The Santa Cruz trek and Huaraz, Peru

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July 21st 2014
Published: August 14th 2014
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Even after hiking around many mountains in the world there is a serious ‘wow’ factor when seeing the Cordillera Blanca range surrounding Huaraz. I was fortunate to have this destination on my radar due to a Peruvian friend and her sharing wonderful pictures and reports of her hikes. On my first trip to Peru twelve years ago I didn’t even know this place existed as I was centrally focused on what most tourists think about coming to Peru – Machu Picchu. Well, I must say that trekking around Huaraz deserves equal billing in Peru. Thankfully, prices haven’t risen like they have in Cusco over the last decade so you can still sneak in a very affordable visit here. With the exception of some nice restaurants, it is not the city of Huaraz itself that stands out but rather the amazing array of titans that hover just outside of town. On this trip I came to do the popular, and deservedly so, Santa Cruz trek. I am already looking forward to a return to do the longer Huayhuash trek in the near future. Interestingly, by the end of my visit I was actually shocked at how few day hike options were available in Huaraz but I think this might change in the future. Right now the limit might stem from very poor road conditions getting to trail heads by taxis with very low clearance. My itinerary for the trip included a day of arrival, two acclimatization day-hikes, the 4night/5day Santa Cruz trek and then two additional days before leaving (wherein I got in another day hike). Huaraz sits as just over 10,000 feet so, like Cusco, it takes some acclimatization before beginning any major hikes unless you have already been at altitude.

Many people bus from Lima (or elsewhere) into Huaraz. I arrived by plane, something of a unique experience, as you have the tarmac all to your self with the blue skies overhead and a view of Huascaran (highest peak in Peru) right over the top of the airport. After a half-hour ride (30 soles) by taxi (and a ticketed stop by the police) to my hotel at Casa Blanca (not recommended btw) near the Central Mercado I was a bit overwhelmed by the hectic nature of the city itself. However, the slight chaos of the city just becomes the norm after being in the city a couple days. There seems to be a ‘tourist zone’ that spreads out within a couple blocks of the main square in all directions. Because I was starving after my trip to the jungle I went right for La Brasa Roja and scarfed down a ½ chicken and fries (you can ask for arroz (rice) also). Then I headed over to Huascaran, the company with which I was doing the Santa Cruz trek. They provide an acclimatization day hike with their booking so I went and scheduled that for the next day

Apparently the Wilka Cocha hike, just outside of town reachable by the city collectivos, is a standard warm-up for bigger hikes in the area. On the way up the hike I was suspicious of why we were out there but once you get to the top the payoff is clear. You have something like 70% of the Cordillera Blanca range in view – all the white-capped giants standing side by side on the horizon. There is also a small lake at the top with tent-campers off to one side. This was a good introductory hike and one that could be done on your own if you can figure out how to jump on and off the appropriate collective. Riding in the collectivo is something of an experience itself with the lead-footer driver and ‘doorman’ who moves people in and out of the vehicle so quickly that it barely has to stop.

The next day I was off to the Lake Churup hike along with a Dutch couple that I had met on the Wilka Cocha hike. This hike was a perfect ‘round 2’ warm up for the Santa Cruz trek. After climbing up the left side of a large waterfall with some cables strategically placed along the way you get a wonderful view at the edge of Lake Churup. We had a sunny day that really showed off the beautiful blue color of the lake and the surrounding mountains. Also, we started with the ‘shortcut’ as we got off before the parking lot and connected with the main trail a different way. Beware that the road to get here is very rough and you spend even longer on this type of road to get to Lake Llaca.

Our Santa Cruz trek began early in the morning with hotel/hostel pickups and a sleepy ride to Yungay for a breakfast stop. The Huascaran company combines the Laguna 69 hike with the traditional Santa Cruz trek, therefore we were combined with some day-hikers on the first day. Our group consisted of just one couple from Canada, one woman from the UK, our guide Vicky, our cook Amador, our burro driver Ameliano, and myself. After a long drive but before arriving at the trailhead we stopped at a beautiful turquoise lake and had a chance to hop out and take pictures. At the beginning of the Laguna 69 trail we began our trek from a beautiful setting in a valley with a river flowing through it and mountains jumping up in all directions. After seeing tents at the beginning of the trek I remember commenting how amazing it would be to camp at that spot only to find out that we were camping just down the valley that night. The trek stands out for the beautiful views of the surrounding mountains, the really interesting looking hardwood trees, and the purple lupine flowers that can be found along the trail. Deep in the valley before trekking uphill Vicky and her eagle eyes spotted some viscachas amongst some rocks. Viscachas are sort of a mix between a rabbit and a squirrel and seem to blend into their environment. The one major ascent on this trail has a beautiful payoff as you get your first glimpse of Laguna 69. My initial reaction was that when people see pictures of the Lagoon that they are going to think the color has been Photoshopped. The blue is a brilliant hue that I had never seen before and it is so striking that you just keep saying ‘wow!’ The lagoon was our lunch stop where we sat and enjoyed the beautiful setting for about an hour. We were also treated to a mini-landslide near the waterfall that was dumping into the lagoon. We then retraced our steps on the hike and camped very near Lake Llanganuco. Unfortunately, at the time I didn’t know that we were right down the road (within sight) of Llanganuco or I would have taken the walk down to it. I figured this out, after the fact, and saw it from above on our ride the next morning to our trailhead to start the Santa Cruz trek.

On the first night we had our favorite meal on the trip – trout – deliciously cooked up by Amador and served with potatoes and avocado. I was warned about the cold at night and came pretty well prepared. I had a duck down sleeping bag rated at 29 degrees and also brought the small hand warmers that you shake and then stay warm for a number of hours. I also had a fleece and a wind-breaker/rain shell and these combined provided enough warmth.

