Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit: Independent Hiker’s Guide

Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit is one of South America’s premier multi-day treks. Turquoise lakes, high altitude passes, hot springs, towering snow capped peaks; all packed into a compact range that measures only 30 km (18.6 mi) long and 15 km (9.3 mi) wide. 

The Huayhuash and I have a long history. In September of 1996, three friends and I were all set to hike the circuit, which at that time was relatively unknown. 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 had been held up at gunpoint while hiking the circuit. Robbery was not uncommon in the area during the mid-90’s, however, on this particular occasion one of the trekking 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 in 2014, I returned to Peru to hike the Cordillera Huayhuash circuit.

Note: All information has been updated as of December, 2017.

Cordillera Huayhuash, Peru, 2014

Three Lakes view point | Cordillera Huayhuash

Circuit Details

Distance:  130 km (81 miles) approx.

Avg. Time:  

  • 8 – 10 days
  • If you are hiking the Huayhuash 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.

Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit overview map (from summitpost.org)

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 Llamac. This cuts 1.5 – 2 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 a couple of days extra food, but the payoff is some incredible scenery between Laguna Jahuacocha and the twin high points of Sambuya Punta (4750m) and Rondoy Punta (4750m).

Transport:

  • From your base in Huaraz, first you need to get to the town of Chiquian (2 – 2.5 hrs). Companies that ply the route include Transportes El Rapido, Transportes Nazario and Transportes San Bartolome.
  • From Chiquian it is 1.5 hrs to the village of Llamac. There are one or two departures per day. If you want to do the shorter version of the circuit starting in Matacancha / Quartelhuain, continue on past Llamac for another 20 minutes to the village of Pocpa (Note: As of 2017, this is as far as the bus goes). From there you will need to road walk or hitch the final 12 km to Matacancha.
  • Unless you are in a rush, I 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.
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Llamac Plaza – Starting and finishing point of the Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit.

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The wonderful Hotel Los Nogales

Maps / Guidebooks:

  • Topographic Map: I used the Alpenvereinskarte 1:50,000 Cordillera Huayhuash 0/3c. Along with your compass (and/or GPS), all you need for navigation purposes. It can be ordered online, or alternatively you can pick up a copy when you arrive in Huaraz (Note: Cafe Andino normally has it for sale, but they don’t miss you in regards to price; if memory serves they were charging about double what I paid on Amazon).
  • Guidebook: 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 topographic map (Note: This particularly holds true if you decide not to skip the initial section from Llamac to Matacancha, which the book does not cover).
  • GPS Information: You can download the GPX files for the Huayhuash Circuit (as well as other hikes in the region) from Blancahuayhuash.com.
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Pampa Llamac Pass – First and last pass of the Circuit.

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Looking back towards Punta Rondoy.

General Information:

  • Trekking Companies: The vast majority 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. If you would prefer to go with an agency, see Besthike.com’s Huayhuash Circuit page for a list of recommended companies.
  • 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 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). For a rundown of what I would take if I did the Huayhuash Circuit again in 2018, see the table at the bottom of the article.
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Trail along the Rio Achin towards Laguna Jahuacocha.P1000367Campsite close to Laguna Solteracocha (Day 1). In 2014, I took a prototype of the Tarptent ProTrail on the Huayhuash Circuit.

  • 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 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 are probably better off bringing any specialty-type foods from home.
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Yours truly at Laguna Carhuacocha.

  • 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 within a few hours of leaving Llamac. In addition to a day wandering around town, I’d suggest doing a couple of short hikes to Laguna Churup (4450 m) and Laguna 69 (4604 m). For information on these walks, see Cordilleras Blanca & Huayhuash: The Hiking & Biking Guide. For general advice on trekking at altitude, check out Tips for High Altitude Hiking.
  • Water: There are ample water sources throughout the Huayhuash area. I didn’t carry more than 1-1.5 litres 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).
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Chilly Campsite | The morning of Day 3.

FAQ’S:

  • Do I need a guide?: No. If you have the above-mentioned topographic map, guidebook and GPS info, a guide is not necessary. Indeed, if you’re a proficient navigator, all you really need is a compass and the map.
  • 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 fit, well acclimatized and 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 (Note: If you want to go sans agency but would like a little help on the pack carrying front, arrieros (muleteers) can usually be arranged in Llamac or Pocpa).
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Llamas chilling out in the snow.

  • 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 without 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 or nine days for the abbreviated circuit starting from Matacancha, and 11 to 12 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 (including alternates).
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Lake Jahuacocha, as seen while descending from Punta Yaucha (4850 m).

