Nestled in the impressive Cordillera Blanca range of the Andes, Huaraz is increasingly becoming a world-class destination for high altitude adventures as Huaraz trekking is considered some of the best in the world. Huaraz is heralded by some as the the trekking capital of Peru and it offers a more budget-friendly and quieter alternative to crowded Cusco. By far the biggest draw of Huaraz is the trekking in the endlessly picturesque Cordillera Negra and Blanca ranges. Indeed, the Siula Grande from the Cordillera Blanca range is featured in the film about defying death in the mountains, “Touching the Void”, and Alpamayo is thought by some to be the “most beautiful mountain in the world.” The vast and scenic expanses, opportunities for alpine activities to suit every level and interest, and solitude that’s impossible to find in nearby Cusco, make it the perfect place to find some mountain Zen in Peru.
Razed by an earthquake in the 70s, covered in garbage in some places, teeming with stray dog gangs that battle for turf in the parks, and impossibly noisy because of the local denizen’s addiction to their car horns, the town itself is largely without the charms you will find in its more famous counterpart Cusco. Nevertheless, it does have some cute gardens, a small artisan’s market where you can load up on sweaters, thick socks, toques and gloves or mittens for your hike, as well as plenty of tasty restaurants, and a town square where you can pose for pictures with alpacas in shades.
So rather than being a destination in and of itself, Huaraz serves as a launch point for a variety of treks to suit any ability level. We recommend spending a couple days walking around town before heading out on a trek as the town’s 3200m elevation may be quite a change depending on where you’re coming from. We came from mostly close to sea-level elevations in Ecuador so the first couple days in Huaraz I felt winded just walking around town.
When to Visit Huaraz
Trekking season in Huaraz is generally believed to be the best from May to October, with June and July considered to be “Andean summer” meaning the days are warm and dry, but the nights are cold. These are also the busiest months. November through March are the wettest and quietest months. We were in Huaraz in late June to mid-July and it only rained once, but you sure felt the cold once the sun went down. Definitely dress in layers and stock up on wool goods in the artisan’s market!
Best Treks in the Cordillera Blanca
We did the Alkipo-Ishinca 3 day trek, Laguna Wilcacocha (acclimation), Laguna 69 day hike (acclimation), and the Mateo Peak 2 day trek but we’ll fill you in about some of the most popular options so you’re not overwhelmed with information once you arrive like we were.
The first thing to consider is that many agencies selling the most popular treks, such as Santa Cruz, Laguna 69, Pastoruri Glacier, and Laguna Paron simply farm them out to a few main operators, mainly Genesa and Galaxia. So sometimes when you book with a well-reviewed company you are just paying for them to sell you a tour operated by one of those other not as well-reviewed companies for a cut. This is neither shocking, nor a unique practice but the difference in Huaraz is that some of these companies don’t have the same professionalism that can be expected elsewhere. The key takeaway here is that unless you go up dramatically in price range you won’t see a big improvement in serice. For instance, you won’t see a big improvement in service unless you go up from between $115 and $150usd for the Santa Cruz trek. That said, well-reviewed companies (and recommended by us) such as Peruvian Classic Adventures will offer more off the beaten path hikes for more money than the popular one, but still great value. We’ll elaborate on this later in the post.
For now, be aware that when booking the popular and inexpensive day trips such as Laguna 69, Paron, and Pastoruri, as well as the Santa Cruz multi-day trek, you will most likely be doing it with a low-cost operator with a busfull of other tourists and a guide that does little more than point to the general direction that you must travel now and then. A low-cost agency where we got some straight talk from Frank and good quotes for prices was Andino Trek. We didn’t end up booking with him because it wasn’t open when we had made our decisions but we appreciated his candor nonetheless.
Regardless of which agency you book with be sure to bargain for prices and definitely ask for a discount if you are taking more than one tour from the same agency. The prices given below are what we were quoted during our July 2018 trip and may differ depending on when you travel and who you talk to.
