The Alpamayo Circuit – Self-guided, 8 Nights
After finishing the hike, we still can’t believe how few people attempt the Alpamayo Circuit. This is an incredible trail which Chelsea and I both rank as one of our top two favorite hikes, if not the top. We both have this and the John Muir Trail as our top trails and struggle to name our favorite as they are very different hikes. Without a doubt, if you are looking for more than your typical trip, with unique challenges (AKA adventure), then you should seriously consider adding the Alpamayo Circuit to your list. Of all the hikes we plan to do this year we found this one to be particularly difficult to plan for. We are typically meticulous planners, but the lack of information on the hike itself made it difficult to organize from the States and forced us to put the hike together from our base in Huaraz, Peru. We hope that this guide will assist those who decide to take the plunge and experience this hike. Most people organize this hike or some variation of it with guides and private transport, but we do not believe this is necessary. While there are several logistical challenges, none of them are too great to overcome, and you will be greatly rewarded for your efforts.
The Alpamayo Circuit is a combination of the Santa Cruz Trek and the Alpamayo base camp trek set in the stunning Cordillera Blanca “White Range” in Peru. This spectacular trail stretches approximately 87 miles and encircles what some call the “World’s Most Beautiful Mountain”, Alpamayo. The route takes you passed snow-capped mountains, massive glaciers, and through verdant green valleys. You will have the chance to meet and see indigenous Quechua families living in their traditional way. Fluctuating between roughly 12,000 and 16,000 feet in elevation, this is a high-altitude trail that requires some degree of acclimatization and preparation. We spent 3 full days before the hike in Huaraz and did the Laguna 69 day hike to aid our acclimatization.
The Cordillera Blanca is in the Ancash region of Peru and is almost entirely located inside Huascaran National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). In order to enter the park for the multi-day hike, Huascaran National Park requires you to purchase a 21 day pass for 65 soles ($19.50). You can sometimes purchase this at the trailhead, but we purchased ours before the trip at the park office in Huaraz.
Who we recommend this for:
This is an amazing hike, but it does have some challenges. I would definitely recommend this trail to anyone who has a good deal of hiking experience, who is comfortable being in very remote places, and for those with some off-trail and good map reading experience. In addition, I would recommend at least a basic understanding of Spanish, as getting to and from the trail can be a challenge without prior arrangements, and if you get a bit turned around on the trail it helps to be able to ask the locals where to go (though they might not always speak Spanish). That being said, all of these challenges make for a great adventure.
Most people base out of Huaraz, Peru, and start their trip from there. Getting to Huaraz is fairly simple and can be reached by plane or bus. We took an 8 hour bus ride from Lima, with Movil Tours, and paid roughly $37.50 each for round-trip fare. Tip: We booked online with Movil Tours but they force you to list 2 last names otherwise they won’t accept your purchase. I just input Joseph Mayans Mayans and we didn’t have an issue. It is about half the price to book ahead of time, online.
After arriving in Huaraz, the transportation to and from the trail can be a bit intimidating. We decided we would start the trail from Cashapampa and finish in Hualcayan. After asking around a bit, we were able to find where the “colectivos” to Caraz leave from every morning. Colectivos are typically small vans or buses that are a very cheap form of public transportation. They will pack as many people as possible on these buses whether there are seats or not. At one point I think we had 25 people crammed in a 12 person bus. Fun times!! The colectivo driver we spoke with said that they typically start running the route to Caraz around 4 am and go till 1 pm.
Once you know where the colectivos leave from you won’t have a problem getting on one. They will notice you with your backpacks and assume you are going to Caraz. I don’t think Chelsea and I had gotten within 3 blocks of the pick-up point and they were already driving passed us, grabbing our bags and telling us to get on. The ride to Caraz takes about 1 hr 30 min. and costs 6 soles each (about $0.75). Once you get let out at the Caraz colectivo station ask a cab driver or tuk tuk driver to take you to the Caraz taxi station. We took a tuk tuk and it cost 2 soles. Once at the Caraz taxi station, you can grab a shared taxi to Cashapampa. We paid 30 soles ($18) and it took another 1 hr 30 min. The ride to Cashapampa is quite thrilling on a winding one lane dirt road through the mountains. Chelsea even had an elderly Quechua gentleman fall asleep on her shoulder, very endearing. The driver should drop you off at the Santa Cruz trailhead which is located in Cashapampa (there is a small restaurant at the trailhead).
