The Huayhuash Circuit is a spectacular 8-12 day hiking trip, 130 km long, around the Cordelia Huayhuash mountain range in Peru, one of the most beautiful and impressive in the Andes. The Cordelia, just 30 km/19 miles long, includes 7 peaks over 6,000 meters, and 15 peaks over 5,000 meters/16,404 feet. Among these are Yerupaja (6,617 m/21,709 ft), the second highest mountain in Peru and Mt. Siula (6,344 meters/20,813 feet), where the dramatic survival story in the book and movie ‘Touching the Void’ takes place.
The isolated ridge boasts wild landscapes dotted with turquoise alpine lakes nestled between looming mountains, low grass valleys, hot springs and gorgeous mountain passes, combined to make the trail a serious contender for the title of best hike in South America.
Length: 130 km
Duration: 8-12 days
Season: May – end of September
Cost: $150-$300 per person in an organized group
Water: for most of the hike there is no problem finding natural water sources.
Gear: warm jacket, rainproof gear, -7ºC/20ºF sleeping bag, water purifier mandatory for anyone setting out independently.
What does the price include and why is there so much variation in prices?
The cost differs depending on the size of the group, the number of days of the trip and the company offering its services. Huaraz has a great number of travel agencies, some of which even offer premium trips at higher prices than those previously noted.
For any trip, the price includes a guide, donkeys and a donkey driver, 3 meals a day and transit fees. On organized group trips, the loaded donkeys carry the luggage together with the general camp equipment and you walk with a small backpack with some personal gear.
For part of the trip, the donkey driver takes the donkeys via alternate detour routes where the donkeys are able to pass and will meet your group and guide at that evening’s campsite. There, the staff will have set up a central tent and cooked a hot meal for the hikers.
Transit fees / protection money – there are a number of points on the hike in which the locals collect a transit fee, adding up to about 160 sol (about $50 as of 2017) and provide an invoice.
This is no small sum by Peruvian standards, and this custom is the result of an understanding between the authorities and the isolated, poor, local community, against a background of a number of robberies of travelers, one of which even ended in murder.
These robberies mostly took place until the mid-2000’s, and since the agreement there have been no reports of violence on the hike, as the arrival of travelers has become worthwhile to the local residents.
How hard is the hike and do I need to prepare for the altitude?
The most important thing with the Huayhuash hike is preparation for the altitude at which it takes place.
The hike itself is not easy, particularly on account of the long days spent at altitude and the speed at which you reach that altitude. Nearly the entire trip, starting from the first day, happens at over 4,100 meters / 13,451 feet. The hike crosses 8 passes at an altitude of over 4,600 meters / 15,091 feet, of which 2 are at an altitude of around 5,000 meters / 16,404 feet.
For the sake of comparison, another noteworthy trek that also takes place at significant altitude – the Everest Base Camp trek rises more moderately to altitude, and only on the fifth day do you arrive to heights of over 4,100 meters / 13,451 feet.
The high height, in combination with unpredictable weather and freezing nights, has the potential for major unpleasantness. There is no shortage of stories of travelers who suffered symptoms of altitude sickness and were forced to trudge on behind their group, dragging the trip out over long and miserable days, for whom the trip became a bad experience. Furthermore, the development of severe altitude sickness symptoms can quickly become life-threatening, since the location is high and remote from the roads and dirt paths, making a quick descent difficult, the best way to manage altitude sickness. Rapid descent of this sort is only possible from one particular point throughout the route.
How to prepare for the high altitude of the hike?
The best way to manage with the altitude is to acclimatize before starting the hike.
It is advisable to spend a few days in Huaraz, at an altitude of 3,052 meters / 10,013 feet. Furthermore, while there, it is recommended to do at least one day hike on a high trail near the city.
The most common day trip options out of Huaraz:
- Laguna 69: an excellent day trip to one of the most beautiful lakes in Peru. Hidden between snowy mountains, the magnificent turquoise lake sits at an altitude of 4,600 meters / 15,091 feet at the foot of a glacier that feeds it.
You can get to the lake independently. Nearly every hostel in the city will organize a van that sets off to the start of the trail and will wait for you and take you back.
You can also take a taxi from the city center to the trailhead.
One more option would be to join an organized day trip with a guide from one of the agencies in town, for a price of about 15 dollars per person.
The route itself is not hard to navigate and is straightforward (in clear weather). It should take around 2-3 hours until the lake and throughout the hike you will climb about 800 meters / 2,624 feet.
- Churup Lake: another beautiful lake, located at an altitude of 4,450 meters / 14,499 feet. Although it is not as high, the climb up is harder than Laguna 69.
