The valleys and passes around the mountain ranges of Alpamayo, in the Huascaran National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) in the Peruvian Andes, offer some of the greatest mountain trekking experiences in the world.
A great alternative to the full circle Alpamayo Circuit trek is described in this Trek Report, and cuts straight through the Cordillera Blanca from east to west, from Hualcallan to Pomabamba. The hike itself starts at the edge of the village of Hualcallan (2,900m), to Alpamayo and on to the village of Pombamba. This route takes you past what many call the best parts of the Alpamayo Circuit, and offer the added experience of a charming impression of the remote rural and traditional mountain villages of Peru, and some of the social, conservation, and environmental challenges that these regions face. Both Hualcallan and Pombabamba can be relatively easily reached by public transport from Huaraz, so that it can be done as a loop ‘circuit’ too in 5 to 8 days. Huaraz is a good starting point with shops to stock up and guesthouses where you can leave surplus belongings.
Map 1: The blue route illustrates the pat of the Alpamayo Trek Map from Hualcallan to Pomabamba (© Jan Haenraets | explearth.org).
In Hualcallan, at the start of the trek I ran into Mark Richardson of Ultralight Outdoor Gear (UK). We ended up covering part of the first days of the trek together. Mark was doing the full Alpamayo Circuit and he published online an excellent trip report about the circuit (which also covers the Santa Cruz Trek), with lots of extra info about gear and getting there.. The full Circuit takes about 8 to 10 days, with the full circle being about 94km at altitudes of 2,900m to about 4,850m.
For Mark’s report and photos of the full Alpamayo Circuit (with some additional photographs by myself), see this link.
Fig. 1: Jan ascending towards the Cara Cara pass from Cruce Alapamayo (© Jan Haenraets | explearth.org).
UNESCO World Heritage in the Cordillera Blanca
The Huascaran National Park is declared as a UNESCO World Heritage site for natural heritage, and is situated in the Cordillera Blanca: “…the world’s highest tropical mountain range. Mount Huascarán rises to 6,768 m above sea-level. The deep ravines watered by numerous torrents, the glacial lakes and the variety of the vegetation make it a site of spectacular beauty. It is the home of such species as the spectacled bear and the Andean condor…” (UNESCO). The Cordillera Blanca range boasts more than 50 peaks over 5,700 m (18,700 ft), of which some 20 peaks surpass 6,000 m (19,685 ft). Make sure you got your entry permits to the park before you start any hikes into the park. In Huaraz this can be done at the Sernanp National Park office.
On the south-west side of Huascaran a second UNESCO World Heritage site can be found. This is Chavin de Huantar, a pre-Inca from about 1300BC to 700BC, and one of the earliest and best-known pre-Columbian sites. It can also be visited on a day trip from Huaraz, and there are some good trekking options in the vicinity too.
Trek Report: Hualcallan – Alpamayo – Pomabamba
In this trekking report I have mainly aimed to provide a good visual record of the landscape character you will encounter. Various maps and other detailed documentation can be found online, and depending on fitness and acclimatisation you can choose where to set up camp and how many days you intend to spend on the trail. If you are not accustomed to this type of treks, I recommend that you go with a trekking agency. The main aim is to show that this a feasible and thrilling trek. Between Hualcallan and Huillca you may encounter a handful of other hikers, and if you opt to continue the route via Yanacollpa to Pomabamba, you most probably encounter no other hikers on that stretch, as I did.
Most people will acclimatise for some days in Huaraz (3,050m altitude) before undertaking any of the Alpamayo treks, and usually undertake first a couple easier acclimatisation day hikes. Huaraz is the capital of the Ancash Region (State of Ancash) and of the Huaraz Province. It is the main hub for hiking in the region.
Fig. 2: A view from Huaraz to the Cordillera Blanca; Fig. 3: A view to Huaraz, down in the valley (© Jan Haenraets | explearth.org).
Trekking in the Cordillera Blanca can be physically demanding because of the altitude. On the Alpamayo trek you will start around 2,900m and spend most of your time above 4,000m. Several agencies organise guided treks, and I undertook it on my own, which is feasible if you’re comfortable with this type of trekking. If you’d like more details about undertaking this trek, you’re welcome to contact me via the contact form.
