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National Geographic has named the Santa Cruz Trek one of the most beautiful in the world, and now I know why.
Running though the jagged white spine of the Cordillera Blanca mountain range, the Santa Cruz trek shows off the best that Northern Peru has to offer. Huascaran National Park rewards any adventure traveler willing to step off the Gringo Trail and leave Machu Picchu behind with miles of wilderness, rushing rivers, and imposing mountain views.
Daniel and I decided to hike the famous Santa Cruz trek without a guide when we came to Huaraz (affectionately called the Switzerland of Peru), and though I was hesitant, it ended up being the right call. The trail was super easy to follow and there were people and groups around the whole time in case anything went wrong.
If you’re thinking about ditching the tour groups and going out on your own (which you should!) this article has everything you need to know to hike Santa Cruz without a guide.
With my transportation information, packing lists, budget tips, mistakes and more in mind, you can create your own adventure on the Santa Cruz trek in Peru!
Max Altitude: The highest elevation on the trek is 4,750m/ 15,583 ft.
Total Time: Four days. We left our apartment in Huaraz at 5 am on Thursday and returned at 4 pm on Sunday.
Difficulty: Moderate. Crossing the pass on the second day can be tough due to the high altitude.
Total Cost: As a couple we spent 845 soles / $260 usd for gear, food, and transportation on the Santa Cruz Trek.
I broke down our packing list to hike the Santa Cruz trek into four categories: clothes, gear, food, and miscellaneous.
I think these lists are pretty spot on, because while on the trek there was nothing in my bag that I didn’t use, and there was also nothing that I wished I had and forgot.
Cost to Hike Santa Cruz Without a Guide
If you want to tackle this trek without a guide, providing your own camping gear is by far the best way to save money because this was our biggest expense on the trip.
Not only did we need to rent all of our gear like tents and poles, we also had to rent warm clothes as well. The only thing we had going in was our Osprey backpacks and our hiking boots.
The total cost for our gear rental for two from Peruvian Classic Adventures (everything listed above) was 512 soles / $157 usd.
There aren’t large supermarkets in Huaraz, so our food was also a bit expensive because it has to be bought at smaller stores. All of our food on the list above cost around 200 soles / $61 usd.
Additionally, we had to buy hand sanitizer, sunscreen, iodine and other miscellaneous items from the pharmacies that added up to another 55 soles / $17 usd.
Finally, our transport cost was 77 soles / $24 usd total for two people. If you haven’t already bought a three week pass into Huascaran National Park on a previous trip, that will run you another 65 soles / $20 usd per person.
So, what’s the final count?
As a couple we spent 845 soles / $260 usd for gear, food, and transportation on the Santa Cruz Trek.
How to Get to the Start of the Trail
How do you get from Huaraz to the start of the trek if you skip the tour bus and hike Santa Cruz without a guide instead?
First, you need to take a collectivo from Huaraz to Yungay. You can get this on the corner of Avenida Raymondi and Cajamarca and the trip is an hour and a half and 5 soles per person. The collectivo will drop you off at a small station in Yungay where you can board the next one.
Ask around, or, more accurately, wait for a driver to accost you as soon as he sees a gringo with a hiking pack. Here you’ll get on a collectivo to Vaqueria, which is a three hour drive and will cost 15 to 20 soles each. Tell you’re driver where you’re heading and he’ll drop you off right at the start of the trail. Easy!
To get back to Huaraz after you finish the trek you can simply wave down a collectivo right at the end of the trail where it meets the road and a small town.
Just a word of warning, though. Make sure you get a collectivo heading left from the trail end, not to the right. We got on one that was supposed to go to Caraz, but instead he proceeded to make deliveries, drop offs, and pick ups for an an hour and a half before returning to the trailhead to begin the drive to town which was in the opposite direction all along.
That was frustrating.
The drive from the trail end to Caraz should be 10 soles and one hour long. In Caraz, you will be dropped at another small station where you can get a collectivo back to Huaraz. This is 6 soles each and will be another hour and a half drive back to town.
Which Way Should You Hike Santa Cruz?
The Santa Cruz trek can be hiked in two directions.
The most popular choice (that we did) is to go from Vaqueria to Cashapampa. However, many people also choose to hike it “backwards” from Cashapampa to Vaqueria. Both have their pros and cons.
The trek from Vaqueria to Cashapampa is easier.
