Of all the treks I took on during my 14 months living in Peru, I don’t know if any trek was as physically demanding and emotionally rewarding as my solo trek through the Cordillera Huayhuash.
The Cordillera Huayhuash is a remote mountain range just to the south of the Cordillera Blanca, in the Ancash Region of Peru. The nearest tourism city is Huaraz, though the Huayhuash is several hours drive from there.
The most common way to tackle the Huayhuash is by using one of the many tour agencies in Huaraz. You can easily book a 7 to 9 day trek around the range with great guides and everything included.
But for those of us who are stubborn, adventurous, and fiercely independent, there is only one way to trek the Huayhuash: solo.
If you’re wondering what to pack or how to prepare for a solo trek around the Huayhuash, I encourage you to check out my previous post about preparing for a solo trek in the Cordillera Huayhuash.
I trekked the Huayhuash back in October of 2015. At that time, I could find hardly any blog posts about tackling this mountain range solo. Most of the information that I did find told me not to do it, that the Huayhuash is too rugged, too dangerous, and should only be taken on with a guide.
I’m here to tell you that perhaps that isn’t, strictly speaking, true. Sure, if you’ve never done a long hike before, if you’re not familiar with the Andes Mountains, if you don’t know how to read a map – yeah, get a guide. But if you’re an experienced trekker who wants to take on a physical challenge through one of the most beautiful mountain landscapes in the world – the Huayhuash is waiting for you.
Hiking the Huayhuash Solo – What to Expect
Before you go, make sure you get all your supplies, including enough food for 9 days. There is only one town on the entire hike, so if you run out of supplies, you’ll be in a bad spot. At the bare minimum, carry enough calories for 5 days, a way to clean your water, and enough clothes to keep warm in the freezing nights.
The Huayhuash Circuit takes you through extreme altitudes, with the highest pass rising above 5000m (16,400ft). However, you’ll almost always camp lower than your highest point of the day. Although this makes the trek extremely physically taxing, it also helps a lot with acclimation and avoiding altitude sickness.
About traffic on the trail: there will be lots of it. Don’t listen to the people who tell you that if you get hurt you’ll die alone, with no one walking by for days. There are plenty of people out there. Even in the rainy season.
At the bare minimum, there are plenty of Peruvian villagers living up there. They are very mindful of the tourists passing through, for reasons I will get to in a moment. On top of that, there are plenty of tour groups. During my 9 day circuit in 2015 I met three separate tour groups, and two other smaller packs of independent trekkers. Out of 9 days, I only spent one night completely by myself.
So unless things have changed, and I very much doubt they have, you won’t be alone.
Last thing to expect: extortion. Make sure you bring at least 300 soles with you just to pay off the local villagers. At least once a day, you will be approached by locals asking you to pay the protection fee. You cannot avoid it. Maybe if you wake up every day before dawn, but even so, at the next village they may just ask you to pay twice. Best to factor in the $300 soles as part of your Huayhuash budget. It’s just a shitty reality of this trail. Save the little pieces of paper they give you.
Also, take a few days in Huaraz to acclimate. Go on some day hikes. Seriously, do it. Altitude sickness will ruin your trek.
And of course, get ready to see some of the most beautiful mountains in the world.
9 Day Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit At-A-Glance
- Day 1: Huaraz to Quartlehuain (4150m)
- Day 2: Quartlehuain to Laguna Mitucocha (4230m)
- Day 3: Laguna Mitucocha to Laguna Carhuacocha (4140m)
- Day 4: Laguna Carhuacocha to Laguna Carnicero (4330m)
- Day 5: Laguna Carnicero to Atuscancha (Hot Springs!)
- Day 6: Hot Springs to Huanacpatay (4400m)
- Day 7: Huanacpatay to Huatiac (4400m)
- Day 8: Huatiac to Laguna Jahuacocha (4070m)
- Day 9: Jahuacocha to Llamac
Day 1 – Huaraz to Quartlehuian (4150m)
The first day, I hitched a ride with a tour group that was leaving from my hostel. So, instead of taking the bus to Llamac and hiking from there, I got a free ride all the way up to Quartlehuain. If you can swing this, I highly recommend it.
At the campsite, I met another couple that was tackling the Huayhuash without a guide, and they said the walk up from Llamac was entirely following a road and not very pleasant.
Day 2 – Quartlehuain to Laguna Mitucocha (4230m)
The day begins with an immediate ascent up to the first pass. The path zig zags up the mountainside more or less relentlessly for 550m. You’ll get a nice view down the valley that you drove up the day before.
The final push up to the top of the pass is on switchbacks through some scree. The tour group I had driven with the day before blasted past me on the way up and I could see and hear them sitting at the top of the pass as I climbed.