From Huaraz you can travel by collectivo to Caraz, passing Yungay, where you most probably have to change for a second collective. There is a memorial in Yungay, to commemorate the 1970 earthquake which completely destroyed the town when an avalanche of mud, ice and rock descended from the flanks of mount Huascaran.
In Caraz (2,295m) there are collectivos to Cashapampa, from where you will have to walk to Hualcallan for about 2 hours. Or you can try to catch a less frequent collective directly to Hualcallan (2,900m), which I did, but I ended up waiting several hours in Caraz and only made it to Hualcallan after darkness. Just at sunset our car had the pleasure to be halted by two policemen who had to be bribed by the driver to get passage. Bribing appears daily business here. As an alternative you could take a taxi from Caraz to Huaraz. Colectivos depart in Caraz near the main market. Carat has a pleasant and green plaza with a bandstand, and the Iglesia del Piero is a charming stone church.
From Huaraz to Hualcallan is around 115 km and if you leave in the morning in Huaraz, you should well make it to Hualcallan by the evening, where you can camp at the edge of the small village, near the entrance sign to the Huascaran National Park.
Fig. 4, 5 and 6: The village of Caraz (© Jan Haenraets | explearth.org).
In Hualcallan you will start the main trek and you will find this sign with some of the main peaks mentioned, and part of the trail to Pomabamba. The start of the trail itself is slightly confusing as a farmer’s trail turns left – north, but as you approach the bottom of the hillside, you first have to turn right for about 100m – behind the water reservoir and some Inca ruins, where you will find a small trail that starts to zig-zag up the steep hillside.
Map 2: The trail map displayed in Hualcallan village, at the entrance point to the Huascaran National Park (© Jan Haenraets | explearth.org).
This is a steep continuous climb with beautiful views west west to the Cordillera Negra. You’l steadily climb high above Hualcallan and will overlook it’s position and field patterns over a small plateau. The trail will take you to Wishcash, at 4,300m altitude, which is a first designated camp site along the trail, with a small stream nearby and positioned high up with good views across across valley and Cordillera Negra.
Fig. 7: A view towards Hualcallan and the surrounding field patterns, with the Cordillera in the background; Fig. 8: Laguna Yanacocha; Fig.9: A cascade above Laguna Azulcocha; Fig. 10: A local family on the hillside above Hualcallan (© Jan Haenraets | explearth.org).
After Wishcash the path will continue up and provide suddenly good views over the Quebrada de los Cedros, where the green-blue glacial Laguna Yanacocha can be spotted several hundreds of meters below. The path will follow the flank of the valley and becomes more rocky, and you will see to your left a beautiful cascade tumble down the cliffside into the Laguna Azulcocha. As you continue towards the top of the cascade to cross the valley, you reach the crystal blue Laguna Cullicocha (4,650m) altitude. Some people camp nearby, but keep in mid that this is fairly rocky terrain. There is a small service building. Laguna Cullicocha forms the foreground of a spectacular panorama which includes the triple summit of Santa Cruz (6,259m), Santa Cruz Norte and Santa Cruz Chico.
Fig. 11: Laguna Cullicocha; Fig.12: The trail beyond Paso Osoruri; Fig. 13: The summit of Santa Cruz (© Jan Haenraets | explearth.org).
You cross the stream between Laguna Azulcocha and Laguna Cullicocha after which a zig zag path takes you to one of the highest points on the trek, the pass of Paso Osoruri (4,850m). The views back to the lakes and peaks are stunning.
There is a to around 4,625, where there is another official camp site. Only a small water spring existed here, but views are beautiful across the Quebrada de los Cedros. From the camp site you climb again up to Paso Vientunan (4,770m). This is the last pass before a steep and long switch-back descent into the Quebrada de los Cedros valley. At the end of the main descend there are a couple small houses with thatched-roofs and made in adobe. A few families farm here right at the park limit for agriculture. You could ask permission from the locals to camp here at the small terraced fields. A small stream comes down the hillside. It’s though best to continue about half an hour into the valley to Ruinapampa (4,025m), which is a designated area for camping. There are some stone walls and terraces and a couple small ruins.
Fig. 14 to 17: Ruinapampa camp spot and the Quebrada de los Cedros (© Jan Haenraets | explearth.org).
