Santa Cruz Trek, Cordillera Blanca, Peru

Photograph by Bennett Barthelemy, Tandem
Photograph by Bennett Barthelemy, Tandem

Best For: South American travelers and trekkers who want an experience beyond the Inca Trail; trekkers looking for high elevation without traveling to the Himalaya

Distance: 30-plus miles

While the Himalaya get all the attention when it comes to high-altitude trekking, Peru‘s Cordillera Blanca offers the solitude of big mountains with far less of the hassle of the premier routes in Asia. It’s also a less-crowded alternative to the hordes headed to Machu Picchu on the Inca Trail. The mountains take precedence here—the Cordillera Blanca are one of the most concentrated collections of big peaks in the Western Hemisphere, with 33 summits topping 18,000 feet and 16 over 19,500 feet, including 22,205-foot Huascarán, the highest mountain in Peru, all squeezed into a 13-mile-wide, 112-mile-long corridor.

There are numerous epic treks that delve into these subtropical, glaciated peaks, but the Santa Cruz serves up a little bit of everything in four days. It may be the easiest way to experience high altitude, if such a thing is possible, since it crosses over 15,580-foot Punta Union Pass, which is higher than any peak in the contiguous U.S. The path crosses the dramatic backbone of the continent, but it’s not all altitude-sickness-inducing wilderness. The hike begins in the lively city of Huaraz, often referred to as the “hiking capital of Peru,” where you can hire guides or simply meet up with like-minded souls looking to venture out on the Santa Cruz unsupported or try more ambitious routes like the 11-day Huayhuash Circuit that crosses 18,012-foot Punta Coyoc.

When to Go: April through September. The weather can be incredibly reliable here for such high mountains.

Shortcut: There are numerous day hikes out of Huaraz that get deep into the heights of the Cordillera Blanca. You can reach the stunning blue waters of 14,600-foot Laguna Churup via a 6.4-mile round-trip hike and scramble.

Insider Tip: In Huaraz, Cafe Andino is the place to grab a coffee and gather beta on the route from fellow hikers and adventure travel company La Cima Logistics, especially since recent landslides have covered parts of the Santa Cruz.