The Santa Cruz trek is a breathtaking three to four-day trek in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range in Peru. The trek is commonly accessed from Huaraz, the base city for an extensive range of hikes and other outdoor activities, such as rock climbing, ice climbing, and mountain biking.

You can either hire an all-inclusive guided tour, which supplies you with camping gear, food, and donkeys to carry it all. A guided trek will cost you about $200 USD, or $50 dollars a day, depending on the company. The alternative to this costly option is to do Santa Cruz by yourself which, with a little bit of planning is not as complicated as the tour companies would have you believe.  We have been traveling with our own camping equipment, so in the end we spent about $14 USD per day, including all our food, transport, and park entrance. We not only saved money, but trekking alone was far more badass.


Photos are set up in chronological order to take you through the trek.
They are also available for purchase at our Stocksy page.

Quick look: Expected cost:

  • Gear: If you have to rent all your gear, it should be about $8 USD per day. If you trek for 4 days, that’s $32 for the entire hike.
  • Food: we spent about $7 dollars per person per day on food, or $28 for the entire trek.
  • Transport: From Huaraz to Santa Cruz, the buses cost 20 soles on the way there and 12 soles on the way back, which is about $10 dollars total.
  • Park entrance: 65 soles, or roughly $19 dollars

Total in usd:
Gear+ food+ transport + park entrance
$32 + $28 + $10 + $19= $89

$22 per day, instead of $50 that you’d pay with a guide, saving you 66%. Because we had our own gear, we only spent $57, or $14 per day.


Getting gear:

Bringing your own gear from home is not necessary; renting is not only easy but very affordable. There are a plethora of companies renting out anything from sleeping bags to pots; our friends rented a tent for 12 soles a day, a sleeping mat for 3 soles, and a quality NorthFace -15-degree bag for another 12 soles, which totals to around $8 USD per day.

Gear You’ll need:

  • Sleeping bag
    • Make sure you have a bag with a temperature rating at least to 0 degrees Celsius. At night, it cools down drastically.
  • Sleeping pad
    • A sleeping pad is not just for comfort; it’s essential to ward off cold from the frigid ground at night.
  • Tent
    • Make sure your tent is waterproof. In our case, we got rained on every night.
  • Camp stove and gas
    • You can rent a camp stove if you don’t already have one. Purchase gas, do not buy it used, there is no way to ensure how much gas is in the tank (our friends did, and they ran out of gas on the second day). A 450-gram tank should give you about 12 hours of continuous cooking, plenty for the trek.
  • Pots
  • Silverware
  • Knife

If you are hiking without a guide, a quality map is essential. Though the trail is well marked, there are numerous branches and several rivers you have to cross. If you miss the trailhead or river crossing, it can result in several hours of backtracking.

Also, it is recommended to have a map to know where the campsites are located. We only stayed at one campsite, otherwise preferring to camp a little ways away, but it was helpful to use them as benchmarks to estimate how much ground we needed to cover each day.

Most rental shops in Huaraz will sell you maps; you may be overwhelmed by the number of options and price points. We recommend getting a map with altitude (very helpful planning each day, 1 km is completely different flat and uphill) and side treks clearly marked if you wish to go to the glacier lake. After scouring at least ten different shops, we found one with altitude priced at 45 soles here:

The gear rental shop where we purchased our map does not have a sign out front, but its easily reachable coming from Parque Ginebra going towards Parque Periodista, as soon as your turn left on the last street before Periodista. It will be on your left hand side.


Getting to the park

The Santa Cruz trek is located within the Huascaran National Park.  A park entrance ticket of 65 soles is required, and is valid for up to 21 days. The ticket can be purchased either in Huaraz or at an outpost just before entering the park; the collectivo will stop at a checkpoint where need to either show your ticket or buy one for the same price. Do not lose the ticket because park rangers will check it randomly during the trek; if you don’t have one they will charge you again.

The trek is one long trail through a trough-shaped valley, but it is possible to start from either end. Most guided tours start in Cashapampa because the trails from this end are easier for the donkeys. If you are trekking on your own, start from Vaqueria.

The trek from this side is less steep; if you start from Cashapampa you begin by climbing uphill the first 5km in the sunniest and hottest part of the valley. On our last day, we were cruising down the hill, passing group after group struggling up the slippery gravel path, already dying on their first day. We offered encouragement but were tempted to call out “you’re going the wrong way!”


Where to stay

Most people sleep in Huaraz, where they leave the majority of their belongings. From Huaraz, you can take public transport to Vaqueria where the trek begins.

To get there you will need to take two separate collectivos, a local cross between a bus and a van. The first collectivo leaves from Huaraz every 20-30 minutes starting at 6am and arrives in Yungay. This stretch is about an hour and a half ride that will cost you 5 soles. Though there are plenty of buses, you want to catch the first one in order to start your trek by 11am; otherwise you will be hard-pressed to make it to the first campsite by nightfall. From Yungay, you catch another bus to Vaqueria for 15 soles, lasting three and a half hours. Vaqueria is a tiny town at the trailhead, but it is possible to get a basic breakfast before starting out.


