Alongside climbing volcanoes at sunrise in East Java and walking with dragons on the island of Flores, the Santa Cruz trail immediately goes into my top three adventures of this year long trip thus far.
Accessed from Huaraz, around 8 hours north of Lima, The Santa Cruz Trek is the crown jewel of hiking in the Peruvian Andes. Stretching some 70km from Cashapampa to Valquiera (or vice versa) it makes it’s highest pass at Punta Union, 4,760m above sea level.
All tour agencies in Huaraz offer this as a four or five day excursion, prices will vary but I can not comment on them as we opted to do the trek alone, to save money and to experience four days of isolated bliss.
*At the bottom of this post you will find a breakdown of our equipment and shopping list for the trip (all costs are mentioned within the post).
Having bought our tickets to the national park (65 soles) the day before, we waited by the side of the road at 5.30am for a collectivo heading to Caraz. We squeezed into the first available and were on our way, an hour or so and 7 soles later we were alighted, the shared taxis to Cashipampa leave around a mile from the ‘bus station’ in Caraz, with our bags full and heavy we jumped in a Tuk Tuk for 2 soles, at the next ‘station’ we were given an option to have the car as a private taxi or a share taxi (commonplace in Peru), the prices; 40 each or 10 each, no brainer.
We walked round to the market to buy bread whilst we waited for other passengers to arrive, and arrive they did, nine people eventually squeezed into a five seater car, the driver pushing at the door like an over packed holidaymaker trying to make weight at the airport. Then another hour later we were in Cashipampa and the trail head to magic.
The trail from this side of the Andes rises quickly, 900m in the first few hours, surrounded only by the sheer faces of valley rock and the river that will be your steadfast companion for the next three days. We climbed, and with every step the altitude began to clench its fist around my belly.
Adele had suffered pretty bad the last five days with altitude sickness, including one trip to the clinic for oxygen and injected fluids, now it was fucking with me. A few pills and a few toilet (behind a rock) stops later I was feeling a little more alive, and beginning to really appreciate the majesty we were entering into.
With nothing but clear skies above for five hours heading up the valley, almost literally out of the blue at 2pm we popped up at the top and there was our campsite (Llamacorral) for the evening, peering straight down the valley that would be our next day, towards the first of the many glaciers that were to frame the coming days. There is a little Bodega at this site selling water, snacks and beer, it is the last chance you will have for supplies. We set up camp, cooked some food and slept hard until sunrise.
We had bought a topographical map in Huaraz for 80 soles, although useful it is not really a necessity, the path for all four days is clear in dry season. Off up it we headed at around 8am, slowly encroaching on receding glaciers, we found this the toughest of the four days. It’s a gradual incline, passing stunning blue lagoons and recently avalanched flat beds of sand that make walking extra strenuous. A bolder field later on will have you making your own path to the forested climb at the end of the day.
The altitude approaching 4,200m has your lungs working equally as hard as your legs. All is worth it as you pass over the last hill of the day and onto the most sensational of campsites (Taulipampa) for the evening. Sitting in the centre of a triangle of glaciers, the air is thin, the sounds are muted and the snow glows Disney white. We slept little because of the altitude that night, although this afforded us plenty of time to venture out of the cold of the tent and into the sub zero night.
A full moon lit the landscape like polished silver, only a few constellations, most notably Scorpio, dotted the black. The purposeful silence of the night punctuated every now and then by distant laughter carried on the breeze, the occasional barking of dogs from down the valley and the rustling of giant hares around our tent. Never has insomnia seemed so perfect.
Setting off cold, we made our attempt at the summit. With the Paramount movie mountain at our right we climbed sharply. The path zig zags up towards the pass at 4,760m, the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen in my life accompanies you all the way. A triumphant blue lagoon sits half way up the gargantuan glacier you ascend towards, rounding the last of the ‘zags’ we were faced with a short hike to the summit.
This place of solitude we had dreamed of for days seemed odd. With every step it became clear why, a group had already peaked from the other side, and oh what a group of turds.
Smattered along the top were a rag tag gang of idiots; several had decided that the best place to rest was in front of the picture opportunity with the summit marker, we met a girl from Birmingham that had stood in man shit, some more of a nationality that will remain un named (but every traveller will know the nationality in question) shouted across the land in guttural, phlegmy twangs, and then there was my favourite of them all. One guy had deemed this place of tranquil magnificence the perfect place to bring his ukulele and his own inimitable brand of Ed Sheeran songs, if you know me, you will know my pain. I was stopped in my tracks in disbelief, even up here, what felt like a thousand miles from civilisation I could not avoid the worst of humankind. We waited them out, as they left we headed up and basked in the splendour of the top of our world. You can not be disappointed here.
The rest of the day took us a little by surprise, although you can camp anywhere inside the national park, we had decided to stick to the official sites, and todays one was nowhere near as close as we had anticipated. We headed down the other side of the mountain for hours and hours, with the completed glacier at our backs we plodded downwards until gone three in afternoon.
Speaking to one of the passing guides after dinner, I learned that we were now only three hours from the road that serves the buses back to Huaraz, making tomorrow morning a breeze compared to the previous days. Result.
Our tent froze in the night, not metaphorically but literally, it froze, solid. Deep in a valley no sunshine touched it before we set off at 9am, as we exited the forest an hour later we made a break for sunshine and warmth, running across the plains like the wild horses we watched frolic later that day.
This morning was the most beautiful, a myriad of wildlife; alpacas, llamas, sheep, cows and wild horses navigated their way around us, and us them. A sole glacier at our backs and high mountains at our side, the valley floor was flat and expansive, forest green and split with glacial waterfalls, it was a sight to behold.
A small mountain village led us down and across the river, some school teachers pointed us in the right direction as we unknowingly lost our way, then yet another sharp incline up the opposite side of the valley took us to a small gathering of Bodegas where the buses depart.
And then there was the bus back, a strange equipoise of the most eye rubbing beauty as the bus rose and then fell over the very top of the Andes mountain range, coined with the fact that there were 17 of us squeezed like sardines into this old Toyota Hiace, I tried to marvel at the beauty on the other side of the glass but my bones shook like thunder and the hate in my heart grew. This ordeal continued long after the Andes had been and gone, then the wheel exploded and then three hours later we arrived in Yungay where we caught a second bus back to Huaraz.
The final four hours aside, this is one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in all my travels. If you have the time then Huaraz and The Santa Cruz simply has to be on any South American itinerary.
*What we packed
-Sleeping bag -5 or below
-Gas burner (one 230g canister boiled us water 12 times) and mess tin and a mug
-A spare layer of warm, dry clothes
-A sharp knife
-First aid kit
-One bottle of water (water from the river is great for drinking on every day, just use the purification tablets to be sure)
-Water purification tablets
What we ate
-Breakfast: porridge oats with honey & hot chocolate
-Snack: cereal bars, bread rolls with avocado, jam and peanut butter.
-Dinner: Pasta with sauce.