We were getting closer to the end of our adventurous trip in the Peruvian Andes so we decided to plan a challenging, unforgettable and ambitious expedition: The Santa Cruz Trek. This is probably the most widely known trek in the Cordillera Blanca and it is considered moderate to easy. The entire trek shouldn’t take more than about 5 days for a healthy (and acclimatized) hiker, but it’s a perfect hike to take at your own pace. We did the whole circuit in 4 days. Of course there are other circuits depending on the routes and detours you may want to make. We contacted a tour operator in Caraz that organized everything for us. When I say everything I refer to a local guide and a couple of donkeys that carried all our equipment. Food and camping equipment were not included. It is essential you plan well ahead what you are going to take and carry a medical kit and emergency survival bag. Along the route there are hundreds of potential campsites. The best time to attempt this trek is in the dry season, between April and October, unless you enjoy getting stuck in the mud and being soaked to the skin. We went the first week of May and it was perfectly clear, sunny and warm in the day but pretty cold at night.
On the previous day we went to the local market in Caraz near Plaza de Armas (Main Square) where people sell from homemade delicious cheese to live guinea pigs for consumption or breeding. We bought lots of cheese, bread, non-perishable food items such as canned tuna, pasta, canned fruit, local sweets, cake (to celebrate my birthday), chocolate, Pisco (an alcoholic Peruvian drink), etc. The next day we woke up very early because Peter wanted to cook spagetthi bolognesi for our first dinner, so we went to the same market which opens at 6:00 am and got fresh minced beef, some vegetables for the sauce and ice. Our rucksacks were heavily loaded but we paid no attention to that important detail as the donkeys did all the carrying.
Day 1.- Our tour operator picked us up at around 8:00 am from the main office in the Plaza de Armas (Main Square) in Caraz. From there, we drove two hours to Cashapampa where the trail starts and where we met our guide and donkey driver, Mauricio. We waited one hour for him. Peruvian time is 10 – 15 minutes later than the agreed time but Mauirico took his own time to prepare his two donkeys. He said the donkeys were getting difficult. Finally we started loading the donkeys and transmitted our location using a two way satellite tracking device and got ready for our first day of hiking. Everything was going smoothly and quietly until one of the donkeys had violent diarrhea that splashed into my face! Disgusting thing! So Mauricio advised me not to walk behind the donkey because he realized his donkey was kind of sick. Too little advice too late! We carried on ascending steeply for two hours and then the track leveled out. We climbed steadily along Quebrada Santa Cruz to camp Llamacorral (3750 masl) where we spent the first night. On that day we walked around 5 hours; it could have been longer but Mauricio was very pushy and eager.
Day 2.- We continued our hike after breakfast at around 9:00 am along the wide Santa Cruz Valley. While hiking we saw a couple of condors flying around a dead horse. They were getting ready for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They don’t hunt, they just only eat dead animals. Soon after we saw the condors, we passed the lakes Ichi Cocha and Jatun Cocha. We stopped for a bit to get rid of the mud in our shoes and saw a trail. Mauricio said that it was a trail that takes you to the Arhuaycocha Valley – which is today’s side-trek to get the best views of Mount Alpamayo (in the late 60s in Munich it was voted the prettiest mountain of the world). We were interested in a quick detour to get a rough view of the Alpamayo but Mauricio said it would take us a day to see a tiny bit of the peak of the Alpamayo (treks to the Alpamayo usually takes around eight to nine days). So we carried on with our planned trek towards our next camp at Taullipampa 4250 masl. It was 5 hours walk.
Day 3.- This day was the hardest for me. From our camp site we walked approximately two to three hours to the highest point of the whole trek: Punta Unión 4750masl. I was very lucky to find this local man with his horse because I was getting short of breath and my headache was killing me! I think I was on that horse for 30 minutes. That doesn’t sound long but it really helped believe me! From this point the views were amazing down the santa Cruz Valley and the surrounding mountains. We met an American woman who was going the other way; she was carrying all her equipment and she was on her own. After taking fabulous pictures, we started descending the Huaripampa Valley passing two small lakes to our third camp named Cachinapampa. 7 hours walk.
Day 4.- On the last day we walked only 2.5 – 3 hours. We continued down the main valley passing through the village of Huaripampa and then we ascended for about an hour to Vaquería 3700 mals where our vehicle was waiting for us to take us to Caráz. Make sure you get enough food for you and your guide. We didn’t know our guide had to come back to the starting point on his own. He needed some food to make his way back. We only had bread, cheese and chocolate left to give him. On the way back, we made a couple of photos of the Llanganuco Valley and parts of the Huascarán glacier. Highly recommended trek for all levels.