Route / Conditions:

  • The trail is very well trodden. Located entirely above tree line, when the weather is clear navigation is simple. That said, if you find yourself walking in inclement conditions (and storms regularly happen even in the “dry” season), basic navigation skills are essential if you choose to hike independently.
  • Over 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.
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Laguna Susococha (4740 m)

During the Circuit, there are various route options available to hikers. These are the ones I recommend, described in a clockwise direction starting from Llamac. For details, see both the topo map and guidebook listed above:

  • Llamac to Matacancha –  This is the initial section of the full circuit, which 90% plus of hikers now bypass (both with agencies and independent). I get why folks choose not to do it; the alternative is shorter and easier. That said, the initial segement passes by the gorgeous Lagunas Yahuacocha and Solteracocha, as well as going over the impressive Punta Rondoy. My advice is to grab a couple of days extra food, bite the bullet, and do the full circuit. You won’t regret it.
  • Cacanapunta to Laguna Mitaconcha (High Route): A higher, less trodden and more visually impressive alternative to the mule route. Some of this alternate is off-trail, so basic routefinding skills are recommended. I didn’t see anyone else on this section.
  • Laguna Mitaconcha to Laguna Carhuacocha (High Route)Once again, most folks tend to take the lower, easier and less scenic route. This segment is also a combo of cross-country and paths; some vague, others clear. The up close and personal views of Rondoy and Jirishanca peaks are impressive. The route links up with the main trail about 20 minutes north of Laguna Carhuacocha. I saw two groups doing this particular section, and it seemed like a more popular option than the one mentioned immediately above.
  • Laguna Carhuacocha to Laguna Carnicero (via Laguna Siula):  This actually used to be an alternate, however, these days pretty much everyone takes it. And with good reason. The vistas are amongst the best not only on the Huayhuash circuit, but of anywhere in the Peruvian Andes. The “Three Lakes” picture at the top of the article was taken on this section.
  • Rio Pumarini Hot Springs: These hot springs are not to be missed. It is only a short detour to access them (about 20 minutes), and the water temps are ideal. There is good camping nearby, however, if you want to avoid the crowds try to time your arrival for mid-morning. I lobbed up about 9.30 am and had the place to myself for the best part of an hour and a half.
  • San Antonio Pass (5050 metres/ 16,568 ft) –  If you are comfortable descending steep scree slopes, I highly recommend including San Antonio Pass in your trek. The views are amongst the best on the Circuit (see photo below). For an easier option with similar scenery, try Paso Jurau, which is situated just east of Paso San Antonio. Unless you are injured, don’t even consider the low route alternative via the Quebrada Huanacpatay.
  • Laguna Sarapococha – The only alternate on this list that I didn’t do, but I think it would make for a great out-and-back side trip from Cutatambo. The Sarapococha valley gives the hiker an up close view of Siula Grande peak, which was the setting for Joe Simpson’s classic survival tale, Touching the Void.
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Rio Pumarini hot springs

The view on the descent from San Antionio Pass.

Final Observations:

  • 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. Either way it’s a fantastic trek!
  • 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!
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Llamac village – starting and finishing point for the Huayhuash circuit.

Gear List

Below is a list of what I would take if I was to do the Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit again in 2018:

ITEM WT. (OZ) SUB (oz) SUB (kg) COMMENTS
BACKPACK
MLD Burn 13     Frameless, simple design, slim profile. I’ve been using the Burn since 2009.
Pack Liner (Trash Compactor Bag) 2     Cheap & effective
    15  0.43
SHELTER  
MLD SoloMid XL 12     Very quick set up / Holds up well in a storm / Ideal amount of space for 6’1″ guy.
Guylines – Kelty Triptease  1     Guyline of choice for many years.
Stakes – Mix of sizes & styles (8) / Mostly MSR Groundhogs 2.8     Groundhogs are great; in addition to their durability, the red colour makes me less likely to lose them than the generic silver.
  15.8  0.45
 