The hike

From Vaqueria, the hike begins at 3200m and winds through a narrow valley, to a long strip of mountains. Here you have to cross a mountain pass at 4,750m, the highest point of the hike. Once you descend to the other side of the valley, the altitude rounds off to 4,200m, and the terrain flattens out.

The remainder of the hike (covering the last two days) is overwhelmingly planar with a subtle decline that eventually drops you all the way to 3,200m at the last campsite. After the final campsite, you leave the lush, river filled valley and descend further (with a few inclinations along the way) until you arrive in Cashapampa

After the mountain pass there is a beautiful side trek that leads to a pristine glacier lake with gorgeous, light blue water. The detour takes about 2-3 hours depending on your pace and is a great place to stop and have lunch.

WARNING: Acclimatize properly, though Santa Cruz may not appear extremely high, you will be carrying gear. If you are coming from sea level (or below 1500m), take at least two days in Huaraz to acclimatize. If you do have issues with altitude (or have very little experience trekking at altitude) take altitude sickness pills with you just in case, they saved our friend’s life in El Cocuy.


Weather

During the dry season, which peaks between July and August, the days are warm and sunny though strong winds can pick up turning the weather chilly. At night the temperature plummets to 0 degrees, so be prepared with warm clothes and sleeping gear.

During the wet season, which peaks in January and February, the days are cooler with rain typically in the afternoons in short bursts, and longer downpours at night. We went in October, and got rained on heavily every single night, so ensure that you have a waterproof tent.

Where to camp

There are multiple campsites along the route, but they only offer a large clearing to pitch a tent; there are no sanitary facilities or rubbish bins. Also, the tours pitch their tents at the campsites, so they are crowded with people–not the peaceful nature escape we wanted–and lots of donkey waste. Since you are allowed to camp anywhere, we gave the campsites a large berth. Also, be aware that campfires are prohibited inside the park.

Food

TIP: Pack tupperware instead of dishes. You can buy them very inexpensively at the Huaraz market, and can use them as storage for fragile food. Additionally, you can save dinner leftovers for lunch the following day (saving time and cooking fuel). Plus they are lightweight and reusable after your trek. You won’t need a dish again; hostel kitchens have plenty, but tupperware is handy for not only leftovers but also as storage dividers for clothes, electronics, etc.

Obviously you can pack canned food, it’s easy and simple, but it also surprisingly expensive in South America, not to mention a little heavy. We, however, did not have the luxury of simplicity; we had to feed a celiac, vegetarian, and meat-lover from the same pot. When even canned beans are bacon infused, and bread will send me to the hospital, we had to get a little creative. Here’s what worked and what didn’t.

Avocados are a delicious source of nutrients and high in good fat needed to sustain an intense hike. However, their ability to survive the trek underscored their nutritious value. Despite our efforts to pack them at the top, they were soon squashed in transit on the bus, before we even started walking. A few made it, but we ended up having to make guacamole out of the majority.

Before leaving, we made an excellent veggie quinoa stew, which we ate for dinner the night before, and lunch the next day in Santa Cruz. It keeps well and is excellent both warm and cold.

Amazingly, we were able to find rice noodles, so even I could eat pasta! Here we went a little gourmet (you don’t have to go to this length, but it was beyond delicious!). We took a small carton of crema de leche (cooking cream), some mushrooms (we justified that they were extremely lightweight) and some dried oregano. The second night we threw it all together with some onion, garlic, and salt and had a wonderful creamy pasta sauce. We made enough to store in our tupperware and eat the next day for lunch (the carnivore added a can of tuna on top).

The last night we wandered into camp well after dark. Oscar twisted his knee, and we struggled to navigate the crisscrossing streams and patches of mud.

When we finally made it to safe ground, we were all starving, so we threw together a quick and filling dinner. We cooked up some rice, and then combined it with canned chickpeas (vegetarian-friendly) onion and tomato packaged tomato sauce. After the vegetarian had dished some out, we added a can of “beans with bacon” for myself and  Oscar. And voila, lazy camping chili that tasted damn good after walking all day.

We boiled eggs and brought along granola (and nuts for me for a gluten-free version) which we ate with one of those large bottles of shelf-stable yogurt. The last day we made easy quinoa porridge: gluten-free, high in protein, and light to carry, check!

As a meal addition or snack for the road, we brought cheese (the local “queso fresco” at the market does not need to be refrigerated the first few days). We also purchased nuts and dried fruit at the market and made trail mix, far cheaper than the small packages you get in the grocery store.

After four days of challenging terrain and beautiful mountain landscapes, I have to say that we loved the Santa Cruz trek. So far it has been our favorite hike in South America, and is completely doable without a guide.