This beautiful but tough day hike can be booked by pretty much any agency in Huaraz and the experience will be more or less the same. The hike is about 15km with 600m total elevation gain. Most of the elevation gain comes at the end of the hike which is a gruelling climb to over 4600m. It is an excellent hike for acclimatizing to do other even more challenging treks in the region. It is beautiful, but it will be chock-filled with people, including the kind (Chileans maybe?) that insist on blasting their music from a speaker on the trail. Still, it was well worth it for the amazing views, and we paid just 30pen (or $10usd) each. From here, you will see similar views to those along the Santa Cruz trek as it’s in the same range.
If you’re looking for a more unique experience, some agencies offer a 3 day trek to the summit of Pisco mountain with a visit to Laguna 69 tacked on as well, which might be a good way to dodge the crowds at the lake.
This hike is another ideal acclimation hike since you make some nice stops along the way and it climbs to 4185m. It is far easier than Laguna 69 and only requires anout 40-60mins of hiking. Tours should be around 50pen and it will take about 2 hours of driving to reach it from Huaraz.
Here you can get extremely close to a beautiful, but unfortunately rapidly receding glacier at 5000m for very little work. Most tours take you to a puya ramondi field which are plants than only grow in high elevations in Peru and Bolivia. They are interesting because they only bloom once in their life, but when they do they can have about 20,000 flowers that attract dozens of hummingbirds. It takes about 2.5 hours to drive to the trailhead from Huaraz and tours cost about 60pen.
There is no need to hire a guide for this one. You can take a taxi to the top of the hill for about 35pen (about 10 USD) and then walk down, or hail Collectivo E or 10 towards the town of Chiwampa. Ask to stop at the Santa Cruz bridge and hike up and down yourself. (They will likely understand if you indicate your destination is Laguna Willcacocha as well) Collectivos can be caught at Av. Antonio Raymondi which we only noticed in Maps.me the day after I tried to hail the wrong collectivo and was told by an uncharacteristically unhelpful Peruvian that he didn’t understand a word I was saying. Suffice to say, hailing a taxi for about 35pen is easier, but taking collectivos is part of the fun. At the very least, it is easy to hail one back to Huaraz as any one passing by will be going there. Expect to pay about 2pen each way.
At the top, you will reach heights of 3725m and see the Cordillera Negra range as well as the start of Cordillera Blanca. There is a small lagoon at the top where you can see ruddy ducks, puna ibises, and gallinules. You can also rent camping gear in town and camp at the top for a gentle acclimation. Once down from the top, flag down any collectivo heading back to Huaraz. This hike can also be done guided for about 25 to 50pen. We give mad props to the guide who was picking up garbage left behind by unscrupulous hikers and campers.
This hike can be done as a tough DIY or guided hike, or as an overnight. It requires 500m of elevation gain and a steep scramble over rocks that scares some people to reach the lake but will be far less crowded than the other options. At 4450m it is a great acclimation hike before venturing onto more challening treks. You can take a collectivo to the trailhead in Pitec or go with an organized tour. It should only take about 1 hour from Huaraz if going with a tour, but more if travelling by collectivo. It can also be combined with the 3 day Quilcayhuanca Cojup trek for about Tours will cost around 40-60pen, with the loop costing about $400usd for a private tour. If you’re able to join a group the loop would cost considerably less.
Santa Cruz Trek
This insanely popular hike is perhaps Huaraz’ signature trek for casual backpackers. Erstwhile, hardcore mountaineers will delight in climbing the “most beautiful mountain in the world” Alpamayo, or the highest mountain in Peru, Huascaran. Backpackers will have to “settle” for circling around these peaks via passes rising to well over 4500m. Santa Cruz does exactly this. It comes close to Alpamayo (not the “most beautiful” side of the mountain as that is the climber’s face) as well as Huascaran. It can be a crowded hike, but from all accounts a very rewarding one.
We recommend shopping around to find the best price, but do ask to see the equipment that you will be required to use during the hike. We heard horror stories of people getting fleas from equipment, having to sleep 3-4 people in a “2 person” tent, and eating nothing but pasta with green sauce, red, sauce, and yellow sauce for 4 days straight. Ask a ton of questions before you book, and be sure to inspect the equipment. If they say you can’t because it’s being returned the same day then you know it’s probably not going to be washed between uses. Don’t expect a good quality guide either unless you’re willing to move out of the $115-150 range that most operators offer.
