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The Santa Cruz Trek: One of the best treks in the world

The Santa Cruz Trek was voted as one of the best treks in the world by National Geographic.

Start:  Cashapampa – elevation: 9,524 ft (2900 meters)

Finish:  Vaqueria – elevation:  11,811 ft (3600 meters)  

Highest point:  15,584 ft (4750 meters)

Total distance:  28 miles (45km)

Days/Nights:  4 days/3 nights (Could be done in 3 days/2 nights buy why not take your time)

Map of the Santa Cruz Trek

Located in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range of Peru, just outside of Huaraz, the Santa Cruz trek was definitely on our to do list. In fact, it was the sole reason I wanted to go to Huaraz.  

We had, once again, a shitty map for a guide – as I was, once again, too cheap to go out and buy a topo map.

Kate and I spent the first day running errands in town. Grocery shopping, acquisition of Kate’s third pair of sunglasses, which broke during the trek. We are currently in search of pair number 4. 

NOTE:  We will be starting a crowd-funding page in order to cover the cost of Kate’s ongoing saga of losing and/or breaking sunglasses.  

We finally found white gas for our stove, which would allow us to cook food on the trek and boil water for drinking, which was a very exciting development.

While hanging out in the community room of our hostel (La Casa de Maruja B&B), we met Femke who was a 21 year old med-student from Holland in search of a tour group to do the Santa Cruz trek. By the way, we cannot recommend La Casa de Maruja, B&B enough. The owner, Gill, has everything you will need for the trek. He is also a guide and is full of information and tips. Plus, you can store your stuff there while you’re out on the trail. Definitely a great hostel!  

The next day Kate, Femke and I all went to town to visit tour operators and it didn’t take much for us to convince Femke she should ditch the tour idea and go with us. For $20 she could rent a tent, sleeping bag and pad and save herself $120. We had our second adopted daughter.

Gill, our hostel owner and local guide, gave us some info about the hike basically saying, “it’s a well marked trail,” “have fun,” “see you in a few days.” He pointed us where to get a collectivo – which are privately owned mini-vans used for cheap transportation along with cramming in as many people as possible to the point of discomfort.  Femke had to have her pack on her lap the whole way there while I had to sit with my pack on my lap the whole way back.

Day 1:  We were off to a good start, we made it to the wrong side of the road to find our collectivo – the side heading South, not North where we intended to go. But, when 3 gringos are standing in the dirt, on the side of the road, with large backpacks, looking lost, it’s a pretty good indication by any smart collectivo driver heading North that these 3 are going to Caraz. Sure enough, the first collectivo going the North stopped and yelled out, “Caraz!?”

We ran across the street jumped in and took a 1.5 hour bus ride to Caraz.  (Cost 6 Soles per person – $1.74)  We were dropped off at the South Collectivo station, and were then in search of the North station, which would take us to Cashapampa. We walked across town, 6-8 blocks, to the other collectivo station, which was basically an open space of dirt behind a metal gate – the kind of place you’d expect to find a few bodies.  

“Cashapampa?” We asked. Suddenly 3-4 men jumped to attention, grabbing our bags, throwing them in the back of a van, responding, “Si, si.”  

Once the van was filled with humans, sacks of potatoes, backpacks, gallons of milk and crying children, we were off – (Cost 10 Soles per person – $2.90) up a narrow, winding dirt road on the side of a mountain for a 2 hour drive to a small little outpost called Cashapampa where the beginning (or end, depending on which way you do the trek) is located.  

He dropped us off right at the trail head. We made pictures of “Day 1” in front of the sign post, navigated around a few pigs, piglets, dogs, chickens and donkeys, paid the National Park our entrance fee of 65 Soles ($18.84) each, and huffed our way up to the river. 

Start of the hike:  9,524 ft (2900 meters).

Before us was an amazing glacier fed river that cut through giant mountain walls. The trail followed the river and started out steep and rocky. We were out of breath within minutes, but soon were able to all get into our own personal hiking and breathing groove. We were told it would take 5 hours to get to our first campsite. We managed to do it in 4.

The first campsite was called Llamacorral, located at 12,335 ft (3760 meters) in elevation. Much like the name indicates, it appeared to be a corral for llamas, although none were found.  

Along the way we passed a solo hiker who had two dogs that followed him from day one. As he came to the end of his hike, those two dogs came back up the trail and showed up in our camp, proceeding to join us for the next 3 days.  