We thought exiting the trail at Hualcayan would be more complicated than it was, but it turned out to be very easy. As we made our way into Hualcayan, we were approached by a taxi driver who said he would take us to Caraz. We didn’t ask, he just assumed. The ride though was ridiculously expensive (for Peruvian standards) at 100 soles ($30) and he wouldn’t come down despite our best attempts at negotiating. There is also the option of walking another couple of hours to Cashapampa and trying grab a taxi from there, but it is far from a sure thing and I have no idea how easy it would be to get a ride. We were both already craving beer and pizza so we just had the driver in Hualcayan take us to the colectivo station in Caraz (1 hr), where we grabbed a ride back to Huaraz.
The Alpamayo Circuit links the very popular Santa Cruz trek with the Alpamayo base camp trek to create a roughly 87 mile hike. Chelsea and I have debated the accuracy of the mileage (we both think it is less), but with no way for us to measure it, we will say it is roughly 87 miles. Given that we took two half-days and went at a pretty leisurely pace, we think that 87 miles is generous. As would be expected, both ends of the trail are pretty well-defined and easy to follow. The Santa Cruz portion is well-trodden and clearly marked. However, after you leave the Santa Cruz section, the trail becomes increasingly difficult to follow. The trail follows a route that is basically a series of high passes and deep valleys. As you approach and go over the passes the trail is pretty easy to follow, but once you descend into the valleys, it can be very difficult or impossible to locate the trail. However, as long as you can read a map, it is pretty easy to navigate where you need to go and you needn’t worry about being on the “trail” as long as you can tell where you are with easy-to-identify landmarks. People have lived in these mountains and valleys for hundreds of years and have created their own set of trails that often overlay or pass closely to the actual trail. In addition, the large number of cows, sheep and horses create their own paths – all of which make finding the actual trail pretty hard and perhaps futile. There were several days where Chelsea and I were not on a trail for most of the day, except for when going over passes.
We were originally planning for 9 nights on the trail, but ended up finishing in 8. We probably could have finished in 7 nights, but decided to take it a bit easier. We have a long hiking season ahead of us and didn’t want to start getting any overuse injuries early on.
Day 1: Cashapampa to Llamacarral – This day was pretty tough for Chelsea because she was still fighting off an upper respiratory infection. Right off the bat there is a pretty stiff ~1500 ft climb out of Cashapampa. We started hiking around 11:30 am and the trail was baking hot with no shade to be found. This, combined with carrying 9 days of food, made the first few hours anything but enjoyable. After the climb though, the trail flattens out and it becomes nice and cool in the river valley. We really liked our camp at Llamacarral, but be aware this is also where the organized Santa Cruz trips set up their camp. Just pitch your tent out-of-the-way and you will be fine (and watch out for the toilet tent holes). Side note: We met a couple of people who were hiking the trail clockwise and started their hike from Hualcayan. I do not understand the reasoning for this. The section from Hualcayan to Lago Cullicocha is an endless, treeless, switchback filled ~5,500 ft climb that would make anyone miserable. Climbing that section with a full pack would not be fun.
Day 2: Llamacarral to Taullipampa (with a side trip to Alpamayo base camp) – This was a really nice day. The hiking is easy and flat and you have the option to head up to Alpamayo base camp to get an up-close view. This is definitely a must do side-trip and shouldn’t be missed. The climb up to the base camp is only about 600 ft, but it is nicely graded and you get glimpses of Alpamayo on the way up. An added bonus is that there is a side-trail to Taullipampa on the way so that when you are leaving you don’t have to lose all of your elevation gain when heading to camp. Taullipampa was a great camp and provided magnificent views. Another Santa Cruz group camp though.
Day 3: Taullipampa to the base of Alto de Pucaraju – This is the day of Punta Union pass and the last day you will see people doing the Santa Cruz trek. We had planned to do both Punta Union pass and Alto de Pucaraju pass on this day but we woke up to a wintry mix of sleet, snow, and rain that persisted until 10:45 am. We kept debating whether we wanted to get out of the tent, but just decided to wait it out as we could see that Punta Union pass was completely enshrouded in the mess. We were very glad we weren’t with a group, as they are on a strict timetable and were forced over the pass in the middle of the storm – not my idea of fun, or very safe for that matter. The camp at the base of Alto de Pucaraju is gorgeous.