- Day one is flat, day two is uphill through the pass, and day three and four are flat or downhill.
- The extra side hike to the mountain mirador and lake in the morning instead of the afternoon after a day of hiking.
- End with a shorter drive home after the trek from Cashapampa instead of the 5 hour trip from Vaqueria.
The trek from Cashapampa to Vaqueria is more beautiful.
- Walk towards the mountains rather than away from them.
- Enjoy some of the most beautiful views on the last day rather than the first.
This direction is definitely more difficult though. Day one is uphill the whole time, day two is flat and uphilll, day three is uphill through the pass, and day four is flat.
Personally, I’m glad we chose the easier route, especially because it was my first backpacking trip carrying all my gear, but I know other people who have done it backwards and really enjoyed it too.
Temperature and Weather Information
Just because it’s warm in Huaraz, doesn’t mean it will be the same on the Santa Cruz trek. Temps are colder at high altitude and weather can change at the drop of a hat in the mountain ranges, so you need to be prepared.
We went in mid-October. Because Peru is in the southern hemisphere, that was the start of spring and the rainy season.
We had pretty warm temperatures during the day and I mostly hiked in leggings and a sweatshirt. At night, it got colder and an extra pair of pants and a down coat was necessary.
Unfortunately, because we went in October, the first two days of our trek were super cloudy and most of the peaks and best views were obscured.
If you go in the high season in June, July, or August, it’s winter in Peru and the coldest months of the year. Temperatures will be lower and nights will be cold, but you will also be rewarded with clear skies, dry weather, and sunshine every day.
Our Experience Hiking Santa Cruz Without a Guide
If you decide to hike Santa Cruz without a guide, you won’t be the only ones taking on the challenge.
We went in mid-October, which is the start of the off-season, but there were still plenty of other people on the trail with us. There were two large tour groups of about 15 people each and another ten or so people hiking on their own.
I was so glad we were one of them.
I read reviews of various agencies who run the trek and they were so hit or miss that I was worried I would ruin our trip by choosing a bad agency. Then, all my memories would be about how food was terrible or the equipment was dirty or the gear left us freezing all night.
It’s possible to sign up for a Santa Cruz trek with an agency here for as little as 300 soles/ $90 usd per person, which is cheaper than we ended up paying. Usually I’m all about that bottom line, but this time I decided to spend a little extra money and know that my gear was high-quality, my food was good, and my water was clean.
Plus, there was no one telling us what to do, which meant we could rest or set up camp whenever and wherever we wanted. For a hiking trip, this freedom is ideal.
Day 1 on the Santa Cruz Trek
On day one we left our apartment in Huaraz at 5 am and arrived at the trailhead in Vaqueria at 10 am.
In the first 15 minutes of our trek, we were already confused. I’m going to detail the right directions here as best as I can remember, but make sure you also keep asking locals which way to go.
You will start by heading down a hillside. When the trail reaches a road, walk on the road for a bit. There will be a small grass trail to the left, but it’s not correct (this is the one we ended up taking on accident.) Keep walking until you see a larger and more obvious trail on the left and continue on it downhill.
Once you reach the river, cross it and turn right.
Follow this trail into a small town. Here you’ll reach a fork at a small shop and you need to continue on the left fork (even though the one on the right looks bigger and better). Walk along the trail for another 5 to 10 minutes. You’ll go downhill then back up again with houses on either side.
This is the most important part: The main road you are walking on will continue straight, but you need to take the smaller dirt trail that goes up and to the left. We totally missed this and luckily a woman at her house saw us and yelled at us to turn around and go the right way.
Once you’re on the right trail here, it’s easy going for the rest of the trek. You’ll walk for about an hour until you finally reach the entrance to Huascaran National Park where you can sign in and buy a ticket for 65 soles/ $20 usd if you haven’t already.
After that, it’s a really nice and beautiful flat hike to the campsite. We walked mostly along the river and went through beautiful green valleys and fields.
It was also here that we picked up the first of the stray dog pack that hiked all the way through the trek with us. Honestly, adopting a trail dog is an integral part of the Santa Cruz solo hiking experience. These pups lead the way, ate our leftovers, and protected our tent from any donkeys or cows that strayed too close.
All of the campsites on the Santa Cruz trek are marked with signs and very obvious, and after about 5 hours of flat hiking on day one we arrived at the first one right as the weather was finally clearing up.
