When you think of Peru, you immediately think of Machu Picchu. When you think of Machu Picchu, your next thought is the Inca trail. It’s no secret that Peru’s claim to fame is one of the new wonders of the world, Machu Picchu. Therefore, it’s obvious why your mind wanders to this magical place when you think of traveling to Peru.
However, what if I told you that there is other incredible trekking to be done in northern Peru that has natural beauty that rivals that of the man-made beauty at Machu Picchu? It’s a bold statement, I know…
About 8 hours north of Lima is a town called Huaraz that serves as the “other” trekking capital of Peru. Cusco will always and forever be the golden child as it pertains to launching points for trekking. You honestly can’t beat all the trekking options offered to Machu Picchu as well as the options available to some of the other lesser known ruins around Cusco such as Choquequirao.
Nonetheless, Huaraz is beginning to make a name for itself as a base camp for day hikes and multi-day treks alike. The cultural element of the Inca empire is missing from these northern treks; however, the natural landscapes are so stunning that you’ll find yourself completely lost in the beauty of the gorgeous Cordillera Blanca region near Huaraz.
The Santa Cruz trek came highly recommended to us by many different people so that’s essentially how we found ourselves in Huaraz only a few days after our arrival to Peru. Perhaps we were a bit of short sighted when we mailed a good majority of our warm, winter clothes home while in Belize because we immediately took note of the chillier temperatures up in the Andes. Our first day in Huaraz, we found ourselves in desperate need of warmer jackets and trekking pants. We discovered a plethora of trekking stores filled with cheap but decent quality gear that would get the job done and keep our teeth from chattering along the trail.
Given Brian’s bad run in with altitude sickness in Nepal, we were bound and determined to spend whatever amount of time his body needed to acclimatize in Huaraz before beginning the trek and soaring to even higher altitudes. I’m not sure if it was a matter of Brian’s diligent hydration schedule, taking Diamox around the clock, the mass amount of cocoa leaves he had stuffed in his mouth at any given time (the leaves supposedly have natural properties that help combat altitude sickness according to the locals), a combination of these interventions or merely just the placebo effect but Brian miraculously and I should probably reiterate, MIRACULOUSLY, didn’t have any trouble with the altitude! With this newly gained confidence at higher altitudes, I have a feeling Brian is going to want to make a run at some higher peaks at some point in the future. Hello, Kilimanjaro?!
Santa Cruz Trek Day One: Hide and Seek
Our first day began with a windy 5 hour drive to the trailhead. We quickly became acquainted with our stellar group which consisted of two girls from Germany, two guys from Israel, and a girl from Ireland. Our fearless leader, Juan, spoke very limited English. Our group, as a whole, spoke limited Spanish so it was decided that Juan would speak Spanish with us but despacio or slowly.
We trekked for about 3-4 hours that first afternoon which served as a nice warm up and a good way to dust off our good old trekking muscles that hadn’t really been put to good use since the volcano hiking binge we went on in Nicaragua.
After about three and a half hours of trekking, Juan quickly told the first few people leading our pack that we needed to wait right where we were for him and that he would be back. It was raining and it was fairly cold at this point and we were getting wetter by the minute (just so you have an accurate picture). Unfortunately, there was no natural coverage in sight in which we could take refuge from the rain. Our group had no idea where Juan had gone or how long he would be away as he failed to mention any of these important details to our group!
Well, 10 minutes became 20 minutes and 20 minutes quickly became 40 minutes and before we knew it, it had been 60 minutes with no sign of our boy, Juan. He sure is good at hiding – if only we could have found him! Shortly after a solid 60 minutes had passed, there were finally signs of Juan as he approached our group with a smile plastered across his face saying, “Estan bien?”
Are we okay?! I wanted to reply, “Now that you’re finally here and we’re no longer stranded in the mountains, of course, we’re doing great!” As it turns out, Juan supposedly instructed our group to wait a few minutes at the spot where he left us and then continue along the trail so that we would eventually meet him up ahead where the cook had set up our camp for the night. Oh, you’ve got to love language barriers.
After laughing off our communication mishap with Juan, our group was in good spirits as we shared lots of travel stories in our communal tent over a delicious dinner. Oh and did I mention that we acquired an additional group member on our first day? A sweet black dog joined us and actually camped with us our first night. We didn’t know it at the time but as it turns out, he would join us for the remainder of our trek as well!
Santa Cruz Trek Day Two: Watch out for the falling hail!
The second day was rumored to be the most difficult day of the trek and as we found out, the rumors were true. Even so, we had our new four legged friend, Negro, by our side the whole time which made even the most difficult parts more bearable!
The morning consisted of lots of up and up and up as we left the green, lush areas and animals behind us and headed towards those beautiful snow capped mountains that make up the Cordillera Blanca ahead! After several hours of oxygen deprived hiking, we all celebrated our arrival to Union Pass which sits at a whopping 4,750 meters (15,600 feet). Taking in the breathtaking mountain tops surrounding us and the bright blue glacier lake in front of us, we enjoyed a packed lunch and some of us even had a light nap before beginning our descent!
As is typically the case in the mountains, the morning brought clear skies and sunshine while the afternoon led to weather that was a little less desirous but also mildly entertaining. You’re probably assuming that we encountered rain (or snow given our altitude). No, my friend, the skies became overcast and hail began to fall! The hail was actually preferable over the rain because instead of the rain soaking our clothes, these little hail pellets just bounced right off of us and were harmless so long as we were careful not to get hit in the face!
Santa Cruz Trek Day Three: What we don’t know won’t hurt us, right?
When we embarked on day number three, the group morale was at an all time high! We had the hardest part of the trek behind us and we had finished our trekking the day before sooner than expected meaning that our group was keeping a good pace. The weather in the morning was clear and sunny which was a blessing. Nice weather meant that we were able to do the optional detour on our way down to a beautiful lake. The detour to the lake proved to be every bit worthwhile!
Juan had informed us the night before that we had an easy 6 hours of downhill trekking ahead of us on our third day. What we didn’t realize until after our visit to the lake the following morning was that the lake tacked on an additional 3 hours that wasn’t part of the 6 hour total that Juan had quoted the night prior. Our 6 hour day quickly became a 9 hour day (or just shortly there under). Thankfully, it was primarily downhill and flat so that certainly worked in our favor! We were also rewarded with waterfall next to our campsite as well as a rainbow upon our arrival to our camping area!
Santa Cruz Trek Day Four: Goodbye, old friend!
Our last day we all had an extra pep in our step as it was by far the shortest and easiest day of our trek. However, it didn’t come without a bit of sadness as we all had to say goodbye to a beloved member of our group and the leader of our pack, Negro. Apparently, Negro has a family to which he belongs to but he prefers to spend his days with various trekking groups taking in the sights and sounds along the trail.
If you’re in Peru and you opt to do the beautiful Santa Cruz trek, I hope your group is graced with the presence of the world’s best trekking companion, Negro!