I slipped on the rock and fell.
My trekking pole snapped in half.
I lifted my bottle to drink, only a few drops came out.
I looked around - I’m all alone.
Is it possible to feel depressed in such natural beauty?
The Santa Cruz trek is described as one of the most beautiful in the world, but here I am, feeling… meh.
After spending a few days in Huaraz acclimatising with the Laguna 69 and Pastoruri Glacier hikes, I felt that I was finally ready to take on the Cordillera Blanca – the highest tropical mountain range in the world, with more than 50 mountains over 5700m.
Excitement filled me as I left my hostel at 5am in the morning on the minibus with my fellow trekkers. I’ve heard so many rave reviews about how gorgeous the 3-4 days Santa Cruz trek is.
Even the bus ride up the winding and bumpy mountain roads was scenic. On good days, you can see Peru’s highest mountain, Huascaran, and the four snowy peaks of Huandoy, Pisco, Chacraraju and Chopicalqui.
We stopped at a viewpoint on the way up to the Huascaran National Park, just to take in the impressive views of the mountain range and the few lakes tucked between them. It was a good start to the day.
From the village Vaqueria (3700m), we walked through lots of greenery: both vegetation and the great plains. Cows and horses fed on the grass while children and farm animals roam about freely in the numerous villages we walked past.
“Do you have a cookie?” a little girl dressed in colourful traditional mountain-clothes asked. It was hard to resist.
Unbeknownst to us, we have left the National Park only to re-enter it again after walking through the villages, and registered at the guardhouse.
Note: Multi-day Ticket to Huascaran National Park = PEN $65/USD $20 (Sept 2017)
Three hours passed quickly walking along uneven gravel path and surrounded by nature, stopping occasionally to take in the sight and feeling the cool mountain breeze.
“Beautiful huh?” Johnathan, my groupmate asked, as we stopped by a lake.
“It’s decent,” I replied. It was then I realized, I might have suffered from nature fatigue.
After doing 7 or 8 hikes in the past two months, I wasn’t as easily impressed by nature anymore. They all looked the same to me.
What was new though, were the canteen and kitchen tents that were set up by our guides and chefs. These large tents were able to fit all 8 of us as we cosily sipped our hot soups and savour the delicious food.
We slept in our tents by the river, accompanied by the incessant barking of the village dogs that followed us. Temperatures dropped to sub-zero that night. Day one was an easy and gradual descent.
Like the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu, the chefs woke us up with hot coca tea delivered right to our tent doors. That morning, I learnt that washing your hands at 6am up at 3700m freezes your hands, don’t do it.
The first part of day two was easy as we walked through the same landscape. We separated, but the village dogs also split themselves amongst us and led the way. Truth is, they followed us just for food, but when you’re alone up in the mountains, they’re a much-needed welcome.
We got higher and higher and the sun too, went higher and hotter. The greenery changed to yellow, dry bushes. Rocks became giant boulders.
The switchbacks up to the mountain pass slowed me down terribly. I seemed to be walking in slow motion, taking a rest every few minutes. It wasn’t the altitude that stopped me. What was it?
I wasn’t physically tired. Individual hikers carrying their full backpack walked past me while I crawled along with my ultra-light drawstring back. The caravan of mules carrying all our backpacks trotted past me.
I looked around the desolate landscape. It was beautiful but I couldn’t appreciate it. I was mentally drained, emotionally exhausted. Have I been travelling for too long?
No! I pushed myself up towards the highest point of the trek – Punta Union (4750m).
It was as if I stepped into another world as I crossed the pass. Snowy peaks with ultramarine lagoons replaced the desolate landscape. Where the sun slowly simmered us a moment before, now strong mountain winds buffeted us rapidly.
After a short break and a lunch consisting of a ham sandwich, I made my way down to the campsite. I felt rejuvenated, somewhat. The landscape was the most impressive I’ve seen.
The Santa Cruz Valley stood to the east and the Huaripampa Valley to the west. Green valleys on my left while snow-capped grey mountains on my right. The valleys stretched far and wide and at that moment, I felt small.
I felt like it was me against the world.
The descent from Punta Union pass to the campsite was a gruelling gravel path. This was where I fell and broke my trekking pole. My groupmate had blisters here. My only companion was one of the dogs that followed us.
Two hours later, I laid on the ground at my campsite, beaten. Horse poops were everywhere but I didn’t care.
I instantly came alive when the chef prepared snacks for us: delicious, fried cheese wanton-looking pastries. The dogs circled around us like starving predators. Go away! These are mine!
Somehow, I found the energy to carry on an optional 35min hike to a viewpoint of the Alpamayo and Artesonraju mountains.
The Alpamayo was once named the World’s Most Beautiful Mountain – an impressive title. Too bad, the view from where I stood wasn’t the principal view of the mountain. Nevertheless, it looked outstanding from the other mountains surrounding it.
Artesonraju was the inspiration for the logo of Paramount Pictures. Does it look familiar?
I was too exhausted to walk for another 2.5 hours roundtrip for the supposedly beautiful Laguna Arhuaycocha, yet another glacier lake. I’ve lost count of the number of lakes I’ve seen by now.
That night, at the campsite at 4250m, it was to be the coldest night of all. Exhaustion took over and drowned out the cold and the barking of the village dogs.
Day three was one of pure downhill along unwalkable terrain. I was stepping over rocks like Legolas jumping on boulders in Lord of the Ring. By the time I reached the campsite, my feet were burning.
Varying landscape accompanied the final route; from desert to forests to raging rivers to waterfalls. I guess this was what people meant by Santa Cruz being one of the most beautiful treks on the continent.
We skipped our supposed campsite and made it all the way to the final rest point – Cashapampa. Yes, we did the 4-day trek in three and had a well-deserved rest the next morning.
Half of my group went to the nearby hot springs under the hot afternoon sun. I wasn’t feeling that cold.
That night, the owner of the house where we camped next to entertained us with his harp and indigenous songs. And beer, of course.
watch a 1min highlight of the experience here
The dogs followed us all the way from the first village, up the mountain pass to the final village, all in hope for some scraps of food. When we left, they followed another group going the other way. Now that’s perseverance.
The trek can be done both way. Starting from Vaqueria is easier as it is an overall descent, but starting from Cashapampa is recommended if you require more acclimatization.
The Santa Cruz trek wasn’t as hard as the Choquequirao trek but I was glad it was over. I needed a change in scenery badly and a well-deserved break from trekking (Amazon up next?).
Don’t let my experience dissuade you. It is still one of the most beautiful, landscape-varying treks in South America. It isn’t difficult and you can even do it yourself, although going with a guide isn’t that much expensive. A 3-4 day trek costs roughly USD $110 including food, transportation, camping equipment, guide and mules to carry your heavy stuff.
Or if you’re up for it, go for the 8-12 days Cordillera Huayhuash trek. It’s said to be the experience of a lifetime!
And now, it’s your turn.