Day 4: Alto de Pucaraju to about a mile before Tupatupa pass – Going over Alto de Pucaraju was one of our favorite moments of the hike. The climb up the pass is great and there are stands of endangered Queñuales tress along the way. The top of the pass is magnificent and definitely one of the most photogenic areas of the trip. Very cool. After coming off the pass you drop into a valley and continue to follow a contour line around until you pass a lake and a small village. This is where the trail gets very difficult to follow. Once you enter the large river valley, there is little to no trail. The valley is a mucky mess and it can be hard to travel in a straight line. We just followed the valley down and around until we could see the river coming off the glacier and Lago Tuctubamba. According to our map there was supposed to be a bridge to cross the river along the way, but we never found it and it may not be there. Just find a suitable place to cross and camp somewhere in the foothills. Tupatupa pass should be the first break in the high ridge on your right. We were able to find “a trail” that night, which was located about 200 yards east of the remains of an old stone building. We followed the trail almost to the pass where we then found what appeared to be the actual trail. Side note: We encountered lots of cows at our campsite before Tupatupa pass and began calling the night “The Great Cow Standoff of 2016” and “Cowmagedden 2016”. While I don’t think the cows meant us any harm, they were very, very interested in our campsite and kept coming uncomfortably close. Luckily, Chelsea was able to channel her inner cowgirl and keep the cows at bay. Poor, sweet cows.
Day 5: Tupatupa pass to the base of Yanacon Pass – After crossing over Tupatupa pass you begin to make your way down to Pischompampa village. The path through the village is very confusing and we just did the best that we could. We followed the largest of paths that kept taking us through people’s backyards and small fields, but eventually took us to the bridge next to the school. Once down, you can pretty much follow the river up the valley on either side. We chose the side opposite of the village, because it was in the shade, but there is no consistent path there and it looks like it doesn’t get much use anymore. Either way, just keep going until you almost reach the end of the valley and then you will find a small bridge to cross the river. In this area we had a Quechua woman run about a mile to sell us some beer and coke. Yes please! All of the villagers were nice and were happy to point us in the right direction. After crossing the bridge you climb pretty solidly out of the valley and through several other small rolling valleys. We just kept pushing on up to the base of Yanacon because we really didn’t find good camping until then and there were many, many cows along the way. In the valley approaching Yanacon pass the trail is pretty non-existent, so we just kept making our own way and pitched our tent in a small stand of trees right before the ascent to the pass.
Day 6: Yanacon pass to the valley before Gara Gara pass – The trail up the pass is very hard to find, so when starting your ascent just aim for somewhere in the middle and try to find the path of least resistance and you should hit the trail. Once you reach the last push over the pass, the ground is slippery talus and it can get pretty steep. The day we did it there were 50+ mph winds and the switchback section of the trail was being occupied by a guide helping someone down. We opted make our own line straight up without using the switchbacks and it was steep but fine. After the pass you drop down into a deep valley with a couple of buildings. Just go past the buildings and cross the river. The route over Mesapata pass is pretty straight forward and easy. We decided to camp after Mesapata pass in the valley before Gara Gara. The valley is beautiful, but it was a very, very windy night.
Day 7: Gara Gara pass to the base of Alpamayo Mountain – Wow this was one beautiful day! The path over Gara Gara is pretty easy to follow, but coming down the other side is very chossy and steep at the top. I don’t remember the last time I had to scootch on my butt to get down a pass, but I definitely had to this time. The trail is very eroded and we were fighting very winding conditions, even windier than on Yanacon pass. However, the views coming down are otherworldly. Probably some of the coolest mountain scenery we have ever seen. After arriving down at the base of Alpamayo Mountain we decided to take a half day and just camp right there. It was a stunning spot and we had it all to ourselves. A real highlight! I had planned to hike up to the base camp, but took and afternoon nap in the warm sunshine instead. Rough. We knew the next day would be tough so we were happy to grab some extra rest.
Day 8: Alpamayo to Lago Cullicocha – This was a pretty tough day. The walk West through Alpamayo Valley is really nice and there are tons of ruins, like Ruina Pampa, but the way up to Vientunan pass is rough. We hit it late morning/early afternoon and it was quite hot, treeless and the switchbacks seemed to go on forever. We are not big fans of long-drawn out switchback hiking. However, once we got over Vietunan Pass things eased up a bit and the path over Osoruri Pass was pretty tame. We found a really nice campsite right above the Lago Cullicocha and had our coldest/frostiest night of the trip at 15,500 feet.
Day 9: Lago Cullicocha to Hualcayan – We walked this section pretty slow, 4 hours, but wow it seemed long. Once you drop down off the lake and begin your switchbacks, it seems like they may never end. Almost 3.5 hours of monotonous treeless, hot, switchbacks. After some time, you begin to see Hualcayan, but when you can already taste the pizza and beer, it can’t come fast enough. Immediately upon arrival in Hualcayan, we were approached by a “taxi” driver who took us to Caraz.