All of this scared us into deciding that we would just have to come back to do Santa Cruz with our own equipment, or combine it with a climb to Pisco summit.
Some people that we met went with Eco-Ice for their Santa Cruz trek and were extremely happy with the company. They paid about $240 per person.
Alkipo-Ishinca 3 day Trek
This trek is an excellent alternative to Santa Cruz for those looking for a scenic trek, but wanting to escape the crowds.
We did this trek with Climber Land which had deceptively good ratings and loved the trek but hated our guide. We have no complaints about the trek, the cook, or the equipment (except for the mattresses, which are little more than a foam pad that is about the thickness of a quarter) that was provided to us by Climber Land, but our guide was unfortunately one of the worst guides we have ever hired in all of our travels. This guy somehow made the guide that spent his whole time flirting with the trainee in the Rwenzoris look good. (more on that later)
That being said, we do recommend this hike which can be arranged by other operators in the area. You will see staggeringly beautiful scenery, inlcluding the the endlessly stunning Laguna Alkipo, climb to 5000m on Alkipo pass, camp without crowds on the first night, and get up close and personal with some high-flying picturesque peaks in the Cordillera Blanca. On the second night, you will camp at Ishinca base camp at 4390m and be surrounded by views of the incredibly vast glaciers of Toccaraju. You can also have a shower for a fee and have a drink in the Refugio if you so desire.
We paid about 650pen per person for a “guided” trek, including all good food and mules, and decent quality equipment. We highly recommend the hike, especially if you are looking to get away from the crowds of Santa Cruz but make sure you ask your agency lots of questions.
Also, if you have back problems like I do, the coin-thin “mattresses” that most of these companies provide for treks will not suffice, so I strongly recommend picking up a Therm-A-Rest Neo-Air matress. It is super lightweight, barely takes up any room in my pack, and makes sleeping in a tent on the ground downright comfortable. I have used it multiple times so far during our 14 month, round the world trip. Also, if you feel the cold easily and are skeeved out by using a well-travelled sleeping bag, you might like a sleeping bag liner as well. I use this one and it works great. The silk ones are more expensive but definitely worth it as they are lightweight, pack up easily, and deliver a good warmth to weight ratio.
Mateo Peak 2 Day
Our Cordillera Blanca guided hiking experience took a dramatic turn for the better when we booked a 2 day climb up Mateo Peak with Pereuvian Classic Adventures. After Alkipo-Ishinca, I came down with a bad cold so although we really wanted to do Pisco peak and were sufficiently acclimated, I didn’t think I could handle the 12 hour, 1500m one day elevation gain ascent. Instead we figured we would do some of the day hikes mentioned above, such as Paron and Pastorui, but we remained open to be persuaded to do something else. With this in mind, we stopped in to talk with Dario at Peruvian Classic Adventures and asked him to persuade us to do something other than a couple more crowded day tours. He proposed his agency’s “signature trek” which is a 3-day jaunt through picturesque passes to a very easy, beginner mountaineering peak, Mount Mateo at 5165m for $300usd per person. He also gave us the option of joining an existing trek and doing a 2 day to the peak for only $150 per person. We opted for the 2-day tour and it worked out great for us. As an aside, joining an existing tour is a good way to shave a little off the price of the tour.
The first day was a very gentle (compared to Laguna 69 and Alkipo-Ishinca) trek through rolling terrain in the Cordillera Negra. There we crossed through Quechwa farmland and were greeted by some friendly farmers in their traditional clothing. It only took about 4 hours to reach our camping spot and was easy enough for me to do as I got over my cold. Our guide Angri did indeed speak English, and was passionate, informative, courteous, and professional. He was everything we wanted in a guide. He explained local flora, pointed out features of the landscape, and helped us understand the Quechwa farmland we were walking through. It gets better.
