In September, 1996, three friends and I were all set to hike Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash circuit. Topographic maps had been found, supplies had been bought, and transport to the trailhead arranged.
The night before we were due to leave Huaraz (the regional capital), news came through to the hotel at which we were staying that a hiking group were robbed at gunpoint while circumnavigating the Huayhuash.
Robbery was not an uncommon occurrence in this area during the 1990’s, however, on this particular occasion one of the hiking party resisted (a young Israeli guy), and as a result was promptly marched off and killed at point blank range. The other three members of the group carried his body back to civilization.
As a result of the tragedy, we were informed that the area was “unsafe for foreigners at the present time.” Handing over some cash is one thing, potentially being shot is another matter entirely. After discussing the situation, the four of us decided to postpone the trip and instead do a couple of shorter hikes in the nearby Cordillera Blanca range.
Eighteen years later I returned to hike the Cordillera Huayhuash circuit.
Note: All information has been updated as of November, 2017. This article is primarily geared towards hikers doing the Huayhuash Circuit independently.
Distance: 81 miles (130 km) approx.
- 8 – 10 days
- If you are hiking the Huayhuash (pronounced why-wash – sort of appropriate for a multi-day hike, no?) independently, the amount of time needed to complete the circuit can vary considerably from person to person. Factors such as pack weight, high altitude experience, fitness, acclimatization and side trips, all need to be taken into account when estimating how long it’s going to take you. For more details, see the FAQ section.
Start / Finish:
- I started and finished in the village of Llamac.
- As of 2017, the majority of folks (more than 90%) hiking the Huayhuash circuit are beginning their hike in Matacancha (also known as Quartelhuain) and finishing in Pallca or Llamac. This cuts one to two days off the overall time needed to complete a circuit (albeit a partially incomplete one).
- My suggestion is to begin at the traditional starting point of Llamac and do the full circuit. This means carrying an extra 1.5 – 2 days worth of food for independent hikers, but the payoff is some incredible scenery between Laguna Jahuacocha and the twin high points of Sambuya Punta (4750m) and Rondoy Punta (4750m).
- Llamac is situated a couple of hours by bus from the town of Chiquian. There are one or two departures per day.
- I highly recommend overnighting in Chiquian before starting your trek. It’s a great little town with a lovely plaza, friendly people, and lots of delicious street food options. The very affordable Hotel Los Nogales was one of my favourite accommodation stops in Peru (see photo below). If you do decide to stay a night in Chiquian, chances are you won’t see too many other foreigners, as virtually all of the organised groups travel directly from Huaraz through to Matacancha on the same day. Those that are taking public transport, will leave the regional hub of Huaraz early, and then change buses in Chiquian.
- There are multiple daily bus services between Chiquian and Huaraz (2 – 3 hours). Companies that ply the route include Transportes El Rapido, Transportes Nazario and Transportes San Bartolome.
Maps / Guidebooks:
- I used the Alpenvereinskarte 1:50,000 Cordillera Huayhuash 0/3c. All you need for navigation purposes. It can be ordered online, or alternatively you can pick up a copy when you arrive in Huaraz.
- Cordillera Blanca & Huayhuash: The Hiking & Biking Guide (2015): Contains trekking notes, basic maps and logistical information. If the weather is fine, independent hikers could make do with the maps in this book. That said, even in the May to September “dry season”, storms still do occur. If you are hiking independently, I’d recommend picking up the above-mentioned topo (Note: It also comes in handy for any side trips you may decide to do).
- Trekking Companies: By my estimation, more than 95% of people hiking in the Cordillera Huayhuash organize their trips through Huaraz based trekking agencies. These businesses provide transport, guides, cooks and pack animals. In fact, I only saw one other solo hiker during the course of my time in Huayhuash – an American guy by the name of Mike, whom I hiked with on the first day of the circuit.
- Season: The dry season of May to September is ideal for trekking. Nights can be chilly (-10°C is common), but days are generally clear.
- Gear: It’s possible to purchase (or even rent) backpacking equipment in Huaraz, but the quality is not always great. You are better off bringing everything you need from home. Click here to see the gear list from my 2014 trip to the Peruvian Andes (which also included a traverse of the Cordillera Blanca).
- Supplies: Bring what you need from Huaraz. The only place to purchase supplies on the actual circuit itself is in the tiny village of Huayllapa. If you’re hiking solo and in a clockwise direction, I highly recommend carrying just enough food to get you to Huayllapa (situated about 2/3 of the way through the circuit). Pick up the remaining two days worth of food when you pass through. This will save you carrying the extra weight from the start of your trek. There is a small restaurant and hotel attached to the store. I didn’t overnight, but I did stop in for a breakfast of eggs, bread and coffee.