Weather: I can’t speak for other times, but we had amazing weather. Our hike was during the second week of June and we had sunny skies almost everyday and only had one morning of about 3 hours of wintry mix. While I would consider the weather ideal, it was still pretty extreme, with the days being (feeling) very hot 80F, and the evenings, mornings, and nights being very cold. Our tent was typically covered in frost when we awoke in the mornings, and we never wanted to leave our sleeping bags until the sun came out.
Trail Food: Huaraz is a base for many climbers and hikers, and so, has abundant options for getting your trail food. Most of the grocery stores have a wide variety of nuts, dried fruits, granola bars, oatmeal and ramen. Each store typically has their own house brand of nuts and fruits that are significantly cheaper than the name brands. Also, if you are comfortable in markets, the market has a wide variety of nuts that you can buy in bulk. The peanuts are cheap, but other nuts are quite expensive. I only mention nuts, because we eat lots and lots of them.
Gas: We were using an MSR PocketRocket stove and were able to find small canisters of gas all over the place. Make sure you shop around, because there can be a big disparity in price. Our hostel charged 10 soles, where the gear shop downtown wanted 25 soles.
Maps: We didn’t get a map until the day before the hike. We kept trying to find a better deal, but just never could. We ended up getting the 0/3a Alpenvrinskarte Cordillera Blanca Nord 1:100000 for 80 soles ($24). It was the 2006 edition, and some of the lakes had since disappeared, but for the most part it was serviceable. There is also a Skyline Adventures 1:75000 map that was 40 soles, but we opted for the more substantial and water-resistant Alpenvrinskarte map. I have read on other sites that a guidebook is necessary, but I do not think that is true. Just know how to read a map and you will be fine.
Our Gear Choices: For the most part I think our gear choices were right on. The nights could get very cold, probably in the low 20’s to upper teens, and it pushed the limits of our Enlightened Equipment Quilts, but for the most part everything worked really well. We both wore New Balance Leadville 1210v2 trailrunners and found them to be great for the conditions. Alpamayo gear lists: Joseph and Chelsea (click the Alpamayo tab).
Joseph’s top gear pick: Icebreaker Cool-Lite Sphere Long Sleeve Crew. I always wear an Icebreaker t-shirt for my main hiking layer, but I am so glad I brought the Cool-Lite long sleeve. At the higher elevations the sun is super oppressive and I was very appreciative to have something cover my arms. The fabric is very light weight and airy. Since it is a blend of merino and polyester, it doesn’t quite have the odor protection of pure merino, but it was good enough. I may start hiking in this all the time.
Joseph’s gear fail: I typically always bring a couple of bandanas, but I forgot them this time. Typically, I use one to put under my baseball hat to protect my neck and ears from the sun. I used my buff as a scarf, but it just doesn’t provide the same amount of coverage and I was cursing myself every time I felt my neck and ears getting burned.
Chelsea’s top gear pick: OR Incandescent Hoody. “On several mornings, it felt like I was waking up in a commercial deep freezer. My water would be frozen and both layers of our tent would be covered in ice and frost. I know scientists have been trying to safely freeze and thaw humans for a number of years, but I do not want to be a part of that experiment. My MVP piece of gear for the Alpamayo Circuit was my Outdoor Research Incandescent Hoody. I got super cold in the evenings in the Cordillera Blanca and this jacket kept me warm enough. Weighing in at 14.45 oz, this jacket is significantly heavier than my 8 oz Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Down Jacket, but I enjoy not becoming a human popsicle and I find that this jacket is worth the extra weight. I used it as extra insulation in my sleeping bag for several super cold nights on the trail. It also folds into a nice pillow when I don’t need the extra warmth. Until I can train my mitochondria to keep me super warm in cold temps, I will continue taking this jacket whenever I expect the weather to be extra crispy.” – Chelsea
Conclusion: We both found ourselves constantly amazed at the scenery and were very grateful to have had the opportunity to hike this trail. It is a beautiful hike that really pushed our comfort zones and made it feel like a real adventure. From not speaking the language (that well), to not having the same food options that are available at home in the US, to not knowing our exact plan till the hike was over, this trip really stretched us and allowed us to grow as hikers and travelers. We are hoping this trip report will help future hikers find the way just a bit easier than we did. Happy trails!!
Please don’t hesitate to ask any questions! You can find more of our pictures here.