The dictionary says that "cerro" means hill in Spanish, but here in Peru they use it for mountains as well. It seems to be used for all mountains that aren't volcanoes (volcan), or that don't normally have snow on them (nevado). So Huiñao, which means large or high in Quechua, is a cerro, even though it is 11,960 feet high (3645 meters). A quick glance at the Cotahuasi topo map shows cerros up to 5144 meters and a nevado at 5263, so the dividing line must be in between there someplace, at least in this area.
Huiñao is surrounded by mountains much higher, but what makes it special is that it is located in Cotahuasi Canyon and the city of Cotahuasi is right at it's base. I live on the edge of Cotahuasi and one of the trailheads for Huiñao is right across the street from my house. It was also the first mountain that I climbed here, which is why I chose it as my first mountain to put on Summit Post. It is the highest point in the canyon in this area, rising 2,790 feet above the city. The summit offers a great view of Cotahuasi and many of the nearby villages up and down the canyon. It is a non-technical climb, although depending on the route taken, there is a little scrambling and some exposure.
Huiñao is a good first hike if you need to get acclimatized here. It is a great workout but doesn’t go up so high that it is too much for the average (fit) climber/hiker. It is also a good indicator of where you stand concerning acclimatization. There are two main routes, the direct route from the Cotahuasi end, and the high route from the opposite side, which makes it a nice loop hike.
The Direct Route
There is a good trail to start with which begins about 10 minutes up the main camino (walking trail) from Cotahuasi to Chaucavilca, which goes along the southern base of the mountain. Right after going up a large "step" (about 4 feet high), there will be a trail crossing the Chaucavilca trail. Go left here, passing through a stone block quarry, and zig zag up to a notch on the long ridge on the west end of Huiñao. When you reach the top of the ridge, turn right and scramble up a few steps and follow the trail up the ridge. It is a fairly clear trail, although it can be a bit overgrown and scratchy at times. After meandering up, the trail approaches a steep wall, look for a turn to the right and go up a shallow bowl. At this point the trail is not as clear but aim for the ridge above and you should be able to follow it. You will soon have to step over a deep hole and follow on the edge of a steeply sloping rock for a few steps, then turn left. From here the trail is harder to follow, with numerous lesser trails to make it confusing.
However the main thing is to get up near the ridge and then go up towards the left, aiming for the highest point you can see. You can go to the ridge and follow that, but it is steep scrambling and exposed at times. It is easier to meander up the slope, taking the easiest of the many options that are available. There are many animal trails, they look good for a while and then fade away, just go from one to another and keep climbing. There will be a short steeper climb to another notch on a ridge, go thru that and then to the left, following the ridge up, just to the right of some large rocks. From here the trail is clearer, and after another short scramble up some rocks, pretty much follows the ridge to the summit.
The trail now passes through or by some minor ruins and empty opened graves, going over a series of peaks. There is normally a cross on the third peak from the top, which looks like the summit from Cotahuasi. Sometime vandals have removed it, so if you don't see a cross, just keep on going to the final peak, which is easy to recognize as the highest point once you are there. It takes from two (very fast) to three hours to reach the summit. Enjoy the view, including the snow covered peak of Nevado Solimana, and decide where your next day's hike will be. Keep a look out for condors, as they can often be seen circling around overhead. It is also a good place to get oriented, as you can see up and down canyon, including the roads and many of the trails going to the different villages and climbing out of the canyon.
The High Route - Descent
You can return the same way, or if you want to do the loop, go down the far end towards Chaucavilca. From the summit, that route is not obvious, but is fairly easy to find. Go to the far end of the small summit, looking east (away from Cotahuasi) towards a high mountain ridge on the edge of the canyon. Looking down you can see a road crossing a saddle, with a small village on the saddle and a larger one below on the left. You want to go to the small village on the saddle. There is somewhat of a trail dropping steeply down to the right, I have never tried that one as the first part is a risky looking drop down. Instead, head down the slope in the direction of the villages, and go to the left around a sloping rock surface. When you reach the far edge of the rock, turn right and aim for the ridge, walking on the grippy sloped surface of the rock. There is a large step down and then you can see the trail going around and between some boulders.
Again after this point the trail is not clear and you just need to find the best way for you, watching out for the cactus that reaches out to grab you, as you try to make a controlled descent down the slope. Continue going down, aiming towards the saddle until you reach a clear trail crossing your path. Turn right on this trail and follow it south to a ridge (you will lose sight of the saddle off to your left and then behind you). Here there is some more scrambling down rocks, usually with a couple of options ending up in the same place. Do not be tricked into following any trails going back in the direction of Cotahuasi! They are miserable and will take you back up to the summit ridge.
Soon you will drop down to a small saddle with a well worn old trail going off to the left, follow this down the edge of the cliff. There is a bit of exposure here but the trail is worn into the rock, sometimes with steps and is mostly easy going. There is one jump down into a trench between some boulders, look for foot and hand holds, the rock is grippy and solid. When you reach the shrubs and brush, turn around and marvel at where you just came down, it doesn't even look like there is a trail there, just steep rock.
Continue to aim for the saddle, staying on the ridge and crossing through the cemetery, rather than taking the dirt road around it to the right. You will soon pass through some ruins and then come out at a small village, just before a water reservoir. The path will drop you down on the main trail, turn right and follow it back to Cotahuasi.
From the main plaza in Cotahuasi, with the plaza and the cathedral on your right, go up the main street (east) past the hospital and entrance arch. Just past the arch, the road will make a sharp right turn; for a short cut, go left on a small dirt path, alongside a barbwire fence. This soon climbs up to the right, though an opening in a wall, and then goes left, following another wall and starts climbing up towards Huiñao. Turn left just past the large step as explained in the direct route, or continue straight on the main trail to Chaucavilca, for the high route, which climbs up the back way (follow the route above in reverse).
The main trail to Chaucavilca actually starts just before the arch, turn to the right and then cross the road on a concrete apron. This is a rocky trail, often with a lot of water, as it also doubles as a stream. Follow it along a rock wall, it will finally leave the rocks and turn into a dirt path along the stream, and then turn north towards Huiñao and traverse up and out of the small valley. It will soon reach a junction with the other trail and turn right. Continue straight across this junction, through the rock quarry for the direct route, or turn right towards Chaucavilca for the high route.
Permits, Camping and LodgingNo permit needed.
No camping needed, it's a day hike from Cotahuasi, although you could camp near the summit if desired.
For lodging see the Cotahuasi Canyon page (parent)
PrecautionsSome exposure, watch out for cactus.
When to ClimbAny time of the year. During the rainy season, it is best to do it in the morning to avoid the common afternoon showers.
Round trip hiking time is 5-6 hours.