Coming to Peru, and being so close to the Andes, of course inspired us to do a trek. But having no experience and not being acclimatized got us a bit worried about our ability to make it through one! Huaraz, ‘the Peruvian Switzerland’, is surrounded by several Cordilleras -Blanca, Negra and Huascaran (the highest mountain range in Peru)- which makes it the perfect base for trekking. The 4-day Santa Cruz trek, in the Cordillera Blanca, is accessible to beginners, even without a guide (meaning we have to carry our packs!).
We got all the information we needed from our hostel (Akilpo), the mountain guide and tourist offices, got acclimatized via a few day hikes, and rented camping equipment and did all our food-shopping the day before we left. In hindsight, we probably bought too much food (polenta, tuna cans, porridge, dry soups, bread, salami, avo, tomato, etc), our packs weighing between 10 and 15 kg each. Fortuntely, water is plentifully available on this trek, to which we would add purifying tables (brought over from France, as they are almost impossible to find in South America!).
We took 2 collectivos from Huaraz to the starting point (via Yungay), arriving late morning. The beginning of the trail winds through a few villages and gets mixed up with paths used by the locals. Fortunately, they all participated in our navigation: “Hey gringo, that way!’.
The trail mostly follows the river through lush green valleys and pastures, dotted with herds of sheep, llamas, cows and the odd pig and donkey. It was a regular up and down climb from 3600m to 3800m, and quite an adjustment getting used to our heavy packs. We finished setting up our first camp before sunset, so had time to take in the scenery and enjoy our hot meal!
We got an early start on this, the hardest/longest day of the trek. The trail winds up steeply almost from the start, along a mountain side, looking down on the valley below. It becomes more rocky, steep and even snowy as we get higher and higher. The final ascent just before the Punta Union pass, nestled at 4750m, is by far the hardest climb on the trek, especially with full packs on! But the pay-off for all our effort and physical exhaustion was the breathtaking, 360-degree, clear view, from one side of the pass to the other.
We leave behind green, rocky, snowy valleys on one side, to discover a drier, grassy landscape on the other, looking down on a few milky turquoise glacier lakes set at the foot of towering snow-capped, rocky mountain faces. It was difficult to leave this spot, and the sense of acheivement it came with, but we had to make our way down quickly, followed by a friendly dog, as the weather was starting to turn. We put up the tent at the 2nd camp (4250m altitude), before having late lunch, early dinner and tucking in for the night!
We could really feel yesterday’s efforts in our aching bodies the next day. We started off quite late as it started to rain just as we were about to take down the tent, and Renaud had an unfortunate mishap, falling into the icy river as he was doing the dishes!
Fortunately the weather cleared-up, and we started on our objective for today: a detour up through a neighbouring valley, to see the 6000m-high Alpamayo mountain and a glacier plunging into another icy blue lake: Laguna Arhuaycocha. The detour was definitely worth it, but took longer than expected, even without our packs, which we hid in a bush on the way. We had lunch just before hitting a flat 10km section of desert followed by swamp-land, and then another enormous lake. By the time we got to the other side of the lake, we had been walking in pouring rain again for hours, and I (Steph) was starting to feel quite weak, even ill. Which is why we set up camp just 4km off from the official one, and just before nightfall. We ate sandwiches inside the tent, as we couldn’t cook anything outside because of the weather, and went straight to sleep!
We left early again to catch up yesterday’s delay, and to reach Cashapampa by midday, when/where collectivos are supposed to be available to return to Caraz. Fortunately the weather had cleared, and we had breakfast outside (just before running out of gas!), enjoying the view on Laguna Ichiccocha, surrounded by grazing horses. We speeded through the remainder of the trek, along the dusty path winding through the canyon, just stopping for lunch on top a boulder by the gushing river, enjoying the sunshine, and drying off yesterday’s wet clothes. We arrived in Cashapampa 2 hours late, but were lucky to catch a collectivo-taxi that was just leaving. The ride down was tight, dusty and bumpy, but we were rewarded with an amazing panarama over the dizzying drops below us, and a great sense of acheivement!