Santa Cruz Trek, Peru

Our first group trek! We decided to go with a tour because the Cordillera Blanca is the highest mountain range outside of the Himalayas, so you pretty much have to hire someone to carry your stuff, or you’d just keel over. Breathing is pretty tough at 5000m above sea level! Plus donkeys carry your stuff, and donkeys are pretty cool.

What we didn’t plan on, however, is that our tour group would be amalgamated with others, so we ended up with an unruly 15-people group with only 1 guide! More on that later…

After a long bus journey to Huascaran National Park, me and Sam bonded with fellow Brits Ella and Chris, and we trekked together throughout. The first day was an easy 4 hours through beautiful rolling hills, tiny clusters of houses, past cute local kids begging for cookies, lots of pigs and donkeys, and only 200m to climb over the hours. The toughest thing was the mud, and there was LOTS of it! At the tail-end of the rainy season, much of the trek was waterlogged and navigating unstable rocks, rivers and narrow trails sent us falling into the wet mud several times (on the 3rd day one of my legs was swallowed up to the knee!) It was a bit like hiking in the Lake District.

Saying hi to our cute donkeys and Day 1´s sunny hiking

At the end of the first day, we had our first little tour-group disaster. One of the ladies in our group said she was feeling unwell, and the guide consequently decided to trek all the way back to a nearby village to get a horse for her to ride, leaving us guideless (!) and now following Sam’s GPS maps app to find our campsite. Bafflingly, the sick lady didn’t go back and wait, but trekked on, so we all ended up making it to the end of the trail except our guide and had to hunt down our ‘campsite’ by clambering over rivers on logs (!), eventually finding our donkeys and donkey drivers hidden behind a massive hill.

Don’t get me wrong, some of the elements of group-trekking were great, like when we got to the campsite, all our tents were up, there was a big bell tent where we had tea and snacks early evening, then a pretty massive hearty dinner later, all cooked by our porters (donkey drivers), not to mention the eggs and pancakes we had for breakfast to start the trekking day off. By the second and third nights, we even had a drop toilet with a canvas cover on it, which was pretty luxury after pooing out in the open. The campsites themselves were also in pretty amazing locations, like under huge snowy mountain peaks, with surprisingly friendly bulls roaming the fields, and little icy streams to wash our hands and faces in.

Hot tea with our new trekking buddies.. a godsend in the freezing evenings

Not exactly glamping, but a pretty amazing view!

The second day was the toughest of all. We faced our highest pass of 4975m which was really fucking hard. It was a blustery day with intermittent sun and lots of mist, and the first few hours were pretty grim as we soldiered on, up hilly muddy trails, and eventually a huge, steep, unforgiving slate-plated mountain, climbing over 1000m in just a few hours, with only a semi-visible panorama of mountains shrouded in cloud to keep us going! By the top, we were stopping every couple of steps gasping for breath in the thin air, as the hail rained down. We decided at this point this might be our last multi-day trek, or at least the last for a while.

But once at the top, the sun came out, the mood improved, and we had a pretty laguna to look at, lunch to eat, and all was better with the world. We made our way down to our campsite and had fun drinking tea and waiting for the clouds to disperse so we could see the ‘Paramount mountain’ – apparently the one used in the Paramount Pictures logo! We weren’t so sure…

View from the top of Punta Union pass

A pretty lake.. highlight of Day 2!

On our last full day of trekking, we changed the plan because some of the group (a high maintenance sector!) wanted to add in an extra trip to some hot springs the next day, making our ‘easy’ day now 9 hours of walking! It was a long day, but not too challenging (mostly flat) – including a terrible white-out mirador (thanks clouds!), and a scenic walk along a dried-up river, past pretty lakes, and culminating in a toe-crushing hours-long downhill on the side of a mountain. Some nice views but it felt like it went on forever! To lighten the mood, we spent some time getting selfies with donkeys, horses and bulls.

Donkey selfies with Ella and Chris!

Arriving victorious at the campsite after over 9 hours walking felt amazing, and we were greeted by a little bar by our tents! It felt like a lucid dream, and we all immediately grabbed drinks and crashed out on the grass, our knees and ankles stiff and sore.

Celebratory beers and Pachanka preparation…

Our last night´s accommodation.. with beer!

By this point we were tightly bonded as a group (annoying people aside!!) and had spent so many hours of trekking and downtime together – playing President, drinking tea, and bitching about the people on our trek that we hated. Namely, the high maintenance group who did many bad things including – making us change our route, making me and Sam trade tents with them (after we’d unpacked) so they could be a tiny bit closer to each other, delaying the group by constant excessive photography, stealing a 3-man tent as just a couple, and finally leaving no tip for the cooks, guide or porters even though they were kitted out to the nines in expensive trekking gear and had hired a HORSE to carry them on some of it. Insane!

Our ridiculously large trekking group!

ANYWAY. So the last night we camped in the place with beer, on a farm, and they cooked us this mad traditional dish called Pachanka, which is 3 different meats wrapped in leaves and cooked in a hole in the ground along with a few zany looking potatoes, then covered in more leaves and drizzled with herbs. It was surprisingly delicious…but you could really taste the soil. We also witnessed something really sad, when a horrible feral dog attacked and killed an adorable little baby kitten, after one of the fucking idiot trekkers threw a bit of their food on the ground. And they actually congratulated the dog after, whilst we all sat stony faced looking at the big pool of blood. The farmers didn’t seem to care and just kicked the corpse under a nearby bench. Me and another girl cried. Pretty horrific stuff to witness from animal-loving domestic Europe.

ANYWAY again! The last day was short and sweet, a quick hour’s stroll and we reached some small but lovely hot springs where we soaked our bones for a good hour or so… The annoying sect who’d demanded the springs only stayed in 20 minutes, to our bemusement, but it meant more hot springs for us which was good news.

Living it up in the hot springs!

After a hot walk back, we piled into the minivan for a very scenic drive back to Huaraz, passing colourful fields and the mountain the park’s named after. Typically it was the sunniest day we’d had for days, but what can you do? We chose to get back to Huaraz and get insanely drunk. As detailed in previous post!

Next, onto Huanchaco…