Where the Roads Fade to Paths

The Santa Cruz Trek: Huaraz, Peru…Arrival

*This is the third in our series of “reboot posts” of our Peru trips that were featured on our old legacy Blog, but have never appeared on BecauseItzThere.com. The first was our Trek to Machu Picchu via the Salkantay Route in 2012. The second was our successful hike of Colca Canyon and somewhat less successful ‘college try’ at the 19.000 feet Volcano Misti in 2017. You can read about them here on our Bucket List Hikes page. This, the Salkantay Trek, happened in 2015 and is the crowning achievement of our hiking career thus far.

**The Santa Cruz Trek, completed by us in July 2015, is one of the Best Hikes in the World. We have added it to our list of completed Bucket List Hikes.

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We arrived in Huaraz in the wee hours of the morning, so that the first thing that we saw by the light of dawn was the tops of mountains above the buildings. Not small mountains. Real mountains. Nevado.

Arrival involved a bus…one of those massive Marco Polo tour buses that is not far removed from being a Taj Mahal on wheels. Marco P would have considered himself very lucky indeed to have tackled the Silk Road in one of these luxurious monstrosities. The big sleeper buses provided by Movil tours of Peru are like riding in airline first class without the air (except maybe the air in the tires.) Snacks and drinks were even served en route.

But despite all the room and luxury, Brian did not sleep very well. Being long of limb and achy of joint, and the owner of a ‘trick knee’ and refurbished spine, in addition to a well-documented tendency toward car sickness, Brian is not well suited for long distance ground transport. While the bus ground on through the night, he had to trust that the destination…Huaraz, the principal city of the mountainous Peruvian state of Ancash, deep in the Central Andes….was getting closer.

The bus left its starting point, the city of Lima, in the late evening. Departure was from a crowded station downtown; the city’s soccer stadium dominated the view outside. Like everywhere else in Peru the impossible is routinely performed here. It certainly seemed a physical impossibility that more than two of the huge buses could fit into the narrow alleyway generously termed a station at one time, negotiating as they did the swarms of taxicabs parked around the entrance. Despite this some sixteen to seventeen leviathan buses were in fact crammed into this space.

The trip was uneventful until about 4 am in the morning when I awoke from a stupor just short of sleep to realize that the cadence of the motor had changed and that the cabin of the bus was now beginning to sway rather violently, first to the left, then to the right. We had reached the mountains, doubtless, but there was no possibility of confirming this; only blackness outside the curtained windows, and distant views of head and tail lights, and you didn’t really want to think too much those, not with the speed they came rushing past. There was to be no more stupor; I couldn’t rest now. For another two hours the bus lurched its way along unknown roads past unseen vistas until, finally, we were there.

We checked in to the Hotel La Joya just as dawn broke. This hotel is also the tallest building in Huaraz; sadly, we were informed that no rooms faced the view of the Cordillera Blanca, the legendary white mountains, which we had come to hike. Instead, we had a sixth floor view over rooftop water tanks and chicken coops towards an adjacent hillside that itself was not unimpressive.

 

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We went down to breakfast, came back to catch up on sleep, and then rose again to find the entire city mostly closed down for its mid-day siesta. We eventually found a quiet restaurant that was open and sat down for a meal of Lomo Saltado. This place did face the mountains, and the view is that pictured below.

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Huaraz, and the Ancash area in general, is sometimes known as Peru’s Switzerland. But perhaps it is truer to say that Switzerland is Europe’s Huaraz; for the mountains here are greater, being in many cases over 6000 meters tall. The city is dominated by the imposing, 22,205 foot double pronged massif of Nevado Huascaran…the tallest peak in Peru, and the tallest mountain anywhere on Earth in the tropical zone.

In 1970 a powerful earthquake shook the region; the entire city of Huaraz was destroyed when a dam upstream burst, unleashing an avalanche of mud, ice, rock and water to slam into the city, flattening virtually every building and killing 20,000 people in seconds. The same dam had burst in a 1941 earthquake that killed 6000. The modern city has been completely rebuilt; almost nothing remains of the original Huaraz except a few buildings near the Plaza del Armas. The rebuilt city has a modern, open street plan of broad avenues around blocky cement buildings, far less charming than the narrow winding streets of other colonial or pre-colonial cities such as Cuzco; but since the narrow streets had proven a deathtrap for the inhabitants of Huaraz during the floods, this had to change.

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The Plaza Del Armas. Virtually every building in Huaraz was rebuilt after 1970 when an earthquake and avalanche turned the city to rubble.

I tried not to think much of this as we strolled about the city. Huaraz is a thriving town, not exactly sleepy in daytime and very busy in the evening, with every shop on every main street full. Most of the traffic appears to be local. It is not quite yet a tourist town; regular tourists of the type that infest Peru’s other big draw attractions, such as Machu Picchu and the Nasca Lines, do not generally come here; the picture taking, souvenir buying, comfort loving crowd has not yet embraced Huaraz. It is too far off the beaten trail and doesn’t offer enough that is easily obtained. No notable Incan ruins nor signs of ancient alien visitors here. The draw of Huaraz and its surrounding towns is the mountains that lay behind them, accessible only by long and uncomfortable car rides and then, past the point where the roads turn to burro trails, but foot or by hoof. If you want to take pictures of this place, you have your work cut out for you.

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Brand new 2015 model year burro with power steering and optional Bluetooth.

And hence the reason the intrepid do come to Huaraz. They come here to get away; to get into those lofty and inaccessible mountains, to trek and snowboard and climb. You don’t see many tourists here but the few you do see are almost all of that breed that is now being termed ‘eco-tourist.’ Alpine hikers from Europe, dirt bags from the West Coast, college kids from all around the world craving adventure; people wearing North Face and Patagonia and Marmot and Mountain Hardware; those who travel the world to get away from the world, or the parts of it they consider routine.

Our first day in Huaraz was spent walking about the town and getting familiar with it (especially the ‘Gringo’ side of town that caters to the outdoor enthusiasts.) We decided to use this day to acclimate to the altitude and get ourselves ready for what was to come. The next day, we planned to take things up a notch…and I mean way up.

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Next Up: A Slowly Dying Lake of Ice

 

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