SLEEPING SYSTEM    
Pad – Thermarest NeoAir XLite (Small) 8     Very comfy / Doubles as makeshift framesheet for pack / Put feet on backpack when sleeping.
Quilt – Katabatic Sawatch 15 24     Conservatively rated 15°F / Best quilts/bags I have used.
Groundsheet – Polycro plastic 1.3
    33.3  0.94  
KITCHEN  
LokSak 20×12 (Food Bag) 1.2     Hundreds of nights in the boonies using LokSaks. Never had a critter problem / Seals usually start to go after about six weeks of regular use. 
Gatorade Powder Container 1.8     For many years my rehydrating vessel of choice when going stoveless. 
Toaks Titanium Spork 0.3     Top end wrapped in orange tape so I won’t lose it.
Bic Lighter 0.2      
Reconstituted sports drink bottles (2) 2.4      
Platypus Hydration Bladder (2 LT) 1.2      
    7.1 0.2  
FIRST AID / HYGIENE  
Sunscreen (repackaged in tiny btle.)        
Hand Sanitizer (repackaged in dropper btle.)       I haven’t had a case of the backcountry trots since 1999…….I think a big reason is diligent use of hand sanitizer.
Aquamira (repackaged in dropper btles.)        
Mini Toothbrush        
Toothpaste (mini tube)        
Dental Floss       Doubles as sewing thread
Antiseptic Wipes (2)       Clean cuts / wounds
Gauze        
Triple Antibiotic Cream (tiny tube)        
3M Micropore Medical Tape       Breathable, paper tape / Adheres well.
Ibuprofun (8)       Vitamin “I”
Toilet Paper        
Sewing Needle       One armed blind folks can sew better than me.
Duct Tape, Mini Tube Super Glue (repairs)       To compensate for lack of sewing skills
Nivea Lip Balm SPF 30       Kept with sunscreen & hand sanitizer in shoulder pocket. 
   5  0.14  
CLOTHES  
Rain Pants – Montbell Tachyon 1.9     Featherweight, dry in an instant, and a surprising amount of warmth for something that weighs less than 2oz.
Rain Jacket – Dri Ducks Ultralite 2 6     Light and breathable | As the entire hike is above treeline (i.e. no bushwhacking), its fragility is a non-issue.
Base layer – Montbell Merino Wool L.W. Tights 4.8     Not too thick, not too thin. Thumbs up.
Insulation – Montbell Superior Down Parka 8.6     Very warm for the weight / Snug hood / I’ve used this and it’s predecessor, the UL Down Jacket, for the past eight years.
Insulation –Montbell UL Thermawrap Vest 5.5     Synthetic insulation / Combine with merino base and rain jacket for hiking in freezing rain / Adds versatility to system.
Extra Socks – Darn Tough Hiker Micro Crew 2.6     Three years old and still going strong.
Bandana (1) 0.5     Towel, neck/face protection, condensation wipe, convenience store holdups when low on cash.
Outdoor Research PL Sensor 400 Mittens 2.9     Great mittens. Combined with the inner gloves and rain mitts, hands are fine down to -15°C 
Warm Hat – Montbell Chameece Beanie 1.2     Excellent beanie / Not too thick / Stretchy enough to fit my big noggin / Don’t think it’s available in the US at the moment.
     34  0.96  
MISCELLANEOUS  
Phone – Samsung Galaxy S7 (Unlocked)  5.4     Good photos & Video / Have used an unlocked phone in recent years, to avoid heavy roaming charges when overseas. Just pick up a different SIM in each country and pay local rates.
Stuff sacks – HMG Cuben Fiber (3) 2.5      
Montbell Power Head Lamp 2     This headlamp has grown on me | Lightweight, double-click, four settings, good battery life, 160 Lumens max | No longer miss my old Black Diamond Spot.
Wallet/Credit Cards/Passport 0.7     Used thin plastic card holder as Wallet
Swiss Army Classic 1.3      
Suunto M3 Global 1.6     Lightweight, adjustable declination; heir to my long-time compass of choice, the Suunto M-2.
 Wall charger, cover, cord  3      
Small LokSaks for Valuables (2)  1     Protection for phone, charger, wallet
17.7  0.5  
 BASE WEIGHT  TOTAL 7.9lb   3.6kg   
 ITEMS WORN    
Shorts – Patagonia Baggies (5″ seam)  8.1 Thumbs up | Very similar to long time favourites, Macpac Cross Terrains (no longer made).
Windshirt – Montbell Tachyon Anorak   1.9     On my third model / Each has lasted around 8 to 10,000 miles / Surprisingly durable & warm for something so featherweight.
Base layer – Montbell Merino Long Sleeve Zip Neck  5.9     Great baselayer / Not too thin, not too thick / Spot on for shoulder season conditions. 
Montbell Chameece Inner Gloves  0.9      Double thumbs up. Most durable liner gloves I’ve used; and I’ve used a lot over the years. 
Smartwool PhD UL Min Socks  1.6 These were a freebie from Winter OR, 2015 / Previously I’d never had much luck with thinner Smartwool models, but I have to say this pair has been very durable. 
Hat – Adapt-a-cap 2.5 Back from the dead. Had it repaired and sewed up. Not as good as new, but still functional / From what I’ve seen, the latest models have a different design, and aren’t in the same league as the old ones.
Shoes – Brooks Cascadia 12   24
 Fizan Compact – Hiking Pole (1)  5.6     Tent setup / Fencing practice during breaks; Tokyo 2020 here I come. 
Timex Ironman Watch  1.5      Light, cheap, durable, reliable. 
 Sunglasses  2     Polarized lenses / Wrap around lenses / 100% UVA and UVB Protection.
 54  1.53
 TOTAL WEIGHT  11.4lb   5.16
   

 

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Comments

Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit: Independent Hiker’s Guide — 1 Comment

  1. Small world, I hiked the trail in April 1997 and was told no hikers had been on the trail for around 8 months! Must have been you guys just ahead of me.

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