From Ruinapampa it takes a few hours to hike up the relative flat Quebrada de los Cedros before you will suddenly get a first glimpse of the magic pyramidal form of Alpamayo (5,947m). In the valley you will pass a couple ruins before you will reach Cruce Alpamayo, where there is the next designated camp site. You could set up camp here before hiking further up the valley towards the moraine at Laguna Jancarurish. The top of the moraine allows for close-up views of the peaks of Alpamayo and Jancarurish (5,601m).
Alpamayo is often described as “the most beautiful mountain in the world”, and has an easily recognisable steep peak (of sixty degrees), and almost perfect pyramid of ice. Alpamayo has an elevation of 5,947 m (19,511 ft) and in Quechua its name means “Earth River” and “slim and long snow covered mountain”. A French-Belgian expedition is said to have made the first ascent in 1951.
You can climb up the moraine from where you can fully appreciate the glacial Laguna Jancarurish. A trail passes along the moraine and further upwards towards the Alpamayo Base Camp at 4,500m. There is also a designated camp area here, and has again amazing views to Quitaraju (6,036m). Camping at Cruce Alpamayo has the benefit of being right at the foot of the hillside for the start of the climb to the Cara Cara pass.
Fig. 18 to 22: Alpamayo from the Quebrada de los Cedros; Glacial Laguna Jancarurish; Alpamayo from the climb up to Cara Cara pass (© Jan Haenraets | explearth.org).
Fig. 22 to 24: Views to the north-west face of Alpamayo (5,947m) from the camp at Cruce Alpamayo (© Jan Haenraets | explearth.org).
From Cruce Alpamayo you cross the stream in the Quabrada de los Cedros after which you immediately start the steep and steady climb to the windy Cara Cara pass at 4,830m. Cara Cara is the name of a bird species which loves to ‘catch the wind’ and fly at high velocity over the pass. After 11am the pass often gets windy, so it’s best to try and reach the pass beforehand. The Cara Cara pass is also the continental divide, meaning that rivers running west will head for the Pacific and those running east will enter the Amazon basin and flow towards the Atlantic.
The walk up Cara Cara takes you slowly high above Laguna Jancarurrish and Quebrada de los Cedros, and offers fabulous views to the surrounding peaks and glacial formations, including the peaks of Tayapampa (5,657m), Jancarurish, Alpamayo, Quitaraju (6,036m).
Fig. 25 to 28: Views along the hike up to Cara Cara pass from Cruce Alpamayo, and the ridge of the Cara Cara pass in the distance (behind the mules of a guided trekking group) (© Jan Haenraets | explearth.org)..
Fig. 29 to 31: The rocky Cara Cara Pass and the grassy valley plateau after the Cara Cara pass (© Jan Haenraets | explearth.org).
From the Cara Cara pass there is first a steep rocky descend, after which there is a long grassy valley plateau. There are some scenic geological formations along the flanks of the valleys. The path will cross the valley where an ascend starts to the pass of Mesapampa (Mesapato) at 4,500m.
The pass offers views to the triple summit Pucajirca (north: 6,050m; central: 6,010m; south: 6,030m), and further up the valley to Laguna Safuna (4,200m) in the Quebrada Tayapampa.
Fig. 32 to 33: View from the Mesapampa pass to the peaks and glacial formations of Pucajirca. A cow in the Quebrada Tayapampa (© Jan Haenraets | explearth.org).
From the Mesapampa pass the descend goes down to the valley floor of the Quebrada Tayapampa. In the Quebrada there may be some herders, and the trail follows the valley towards the Huillca plateau which is crossed and where there are a few thatch-roof stables and locals keep Alpacas. Huillca is a popular camp area along the trek. People who are on the full Alpamayo circuit will continue here towards the Paso Pucajirca pass (4600m).
Fig. 34 to 36: The Huillca plateau and flocks of Alpaca (© Jan Haenraets | explearth.org).
There is another trail that heads up the flank along the Huillca to a pass at 4,280m. This is the route taken on this trek, in order to walk towards the village of Pomabamba via a less frequented trail, but with beautiful scenery via some local rural mountain villages before reaching Pomabamba. In Huillca a zig zag trail first ascends steeply, after which it follows the contours of the hillside until the pass at 4,280m. After the pass there is a valley and high plateau with Laguna Quenuacocha and Laguna Suitucocha. This is a grassy desolated plateau with a small tatched-roof stable where a family of herders has its base. This plateau can also serve as a place for putting up camp. The trail continues to the Collota pass at 4,350m, where a cross is positioned, and where also Cara Cara birds play in the wind and may wiz by closely your heads.
