Santa Cruz trek, Peru

I was standing at 4,780 metres, on a pass, sucking in air, trying hard to breathe. To my north lay four white peaks, towering above me, to the south three more. In the east, six white crests jutted above black rock. For a moment I couldn’t take it in, was too busy getting air, gasping for it. Was it the altitude? Or had the exhilarating splendour of the Cordillera Blanca taken my breath away?

Huaraz is in the northern Highlands of Peru. The capital of Ancash province, it is a town of about 90 thousand people, rebuilt entirely after the 1970 earthquake reduced it to rubble. It’s situated between the Cordillera Negra (the Black Mountain Range) and the Cordillera Blanca (the White Mountain Range). The Chavin Indians, whose ruins a few hours south include one of the oldest pyramids of Peru, used the black – white motif frequently in their architecture and daily life.

The Cordillera Blanca has almost 30 glacial peaks over 6,000 metres, stretching across a 180 km range. It’s the Andes at its best, rivalling the Himalayas for grandeur. And though at the pass I was struggling for air, the unique distinction about the Cordillera Blanca is that you can be amongst the peaks within a day and a half from Huaraz.

Trekking is the best way to appreciate the awe of peaks that reach to kiss the sky. And since there are few refuges in the mountains, hiking alone requires you to carry all your food and camping equipment. The Huayhuash to the south, though reportedly stunning, is said to be the most difficult hiking in the world. I chose the Santa Cruz trail, in the north, and opted too, since the trail starts at 3,000 metres and rises to almost 5,000, to go on a tour.

We met day 1, on the street in Huaraz at 6.30 am. That was hard enough. Climbing into a mini van with other trekkers and our guide, Riva, a 24 year old, who looked fit, I regretted the third Pisco Sour I’d had the night before. It was a two hour trip to Yungay, a town famous for all the wrong reasons. The 1970 earthquake had caused an avalanche, which spilled down onto Yungay, completely burying its 20,000 inhabitants. They’ve rebuilt it, off the path of any more landslides, and it’s a nice town, where woman in white cane hats sell fruit and vegetables at the weekly market.

Our mini bus headed west into the mountains, rising up to 3,850 metres at the azure blue lakes of Llanganuco, where we paid the entrance fee to the Huascarán National Park, a World Heritage Site. We wound our way over a pass, a stunning view of Huascarán, the highest of its two peaks at 6,768 metres, the second highest mountain of the entire Americas. And we hadn’t even started walking.

When we got to Vaqueria, our arriero, (animal handler) was there, waiting with ten donkeys and a horse. It made me realise just how big our group was; 12 trekkers, a guide, the arriero and a cook. Too many, certainly, but I knew why I was there. The donkeys were carrying the tents, gas, sleeping bags, mattresses and food. All we had to carry was water, camera, things we needed close to hand. I kept all my warm clothes in my pack, knowing the weather could change quickly. I wasn’t taking any chances on waiting for the donkeys.

The trail was a dusty track, took us down through a little village where some children with snotty noses stood smiling at us. Around a corner and up a short rise, the first peak to the north poked into the sky, a needle sharp white witch’s hat. I figured it was Pucaraju, but there was going to be a lot of peaks, I wasn’t going to remember all their names and anyway, I was already lagging behind, the guide glancing back, making sure I hadn’t fallen, or pulled a hamstring, I supposed.

The valley opened out into a patchwork quilt of paddocks, pigs grazing, cattle locking horns, oblivious, maybe, to the majestic mountain towering above them. I had a map of the Santa Cruz, Llanganuco circuit. It showed 20 peaks, all well above 5,000 metres and half of them over 6,000, though some were already behind us. We had started in the midst of it, a dramatic landscape.

We went across a boggy plain. The donkey train had caught up to us, went by. I lagged again at the back. The trail led down through some red barked Quenua trees that spread up toward harsh rocky mountain tops. I caught up when the others stopped to peel off layers of clothes. It was surprisingly hot. I kept moving, put on a bit of pace, caught up to the donkey handlers. They were from Colcabamba, a valley away, which sounded closer than it was. They worked the trek a couple of times a month in the winter (June to September), a time when it didn’t snow, that being left for the wet season of December, January. We got through the trees, I stopped to photograph the dramatic rocks and the group caught up to me. I let them go on ahead, preferring solitude.

