Often called the gateway to the Cordellia Blanca or the White Mountains in English, Huaraz is the trekking capital of Peru.
The Santa Cruz Trek | Our guide to this multi day adventure from Huaraz
The Santa Cruz trek is one of the best multi day treks in Peru if not the world. Having said that, it’s probably not the best one in Huaraz but it is the easiest and most popular. The others being longer and much more difficult. It’s a back to basics kind of experience and is often misrepresented. In this blog we will give you an insight into our experience, what to expect, what to pay, what to pack and what you won’t need on the trek.
We loved the trek and it was one of the highlights of our South American adventure but you may be surprised at some of things we found out whilst booking and whilst on the trek itself. We believe that reading our blog, before you book, could save you money and also improve your overall experience on the trek.
What is the Santa Cruz Trek?
The Santa Cruz trek is a multi day hike usually done over four days and three nights. It’s approximately 50km and takes you through the Cordillera Blanca range in the Andes, near Huaraz, Peru. The trek takes you between the villages of Vaqueria at an elevation of 3700m and Chashapampa at 2900m, going over the Punta Union pass at a highest elevation of 4750m. It is generally considered a moderately challenging route.
The route can be done in either direction with the start in Vaqueria finishing in Chashapampa being considered the right way round and the opposite the reverse route. It is most commonly done as a guided trek but can be done independently although you would still need help to get to the start and be picked up from the other end as its a linear hike. We did the group tour so in the main this blog will concentrate on our experience of this format of the trek.
How to book and what to pay for the Santa Cruz Trek?
Before you book anything you need to know how it usually works, as in how the tour operators run the trek. Our information is based on our experience, talking to the people we did the trek with and people we had travelled with who had finished the trek the day before we started ours.
Depending on which hostel you book with or if you book in advance will dictate how much you pay and there is a big difference between the cheapest and the top price with the people booking in advance through a third party tour operator coming out the worst and the people who booked directly with the tour operator in their office in Huaraz coming out with the cheapest price.
You will be surprised how much the difference was of the people who booked on our tour. The highest price paid, per person, was $300 and the lowest was 500 PEN ($130) so a huge difference of $170 that’s a lot of money. We paid 550 PEN in the office in Huaraz and were initially quoted 600 PEN as we managed to bargain. The people who had paid the most had booked from their home country in advance.
The tour runs every day assuming they can get five or more people to book so our advise, if you have any flexibility, is to book when in Huaraz a day or two before you want to do the trek. This way you will guarantee the best chance of getting a good deal.
Another thing to note, as far as we could tell, there are only one maybe two companies that run the trek. Your hostel may tell you that you are on the top luxury version with the best gear and the best food but you will more than likely be grouped with people on the same transport and in the same tents with the same food who had booked the economy version. The only difference is how much commission the hostel gets from your booking.
The tour is run alternately from either end so the bus that drops you off to start the trek will wait overnight and pick up the people who have just finished. If you want to do it a particular way round you will need to ask and insist you get on the tour going in the right direction.
One last thing to note, you may get told the maximum group size is six to ten people. There were fifteen people in our group and twenty five people on the coach from the group before us, so we were told.
So in summary here’s how to get the best deal. Don’t book in advance, book one or two days before if at all possible. Book in the office of the actual tour operator in Huaraz not through you hostel. Don’t except the first price they offer. The tour operator is called Ganesa Explorer their office is on the second floor on the main street near Plaza Armas opposite side to the banks. You can find it on google maps. This is purely impartial advice and our opinion we do not get any kind of payment from them at all.
What to expect on the Santa Cruz trek?