The campsite was nice and flat with big boulders. We set up our tents behind the boulders to block the wind.

For the most part, the entire hike was filled with wild horses, colts, cows, bulls, calfs and other dogs (typically ones that had latched on to other hikers).   After 9.2 km of hiking with an elevation gain of 2000’+ we just wanted to eat and go to bed.

Something I hadn’t done in a while was check my stove. It worked, it just needed a check-up and I failed to do that before we left. It was working fine when we were camping the United States so I didn’t think anything of it nor did I think about being at altitude, which takes longer to boil water. So between the altitude and poorly maintained stove, we burned a liter and half of gas in just 4 days.

First night dinner:  Pasta (al dente), red sauce and coca tea.

The dogs.  Those f’n dogs.  During the day they were great. They would run up the trail, sit and wait for us and lead on. When we rested they would cuddle up next to us and nap…but at night, those dogs barked all night long at everything. They harassed the cows and bulls, chased birds, barking insanely loud. None of us slept that first night because of the dogs, aside from the barking we were a bit in-nerves as to what they could possibly be barking at. We didn’t admit it until the next morning but we were all convinced there was someone or some sprits wandering around our campsite. It was just the three of us and what else could the dogs be barking at?

Day 2:  We made some oatmeal and tea, listened to the soothing sounds of a rock-slide in the distance, packed up our stuff, looked sourly at the two dogs that kept us up all night and just before heading out at 9a.m. a solo hiker, heading the opposite way, walked into camp. It only took him 3 hours (so he said) to get from the campsite we were heading to. He failed to mention it was mostly a climb for us, not flat. We were optimistic we’d be there by 1p.m. so that we could make camp and do a day trek to the base camp of Alpamayo. That’s exactly what didn’t happen.

Although tired from lack of sleep we were all pretty excited to get going. We planted in our minds a 4 hour day and headed east along the river where the mountains started to open up. We could see the snow-capped peak of Mt. Taulliraju and next to it the pass we had to climb over the next day in the distance. Snow-capped peaks would come and go from behind ravines while waterfalls, created from the melting snows, surrounded us to the left and right – it was magical.  

We crossed pastures of wild animals as we followed sections of the Inca trail. We also passed an old landslide which had wiped out a small lake (Ichiq cocha – which means small lake), exposing the dry cracked lake bed. Then we hiked around a large glacier fed lake (Hatun cocha – which means large lake) and then across a dry sand desert-like terrain.  

After a forced river crossing, self-navigation due to a lack of trail, a hike over and through a large boulder field and finally up a muddy pass – we arrived at the campsite 6 hours later. We were, once again, in a field of wild horses, bulls, cows, etc… In the shadow of the massive snow-capped and glacier-covered mountains of the Cordillera Blanca.  Elevation: 13,780 ft (4200 meters). A tour group was also camped here but it was windy, cold and all anyone wanted to do was eat and sleep.  

NOTE:  With the tour, you don’t have to carry any gear, the mules carry everything. The guides set up and break down the tents and cook the meals and clean up. It sort of takes the fun out of it if you ask me. It’s like having someone else run the race and you get the t-shirt.

We set up the tent, made a smaller portion of pasta, as altitude suppresses your appetite, drank a bunch of coca tea and crawled into our sleeping bags. That night the dogs did not disappoint. They spent the whole night barking at everything that was or was not there. To add to that, altitude makes it hard to sleep. Finally, there was the unexpected herd of horses that stampeded by our tent around 2a.m.  All in all, very little sleep was to be had.

Day 3:  We left Taullipampa (The name of the campsite) at 8:30a.m. We all agreed to take it slow and stay together – 15,584 feet is pretty high and many things can happen to the body, the biggest being altitude sickness. We dragged ourselves up and rested every 15 minutes to drink water and catch our breaths, while the dogs ran off chasing birds. I was a bit anxious as I didn’t know how steep the trail would be and if you’ve been following along, you’ll know I am not a fan of heights.  

The trail was part of the Inca system and the impressive and massive stones made for a nice wide, yet steep climb up and over the pass, Punta Union, which we reached 3.5 hours later. This was the highest point of the Santa Cruz Trek, and we definitely felt it.  At the pass we all shared Femke’s snickers bar and made some pictures of us standing in front of the Punta Union sign.

Twenty minutes later we gathered our packs and headed down the other side. We still had to 1.5 hours to camp…or so we thought. I really don’t know where this 1.5 hours came from, a dream perhaps, but I was convinced we had just 1.5 hours to go.  