- Supplies 2: In Huaraz you can find dried fruit, nuts, pasta, rice, chocolates, cereals, etc. However, chances are you still won’t have the range of options available in many western countries. If you are a bit on the picky side when it comes to your backcountry diet, you may be better off bringing any specialty-type foods from home.
- Acclimatization: Spend at least a few days in the Huaraz area acclimatizing before beginning the Huayhuash circuit. This is very important, as the trail reaches an elevation of some 4300 metres (14,108 ft) within a few hours of leaving Llamac. In addition to a day wandering around town, I’d suggest doing day hikes to Laguna Churup (4450m) and Laguna 69 (4604m). For more information, see Tips for High Altitude Hiking.
- Water: There are ample water sources throughout the Huayhuash area. I didn’t carry more than a litre at any one time. Be sure to bring means of purification, as livestock can be found in all of the valleys.
- Fees: During the course of the circuit you will need to pay a series of fees to local communities. In 2014, I forked out a total of around 190 Peruvian Soles (US$66) over six payments. It all seemed a bit haphazard, but as of 2014 there didn’t appear to be much in the way of fiscal trust between the neighbouring peoples. For the time being, this seemed to preclude a more convenient “one time regional fee.” Be sure to ask for a receipt after each and every payment. (Note: In 2015, the combined fees had gone up to 205 Soles. If there are any readers that have hiked the circuit in the last year that have an update in regards to the payment situation, please drop me a line in the comments section).
- Do I need a guide?: No. If you have the above mentioned topographic map along with decent navigational skills, a guide is not necessary.
- What about pack animals?: As I mentioned above, the vast majority of folks organise their trek via an agency. This is often the case when foreigners go hiking in the Andes and Himalayas. I wrote an article about this subject for the website a few years ago. Ultimately it’s a personal choice. If you’re well acclimatized, a proficient navigator, don’t mind the idea of carrying 4 to 7 days worth of supplies (pick up the last couple of days worth at the shop in Huayllapa), there is no need to have guides, cooks and pack animals.
- Impact – Independent Vs Guided: As the Huayhuash circuit increases in popularity, issues such as garbage disposal (or lack thereof) and trail erosion are increasingly in evidence. From an environmental perspective, this is perhaps the biggest plus of hiking sans pack animals. A team of donkeys causes considerably more damage to paths (not to mention the trail of poo they leave in their wake) than does a hiker sporting a pair of Vibram soles and possibly wielding a hiking pole or two. In regards to the subject of trash, if you do choose to go with an agency, before setting out double check with those in charge in regards to their environmental policies. If you are hiking solo, “pack it in, pack it out.“
- How long do I need?: Generally speaking, groups take about eight days for the abbreviated circuit starting from Matacancha, and 10 days for the full circuit from Llamac. Note that these folks are carrying day packs and generally hike about six or seven hours per day. If you are reasonably experienced, well acclimatized and your pack doesn’t weigh the proverbial tonne, I think eight or nine days is a conservative estimate for how much time it should take your average solo hiker to do a full circuit. For stronger folks with lightish packs who enjoy hiking longer hours, the full circuit can comfortably be done in five to seven days.
Route / Conditions:
- The trail is well trodden. Located entirely above tree line, when conditions are clear navigation is relatively simple. That being said, if the weather turns and you find yourself walking in rain/snow/clouds, basic navigation skills are essential if you choose to hike without a guide.
- During the course of a full circumnavigation there are 12 passes (including Punta Llamac twice) all of which are 4300 metres (14,108 ft) or higher.
- A short side trip that is not to be missed is to the Rio Pumarini hot springs. The water temps are perfect, neither too hot nor too cold, and there is plenty of camping close by.
- A pass which is generally not included in your standard Huayhuash circuit is San Antonio (5050 metres/ 16,568 ft). If you are comfortable descending steep scree slopes, I highly recommend including it in your trek. The views are amongst the best in the entire Huayhuash.
- Scenically stunning from start to finish. One of South America’s premier multi-day treks.
- If you are experienced, fit, well acclimatized, and carrying a light pack with appropriate gear for the conditions, I would recommend doing the circuit independently. If you don’t tick all of the aforementioned boxes, you are probably better off going with an agency.
- A shout out to Sylvia, Diamond Dave and Fleischy, my three hiking and travelling partners from 1996. On the remote chance that any of you ever read this blog post, I hope you are all well and I can definitely say that the Huayhuash was well worth the 18 year postponement!