SOUTH AMERICA – THE JOURNEY PART 22
SANTA CRUZ TREK, HUARAZ
For quick facts about hiking solo along the Santa Cruz trail, scroll to the bottom of the page.
Situated in Cordillera Blanca mountain range, the Santa Cruz trek offers solo hikers thrilling highs of 6,000m glaciers, cobalt blue lakes, spectacular valleys and if you time it right, hardly another soul in sight.
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Day 1 – Huaraz to Paria camping ground
I was either insane or feeling the adventurous spirit, I wasn’t sure which one, as the bus climbed 3,750 metres to drop me off at Vaqueria, the starting point for the Santa Cruz trek, Huaraz.
I took my backpack from my knee, where it had been lodged for the past two hours giving me dead legs, and I nearly buckled beneath the weight. All eyes were on the gringa as I successfully bashed everyone with an aisle seat while I took my gear for the four-day hike from the bus.
I stepped out into the Cordillera Blanca mountain range in the Peruvian Andes, the locals and mule men watching curiously as I set out sola down the path.
Despite Santa Cruz being listed as one of the most walked routes in Peru I hardly encountered any other tourists whilst trekking. The trick is to get up before the tour agencies set out – be on the path by 7.30am and you’ll have the hike mostly to yourself, except for the donkeys carting everything from gas canisters to toilet tents for the pre-paid tours.
As I wound through small villages I was greeted with giggles from children and slight smiles or scowls from women. They were clad in traditional Andes attire: bowler hats, lace shirts with a cardigan, vividly coloured puffy skirts and flesh-toned tights covered by fluorescent leg warmers. I looked completely out of place in combats, a T-shirt and baseball cap.
While I was amusing myself taking at the local fashion, I was befriended by Wildera Garcia, an uber-friendly mule man who gave me tips on the trail: “Always look down when there’s scree on the path or you’ll twist your ankle.”
Word of my clumsiness had obviously reached all corners of Peru. “And at this
altitude take it slowly.” There wasn’t much chance of me doing anything else on a hike that climbs to 4,750m. Already having decided that I couldn’t face the steepest part of the trek with my 10-kilo backpack, we struck a deal for his horse to haul my bag up to highest point of the trek, Punta Union Pass, the following morning.
Once inside Huascarán National Park, I had a two-hour walk to Paria campsite dodging copious cow pats, glaring cows but absolutely no people. The tranquility and the dominating peaks were bliss.
Surrounded by nothing other than the outdoors was great but my enthusiasm wore off as I struck up a staring match with a four-legged local. “Do you know what most hikers die from?” someone had asked a few days before. “Hypothermia?” I offered. “No, cows.” Fantastic.
Thankfully two tour agencies rolled into camp and invited me into their mess tents. Being a female sometimes has its advantages, especially as the mule men went over the route with me, offered me food, and in the chivalrous Latino manner, body warmth at night. It appeared that bovines were the least of my worries as I politely declined their advances!
Day 2 – Paria campsite to Talliraju campsite
At 7am the next day Wildera and his not-so-gleeming white horse appeared. We started off in the shadowy valley clad in our thermals and hats and appreciated the blissful silence of the early morning. The ascent to Punta Union Pass, at an elevation of 4,750m isn’t difficult if you’re acclimatised and quite fit. Doing it with a 10-kilo backpack however, would be damn difficult.
The path weaves through rocky outcrops and past small lagoons mirroring the craggy mountains and clear sky. Moro the horse chewed on grassy verges at every opportunity, glad of the uphill breaks.
During the hike I saw one donkey from a tour agency fling itself to the ground in a bid for a rest, the weight of the pack at this altitude taking its toll. The mule men simply hit it with a stick until it got up and was forced to trot on.
The advantage of hiking solo is that you can walk the Santa Cruz trek without using a donkey, or if you do, it’s only going to be carrying your rather light load. And if you walk alongside the mule man, he should stop when you do allowing the animal to have a breather.
I walked for five hours on the second day until I arrived at the wind-blown campsite of Talliraju. The ground seemed to be as hard as ice and after an hour of unwittingly bending all my tent pegs I opted for a softer area.
My word of advice is this: if you arrive before the mule men from the agencies, wait to see where they set up camp as they will locate the least windiest area (cross over the bridge and walk to the large opening about two minutes away).
Despite going to ‘bed’ in seven layers of clothes and two feather sleeping bags I shivered more than I slept. However, the view at sunrise of three mountains and two glaciers made up for the teeth-chattering later on.
Day 3 – Talliraju campsite to Llamacoral campsite with a side trip to Lake Arhuaycocha
I didn’t relish crawling out into near freezing temperatures but I soon thawed out over a bowl of piping hot porridge. Once the sun hit the area I was already on my merry way to Arhuaycocha lake.
It’s easy to miss the path if you’re not looking out for it. Walk 10 minutes from the campsite in the direction of Cashapampa and take the first path that goes to the right. You’ll see it winding uphill and from there continue until you hit the second cross-section (there’s a small first cross, just continue past it). From there turn right and walk past the giant boulders.