A steep staircase of stones winded down and then opened up into a nice but steep decent atop massive boulders. Using our shitty map as reference (not to scale, no real detail what-so-ever) the 1.5 hour projection ended up being 4.5 hours…4.5 frustrating hours of trekking.  

The scenery was spectacular, which helped drown out the psychological defeat we all seemed to be having.  Nothing more frustrating than thinking you are someplace only to find out you are..oh 3 hours away from that someplace. At 5 o’clock we rolled into Paria, more like stumbled in really. 

Paria is a campsite along a glacier fed river, which, upon arrival Kate and I jumped in to remove three days of stink and restore the muscles.

We gathered around the poorly operating stove one last time for some pasta. This time we splurged and shared two bags of Ramen noodles, a food I haven’t had in over 12 years…and it was fantastic. I had only eaten one small bag of peanuts and a bite of snickers all day – I was starving. The sun set and the temperature dropped, so we crawled into our sleeping.  Thank God the dogs were too tired to bark this night which made for a much needed quiet night of sleeping.

Day 4:  We woke up to ice on our tents. We shoved our tents into the bags wet. It was our last day and we had to be in Vaqueria no later then 10am, or 12 noon or 1pm, depending on who you asked. We had asked many “reliable” people about when the collectivos picked up and we recieved many different answers. We had assumed the last collectivo came through at noon, so our goal was to leave at 6:30am and arrive around 10:30 and hopefully catch the last collectivo at noon (or 1 pm – because who the hell knows really.)

We asked the park ranger how far to Vaqueria:  45 minutes.

After hiking 30 minutes we asked a local:  15 minutes.

After hiking another 30 minutes we asked another local:  1 hour.

We started to follow a dirt road that switch-backed up the mountain to the town of Vaqueria, which was only 45, 15 or 60 minutes away.

While resting in the shade, out of nowhere a Peruvian women dressed in traditional Quechua garb popped out on to the road in front of us.  She was carrying a 30 pound bag of something on her back and was followed by a 5 year daughter who would later use her switch to “motivate” me up the mountain. She informed us of a “short-cut” that would shorten the hike from one hour to 5 minutes. How, after 35 minutes the trek turned into another hour, I’ll never know.  I will say:  

“Be weary of people who tell you how far something is in time and don’t wear watches.” Cory Mortensen

15 minutes later, and after taking the “short-cut,” which was a vertical path straight up the side of the mountain, we arrived in Vaqueria; a 6 building town located on the side of a mountain on a narrow dirt road. I dropped my pack, bought two beers and played soccer with two little girls for 20 minutes while we waited for the next collectivo.

I’d like to tell you that was the end of the adventure, and for the most part it was. In Vaqueria we met and ended up helping a German woman who got altitude sickness and was essentially abandoned by her tour group.  (One of many reasons I don’t do tours.)

She had to hike back to Vaqueria. A family put her up for the night as she had no gear. We assured her we’d get her back to Huaraz and together we jumped in the first collectivo, knocking the price down from 20 soles ($5.79) to 15 soles ($4.34) per person and began our 4-6 hour ride back to civilization. Not worried about a thing

It started off great, amazing scenery as we headed for Portachuelo Pass – 15,617′. Then we got a flat tyre (that’s right Flanders – tyre).  While our driver fixed the flat, I noticed hot liquid spewing from the the radiator. I pointed it out to him, his response seemed to indicate that it shouldn’t be a problem. Why would it. Flat tyre, Leaking fluids – nothing to concern ourselves with

With the tyre fixed, we moved up the pass where that leak did become a problem and the engine overheated.  We stopped, waited for the engine to cool down and within 30 minutes we were off again.  

With only 100 yards to go, the collectivo over-heated yet again. So we all had to get out and walk over the pass.  This provided some incredible views; and Kate, Femke and I all soon became local celebrities as the families in the collectivo wanted to make photos with us gringos.  

I looked at the road we were to descend. I thought about the fact we broke down 3 times already.  I assessed the van, which was sporting three bald tyres and one spare. I re-assured myself that the driver has taken all precautions on checking the brakes and no white crosses would be erected in our honor. Not on this day.

We made it back to the hostel around 5 p.m., had some tea, met a few new people and all agreed it’s time to head into to town for some curry.

The Santa Cruz Trek is definitely one spectacular hike that I’d be happy to do again…and I’m I finally fixed my stove.


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