To get there, you can take a bus to the nearby city of Liupa and continue walking to the village of Pitec, which is next to the trailhead.
The total time needed to complete the trail including travel time is about 7-8 hours.
This trip can also be done as an organized group led by one of the agencies in town.
- Pastoruri Glacier: located about 3.5 hours drive from the city. The climb up is relatively easy despite the high altitude, since the walk itself starts at an altitude of 4,900 meters and takes about half an hour in each direction.
You can get there with an organized group trip through one of the city’s travel agencies.
Additionally, you should bring along pills that prevent altitude sickness and begin taking them, according to the instructions, before the start of your hike. Despite all these warnings, anyone who is in reasonable shape and properly prepared should be able to complete the hike and have an extraordinary experience.
For more detailed information on altitude sickness and ways to manage it, you can read more about it in the ‘Hike Tips’ section of this site:https://whichhike.com/altitude-sickness/
Organized group or independent adventure?
- In general, before deciding on a group, it is important to get recommendations and to check what exactly their service includes, and that all the things that they promise are in writing to avoid misunderstanding. There are quite a few serious local companies that lead trips but, like any place, there are also companies whose services are less professional.
- You can put a group together on your own rather than join an existing one. Then as a group you can find a guide (by yourselves or through the hostel or an agency) who usually already has connections with a donkey driver, and settle with them to determine the number of days and the exact starting point of the trip.
- Although it is not at all common, someone who is a skilled navigator could set out on the trip alone even without a guide or donkeys. To do this you would take public transport from Huaraz to Popca, which is the nearest settlement to the trail. From there, a comfortable dirt road will lead you up to the night parking at Matacancha, which is located at an altitude of 4,170 meters / 13,680 feet, at the foot of the first mountain pass. You can organize transportation from Popca to this point, which will save you a number of hours of boring walking on the dirt path.
- Throughout the entire trip there is only one small village called Huayllapa, which you generally arrive to on the sixth day of walking. You can load up here on basic food, eat a hot meal, and even stay in a small hotel in the village.
How many days to allow for the hike and should I reserve with a travel agency before arriving to Peru?
- Most of the companies run trips for a range of between 8-12 days. The main difference between a longer or shorter trip is the walking speed.
- The 8-day trip is of course somewhat cheaper, but too pressed. The ideal length is 9-10 days. Beyond this, the trip will just drag out short walking distances and besides, you must bear in mind that spending 11 freezing nights in a tent at such high altitude takes its toll on the body.
- Should you reserve a trip in advance? Only if you are pressed for time and you have good recommendations for a serious company requesting a decent price.
Most travelers spend a few days before the trip in Huaraz, which is a great town with a lively atmosphere. This also gives you time to get organized for the trip.
The trek is very popular and there are many tourist services in town. In our opinion, there is no substitute for in-person market research for getting a better price and meeting people face-to-face.
Viconga Hot Springs – the trek’s great treat is the hot springs at Viconga, which you arrive to on the fourth day of the trip. There are two pools of hot water, each a different temperature, under the sky and situated with a spectacular view over the valley. You can even buy beer there. You should make sure with the travel agents that you will be parked near the springs and not some distance from them (they are located a little ways off the trail).
For those going independently or with a guide and the donkey driver that he hired, we recommend checking the option of doing a rest day next to the springs. This will cost you a little more but will be enjoyable and worthwhile and will help your body recover for the rest of the hike.
San Antonio – the most beautiful viewpoint on the trip and the highest point is on the hiking day following the hot springs. This means taking a side path that rises toward the center of the mountain range to a ridge at 5,020 meters / 16,469 feet. The climb is strenuous but this is one of the great highlights of the trip and on a clear day you will have a breathtaking mountainous view that would be a shame to miss.
- In some of the groups, particularly those with a large number of hikers, it is customary to bring a horse to help anyone who might be suffering symptoms of altitude sickness and for whom it is difficult to hike.
– Guidebook – the guidebook by Trailblazer is excellent but for someone going on an organized trip, it’s not really necessary.
- Getting to Huaraz: most travelers get there by bus from Lima, which takes about 8 hours. The bus is very comfortable and the seats recline back 150º. There is a day bus and a night bus and most travelers seem to prefer the night bus. We recommend going one of the ways (there or back) in the daytime. The route is beautiful and it would be a shame to miss the view.
What we loved: beautiful, wild hike, challenging and rewarding, the best of the Andes mountains.
In addition, walking along a remote trail on a camping trip where heavy equipment and hot food are taken care of for you is a real treat.
What we liked less: proper acclimation to the high altitude where the hike will take place is critical – those who do not follow the guidelines might see the trip turn into a nightmare.
Conclusion: rightfully a serious contender for the title of best trek in South America.