The lake itself is a photographer’s dream. Sitting below an overhanging
glacier the water is a turquoise only seen in glacial lakes. Behind it towers a peak that begs hardy climbers to summit it. As I wasn’t one of these, I took a few pictures and wound down the zigzag path to the valley beneath.
Brilliant purple loopins and bright yellow flowers accompanied me down to the meadows which left me agog. Flanked by peaks and fields of varying greens and yellows, day number three was without doubt phenomenally beautiful.
Horses rolling around share the massive area with calves and their watchful mothers before giving way to two small lakes.
At Llamacoral a donkey decided to befriend me. I spent 20 minutes trying to keep her out of my tent as she poked her lips beneath the outer sheet and then tried to gnaw her way through the inner one. I’d never have thought the smell of oriental flavoured super noodles was so appealing. So fascinated was she by my culinary skills she decided to follow me to wash my pots and to the toilet.
After a couple of hours’ sleep I heard the familiar gnawing sound but the donkey finally gave up. The next morning a cow and her calf were equally as engrossed in my food and followed me round as I ate in a bid to keep their noses out of my bowl.
Day 4 – Llamacoral campsite to Cashapampa
This was my least favourite day as there was a lot of walking downhill on scree paths which definitely tested my agility. Thankfully the hike only lasted three and a half hours before I reached the tiny village of Cashapampa.
Don’t expect to find restaurants after your hike here, you’ll need to ride out an hour-long collectivo (shared taxi) journey to Caraz before you can get your hands on any food.
Quick facts for a solo trek on the Santa Cruz trail
Distance: 45 kilometres
Duration: 3-4 days
Best time to go: May to September, the dry months, with May and June seeing the least amount of tourists
Highest altitude: 4,750 metres
An increase of just under 1,000 metres (Vaqueria to the Punta Union Pass)
Rating: Moderate to difficult if carrying your own equipment
Closest main town: Huaraz
Route: Vaqueria to Cashapampa with a side trip to Arhuaycocha lake (4-day hike). This is the easiest route with less ascent than walking from Cashapampa to Vaqueria
National Park: Huascarán National Park (340,000 hectares)
Entrance fee: 65 soles
How to get to the start of the trek (Vaqueria): Take a bus from Av. Gamarra in Huaraz to Yunguay (5 soles) and then jump in a collectivo from Yunguay to Vaqueria (10-12 soles). The entire journey is epic, it takes 4-5 hours so leave at the latest by 6.30am.
How to get from the end of the trek (Cashapampa) to Huaraz: Take a collectivo from outside the national park ticket hut to Caraz (8 soles). There’s no timetable. Then walk to the main street in Caraz, just ask where to get the collectivos to Huaraz – it’s about a 10-minute walk from where you’ll be dropped off, and expect to sit with your backpack on your knee for the 2-hour journey (6 soles).
What you’ll need: 2 sleeping bags (down), blow-up mattress, tent, as many layers as you can carry, thermals, hat, gloves, scarf, lip balm, sunscreen, insect repellant, cooking stove and gas, all your food, boots with ankle support (not trainers – there’s so much scree you can easily twist your ankle), hiking poles, torch, a good map, painkillers for altitude headaches, cocoa leaves or cocoa tea for altitude sickness, water purification tablets and a huge dose of strength
Equipment hire: Huascarán Adventure www.huascaran-peru.com, Jr Pedro Campos 711 Soledad, Huaraz, Peru Tel: 51- 043 – 42 2523
All their gear is top-notch and the owner gives excellent information (in Spanish or English) about the trail. I wouldn’t look elsewhere for equipment.
Cost of hire: For a one-person tent, sleeping bag (down), blow-up mattress and cooking pots it’s 27 soles per day
Donkey rental: US$20 or 60 soles per day. You can rent a mule at the beginning of the trek or try your luck at encountering mule men, like I did, through the villages before you hit the park.
Preparation for the altitude: If you’re coming from sea level don’t attempt the Santa Cruz trek without acclimatisation. I suggest a day in the town of Huaraz and two-day hikes to Lake 69 and Lake Churup before starting Santa Cruz. This will give you a feel for the altitude and let you suffer with a blazing headache and shortness of breath with the knowledge that you can return to a cozy hostel in the night.
Get maps and information from Casa de las Guias, Huaraz
WHERE ON EARTH?
- The trek is situated in the province of Huaraz, Peru
- It lies in the Huascarán National Park, about 100km north of the main town of Huaraz
HOSTEL IN HUARAZ
Albergue Churup www.churup.com
Jr. Amadeo Figueroa 1257, La Soledad, Huaraz, Peru
Dorm: 28 soles, single: 69 soles
A super cozy hostel with the utmost friendliest and genuine staff. A log fire, sun terrace and TV room with a board to organise treks with fellow hikers staying there make it a great choice. It’s NOT a party hostel.