Santa Cruz Trek and a bit of Huaráz

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June 9th 2007
Published: August 9th 2007
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The Santa Cruz circuit is one of the main trekking routes in the Cordillera Blanca and a mighty fine one at that. Along with my trusty sidekick, Lukas, who´d actually beaten me to Huaráz despite me leaving him behind in Cusco, I headed down the valley from Huaráz to Caraz, then on to Cashapampa by colectivo. The night before we´d stocked up on sufficient chocolate, quinua chicken surprise, and in Lukas´s case tuna, enough to feed the japanese army for a week, to get us safely through the 4 day trek. The market in itself was an interesting experience: though i got a photo of the chickens hanging up, I was too chicken to get a photo of the platters of disected guinea pigs, the local delicacy. Caraz seemed a nice place and there we stocked up on a few last minute bits and bobs, fresh bread, etc... before boarding the uphill colectivo to Cashapampa the start of the circuit.

Pampa means field or plain in Quechua, so not surprisingly, the town was nestled in amongst grain and red quinua fields fed by the river emitting from the gorge at the mouth of the Santa Cruz valley - a nice place. But off we huffed anyway into the gorge. Before long we realised that it was going to be a tough uphill climb to first camp and our packs no longer seemed so light after all. In fact Lukas´s pack somehow resembled the mountains of the canyon wall surrounding us - he only had himself to blame with all that tuna and the secret stash of chocolate that he'd slipped in there. The canyon was so steep-sided that it took several hours hiking just to get a first glimpse of the high peaks towering above us.

We eventually got up the steep start and up to Llamapampa where the valley widened out into a wide flat plain with cows and horses grazing. We passed by the official campsite and found a nice spot next to the river with a huge snow-capped mountain crowning the upper part of the valley. At which point Lukas whipped off his clothes for a traditional Czech post-hike skinny dip... and this was to be a trend throughout the whole trek.

Sun sets early in these valleys, about 4pm, and it gets cold fast. With little to do after an evening meal (quinua chicken surprise... the surprise being it tasted good!!) it was straight to bed. That night was a cold one at 3800m (colder ones were to follow though!) with my lousy sleeping bag (must get a new one when get to US!) even when wearing all my clothes.

We awoke to ice on the outside of the tent - at least not inside, and the first rays of sun, thankfully bringing some warmth. The sunlight can get so intense in the mountains at altitude, and you get this bizarre feeling of being hot yet cold at the same time. Onwards we trekked but gently uphill past lakes, with more and more mountains emerging above us (perfect blue sky) to the Alapamayo Base Camp turnoff. A spot of lunch there with a very friendly cow (I was slightly worried when it disappeared only to reappear about 10cm behind me) and up the steep climb to the Alpamayo valley. Alpamayo is reknowned as the worlds most beautiful mountain and it certainly stakes a claim (I believe the north side is the more picturesque) with the trademark fluting of soft snow clinging to the near vertical slopes, but some of the other mountains surrounding the base camp where even more dramatic looking. We hiked up to a lake above the campsite for great views of a glacier and, yup, more skinny-dipping next to an iceberg. I have a rather funny photo of Lukas surfing on the iceberg, but on pain of retaliation, am unable to show it. You´ll have to enjoy the censored images. Oh, of course it was absolutely freezing.

That night we had a very spectacular sunset over the distant mountains (Lukas went crazy with his camera) and a beautiful clear night. Another night of fitful sleep followed due to the cold. We got up early for dawn on Alpamayo, but for some reason the lighting wasn´t too spectacular. Never mind, onwards we hiked back to the main trail then over the main pass, Punto Union at 4760m or so, just below the snow line. Well this was a mighty slog. Finally the altitude started to get to me, as well as another timely bout of backpackers bowels, but I was up first, with Lukas (still weighed down by half the atlantic tuna stocks) close behind. The pass itself was a cleft in an otherwise inpenetratable ridge. The wind was whistling through, so we stayed on the sunny side and a had lunch (slightly stale bread by now) chatting to a spanish-swiss couple who we ended up seeing another couple of times on the trail, and watching teams of donkeys passing by laden with equipment for the ´tours´ (I say with disdain for we carried our on packs - of course a tour is precisely what i´d just done on the Inca trail!). There was a long way to drop down the otherside in what was to be our longest day, passing some interesting waterfalls and more spectacular scenery. By the time I reached the campsite for that night I was pretty much dead. Good thing it was Lukas´s turn to cook (a mighty fine job he made - Kraft macaroni cheese) and I snuggled into my sleeping back outside the tent. Later Lukas joined me (er... separate sleeping bags I mean!) and we both feel asleep gazing up at the Southern Cross and shooting stars (shifted inside the tent later, but the warmest night by far).

We took the last morning a bit easier, thinking that we had only a couple of hours to hike out to the endpoint of the trek. How wrong we were. It seemed like an interminable 3 and half hours, culminating in a tough climb to the road and the bus stop for the colectivo back to Huaráz. And our day had only just begun. After waiting for a couple of hours a colectivo finally arrived and we pushed to some spare room at the back, knees firmly awedged. In all there were about 20 people in the bus (think VW camper van size), with a couple of people on the roof at certain points. The bus rose to another pass at 4800m. I say rose, but buses don´t really rise to 4800m on a rocky dirt road, they jolt, sway and stagger up, severly knackering your knees if you´re of Westerner porportions. And that was the way up. What was to greet us on the other side was, apart from an amazing view of Huascarán, the highest mountain in Peru, the most amazing series of hairpins I´ve seen in my life. If i´d counted there´d probably have been about 60 consective 180 bends dropping us about a 1000m down a practically sheer slope. By the time we reached Yungay, then Huaráz we were all dead. Pizza (great pizza at El Horno) and sweet dreams followed quickly.

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