Santa Cruz Trek

Our main purpose in going to Huaraz was to do some trekking in the high mountains. While I would have loved to do one of the epic 10 or 15-day treks, we didn’t have the time on this trip, especially with Alina continuing to work. But no matter, the most popular trek in the region is the 4-day Santa Cruz trek, and we eagerly signed up. As with most alpine treks, on this one we’d spend the first half climbing up one river valley, then go over a high pass, and then descend another valley on the other side to the finish.

huaraz-cordillera-blanca-santa-cruz-trek-mapThings started out well, with a 6 am pickup at our hostel, and introductions to the large group we’d be hiking with. As with our Salkantay Trek, there was a really nice diversity. We had a pair of young Israeli women just of the army, traveling before starting university, a boisterous Aussie guy, complete with tales of late night drinking and women, an English girl traveling alone, but with lots of previous experience, a nice German lady who’d never been trekking before, pair of married British women just coming to the end of their own world travels, a Moroccan-French-Israeli man, and two older guys from Colorado who’d met hiking there, one of whom was retired and quite the storyteller. Plus, our guide “Happy”, a cook (cool that it was a lady), and a donkey driver.

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In order to get to our starting point of Vaqueria, we had to drive down our valley to Yungay, and then head East up the Llanganuco valley, climbing higher and higher on ever more tortured roads. It didn’t help that the weather closed in and it started to rain. We pulled over for a quick break while Happy and our van driver pulled tarps over all the loads strapped to the roof.

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We continued upwards, traversing some of the nastiest switchbacks I’ve ever seen driven on, especially with a non 4X4. I was sitting in the front seat, and could see tons of rocks and boulder that had fallen on the road that we kept veering around, not to mention that the road itself was little more than a rock strewn mess. Alina was in the back seat, and she said later that it was a very, very bumpy ride.

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We eventually reached the top of the pass, and stopped to look back the way we’d come. Well, actually, I think we stopped because the brakes on the van were shot, and the driver was trying to figure out where to add more brake fluid, or otherwise fix them. We sat there for some time while he fiddled, and the rain continued to pour. When we finally started down the other side of the pass, I was glad that no one else could see our driver pumping the brakes, uselessly at times, and often resorting to the handbrake. Made me nervous, to say the least.

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After about a 5 hour journey, we finally arrived in Vaqueria, where our mule driver and his team was waiting for us. All the gear was loaded up as we dug into our lunches. On this trek it would all be box lunches of sandwiches, oranges, and energy bars, not the fabulous hot meals we’d had on the way to Machu Picchu. But still, quite tasty and welcome after a morning’s hike.

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Once the donkeys were ready, we set off on the first day’s easy trek. We first had to descend to the valley floor, where we would cross the river, then head upstream for a few hours until we reached camp in the shadows of the big snow-capped peaks. Along the first part of the hike, we were still among people, and passed through several small villages.

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Most interesting was the “Guinea Pig Production Center”, advertised by sign. There were guinea pigs both large and small in second story pens on the houses we passed, and Happy told us that the families around here had up to 100 each.

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They were then sold to other villages, where they would meet the pot. Some people tried explaining that in Britain, guinea pigs are pets, but no, here they are just holiday dinners.

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We eventually passed out of the inhabited lowlands and into Huascarán National Park, going through a ranger checkpoint. It was really nice to finally be somewhere besides the United States where people are not allowed to live in the national parks! Pretty much all through Europe and Asia, so-called reserved areas are full of small villages that, in my mind, just spoil the nature, not to mention the purpose of having a wild area. Well, here it really is devoid of people, though grazing animals are allowed, so we saw lots of cows.

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Heading up the valley, the sky remained overcast, though the earlier rain hadn’t continued. Every so often we would remember to look back and catch glimpses of snowy peaks through the clouds. We eventually rounded a bend and everyone stopped, as a massive white shape loomed at the head of the valley in front of us.

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Views of this mountain continued, as we pressed on, walking up a really lovely valley that reminded me a lot of hiking in Norway. We eventually reached our first camp, in the V between two small rivers. By the time we arrived, our cook and arreiro (donkey driver) had set up the dining and cooking tents, and were working on our sleeping tents.

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We were lucky to be one of the two couples, and thus got put in a two-man tent. Furthermore, in trying to be nice, we took the smaller looking tent, which ended up being ours for the rest of the trek. It was indeed small (mostly really low walls and ceiling), but it kept the rain out! The Scottish women didn’t fare so well. Their tent had mismatched inner and fly, and when the rain came that night, it leaked horribly. They ended up spending the next few nights camping out in the dining tent.

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We all relaxed for a short time until we were called to happy hour, where we proceeded to stuff ourselves on crackers, hot tea, and cocoa, as we made more introductions and got to know each other better. Afterwards, we had a little free time until dinner, and as we lay in our tent relaxing, it began to rain. Pretty steadily.

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So for dinner, we were all crowded as tightly into the tent as possible. We had an amazing quinoa soup, rice, and a yummy slab of meat. After hiking all afternoon, I couldn’t believe that some people barely touched their food! We were ravenous, on the other hand.

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It continued to rain throughout the night, but Alina and I managed to remain dry. Some of the others weren’t so lucky, and as the trip wore on, more would end up sleeping under the dining tent. We also found out that our Aussie companion had come down with something nasty and been up all night, emptying his body from every orifice. Based on how he continued to feel, we think it was a combination of a bug along with a pretty bad reaction to the altitude.

