South America is a place where people come to to get out. Unlike Europe or the US where the draw is more the big cities and man-made marvels, people come to South America for the natural attractions, many of which involve high-altitudes and big climbs. The continent is loaded with famous treks, from the O and W circuits of Patagonia to Colombia’s Lost City. But the “It” hike of the moment that everyone is talking about is the Santa Cruz Trek out of Huaraz, some 8 hours north of Lima.
Huaraz is considered the hiking capital of Peru for it’s location at the base of the famous Cordillera Blanca- a 200 kilometer long mountain range pertaining to the Andes, boasting the highest peaks in Peru and over 700 glaciers. There are a myriad of tours that you can arrange from Huaraz into the Cordillera, from day tours to turquoise blue glacial lakes like the famous Laguna 69, to the classic Huayhuash trek which makes a route around the entire Cordillera in 12 days. Santa Cruz probably became the “It” trek amongst backpackers and travelers for being a shorter 3-4 day option that still lets you witness all the Cordillera has to show off, without taking too much time out of your travel itinerary.
One of my top pieces of advice in my “Guidelines for South America” came from a fiasco involved booking this trip- the only real bad experience I’ve had traveling down here so far- which could have been avoided by going directly to an agency to book this tour. We knew when we got there that the Santa Cruz trek was what we were doing, so don’t listen to anyone on the street, bus station, etc trying to offer you tours for Santa Cruz or anything else. They are called touts and they will charge you double what you would pay going to an agency and pocket the rest. Sounds like common sense but, these touts prey on tired backpackers just coming off of long overnight bus rides at the station, and that’s how they got us. Just say NO!
The price of this 4 day, 3 night tour through an agency should be about 300 sole, or 100 dollars. It includes transportation to and from the starting and end points of the hike, all of your meals (don’t expect anything fancy), a guide, a cook, the donkeys (the real star of this show), the donkey driver, and all of your equipment to rent (tent, sleeping bag, mat, etc). It does not include the entrance to Huascaran National Park, which will run you another 65 sole or 20 bucks.
The first day you will leave Huaraz early and, depending on which point you start at, drive 3-5 hours, most of it up a bumpy, windy, road deep into the Andes mountains. It is beautiful but frightening at times, a taste of what’s to come.
We started from Vaqueria, a tiny village at 3600 meters where we loaded up the donkeys (they carry all of your equipment, food, and needs for the next 4 days) and prepared for take-off.
The first day we hike 10 kilometers through three small Andean villages (every child we pass begs us for cookies, something they are clearly accustomed to receiving from tourists) to the first campsite, Paria, at 3400 meters. Of course, the weather is totally unpredictable in the high mountains, even in the summertime, so be prepared for anything. We experienced a lot of rain and cold the first two days.
The second day is the most rigorous and the day which we climb to the highest point of the excursion, Punta Union, at 4750 feet. Unfortunately on this day it was raining a ton, so we missed a lot of the high, mountaintop views, that this trek is so famous for, but the last two days made up for that.
One of the big surprises included in this trip was the mountain of Paramount Pictures logo fame. It was covered up when we went to bed the second night due to heavy rains but lo and behold, there it was perched above us when we awoke the third morning at 4200 feet. There was no denying this was the mountain, and there we were camped just below it.
After crossing the highest point of the trek, Punta Union, we enter into the Santa Cruz valley for which the trek is named. Finally being graced with sunny weather and blue skies on the third day, we took advantage to climb up to the glacier lake of Arhuaycocha, at 4200 meters and at the base of another famous peak, Alpamayo, which was voted the most beautiful mountain in the world in 2005 in an international contest by mountaineering experts. We could hear glaciers crumbling around us and falling into the lake as we ate lunch and marveled at what was before us. If you’re brave enough, you can even swim. Had it been raining, we would have had to forego this side-excursion, and the whole experience would have been affected by it. It was certainly the highlight of the trip.
Day 3 is the longest day, if you do choose to hike up to Alpamayo and the lake. After descending from Alpamayo, we enter into the barren Santa Cruz valley for a big change of scenery and 13 more kilometers of relatively level hiking down to our final campsite at 3300 meters.
The third and final campsite was certainly the warmest and most comfortable, if not the most beautiful. After two nights struggling to fall asleep due to the altitude and the cold, the final camp at 3300 meters and sheltered from the wind and cold felt like luxurious camping. Facing an enormous waterfall in the distance and beside a rapid river, it was the perfect place to wrap up the trip.
The fourth day is an easy, two hour descent down to the village of Cashapampa at 2900 feet, where you will be collected and brought back to Huaraz by midday. Still, it included some of the most breathtaking views of the entire trip.
Thank you, donkeys! We couldn’t have done it without you!
The Inca people believed that these mountains were gods. All of the crazy names for the mountains, lakes and campsites are in Quechua, the language of the native people who are descendants of the Incas and that dominates here. We were sad and surprised to hear that the Quechua language and culture are dying and most natives now speak a mixture of Quechua and Spanish. The very present, very unique Quechua culture was a big part of what made Peru so special, especially the highland areas like Huaraz. The music, the fabrics, the costumes, the colors of the local people made Peru and Huaraz stand out in my travels so far through South America.