Once we reached our camp, he helped us set up our tent and took some trout from the nearby farm and cooked them up fresh for us. He even gave me an impromptu Spanish lesson when I misused a pronoun, so we hadn’t even made it to the glacier yet and I had already learned a lot from him. Our 4 season tent kept us super warm and Dario kindly provided us with good-quality, thick mattresses to sleep on since he wanted me to be extra warm as I fought my cold. He also provided all ropes, harnesses, ice axe, crampons, snow pants, glacier glasses, and thick gloves for the glacier portion.
On our second day, we woke up early and drove to 4,750m where we began our hike up to Mateo Peak. Again, Angri was an incredible guide, stopping to help us navigate tricky scramble sections on the rock and pointing out features of the landscape. One thing that stuck with me for slightly macabre reasons, was when I asked which lake I was looking at out in the distance he said it was unofficially called “new lake”. As in climate change recently created this lake by causing glaciers to melt. Sad.
As we reached the spot where we needed to put on our crampons, harness, serious gloves, snow pants, etc. he explained everything to us in detail and checked-in multiple times to be sure we felt comfortable and ready to start crossing the glacier. The trip up to the peak went slowly and steadily, with Angri demonstrating leadership the whole time. We were thrilled to make it to the peak and try out glacier travel for the first time and we couldn’t have asked for a better guide.
On the way back into town from the glacier, we stopped in Carhuaz for ice cream (not included) and lunch with beer (included!) and made a toast to yet another amazing experience in a foreboding range.
We desperately wanted to do this trek but the Alkipo-Ishinca hike destroyed my immunities and I came down with a nasty cold. Pisco Peak is touted as a good beginner mountaineering climb and its staggering 5752m summt features a panoramic view of the surrounding snow-capped peaks of Chacraraju, Huandoy, Chopicalqui and Peru’s highest mountain, Huascaran — all of which reach heights of over 6,000m.
It is a tough 3-4 day hike where on day 1 you drive to 3 hours to Cebollapampa at 3990m and climb to the base camp at 4650m. On Day 2 you can climb 12 hours to Pisco summit and back to base camp, or climb 3 hours to Moraine camp at 4950m. On Day 3 you’ll either walk 1.5 hours to the road from base camp, or climb 10 hours to the summit from the moraine camp. Day 4 only applies if you camped at Moraine, but you will walk approximately 1.5 hours to the road to drive 3 hours back to Huaraz.
As it involves glacier travel, most companies don’t take groups larger than 3 people and it requires a licensed mountain guide. That said, you could get the same quality guide as we had for Alkipo-Ishinca so do check reviews thoroughly and ask lots of questions before deciding on an operator. We would certainly trust Peruvian Classic Adventures for this adventure.
Other Treks in Huaraz
Overall, our experience trekking in the Cordillera Blanca left us craving more high altitude adventures in this stunning mountain range and we’re already planning our next trip to the region. Pisco peak calls! Indeed, an ideal second itinerary could be Laguna Paron and Pastoruri as acclimation hikes, followed by perhaps doing Santa Cruz on our own or another multi-day trip, and then Pisco mountain.
If we had all the time in the world, we’d love to do some of the longer treks in the region such as the 7-12 day Huayhuash circuit or 8 day Alpamayo circuit. The region’s superlative beauty and adrenaline-pumping expeditions inspire strong desires for repeat visits and there are adventures for all appetites.
Choosing an Agency in the Wild West of Huaraz
Huaraz seems to be the wild west of Peruvian tourism. We have had wonderful guides for hikes based out of Cusco and Arequipa, but we only had one great one in Huaraz. Our guide for Laguna 69 simply pointed out the trail and our “guide” for Alkipo-Ishinca was without hyperbole, the worst guide we have ever had for a guided trip. Professionalism is a problem in Huaraz which is unfortunate since the area is so beautiful and worthy of being on any mountain lover’s bucketlist.
In addition to there being vast discrepencies in the quality of guide services, prices offered by operators for the same hikes varies greatly, as does the degree of difficulty that individual agencies will rate hikes. This article in the Huaraz Telegraph sums up the problems that can be encountered in Huaraz. We don’t want to dissaude anyone from going, but do be prepared to put more research into which operator you go with than you might on say the Salkantay Trek in Cusco. Also, make sure you leave thorough reviews, both good and bad, so companies can be held accountable when they use questionable practices, but also so that other travellers can be sure which companies are the best.