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Packing up as quickly as we could in the wet, we headed off on our second day, with our goal to get over the Punta Union Pass at 4750 m (15,584 ft.) We were hoping that the rain would stop and clouds would dissipate, so we could get some great views as we climbed up out of the valley. Well, the rain let up, but alas, as the morning wore on, it seemed the clouds were there to stay.

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Some of our party was moving much slower (sickness, fitness, altitude problems), so a group of us ended up out in front. We would stop every so often until we could catch a glimpse of the others behind us, then continue onwards, winding our way up towards the pass.

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As usual, from below, it seemed like an impenetrable wall of rock with no way through, and impossibly steep.

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As we got closer, it was clear where the gap lay, and we would catch occasional glimpses of what must have been spectacular surrounding through the clouds.

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Of course, then it started to rain again, cold now that we were much higher up. Here too the trail wasn’t as clear, and, being in the lead, I had a fun time routefinding. Mostly it involved looking around for the highest concentration of donkey shit.

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We finally arrived at the pass, where a brief window allowed up to see the lower slopes of Taulliraju, looming above a spectacular glacial lake below us. We also ran into the guide of one of the other trekking groups, all by himself up here. Apparently his group was getting cold and didn’t want to stay, so he sent them on alone and decided to sit around for a while himself! Amusingly enough, I’d read complaints about this exact inappropriate behavior from this guide from this agency when doing research a few days earlier.

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Well, our cloud window didn’t last long, not even long enough to get much of a picture at our new highest point.

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We knew it would be a while before our companions made it up to us, so we enjoyed lunch before the wind came up. After a while, Happy arrived and sent us on down the other side of the pass while he waited for the slower folks.

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The way down was much the same, though perhaps a bit steeper. We could see below us where the valley had been scoured bare by an avalanche and landslide in early 2012. We would see this closer up the next day.

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After a relatively short time, we made it to our camp, where happily the tents were already up, as rain was threatening again. We spent the afternoon once again enjoying hot drinks, delicious cheese-filled fried pastries, and having all sorts of interesting conversations about politics, religion, and the proper way to drink tea (it has to come from a pot).

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During the night, we had a few issues with curious donkeys investigating the tents. We’d been warned to make sure all our things (shoes, etc.) were inside, as cows might otherwise steal them! Well, after the donkeys nosed their ways into our vestibule, and we heard a few shrieks from other tents, I believe it.

We woke with some hope that this day would spare us from the rain, and Happy told us to think positively that the clouds would clear. This was a definite trend among the local Quechua guides we’ve had in Peru. There is a lot of belief in the power of thinking positively about the weather and the group, and about the presence of the mountain gods.

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The gods must not have been too happy, as the clouds did not let up as we climbed on a short sidetrip to try to view Alpamayo. It’s said to be the most beautiful mountain in the world for its perfect ice pyramid, but we could barely see the snowy base through the clouds. Ah well, down the valley then.

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The hike this day was dominated by the barren landscape caused by the avalanche of 2012. When it came down the mountain it washed out one of the alpine lakes, which then rushed down the valley, contributing to the devastation. Where once it was lush and green, now it is mostly a sandy flat plain, with occasional scrub growing back. Its incredible to see the power of nature sometimes.

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With about an hour left to hike, it started to rain again, hard. As one of our group joked earlier “Well, at least it’s raining persistently”. Some of us in the lead scrambled under an overhanging rock, which quickly became stuffed full of wet hikers as more of us arrived. Some grazing donkeys had similar ideas!

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By early afternoon we’d arrived at a gorgeous campsite right by the edge of the river, now swollen and muddy with runoff. The rain let up for a while and we had an hour or so of drying out bags and tents and just enjoying being outside.

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Then guess what happened? Yep, it started raining again. So, we spent the afternoon in the dining tent once again, chatting and learning a few new fun party games.

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Finally, on our last day, the rain was gone and there were clear skies all around. Looking back up the valley you could see the shoulder of a white mountain, and I ran a few minutes back up the trail to try to get a picture.

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This final push was completely and steeply downhill, dropping about 1000 m in a few hours hiking. It would have been rather grueling going the other direction, and as it was, killed our knees a bit. As we wound our way down through the river gorge, we could see waterfalls every so often, and the vegetation slowly turning more verdant.

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At the exit from the park, we stopped at an irrigation canal to rest, wait for the group, and cool off our tired feet! Once everyone had gathered, we crowded around for one final picture before hiking out to the van waiting at Cashapampa, and the sleepy drive back to Huaraz. What a great trip! We can only imagine how much more amazing it would be with good weather.

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Logistics (October 2013):

Costs listed are per person.

s/300 at Andean Summit (other cheap places were offering s/320)

Huascarán National Park multi-day entrance fee: s/65

Day 1: Picked up at 6 am, 5 hour drive to Vaqueria,hike up valley to camp at 3850 m

Day 2: Hike up to Punta Union Pass at 4750 m, down to camp at 4200 m

Day 3: Short sidetrip to mirador to view Alpamayo, then down to valley and camp at 3900 m

Day 4: Steep descent to Cashapampa at 2900 m, 3 hour drive back to Huaraz

Map Image Credit: tourdumonde365

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