They were all quite encouraging and cheered for me during my final steps. To be fair, they were all carrying small daypacks, whereas I had all of my supplies for my 9 day hike on my back. Was I jealous of their donkey train? Not really.
After you reach the pass at 4700m, the path takes on a gentler grade downhill. You find yourself walking into a wide open valley, with your first views of the snowcapped peaks of the Huayhuash mountain range peeking out at you.
After some time, you should come to a gateway where a local villager will wait to collect another 10 soles. From here, the tour groups will continue on to cross a second pass and head to their campsite at Carhuacocha. But not me.
One of the advantages of solo trekking is you can create your own itinerary. I wanted to check out this Laguna Mitucocha sitting right at the foot of some of the highest peaks in the Huayhuash.
The path to the lake hugged the edge of the valley, winding slightly uphill. Up over one last rise and I found myself at the lake.
My map indicated that there was an official campsite on this lake, but I couldn’t find any indication of it. Instead, I found an old corral of sorts and pitched my tent next to the stones, hoping to use them as a wall from the wind.
It was still early when I made camp, so I took a walk around the lake and spent plenty of time in quiet meditation of the massive glacier rising above me.
Day 3: Laguna Mitucocha to Laguna Carhuacocha (4140m)
Leaving the lake the next morning, I packed up early and headed off across the valley back towards the main trail.
A note about Andean Valleys: They are a death trap. Do not trust them. Ever. They may look like idyllic vast paradises, covered in soft green grass just begging for a frolic, but do not be deceived! That soft green grass is a damp, cold, mire just waiting to suck you in and destroy you in an instant. Stick to the high ground. Do not walk across the valleys.
Okay, now that I’ve got that off my chest. Moving on.
The hike up to Punta Carhuac, the day’s pass at 4,650m, is relatively easy. On the way up, I met my second group of fellow non-tour hikers. Three Germans who seemed just as intrigued to meet me as I was to meet them. I met them just a bit below the pass, where they were stopping for a snack. We said a quick hello but I kept on, telling them perhaps I’d see them at the top.
Although the ascent to Punta Carhuac is quite easy, the view from the top is still beautiful. It was nearing midday at this point and rain clouds were gathering overhead, but I still took a moment to have a seat and meditate. As I was sitting there, the Germans came over the rise and joined me.
We ended up not only walking down together, but also making camp that night on the side of Laguna Carhuacocha. Their German guidebook suggested that there were, in fact, two trails around the lake. The main trail, which goes down around the lake to the southern end, and another, which followed the Northern side. We opted to camp on the northwestern side of the lake, orchestrating a funny if precarious crab walk down the steep cliffs to the flat land beside the lake.
It made for a beautiful campsite, but we would learn the next day the error in our decision.
Day 4: Laguna Carhuacocha to Laguna Carnicero (4330)
This is the day that any aspiring Huayhuash trekker looks forward to. After three days of arduous trekking, you’ve arrived: Siula Pass and the incredible trail along the three luminescent lakes, with three massive peaks towering overhead. It’s an unforgettable sight.
But first: my German friends and I had to get back to the main path.
After a wonderful night spent by the lake, listening to the sound of small avalanches pouring down the far side of the valley, we woke early and packed up camp, eager for the scenic day and massive climb that awaited us.
Walking along the northeastern side of the lake, we met a local woman who tried to tell us that the trail was on the souther side. But fools that we were, we ignored her. The valley ahead of us looked so flat, it would be a simple thing to cross it.
The valley was not only a swampy mire filled with grass that gave way like quicksand, it was also criss crossed with ice cold streams flowing from the nearby glaciers.
It was a long, cold slog across that field. At one particularly tricky stream we all took our boots off, walked across the ice cold water that came up to our knees, and then had to try to rub some life back into our toes.
Moral of the story… take the main trail along the southern side of the lake. Camp in the official campsite. Save yourself the frostbitten toes.
After that field disaster, we rejoined the main trail and hiked up into the mountains. This was the closest the trail had come to the majestic snowcapped peaks. Whereas on previous days the mountains had been distant abstractions, like looking at postcards from Switzerland, now they were immediate, imposing, and ever present. The sound of avalanches and cracking glaciers was a constant companion through the morning.
After some time, we made it above the third lake and were able to look back and enjoy the fruits of our labor. Still to this day one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen.
Continuing on, after the three lakes, the real ascent of the day begins. It is a very steep climb up a mountain wall to reach Siula pass at 4800m. On the way up I began to experience some symptoms of altitude sickness. Thankfully, I had the Germans with me. They took some of my stuff out of my pack, distributed it amongst themselves, and cheered me on up to the pass.