Huaraz – Llanganuco Lakes – Portachuelo Pass – Vaqueria –Huaripampa Campsite
Day one of the Santa Cruz trek starts with a 5am pick up from your accommodation in Huaraz. We were staying at Akilpo Home near the centre and we were the first pick up so we had about another hour or so picking up the rest of the passengers and the tents and equipment. It’s then about another hour on the main road until we reached the turn off for the national park and our breakfast stop. Breakfast is a strange affair in a big outdoor restaurant. The food was cheap but very basic and there are rudimentary toilets to use and a small shop for drinks and snacks
As we drove towards the park entrance the road becomes a track through a valley. At the park entrance the Guide will collect the park fee which is 60 PEN per person we stayed on the bus while the guide bought the tickets and handed them out. It’s important to keep the tickets safe as you will need them on the trek.
The next stop is the stunningly blue Llanganuco Lakes. We stopped here for just a few minutes for pictures. The track then starts the looping journey up and over Portchuelo Pass. You won’t believe a bus of this size can actually get up this road. Our driver had to keep stopping to move rocks from our path. After another incredibly scenic photo stop you’re over the top and start the journey down into Vaqueria, a very tiny village, which is where the trail starts. Here the donkeys are loaded and there’s another opportunity to buy snacks and visit the toilet. We set off walking at just about 1pm so that’s a eight hour journey from leaving Huaraz at 5am.
The trek starts by going steeply down hill then steadily rises to the first campsite at Huaripampa a total journey of about 11km. If you want to interact with the local children on this part of the trek take sweets or biscuits to give them some will ask and some just look at you with wide eyes. It’s really nice to have something for them and they all say thank you very politely.
The campsite is very close to the river and there are biting insects here so make sure you have packed your repellant. The good thing about a guided tour is that your tents will have been put up for you by the time you get there so you can get straight into your tent and away from the bitey little beasts. You’ve plenty time to get changed, get your repellent on and cover up ready for tea and a snack before dinner. Then it’s off to bed ready for an early start in the morning.
Huaripampa Campsite – Paso Punta Union Pass – Taullipampa
After a very early breakfast we were off walking again for the biggest day of the hike over the Punta Union pass. To the pass it’s about 7km with a rise in altitude of roughly 900m so you can work out for yourself, that on average, the altitude gain is not that steep. This is holds true until you get close to the pass, here it gets steeper but nothing overwhelming.
This part of the trek is stunningly beautiful and well worth slowing down and taking in the views. Once over the pass and after lunch its about another 5km to the second campsite. Luckily there were no bugs here but it’s quite high up so once the sun goes down we found it to be very cold. Unless you’re very hardy you may find, as we did, the sleeping bags are not adequately padded to keep you warm enough to sleep. We slept in our clothes all night which is not very comfortable but it’s better than feeling cold.
Taullipampa – (optional visit to Laguna Arhuaycocha) – Llamacorral
Again after an early breakfast we are off again for the longest day on the trek at about 22km which includes the optional visit to the Laguna which is 6km all in. We recommend doing the Laguna as it is a very beautiful part of the hike which takes you up pass the base camp for the Alpamayo mountain which has been voted the most beautiful mountain in the world.
Although is a long hike it’s not a difficult day. It’s in the main down hill and is quite easy under foot for the majority of the hike. The third and last campsite is a little warmer as you are lower down which makes it a little easier to sleep and you have a lie in to look forward to as breakfast in the morning is half an hour later.
Llamacorral – Cashapampa – Huaraz
The last day is the shortest hike at just over 10km but it’s quite a rocky path with loose stone and steeply descends down the side of a deep gorge. It is again very beautiful with great views following the river behind back up the valley were you have come from.
When you arrive in Cashapampa you come to the park hut were you need to show the ticket you got at the beginning of the national park. You then sit in a restaurant for an hour while they load up the bus it is then a three hour journey back into Huaraz.
We got no advice at all as to how much to tip the support crew for the Santa Cruz trek. We tried to talk about it to the group at dinner on the last evening but we couldn’t come to any agreement to do the tipping as a group which would have been our favourite option. Instead we tipped separately.
