you and reveals a breathtaking view of Laguna Juraucocha and the Sarapo, Carnicero, and Siula Grande mountains. There is also the option of planning to make it to Huayllapa after Cutatambo. The problem with this idea is that you will be skipping the hike up to the Rosario Pass, which I think is a must-see and it rushes the day. 

Santa Rosa Pass: 16,663 feet

Day 6: Cutatambo to Laguna Caramarca via Rosario Pass

The Cutatambo Campground is the start of what I would call the actual Alpine Trail within the Huayhuash Circuit. We found absolute solitude from Cutatambo all the way until the end of the next day when we arrived at Jahuacocha. This day includes a lot of challenging navigation where trails disappear, and you have to completely forge your own path to the top. Take your first break at the fantastic Siula Grande Viewpoint. You have unbelievable views of the Siula Grande mountain and Sarapococha.

After this viewpoint, the trail disappears. The path used to continue further north along the same gradient but is no longer passable due to a mudslide. From the viewpoint, start hiking steeply uphill southwest until you reach the top of the ridge. This is an exercise of choosing your own path because there isn’t any defined trail. Keep your aim on the top ridgeline without drifting too far south. Look for the stacked boulders marking the top of the ridgeline and then follow it northwest until you reach the pass.

 

From this viewpoint with the stacked boulders, it is relatively easy to find the Rosario Pass by continuing northwest along the ridgeline and ascending another 300 feet. Take a well-deserved lunch break at the summit and enjoy the incredible 360-degree views filled with stunning mountain ranges. The best part for us was that we had the entire area all to ourselves.

After the Rosario Pass, it was a bit of a challenge reaching the valley that leads to Laguna Caramarca. First, you will have to descend an enormous boulder field with rocks small enough that you can run down if you have durable footwear. I recommend following whatever path you find that leads to the valley floor as directly as possible. In that mile leading up to the lake, stay on the east side of the valley and keep following different trails until you reach the finish line for the day. Laguna Caramarca is worth every ounce of grit and frustration it took to find over the course of a full day. The great Yerupajá and Rasac mountains surround this stunning lake and was all ours for the night.

Laguna Caramarca: 15,077 feet

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Day 7: Laguna Caramarca to Jahuacocha via Rasac Pass

 

So far, everything described has been a safe pathway to get to the Laguna Caramarca. Regardless of whether you choose to follow the rest of the Alpine Trail after Laguna Caramarca, I wouldn’t change my recommendation up until this point. There are two options available to you from Laguna Caramarca. First is the more conservative option of spending the day hiking back south down the valley until you reach Huayllapa and then hiking up to Huatiaq. The downside is losing a tremendous amount of elevation and adding an extra day.

 

The second option, which my group successfully completed, is to continue on the Alpine Trail north over a glacier, scramble up the Rasac Pass, and descend some precarious rocks to Jahuacocha. The dangers associated with the segment first involve a traverse over a glacier to get to the Rasac Pass. Glaciers can be dangerous to cross because of their unknown structure. Hidden crevasses pose a great risk to anyone hiking without experience. You don’t need any crampons or ice axes, but trekking poles are a definite must for hiking this section. The glacier was soft enough that we could easily create our own switchback pattern and never feel slippery. Towards the top of the pass, we were faced with a problematic scramble that didn’t require any climbing equipment but still was not a simple walk-up. There is always the option that you can hike north to the glacier and make the decision for yourself when you reach it.

 

Overall, if you feel you have good hiking experience, proper safety judgment and are with a competent crew, you can complete this section. If you would rather avoid any unnecessary risk, are hiking alone, or experience poor weather conditions, take the valley route southwest down to Huayllapa. The rest of this section will be dedicated to those wishing to complete the Alpine Trail.

 

After reaching the summit of Rasac Pass, the descent is equally challenging with massive boulder fields, scarce trails and cairns to follow, and lots of grazing wildlife.

The trail continues to the west before starting the descent to Barrosaccocha. The descent was tough but pretty safe. There was only one spot before getting near Barrosaccocha where we had to take our packs off and backward climb down about ten feet of rock. Once you get north of Rasaccocha, your goal is to hike to the west side of the next lake called Laguna Cochacotan. Choose whatever path high or low that gets you to the western shore of Cochacotan.

 

After you pass Cochacotan, follow the river and valley down to the north. You need to find a place high on the river to cross to the east side. There was a good path on the western side but did not lead to a great place to cross the river. I recommend finding a place to cross this river to the east side as soon as possible. From the east side of the river, follow the cattle trail to the valley floor where you will see the giant Jahuacocha lake. The campground is located on the far west side of the lake. 

This is an especially challenging day. Luckily, you can reward yourself with a bottle of coke or beer for sale at the Jahuacocha Campground. You will enjoy getting to tell the story of the thrilling adventure to everyone else who took the conventional route.

Day 8: Optional Day Hike to the Mini Mirador Cerro Huacrish

After seven intense days of hiking, enjoy a late morning wakeup at Jahuacocha, where you don’t have to break down camp and go on a fantastic day hike to the Mini Mirador Cerro Huacrish. Follow the main dirt trail heading southwest and uphill from the campground. It is a well-defined trail that has been etched into the ground by line after line of donkeys. There is no marker indicating where you need to abandon the trodden path for an indistinct way up to the mirador. You should be able to see on up and to your right the rock formation shown below. The mirador is past this on the left-hand side. The trail becomes more pronounced the higher you ascend.

 

Mini Mirador Huacrish: 14,944 feet

Day 9: Jahuacocha to Llamac. Bus back to Huaraz.

Your goal should be to arrive in Llamac by 09:30 so you comfortably make the bus that returns to Huaraz, which leaves between 10:00 and 10:30. For us, this required a 04:20 wakeup in the dark and starting to hike by 04:50. As you reach Llamac, head east towards the city center, and there will likely be a local offering to take you to the bus station to get your ticket (-10.19788, -77.03258). See the Logistics section for more details.

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