We got our first mountain views here at sunset. I was exhausted, so after enjoying the colorful show, we set up, cooked dinner, and went to bed around 8pm.
Day 2 On the Santa Cruz Trek
The second day is the hardest day of the Santa Cruz trek.
We began with a beautiful flat walk for two hours. The walk then began to go uphill for the next two hours, but it was nothing too strenuous… until we came to an imposing rock face.
Yep, this is the dreaded pass that every hiker on Santa Cruz knows about.
The climb got steeper and we struggled for two more hours (with a lot of rests) to reach the top. It started to snow, but the views were of jagged mountains, lakes, and green vistas that inspired us to keep going. Finally, we came over the pass.
I promise you will be rewarded for making the climb! To the right and left were giant white capped peaks and below us a lush green valley spread out. Most stunning of all, though, was the lake that was so turquoise blue it rivaled Laguna 69.
We ate our lunch in the pass and walked another two hours downhill to our campsite. It’s in a valley, so we woke up to a serene morning I’ll never forget, with our first clear skies and jagged mountain peaks rising above us in every direction.
Day 3 on the Santa Cruz Trek
I don’t know if it was the clear skies (finally!) to or the fact that the hardest part of the trek was over, but day three was one of my favorites of our Santa Cruz trek.
It takes about four hours to get from this camp site to the next, but there is a side hike to a mountain lookout and lake that adds another two to three hours to the day… of course, we had to check it out.
We left camp at 6:45am and climbed an hour up to the mirador. This trail starts about 20 minutes from the camp and was super easy to find and follow.
When we got to the top, the view of three mountains was absolutely gorgeous in the morning light. One of the peaks was voted “the most beautiful in the world” in the 60’s and is used as the Paramount logo, so you can picture how awesome the vista really was. Waterfalls ran by us and green grass and trees stretched out as far as we could see. It was definitely worth the extra uphill battle.
There is also a lake here if you want to keep hiking another 30 minutes more, but Daniel and I opted out. Instead, we decided to turn around and continue on the trek, so I can’t tell you if it’s worth the walk.
After we got back to the valley, we walked through a strange sandy wasteland, which (strangely) culminated in a blue lake. Finally, we reached the third campsite around 1 pm. It was early but we had a beautiful day, so we spent the afternoon playing cards, sitting by the river, and enjoying the fresh air and sunshine.
If you’re short on time and need to cut the Santa Cruz trek from four days to three, you can also skip the side hike to the mountain lookout and continue the last four hours from camp to Cashapampa.
Day 4 on the Santa Cruz Trek
The last day of the trek! When you hike Santa Cruz without a guide this is both a blessing, because you know you can finally get rid of your heavy pack, and a curse, because it means heading back to reality.
The first two hours of day four are flat and beautiful, winding along the riverside. Eventually, though, we found ourselves heading downhill for another two hours. Finally, we reached Cashapampa at 11am.
At the end of the trek is a small town where you can buy lunch and a few celebratory beers while you wait for the next collectivo to pass by, which it seems like they do every hour or so.
Due to our small snafu above, we ended up getting back Huaraz, dropping off our gear, and finally returning to our apartment around 4pm. A shower and a hot meal never felt so good 🙂
So, there you have it!
If you are planning to hike Santa Cruz without a guide in Peru, this is absolutely everything you need to do to complete the trek on your own.
I felt really accomplished arriving at the end with my pack, knowing I had been completely self-sufficient for four days. Of course, I loved the total lack of small talk that we usually have to make in the tour groups too.
It was a beautiful experience hiking the Santa Cruz trek with Daniel and rejuvenating to be out in nature together, completely cut off from the internet, media and the rest of the world.
The rugged beauty of northern Peru is waiting for you!
If you come to Huaraz, I strongly recommend hiking Santa Cruz without a guide and skipping the organized tour. It was one of the most peaceful and beautiful trips of my life, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.
Ready to take on the Santa Crux trek? Click here to book your stay in Huaraz and get ready for the adventure of a lifetime!
PS Looking for more hiking in the Cordillera Blanca? Don’t miss the the surreal landscape of Laguna 69 or the adrenaline-pumping Nevado Mateo mountain climbing experience! Both are easy one-day outings from Huaraz and perfect to combine with your Santa Cruz trek in Peru.