If you’ve read my post about the day trip to Pastoruri Glacier, you’ll know that I was accosted by a tour agency representative as soon as I arrived, after 3 days of buses, into Huaraz. I was feeling the pressure to get through Peru a lot faster than I’d sauntered through Ecuador, and I booked both the glacier – for acclimatisation – and the Santa Cruz trek as soon as I arrived.
After realising a good friend of mine who I’d met in Ecuador was also in Huaraz, the prospect of going off on a 4-day hike that left at 6 am the next morning was even less appealing. I almost cancelled.
The morning of the trip, the pushy tour guy showed up and told me that I’d be going wih another company (Galaxia), and that I’d have to pay an extra S20 to rent a sleeping bag. I argued in Spanish that this wasn’t the deal we’d made the day before, and felt a surge of pride when he eventually gave in!
As it turned out, Santa Cruz was by far my favourite trek of my trip through South America…so far…
We had a group of 11 tourists, representing England, France, Spain, Germany and Israel, plus the guide, the chef and a few donkeys to carry our tents, sleeping bags and extra belongings.
The first day was only a few hours’ hike. Our guide did a great job of informing us about the local area’s history. He told us about how the pre-Incas used religion to conquer communities and gain power, and that, during the Incan empire, many people used the hallucinogenic Ayahuasca cactus to make people feel like they had experienced something Godly. While he explained that children in rural Peru were raised as sociable and loving people, some young boys ran by, sceaming a cheerful ‘hola’, as if to prove his point.
We passed a small hamlet, were it was possible to volunteer for a few days, living life as a local and helping plough the fields, cook dinner traditionally and wash clothes in the river.
When we stopped for a break, women dressed in traditional brightly coloured clothing sat crossed-legged behind a display of hand-woven hats, while their children begged for cookies and flashed sunlight in our eyes using mirrors.
We arrived at the first camp site just before dusk. The party of donkeys was there already and our tents were erected.
After a warm meal and lots of cups of mate de coca, we made sure we were wearing every item of clothing we’d brought with us, and zipped ourselves tightly into our sleeping bags.
It wasn’t enough. I barely slept because of the immense cold, and when I woke at 5 the next morning, there were huge chunks of ice firmly adhered to the outer lining of my tent.
I’d got up early for the sunrise and inadvertently caught the moon disappearing behind snow-capped mountains. As it turned out, we had a few hours to appreciate the amazing views, because one of the Spanish girls was so sick from the altitude, our guide, Abel, had to accompany her party of three back down the mountain before we began day two’s marathon walk.
Day two was a bastard. We spent hours climbing higher into the mountains. The higher we got, the more I felt like I was back on the slopes of my nemasis, Cotopaxi, in Ecuador. Near the top, we stopped by a heart-shaped lake, where Abel told us that any wish regarding our other half would come true, and that the lake would grow bigger as a result. Lacking in the boyfriend department, I couldn’t tell you whether or not his words were true.
Eventually, we reached ‘the pass’. It was about a metre long, before the path wound steeply back down into the next valley.
We clambered over a few more rocks for 360 degree views of the surrounding landscape, but it began to hail, so we didn’t stick around.
At least the rest of the day was an easy downhill stroll. I took the opportunity to practice my Spanish with Abel, since I could actually catch a breath at the lower altitude.
Within minutes, we were discussing the relative merits of dating people from different countries. It was insightful. Apparently Irish girls make the best lovers! Darn it…
Camp site number 2 was a small step up from camp site number 1. Our relative luxury was a toilet tent erected around a hole in the ground. It sure beat wandering aimlessly through the pitch black night trying to locate a tree to hide behind.
We were in a valley by a river, and, conveniently, it started to rain just after we arrived, creating a beautiful rainbow.
Dinner turned into a massive debate after I objected to Abel’s comment that humans weren’t animals. As a biology graduate, I couldn’t let that one go, and it spiralled into an arguement about whether or not evolution was a valid theory. I went to bed fuming!
At least I now had an extra sleeping bag from one of the Spanish girls as a back up, although, even with two jumpers, a fleece, a rain jacket and two sleeping bags, I shivered throughout the night.
In the morning, I caught the moon going down again!
Abel decided that we had it in us to complete the trek during the third day, allowing us time to visit some natural springs on the morning of day 4. As none of us had showered in days, we all agreed immediately.
The last day was easy going. There was only one steep climb at the begining, to a viewpoint where we could see the Paramount Mountain, used in its logo by the movie-making company of the same name. Abel said this was a notoriously difficult mountain to climb, and that many had died attempting it.
This was also the setting for a personal victory of mine – I finally mastered the jumping shot, after many failed attempts in South America where I have just looked like an idiot. Check out how far away my shadow is! I have to give some credit to Abel for this one, because I definitely didn’t have the energy to jump as high as this photo suggests! …
As we progressed through the valley, we could see the devastation caused by a massive avalanche earlier in the year. Abel had seen it happen from the top of the mountain pass, and he told us how his group had feared for their lives as the mountains thundered and shook around them. The landslide had engulfed an entire river and thousands of trees, making its way as far as the Pacific Ocean, but, miraculously, not taking any human lives as it forced its way down.
The last night’s camp site was in the back garden of Abel’s friend’s house, in a tiny village at the end of the Santa Cruz trek. Not only was it good to know we’d completed it, but there was the chance to buy cold soft drinks and beers, and to walk around barefoot on the cool grass.
In the evening, after the ‘last supper’, we listened to a man play the harp and sing in Spanish, before he gave a few of us a lesson. I’ve never played a harp before. Take it from me – it’s way more difficult than it looks!
Finally, on the last day, we made it to the thermal baths. There had been no attempt to turn them into a tourist trap. A local man was just donning his underpants as we arrived. There were a few shallow pools, where steaming volcaic water mixed with icy streams to create the perfect bath-like temperature. Someone had even had the foresight to bring a bar of soap! After the efforts of the previous few days, it was pure bliss.
A few things to consider:
- The Santa Cruz trek isn’t circular. Tour companies tend to drop one group off when they pick up another. This means you have a 50:50 chance of doing the hike one way or another. We heard that the opposite direction to ours was a much harder first day, but that the climbing was more steady, allowing more time to acclimatise.
- You should take acclimatisation seriously. There are plenty of day trips to beatiful spots around Huaraz to help you get used to the altitude. Pastoruri Glacier is stunning, and everyone I’ve met who went to Laguna 69 couln’t stop singing its praises. You don’t want to have to go back down after one night like my Spanish friends.
- It’s a good idea to buy a sheet of plastic to use as a poncho! About 2.5 metres is sufficient. You then open it up and force your head through the middle. We were really lucky not to be rained on, but if the heavens open, these makeshift plastic coats are a great way to protect your whole body and your bags. You can buy plastic in the village where you stop for breakfast and to buy your park entry ticket on the first morning.
- There’s a park entry charge of S65. Make sure you check when you book your trek whether or not this is included.
- It gets really hot and sunny during the day and ridiculously cold at night. There are also a lot of mosquitoes, which is surprising for the altitude. Come prepared!