We decided to spend a couple of days in Huaraz stocking up on food and fast wifi, and attempting to decide whether or not to do the Santa Cruz Trek. I had been dreaming of trekking in the Cordillera Blanca since Central America, and the Santa Cruz trek seemed like the perfect multi-day hike for us to attempt unguided. The trek is very popular with backpackers, who often pay for a guided tour complete with pack donkeys and toilet tents, through the Peruvian Andes for 4 days. The weather had been a bit iffy for a couple of days, and we knew that October was the beginning of the off-season. Trudging through thick mud and camping in a ground tent in the pouring rain was not something that appealed to us. We decided to stock up on trekking foods at the grocery store just in case we decided to commit to the trek. As soon as we left the store it started to pour rain. We hailed a cab, piled our groceries in, and headed back to our hotel. A song in Spanish came on the radio while we sat in the backseat of the taxi. I can’t remember the words, but one kept repeating over and over again: lluvia (rain, pronounced “yuvia”). Lluvia! Lluvia! Lluvia! Was this a sign?
The next day we visited the Visitor’s Information Centre, and the guide working at the main desk showed us the weather forecast for the next few days: all looked sunny. It was time to commit. We shopped for more granola bars, wool toques (beanies for you non-Canadians) and socks, trail mix, and MicroPur tablets for purifying our water. The plan was in motion. Looks like our first ever multi-day trek was going ahead.
From our campsite back in Caraz (Camping Guadalupe) we caught a collectivo to Yungay, where we waited for 2 hours for the next collectivo to take us to Vaqueria (i.e. the start of the trek).
We completed the trek in reverse of the traditional route so that our trip back to Caraz would be shorter after the trek was completed. We figured that after 60km of trekking we would appreciate a short ride back to our truck. Finally, three other trekkers showed up (Tom and Sara from England and Michael from California), so we were allowed to leave the collectivo station and head to the trailhead. We drove up past the trailhead for Laguna 69, back and forth on switchbacks with stunning views of the glaciers surrounding us, and over the Portachuelo Pass. After approximately three hours of a bone-shattering, teeth-chipping drive over potholes and rocks along the dirt road, we arrived in Vaqueria to start our trek.
The first day was the worst for us. Let’s not beat around the bush here… we found out very quickly that day-hikes with a small pack is nothing compared to overnight trekking with the necessary gear. Our backpacks were insanely heavy (damn you cans of delicious tuna!), which made it difficult to walk the necessary distance that we needed to that day. Then we tacked on an extra hour and a half in order to make our second day easier, and in order to reach a campsite off the beaten track. At this point we felt a bit inexperienced and overloaded. Oh yeah, at the point where we were ready to collapse Richard also received a text message from his mom on our Delorme InReach GPS, with the subject line “Passed away in the night.” I’m not going to lie, there was a cry face that came out as we expected the worse about our grandparents. It must be an emergency if Richard’s mom is messaging us in the middle nowhere, right? We checked the message quickly… and it turns out it was Richard’s Dad’s cat that had moved gracefully into the heavens. Not the best way to end your rigorous hiking day with a backpack acting like a medium-sized person on your back. We stumbled into the campsite after dark, half-heartedly cooked up some pasta, and crawled into bed for a restless night’s sleep.
Our goal for Day 2 was to complete the Punta Union Pass (4,750 metres or about 15,500 feet) in one piece. We climbed, and climbed, and climbed. Donkeys passed us. Ants probably passed us. Finally, exhausted, we reached the Pass and were rewarded with the stunning landscapes on the other side: turquoise lakes, snow-capped peaks, glaciers, and a beautiful valley that we would walk through later that day. And our buddies Tom, Sara and Michael were at the top! The views made the first half-day of tough trekking worth it. Fortunately, the rest of the hike would be (mostly) downhill from here. And our spirits were up! After a really difficult first day and a half our legs were finally feeling much better. We were finally able to gawk, jaw-dropped, at the epic scenery and soak up the fresh mountain air.
By 2 pm we reached the designated campsite, but Michael had another idea in mind. We scrambled up the steep side of the valley wall and landed at the Alpamayo Base Camp (South Side), complete with epic views of the mountains surrounding us: the glaciers and the infamous Paramount Pictures peak. An 8 hour day behind us, we happily set up camp in the daylight after a much more enjoyable day of hiking, made pasta with chorizo and fresh parmesan cheese, and then ran into our tents and donned our wool socks as the rain started.
We awoke to rain drops still falling on the tent fly and cuddled up to wait it out, hoping that the sun would soon break through the clouds. Coffee, tea, and oatmeal was made in the Jetboil during periods when the rain slowed. Eventually the rain stopped completely and we packed up our wet gear and started our third day of hiking. Immediately we were feeling great. Our bodies were getting used to the weight of the packs (plus we were lightening the load a bit every meal) and we had nothing but downhill for the entire day.
The landscapes changed hourly from glacier topped mountains, to sand-filled valleys, bright blue lakes, and fast flowing rivers. Before we knew it we were only a few hours away from the end of the trek so we decided to push on. After seven hours of hiking that day we shuffled into Cashapampa, gave each other a high-five, and realized that we should have been a little easier on ourselves the first two days of hiking. It makes sense that a couple of inexperienced trekkers wouldn’t have the easiest time in the world when they decide to shorten a four day trek to three days, including two side treks. Duh.
Shall you decide to embark on the Santa Cruz Trek unguided (highly recommended!), here are some pointers. If you have a question about the trek or if we have missed something please do not hesitate to make a comment below or e-mail us at email@example.com.
The trail is very well marked. A map is helpful. We used the map set out in the Peru Lonely Planet. Guidebooks to trekking in the Cordillera Blanca would also be very helpful if you would like to tackle some side treks since they offer much more detail.
What We Brought:
- Sleeping bags, sleeping pads, quick-dry towels, Jet Boil + fuel, cups, spoons, bowls
- Sunscreen, first aid kit, tooth brush, tooth paste, make-up, mirror
- 3 pairs of socks: one hiking pair, one wool pair and one thick wool pair; toque, brimmed hat
- Long johns, hiking pants, mitts, jacket, fleece sweater, underwear, long-sleeved shirt, tank top, rain jacket, 1 litre camelback bottle, 3 L camelback for backpack
- Baby wipes, 1 roll toilet paper, dry bags, dry bags for backpack, sunglasses, swiss army knife, camera
What you can find in Huaraz:
- Name of store for groceries: Plaza Nova
- Plaza Nova carried Nature’s Valley Granola Bars, Mundo Natural Bars (we liked the Almond ones), GORP, parmesan cheese, bread, tea bags, instant coffee, dried fruits, nuts, instant noodles, pasta, pretzels, peanut butter, jam, dried meats
- Gear stores have propane, stoves, sleeping bags, outdoor wear, sunglasses; we did not find any water filters; one shop had old packages of organic dehydrated meals (Mac and Cheese, Cheesy Potatoes)
- Water purification: MicroPur tablets (buy tablets 1 for 1 L of water) bought at the MicroPharma. Inca Pharma only carried tablets for 10 L of water.
What we ate:
- We used this Ziploc bag system to organize our meals
- Breakfast: chia, oats, maca + warm water (could do with peanut butter, jam or fruit)
- Snacks: granola bars, GORP, mandarine oranges, apples, chocolate, peanut butter
- Lunch: sandwich with avocado, sliced tomato and canned sardines
- Dinner: pasta with tomato sauce, cheese and chorizo
- Other: instant coffee, tea bags