Our Cautionary Tale
We booked our Alkipo-Ishinca trek with Climber Land but despite the agency having reasonably good reviews online, our experience with the guide that the agency provided was terrible. As Frank from Andino Trek explained to us, the agencies don’t often know who the guide is ahead of time and who you get depends on who is available that day. We surmise that the some of the people selling you the tours have more scruples than others. The less the scruples, the more likely they are to tell you whatever they think is neccessary to make the sale. The guy working the desk at Climber Land (if my memory serves me well his name was Ivan) obviously over-promised and underdelivered when he said we would be getting an “English-speaking” guide. To be clear, we’re not just talking about someone who isn’t strong in English, that is something we would not complain about since we both know how hard it can be to speak another language, we mean like he barely knew any words and didn’t understand us when we spoke to him. Secondly, Ivan told us it was “non-technical” and straightforward trekking , which ended up not being entirely true and both of these things would prove dangerous as described below.
While on this “guided” hike, we never travelled together as a group and our “guide” would start walking as soon as we caught up thereby foregoing the common knowledge mountain courtesy of the “F*** you stop.” I have athsma for jeebus’ sake, I simply can’t run up mountains at over 4500m. In fact, this was my very first time climbing to over 4300m and I was unsure how my athsmatic lungs would handle the elevation. Early into the hike I told him plainly and clearly in Spanish that “you are walking too fast” to which he just grinned goofily in response. Simply put, the pace he was setting for our group was dangerous for me and he didn’t give one rip. We wanted a guide with us on the trek to be able to help us if I ran into trouble at high elevations, but this guy was useless.
I’m not exaggerating when I say he was useless, he got us lost 2 separate times. At the height of the pass over 5000m, he took a wrong turn which meant that we had to do some moderate downclimbing during our descent. This may seem like nothing, but chew on this: a friend of mine died in the Rockies downclimbing on a slope that was too technical for his abilities. Now fortunately for us, we have some experience scrambling so we were able to get ourselves down safely, but if you have never encountered this terrain and were relying on your guide to help you, this guy wouldn’t have been able to in English. I saw him explaining how to scramble to the Spanish-speaking guy, telling him to test his hand and footholds before putting his weight on them for example, but he didn’t even bother to try to do the same for us. This was moderate scrambling and while I don’t think that a fall in this area would have been deadly, it could have resulted in broken bones which would be an ordeal and half in such a remote area.
Then we continued our shit descent by being “guided” down a super-steep, boulder and knee-high grass-filled gully that just didn’t seem right to me. There were times where the 3 of us paying guests ended up on top of cliff bands with no clear route down and our “guide” was nowhere to be found. I mean we couldn’t see him at all. How does one guide when they’re not around to guide? What is the meaning of guide?
We had to guide ourselves down his wrong turn and it was exhausting. He told us our descent would take about 1.5 hours, but it took 4. This terrain was no joke either and I broke my finger falling in similar terrain in the Rockies. I also felt like we were walking over animal nests, possibly chinchillas or ground-nesting birds which meant his wrong turn made us betray our principles of trekking and leaving no trace.
Once down, I heard the cook giving him a hard time for us being so late (my Spanish comprehension is better than my speaking skills). The cook has over 50 years of experience in the park and proceeded to tell the guide that he was stupid and took a wrong turn at the top of the pass. So our guide that we paid, had without a doubt, lead us astray and he was lucky no one got hurt. We would have been able to a much more enjoyable descent if we had gone the right way and it would have actually been the non-technical trekking we were promised.
During those rare moments we got to actually speak with our guide that we paid, he explained that he also leads trips up to Pisco Peak. Now Pisco is no trek by any stretch of the imagination, it’s a proper mountaineering summit and is meant to be guided by a certified mountaineering guide. It’s considered a great beginner mountaineering mountain but it does involve navigating a small crevasse, so imagine if you’ve never walked on a glacier before and your guide can’t speak with you in your language and insists on travelling 500m to 1km ahead of you at all times. Not a good scene. Since this is what you get when you pay for an “English-speaking guide” from Climber Land, we don’t recommend using them for any of your trekking needs in Huaraz. Given this experience, we’re honestly surprised by all the good reviews.