We were at our campsite by late afternoon, a three hour walk all it took from the 6.30am start. We put up the tents, had cheese and biscuits, waited for dinner under a darkening sky, the mountains growing sultry and forbidding. When the soup arrived, we gathered in a big blue tent on fold up chairs. Main course was rice and chips and chunks of steak. And more rice. The Peruvians liked to eat their rice plain, didn’t seem to need sauce. Not everyone finished it. I figured I was going to need the energy the next day, and forced it down.

The night moved in, it was colder, for sure. Sleeping at 3,000 metres, I was glad I was acclimatised. I had needed a week before I felt the fatigue and mild headaches dissipate. But everybody is different. Some of the others had arrived from sea-level Lima, 7 hours away by road, only a day or so before. Normally, at least a couple of days in Huaraz are recommended.

After breakfast the next morning, we ascended up out of the valley, dark rocky crags all around us, white peaks on the horizon, a gradual gradient for a few hours. We got our last view of Huascarán when we were well above the tree line, surrounded by clumps of Ichu grass. It was hot again, t-shirt weather, but we were only about an hour from the highest pass on the circuit. The Cordillera Blanca lies in the tropical zone. The Equator is only 9 degrees north. Days in the dry season sizzle. I was wearing thongs in Huaraz. But the mountains are powerful beasts, can force conditions to change. They need to be trusted. The guide warned us the pass would be cold.

We stopped for a lunch of bread, cheese and fruit, the pass in sight over an indecipherable track through a rock strewn landscape. I’d chewed some coca leaves, as the local Indians do, to stave off the effects of altitude, keep energy levels high. It seemed to help. I was puffing heavily but it felt good. My pulse was racing too, but it wasn’t like I couldn’t keep going. Besides, I didn’t have much choice. We just kept stepping up until reaching the pass of Punta Union at 4,780 metres. Taulliraju and Pucahirca to one side towered waxen and powerful above us, a lake below them, at least eight other peaks scattered around us, and more back through the pass. It’s an incredible place.

We sat down, let the atmosphere soak in, stayed a while, an hour or more, birds of prey high above us. A viscacha, a chinchilla-like animal, hopped amongst the rocks. A crack, a short rumble of noise, broke the silence for a moment. Maybe it was a minor avalanche on a distant mountain in the far away world.

We had an easy 2 hour walk downhill to our campsite, the hardest day already practically over. I kept looking around, dragging the chain, but there was no hurry, plenty of light. We’d only walked about 9 hours in 2 days. It was much easier going than virtually anything the Himalayas has to offer.

Fabio, the donkey handler, had put up the tents. Behind us, Pucahirca changed its form as the sun got lower in the sky. In different light, different shapes became apparent, angles revealed themselves. Mountains like that give off a powerful vibe – timelessness, unconquerable, immeasurable. In comparison, we are so insignificant. There’s no better way to put things into perspective.

Dinner was soup, tuna and spaghetti. It tasted fantastic, like almost anything does after a day like that. Riva brought out some rum lemon tea and we relaxed in the big blue tent, the air outside chilly. The camaraderie of conquering the pass together dropped formalities between the trekkers. There were a German brother and sister, a Polish/French couple who lived in Dublin, a Frenchman who lived in Sydney, a Spanish woman married to a Peruvian, a German from New York warming up for an ice climb a few days later.

It was icy that night. I woke feeling claustrophobic, like I was underwater, the tent holding me down. I couldn’t breathe well, had to get out, saw the stars hanging close above, a crescent moon, and knew I was still alive. We were sleeping at 3,300 metres. Waking, struggling for air was not uncommon.

On day three, we began with a short trek up a ridge for a view of Alpamayo. It had been voted the best looking mountain in the world somewhere along the line, but Riva told us from where we were, we would only have seen the ugly side. Maybe we were lucky the clouds had drifted in. We descended back down into the majestic Santa Cruz valley where spirited horses galloped at the base of sheer immense cliffs, the track winding along a flushing river all morning, easy walking, spectacular and relaxing. In the afternoon, the river swelled by waterfalls crashing down off the cliffs, we meandered through paddocks of stone fences, the sound of the water furious over the rocks.

We camped amongst boulders by the river’s edge. The tents were up, dinner was ready, tasted better, delicious even. Was I changing, or the food? The rain came in, got heavy, but that didn’t matter. We’d had three brilliant days on a dazzling, extraordinary trek. And it was only two hours out in the morning.



~ by Drifting, Rambling on May 5, 2008.

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