Day 2 began with a ride of about an hour and twenty minutes up and over a pass to get to the little village of Cashapampa. Here we met up with our burro driver and began the actual Santa Cruz trek. You begin by descending down in through a couple small villages and eventually come up on the entrance to Huascaran National Park. We showed our tickets to the Park and continued on and had lunch soon after in a field where sheep were grazing. Most of the remainder of that day’s hike was through a nice valley where upon we eventually came upon our next campsite. The campsites were typically in great settings with amazing views of the surrounding mountains and this one was no different.

Day 3 was probably the most eye-popping day on the circuit. In the morning we hiked directly toward Artesanraju Mountain, said to be the mountain used for the live-action logo for Paramount Pictures. With this still in full view we veered off to the left and began an ascent of to the beautiful Punta Union Pass (4750 meters) the highest point on our hike. This is the biggest climb of the trek and reaching the top is quite a thrill as you immediately look down upon a beautiful glacier lake. Unfortunately it was cloudy when we were at the top so the colors were a bit muted. We sat and had lunch at the Pass before beginning a long downhill hike to our eventual campsite for the night, Taullipampa. The skies cleared in the afternoon and the views looking back on Punta Union were amazing as were the views from our campsite when we arrived. This was definitely the best campsite of the journey in terms of epic scenery in all directions. After settling in and sitting in front of our tents just taking in the views I went on a short walk with Carl and Shayla (Canadian couple) just before sunset. While at the edge of camp we heard a dog begin barking at the hillside and quickly noticed that it was tuned in to a curious fox. So, for probably a half hour we watched as the dog attempted in vain to keep an eye on this fox that was very large – having features that made it appear somewhat similar to a German shepherd. Later that evening we were able to spot a couple other foxes on the hillside with our headlamps at the edge of camp by their eyes as they were just biding their time to come down and explore the camp.

Day 4 was also very scenic as we took a side trip down the valley towards Mt. Alpamayo that has been described as the most beautiful mountain in the world. We had pretty good views of the mountain early on but as we approached it became covered at the top with clouds. Our approach was through another beautiful valley until we reached the Alpamayo base camp. After a short break there we climbed up the trail near a large waterfall to another beautiful emerald glacier lake surrounded by glaciers and Alpamayo on its sides. From here you could see the tiny specs that were people climbing down from Mt. Alpamayo. After a nice break there we descended back down to the base camp and retraced our way back through the valley from which we came. After this we descended to another valley that had been completely altered with a large avalanche a number of years ago. In a quick change of climates we were soon walking through this sun-laded desert-like valley without trees (only the occasional purple lupine that had somehow appeared). The walk of maybe an hour was very hot and made you wonder if you were still in the Andes. Thankfully, lunch was ahead at the base of a beautiful waterfall. The menacing flies were the only thing that took away from the beauty of that location where you could also see the edge of a large, beautiful emerald lake just down the trail. After lunch we hiked one whole side of this lake before finishing our trek for the day hiking through another beautiful valley with the trail paralleling a river. Camp that night was at a nice spot next to the river. Amador, Ameliano, and Carl tried catching more trout for dinner but it wasn’t meant to be as they were only able to come up with about one regular sized fish. Amador substituted with pasta and we were good to go.

Our last day began with a nice breakfast of quinoa porridge and a pancake. We then headed down the trail along the river and descended to the end of the trek. The hike that day was only about 3 hours, although we had nice views of a raging river along the way, and we arrived at the small village of Vaqueria. There we had our last lunch fixed by Amador and waited for our shuttle back to Huaraz. Along the way back we were treated to a beautiful drive over Pato Valley and also stopped in Caras for some ice cream thanks to Vicky. It was actually the Independence holiday for Peru on our last day of the hike so the cities of Caras and Huaraz were busy in the main squares with lots of visitors in town.

Jane (from UK), Carl, Shayla, and I celebrated that night with a visit to Rinconcito Mineiro where we feasted on trout (and Shayla tried lomo saltado). The trout was excellent and I got fries and rice on the side with a Coke all for 20 soles. It felt like a steal. This turned out to be one of my favorite restaurants on my three and a half week trip.

The next day the four of us took the incredibly long, bumpy ride to Lake Llaca. We were disappointed when we started hiking and found that we were really already at the Lake. So, we spent a couple hours hiking around the small turquoise lakes under the glaciers before taking the long journey back to Huaraz. Llaca itself wasn’t bad but I would definitely opt for the hike to Lake Churup instead. That night we had surprisingly good pizza at Mi Comedia Pizzeria. It is a few blocks down the main road in Huaraz outside of the normal tourist zone. My final day I actually spent regrouping as I really couldn’t find a great option for a day-hike anyway. I met back up with Carl and Shayla to feast on trout again at Rinconcito Mineiro one last time and then headed over to the bustling Rossonero’s for dessert afterwards.

Overall this was an excellent trip. For me it feels like a location that competes with the finest natural scenery in the world but one that most Americans are not aware of. I would like to return and do the Huayhuash trail soon. However, I’m hoping that the infrastructure improves for travel in the area. I think there are potentially loads of places to explore and potential day hikes that are not currently available (without local knowledge or transport). And this destination is much more affordable than the country’s better know destinations around Cusco. Ah. . . . visions of the Cordillera Blanca will be with me always!

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27th August 2015

Great blogging
Hi John, I just wanted to say I'm really enjoying reading your blogs. I love the in depth studies you do of the places you go to. My wife and I are planning to end our current travels in Peru next year and this was the perfect inspiration.
7th September 2015

That's great! Yeah, sometimes I include the information so I don't forget it in a year or so but I'm so glad when others pick up some ideas. You will love Peru! Happy travels!

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