By the time we finally made it up there, the storm clouds were growing, and what earlier had been a clear sky was now dark and stormy. Sitting atop a mountain pass is not where you want to be when a storm is brewing, so after a quick break and a snack, we booked it downhill to Laguna Carnicero, and our lakeside camp for the night.
Day 5: Laguna Carnicero to Atascancha Hot Springs
Today was a bittersweet day. I was so excited to get to the hot springs and spend an afternoon soaking my very sore muscles. But the Germans were headed up and over a different pass, skipping the hot springs for more adventurous trails. Our time together had come to an end, and I was very sorry to see my friends go.
The trail from Laguna Carnicero proceeds downhill into a valley, where a local waits to extract a further 10 or 20 soles. From there, my German friends headed up for a little known pass well above 5000 meters. I considered going with them, but since I had felt minor altitude sickness the day before, it seemed prudent to take the lower pass and head on down to the hot springs.
From the valley floor, the trail meandered upwards at a very light grade all the way to the pass. The surrounding landscape was beautiful, if not quite as majestic as the day before. After a few false summits, I reached the pass at 4750m.
There, I caught up with two men, a guy from Mexico and his Peruvian guide. I was honestly shocked to have caught them, since they were walking with nothing and I was still carrying my massive pack. They were both super friendly and it turns out were also headed to the hot springs. I headed on down the hill ahead of them, eager for a soak.
Down and down and down the trail went. After what felt like hours,I came to the shore of a massive lake with some sort of construction on it. It was my first industrial structure I’d seen in days and I was a bit spooked by it.
Tip: This massive lake is Laguna Viconga. For the curious, there is apparently an old Sendero Luminoso training camp on the far side.
From the lake, things can get a little confusing. There are trails going in a few directions. Take the trail heading northwest, down the valley, in order to find the hot springs. You’ll head back up this direction the following morning.
Feeling pretty fatigued from my massive descent, I took a seat next to a small waterfall to make some pb&j crackers for my lunch. I finished up, laid down for a bit of mindfulness, and a few minutes later my new friends came along the trail.
The guide immediately started laughing. I wasn’t quite sure why but I picked up my pack to follow them along the trail and not 2 minutes later we arrived at the hot springs.
I had stopped for a break less than half a kilometer away from my destination for the day. Oh well.
When we arrived at the campsite, I found it already populated with two tour groups: my new friends, and a group of Israelis. I paused, looking for a likely place to put my tent, when my new friends said “camp with us!”
And so I did.
Spent the afternoon in the hot springs, soaking my muscles and generally getting rave reviews from the Israelis who seemed to think I was out of my mind doing this trek on my own.
Made my dinner and fell asleep feeling more relaxed than I had in days. Little did I know, the days of solitary trekking I imagined for my future were never to materialize.
Day 6: Viconga Hot Springs to Huanacpatay (4400m)
On this day, I had planned to cross not one but two passes, heading up towards Laguna Jurau. I knew it would be an incredibly grueling day, but it would get me up close and personal with more of the peaks and glaciers of the Huayhuash.
I still think it would make for a breathtaking day, and if you’re planning your own solo trek through the Huayhuash, do consider it.
But my plans changed not because of scenery, nor because of any problems with altitude or fatigue. Instead, it was because of some of the people I had met. Namely, my two friends from the day before.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Leaving the hot springs, the trail heads back up towards Laguna Viconga, then veers northeast and up to the pass.
Though I left camp ahead of everyone else, it wasn’t long before the tour group’s donkey trains were blowing past me. Their minder, a local Andean man, barely breaking a sweat as he marched up the path.
I was heading up towards the tallest pass of the entire trip at 5000m. The way up was a nice mixture of steep climbs and small plateaus.
The group of Israeli tourists were quite concerned for my wellbeing. They kept trying to give me sweets and snacks and asking how I was doing with my pack. In the end though, half of their group ended up getting pretty bad altitude sickness. Two of them had to ride donkeys over the pass. To be fair, they’d been drinking wine and smoking the night before.
Pro tip: Drinking wine and smoking joints won’t help you trek.
Reaching the pass definitely felt like an achievement. It was a wide open, bald pass covered in scree, surrounded by glaciers. Indeed, the glaciers felt so close I thought I could almost reach out and touch them. In fact I might have, if I hadn’t thought it was so dangerous.
At this point in the day I was still considering attempting the second pass.
Then my new friends began to try to convince me otherwise. All three guys, the man from Mexico, another young guy from Canada, and their guide, all started telling me I should hike with them, camp with them, etc, etc.
In truth, they were funny guys. Friendly. And I enjoyed the company. I’d make a decision when I got to the fork, I told myself.
The hike down from that 5000m pass was steep switchbacks through scree. I’m not the best at walking downhill, even on solid ground. Add slippery rocks and I slow down to a snails crawl. My window for attempting the second pass was getting smaller.