Fig. 37 to 40: From the Collota pass towards the Quebrada Yanacollpa (© Jan Haenraets | explearth.org).
The descend from the pass takes you past various lakes, including Laguna Gaysimpayoc, and into the Quebrada Yanacollpa, where there are various good spots for camping. As you enter the Quebrada Yanacollpa small rural settlements and villages appear again with agriculture. The trail goes up and down some small passes and you best keep asking directions from the locals for Pomabamba. This is still some pure, authentic rural region, with good impressions of traditional adobe architecture, and new developments in poor concrete.
Fig. 41 to 44: Small rural villages along the Quebrada Yanacollpa; and the village of Yanacollpa (© Jan Haenraets | explearth.org).
Local women wear traditional clothing and the white-ish hats, which are common in the Pomabamba region. The trail continues towards the small hill town of Yanacollpa, where you can take a collective to Pomabamba, or continue the trail all the way towards Pomabamba. To avoid the gravel road, you can follow a drainage channel that is built against the mountain flank, but slightly tricky to spot.
Fig. 45 to 49: Rural villages and flora along the Quebrada Yanocolpa (© Jan Haenraets | explearth.org).
The trail will take you back to a gravel road and you will reach Pomabamba (in Quechua: Pumapampa). The town has a few pleasant plazas and also some banos thermales (hot springs), which are not the best, but always offer good hot water showers to freshen up and relax the muscles after the trek. Pomabamba (2,950 m) is located in the Pomabamba District of the Pomabamba Province in the Ancash Region of Peru.
The traditional houses in the region are mainly in adobe walls, wooden floors and have a thatch-roof or ceramic pan tiles. Adobe blocks are hand-made in many locations along roads or trails, and are placed along the roads to dry in the sun. In Pomabamba there is also a small pan tile factory at the edge of the town.
Fig. 50 to 55: The village of Pomabamba (© Jan Haenraets | explearth.org).
There are a few daily direct busses to Huaraz, and even one that goes via Huaraz directly to Lima. The busses all depart near to the plaza. The bus to Huaraz takes about eight hours and passes: Piscobamba (3,280m), Acochaca, Jambon, Chacas, a tunnel under the pass, Shilla, Carhuaz, and eventually gets to Huaraz.
The roads on the eastern side of the Cordillera Blanca are all dirt roads with flat tires being a regular occurrence. The early bus will take a lunch stop at Chacas, a charming small town with a Don Bosco church, school and monastery at the plaza. The plaza has the standard square layout, but has good architectural detail with pavements and walls in stone , pebbles, granite and wood. The houses around the plaza are all white, with wood used for balustrades, windows, doors, and carvings. The church also has a large carved wooden door. Roof tiles are ceramic pan tiles, typical in the region.
Fig. 56 to 59: The village Chacas; the Punta Olimpica pass; and the Quebrada Ulta (© Jan Haenraets | explearth.org).
After Chacas the road – the Carretera de Chacas – starts to zig zag up against the Cordillera, passing beside massive glaciers that literally ‘hang’ against the steep rocky peaks. The Punta Olimpica pass used to have a reputation as one of the most dangerous roads in the world, but the stretch after Chacas has been asphalted since 2011 and is now a good and safe. One part of the climb is called the ‘sector de las mil curvas’ (1000 turns section) and has about 46 hairpin turns. At about 4,890m, and higher than some of the glaciers and glacial lakes that you pass, there is a tunnel that cuts under the peaks. Even in summer we encountered some light snow here. The Punta Olimpica pass is one of the highest motorable mountain passes in Peru.
The descent into the Quebrada Ulta valley is also on a good asphalted road. The Quebrada Ulta is a long, narrow and steep glacial valley, typical for the western side of the Cordillera Blanca. Via Carhuaz the trip will finally take you back to Huaraz.
Text, Map and Photographs by Jan Haenraets
Jan Haenraets is a Director of Atelier Anonymous Landscapes Inc., Vancouver, BC, Canada
A note of thanks
Many thanks to the friends at Caroline Lodging in Huaraz who were great hosts and provided tons of insights into hiking opportunities in the Cordillera Blanca and the heritage of the region.