So in light of this be sure to read every single review, ask loads of questions, and leave feedback after your trek so fellow travellers can book tours with confidence.
Tips for Travelling in Huaraz
Yes you should tip your guide, cook, and porter if you have one depending on the quality of the service you received. We tipped our guide for Mateo Mountain and somewhat unsurprisingly, did not tip our guide for Alkipo-Ishinca. We did however, tip the cook. It’s not often you eat that well at such high elevations!
At about 2 months into our 14 month trip around the world, we ended our wonderful time in Ecuador in the beautiful city of Cuenca which serves as an entry point to Northern Peru. There is not much (aside from long bus rides) between the south of Ecuador to the North of Peru, but that all changes once you reach the action-packed town of Huaraz. The city is miles from nowhere which is part of what makes it so special.
We reached it via a very long bus journey from Ecuador, going from Cuenca to Chiclayo on a gruelling 13 hour overnight bus with Azuay transport, then a bus from Chiclayo to Trujillo with Linea Transport, and finally onto Huaraz the next day with Cruz del Sur.
There are light aircraft flights to Huaraz from the Lima aiport with the LC Peru airline company. They only allow 15kg of luggage allowance and depart once per day.
Where to Stay
Base Camp is popular with the backpacker circuit and is right in center of town, but we loved staying at Humberto’s Guest House. A nice family runs the place and it is actually a few rooms added to their house. Our room was a good size, there was usually hot water, and it was very comfortable for sleeping. The family would even cook breakfast for us at 4:30am to accommodate our early departures for hikes. They also take requests for dinners which are a bargain at 10pen. Humberto himself is a guide and can provide you with information on hikes, professional guiding services, and equipment. We even crossed paths with him on our way back from Alkipo-Ishinca where he was guiding a group of repeat customers to a 6 day summit circuit. He can also set up a Santa Cruz trek for you using his good quality equipment for $150. A double room is only about $15. Staying with Humberto was a fun experience as it felt like we were part of the family for the week. 5 year old Adriana had us in stitches with her silly energy, and she even introduced us to the neighbor’s puppies (perritos)!
Where to Eat and Drink in Huaraz
We went here way too many times, but Trivio has delicious local Sierra Andina craft beer on tap, cooks up wicked-good burgers (both veggie and carnivore) and french fries, as well as local foods, and provides free filtered water. You can even bring your water bottle in for a refill to cut down on plastic waste. The amount of plastic bottles strewn in the streets and rivers around Huaraz is pretty staggering.
Casa de Abuela
This cute place features delicious pizza and well-priced wine. You can take away both the pizza and the wine too.
Main Square Shaved Ice
During the hot, Andean summer days, a shaved ice from one of the vendors near the main square is the perfect treat to cool off. Just don’t eat it in the shade. There are many flavours to choose from and they gave me a funny look for only picking one, so make sure you mix and match. A cup costs about 3pen.
Main Square Popcorn
Also in the main square are popcorn vendors selling generous portions of popcorn for 1pen (like $0.30, so treat yo-self). They have both salty (saltado) and sweet (dulce) flavoured popcorn and you can order a mix ( mixto) if you like.
Gran Muralla for Chifa
For those who may not know, “Chifa” is Peru’s take on Chinese food. Many of the dishes are ones you know and love with some local ingredients subbed in. We enjoyed our first Chifa experience and just like ordering Chinese at home, we had enough leftovers to eat again.
Mercado Central de Huaraz
Head to the central market for fresh vegetables and staples to cook on your own. Also go because markets are always fun to visit and provide a glimpse into local culture. There is also a Trujillo supermarket in town on Av. Mariscal Toribio de Luzuriaga if that is more your style.
Mountain Zen in Peru
In sum, the trekking that can be done from Huaraz is some of the most exhilarating in the world. While some care needs to be used when booking treks, the scenery will be sure to take your breath away both in terms of elevation and shear beauty. If you haven’t done so already, be sure to add trekking in Huaraz to your bucket list and revel in the mountain Zen that is to be found there!