By the time I reached the bottom I had made my decision, I’d skip the second pass and camp with my new friends. I’d have the advantage of mooching off their guide, and there were still 3 more days and 3 more chances to see these peaks and glaciers of the Huayhuash.
We reached their camp and I learned why, exactly, people pay for these tour companies to take them around. Their tents were already set up, as was the common area tent. I set up my tent then heard them inviting me into the common tent, where I was served hot taquitos with salsa.
It was heaven.
I’d been living off of ramen noodles and peanut butter crackers for days. I wolfed down everything they gave me, much to the amusement of the guys.
Day 7 Huanacpatay to Huatiac (4400m)
This is the only day of the Huayhuash trek where the trail goes down below 4000m and then back up. It is also the only day of the trek where you’ll hike through a town and be able to re-stock up on provisions.
After a quick breakfast and coffee with my new friends (I still stubbornly cooked my own breakfast, even though they offered me some of theirs), we were off. The hike proceeded down a valley and then criss crossed down a steep wall to a river valley far below.
As we dropped in elevation the landscape became more welcoming. Signs of life began to appear. A few Peruvians leading donkeys or cattle walked by.
After some time, we came to Huayllapa, the only town on the circuit. The trail doesn’t go into the town, but you could easily take the left fork and head into the market.
From Huayllapa, the trail immediately begins a steep ascent, following a turbulent river. Large stones make a kind of giant staircase leading up, up, up.
I love trails like this, but even I thought this was a pretty steep climb.
All climbs end eventually though, and I was quite relieved to come over a rise and see the tour groups campsite laid out in front of me, their common area tent open, with the aroma of deep friend snacks wafting out the door.
I set up my tent and gratefully sat down.
It was still fairly early in the day, and the afternoon rains hadn’t come in yet, as they had on most other days. The guys started jokingly asking me if I knew how to do yoga.
“Yeah, in fact, I’m a trained yoga teacher.”
Their jaws dropped open in surprise. Apparently it had been a running joke with them that they could practice some yoga during their trek.
So, right then, in the middle of an Andean mountain valley, I lead an impromptu post hiking yoga class.
After yoga we retired to the tent for dinner. Though I tried to cook my own meal, my new friends wouldn’t hear of it, and I was treated to another gourmet three course meal in their tent.
Day 8 Huatiac to Laguna Jahuacocha (4070)
A long day of trekking with two passes to cross before arriving at the final, majestic campsite on the Huayhuash circuit.
During breakfast that morning, a massive hailstorm blew in. Having already packed up my things, I huddled in the common tent with my tour group buddies while the mountain storm raged around us, threatening to tear the tent off of its spikes.
The tent held up, however, and after a half hour or so the storm relented and we were on our way.
The first pass of the day, Tapush, sits at 4800m. It’s a rocky, windswept pass and at the time I hiked it, covered in clouds.
From there the trail descends back down to 4500m. As I walked happily down the hill, a light snow starting falling, coating my outer layer of clothing.
Then back up and over Yaucha pass, 4800m. And from there, the trail winds down through a highland before dropping steeply into the valley of Laguna Jahuacocha. The view from the top of that final drop is something I will not soon forget.
The valley lays out in front of you, dewy and green and ethereal as only the Andes can be. A massive turquoise lake sits in the middle, and beyond the lake, three impossibly massive peaks rise up, towering above the valley below, nearly defying comprehension. The tallest of these is Yarupaja, 6630m and one of the tallest mountains the Huayhuash.
Our camp for the night was on the shore of that turquoise lake, with Yarupaja towering over us. The clouds and rains swept in during the afternoon, typical rainy season weather, but just knowing it was there, hearing the cracking of its glaciers and rumbling of its avalanches was enough.
Also, there is a small house next to this campsite and the woman there sells Cusqueña beer. We bought a few bottles and spent our last night together taking turns singing songs from our countries and telling stories. I honestly couldn’t believe my luck. I was their adopted vagabond and I loved it.
Day 9: Jahuacocha to Llamac
The final day was bittersweet, as all final days of a trek are. We headed down the valley and out to Llamac. I believe the trail crosses a pass at 4300m, but the guide took us around, following an irrigation canal, that avoided the pass altogether.
We made it back to Llamac quite quickly, picked up a van, of course my adopted family let me ride with them all the way back to Huaraz.
For those of you solo trekkers who are not lucky enough to be adopted by a tour group, there are busses leaving Llamac for Huaraz daily. If you miss the bus, there are a few Hospedajes in town where you can sleep for the night. Or you can hike back up the hill to find one last peaceful campsite.
Would you hike the Huayhuash solo? Have you already? Let me know about it in the comments!
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