We had four support crew. The guide who lead the hike who spoke good English and had a good understanding of the trek with some interesting information about the local customs and place names. The cook who obviously did the cooking and food preparation and then two donkey handlers who did all the hard work it seemed, putting up and taking down the tents, packing up and getting all or gear to the next site.
After a lot of thinking we decided that they had all deserved an equal cut of the money we had decided to give which was ten percent of what we paid. It seemed enough and the donkey guys definitely seemed pleased to be included so we where quite happy with our contribution. We also as a group took the guide for a curry, the other members of the crew couldn’t make it as they lived too far from the city.
How was the food on the Santa Cruz Trek?
The good, the bad and the ugly
Firstly I’ve got to say that we loved the hike. It will be, I’m sure, one of the highlights of our South American adventure. The organised tour made everything easy logistically. We basically just had to do the hiking everything else was sorted for us. We got a great guide who was very friendly and although we all walked at different speeds we got a great group of people to do the trek with.
The scenery along the trail is outstanding with amazing views of snow covered mountains rolling hills and forest with deep blue sparking lakes. It is truly beautiful from start to finish. We would recommend this hike to most of our friends and people we meet on our travels as its an iconic multi day trek you will be able to tell the grandkids about.
For us this was a little shocking and not really something we had come across before. From a distance the scenery around the campsites looks like the perfect picture of nature. But lurking behind every rock is a dirty secret. Of course its something we all have to do at some point on a four day trek into the wild but it’s not pretty to see what’s left behind.
We were told there would be a toilet tent and that it was park rules that all human excrement especially the toilet paper used should be taken with us and deposed of responsibly. This didn’t happen and looks like it has never happened. Every hidden spot is littered with toilet paper and human excrement which made us feel a little sad. There are no bins and no indication of where or how you should deal with the mess. Long term this is unsustainable and will need to be dealt with.
We mentioned this to the guide when he asked for feed back and he admitted it was a problem and said he would report back our opinion. When we got back to our hostal we told the owners and they said it was news to them and totally against the rules of the national Park. There should be waste bins provided and a toilet tent also all waste is supposed to be carried off the trail.
What to pack for the Santa Cruz Trek?
If, like us, you’re on a tour with a support crew it makes packing easier as you only have to carry the things you need for the day. You are given a bag to but your other gear in that you don’t need that day and the donkeys carry it all.
In our day packs we carried layers of clothes, as it was cold in the mornings, which were lightweight and could fit in our day pack. Other essentials are of course water which is provided every morning, they recommend two litres a day. Sun cream and a hat to keep your head covered and your face in the shade. Your phone or a camera, you really don’t want to miss capturing some pictures. Lynne uses a walking pole which she found very useful.
For the evenings you need warm clothes to cover up and insect repellent for the first camp, gloves and a warm hat. You also need a change of footwear for the evenings such as sandals, flip flops. We took battery charges to keep our phones cameras and smart watches charged up. A head torch also comes in very hand when it gets dark.
Spare clothes, two pairs of socks , two base layers and a good mid layer. We also took our padded jackets which we wore every evening; it really does get cold. If you have a sleeping bag liner this can be handy but we found it difficult to use and uncomfortable as it can get tangles round your legs and make things difficult.
We highly recommend this trek. It’s good for beginners and for experienced hikers that want something a little challenging but not mega difficult. We really enjoyed every day and met some wonderful people that we have kept in touch with. The trek does have problems and long term these will be unsustainable. If you come across the same things we did please highlight it to your guide the more people speak out the better it will be for all in the future. It would be a shame to see this iconic hike spoiled by the very people doing it.
Booking resources for your visit to Huaraz
Tours & Tickets
You can book your visits as you go at the entrance to your chosen attraction or site. Or you could use the following links to book in advance or just to find out what your choices are in the area. GetYourGuide and Tiqets are our go to choices you could try Viator to see how they compare.
For a full list check out our resources page. Don’t forget always shop around to find the best deal for you. What works for us should be good for you but it’s always reassuring to check.
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