The Santa Cruz Trek: Day One
**An older version of this post originally appeared in 2015 on the old legacy blog. We hope you enjoy this updated version!
Before we began our hike we had to get some logistical complications out of the way. In Peru, almost all logistics involve complications. These can involve traffic, cars not showing up at the right time, or the correct people not showing up with the cars, or papers being misplaced, or plumbing that doesn’t work, or things that simply take a lot longer than they are supposed to. As jump-off time approached, we really had no idea what these logistical complications would be…only that there would be some.
The morning of the hike we discovered the first complication – the guides who were supposed to pick us up at the hotel actually showed up on time. This is, by Peruvian standards, a major faux pas…it simply is not done. After some bewildered apologies, the frantic dragging of suitcases and hasty arrangement of packs, we were finally underway…to an adjacent hiker hostel a few blocks away where our guides picked up two additional tourists and the entire scene was repeated.
We then got underway. First we drove over blacktop roads to the small city of Yungay. Along the way, every person on the route attempted to hail us for a ride…the van we were travelling in apparently looked sufficiently bus-like to be taken for one. At Yungay, there was a brief stop to pick up supplies. The method used by Peruvian guides to procure supplies is this: at a certain unnamed point the car will stop, all the guides will get out. Nothing will be said, and no explanation will be given. Then a short time later all will get back in the car, and the car will drive off without any further explanation. If this happens to you, well, you have been at a re-supply stop.
Soon the car turned off the main road, headed very steeply uphill, and then took a sharp left where the streets abruptly turned to oblivion. Then it was hours and hours winding along a tiny dirt road that led to no place in particular, high in the Andes.
We stopped for a coffee break at about the three-hour mark and then continued on to the entrance of Huascarin National Park. At the Ranger station, we presented our tickets and the guides did whatever else had to be done and said to the officials. We were, like most tourists, not turned away.
But we weren’t even close to being there yet. The car drove on, and the roads got worse. Little did I know it, but this was the famous (or infamous) Portachuelo de Llanganuco, the mountain road that many consider to be as dramatic as the hike itself. You get close – very close – to the edge here. As this road winds impossibly up, making you wonder how two vehicles could possible pass at once, the views become….otherworldly.
At one point we came to a curve where seventeen crosses were posted by the roadside. Here, we learned how two vehicles had in fact managed to pass, at least in one case. “Seven years ago,” our guide explained, “One bus try to pass the other. Driver, he wave the other bus by. But then he miscalculate, and…” He motioned with his hands, a diving motion….down. Gone. Needless to say, they no longer allow big buses on this road. Even less needless to say, we were very glad for this.
At a point so spectacular as to defied words we stopped for a break and to let the couple we had picked up at the hostel, and their guide, out. They were headed out for days of serious mountaineering, just the two of them and the guide, in the high Andes. Among their gear I could see mountaineering boots, ice axes, rope, crampons…the real tools of the trade. And I thought what we were doing was intense. There is always another level.
Here to was an incredible view of the fourth tallest mountain the Western Hemisphere…Nevado Huascaran.
We kept on, and soon we passed through a blind cut dynamited into the rock (the driver furiously honking the horn to warn anyone coming through the other way) and burst out on the other side of the mountains. And then we went down, down down…for another good hour. And I thought the guides were doing us a favor. Views of glaciers and massive Huascaran receded, replaced by dry scrub; soon we arrived at the very small roadside town of Vaqueria – we had at last reached our starting point.
We piled out and began sorting things out. First a stop to the banos which, for a few coins, a woman operating a local store gladly offered us. Little did we know that these would be the last real toilets for three days. While our guides rounded up the mules, we repacked our gear. We had been wondering if, as in Salkantay, the mules would be able to transport some of our gear…which was definitely helpful for the both of us but particularly Sylvia who, ahem, had not carried her full pack since then. That was three years ago. The guides were agreeable and soon, after re-packing, de-layering and applying sunscreen (it was quite hot) we did what only donkey’s and gringo’s do at noon.
Our guide, Freddie, led the way and we could only follow. At first Freddie appeared to speak no English, and we thought this might be another complication (for me anyway.) But then, suddenly and without warning, he began speaking English. Complication nullified. The first steps are downhill and steep, over a badly eroded trail that has seen the passage of countless livestock. Cultivated fields line either side of the trail and the views are quaint and pastoral. There are large industrial sprinklers cranking away, keeping fields of corn and wheat irrigated. As we pass an adobe house with its Spanish tiled roof a sheep suddenly bleats from its pen. All this under a crystal blue, limitless, and nearly cloudless sky.
As we trundled downhill, me tottering on my ‘trick knee’ and dreading as always these downhills, a large group of young trekkers ambled by. Parts of this group had shared the bus in with us…college aged hikers from Europe and Israel, fresh-legged, hiking without poles. They moved by fast and purposefully, and I envied their youth and the fresh cartilage in their joints. Later on, at the end of day two, we passed a lot of these same kids, then reduced to walking zombies, gassed, wiped out by the altitude. I bet they were wanting that sprinting start back.
Our hike eventually brought us across the river at the valley’s bottom and up the other side of the slope to a small village which may have been Colcabamba. There we met up with our first, er, complication of the hike itself. After conferring with one of the other passing porters, Freddie told us that the mules were ‘delayed’ for some reason, and therefore there was no rush since we had to let them catch up to us anyway. (What he actually was told, translated later by Sylvia, was that there some doubt about any mules being left for hire in Vaqueria. But he promptly assured us this was not so, there would be a camp set up for us.)
After a short rest we resumed hiking. The trail ran beside farm houses, some of which were raising the local delicacy, cuy…which most of you will recognize as guinea pigs. But if this creeps you out rest assured there were plenty of conventional barnyard animals milling about everywhere too…cows, pigs, sheep, goats, hens and noisy roosters, horses and of course, mules. After nervously passing several pigs at close proximity (you have to give pigs the respect you would a large dog) we finally came upon one in field which Sylvia pronounced to be “very clean.” “This pig is much cleaner than many others that I have seen so far,” she said, with a very stern look in my direction. We left this well-manicured porker behind and continued our trek.
We walked until dusk overtook us and the temperature dropped, at times accompanied by a small train of curious local children hoping for cookies. At some point after parting ways with the clean pig, we passed the last kiosk where anything including water was sold (we had no idea we were passing it until it was long gone.) We then crossed over into the national park, stopped briefly at the ranger station to check in, and then continued past the first campsite to our day’s destination…which I think was either Paria or possible Tuctubamba. The mules passed us, finally, as we were layering up, and after crossing a small makeshift bridge over a rushing stream, we came upon the cook, Edwin, and the mule driver setting up the tents.
Here was where Sylvia’s ‘awakening le rude’ occurred. There was, first off, no spot anywhere that was not covered in animal turds…not one. Sometimes the ‘road apples’ were very old and the remains of them were like powdered dust, while others were visibly fresh…but they were everywhere, the ground was strewn with them. We put our packs down on a nearby rock, not because the rocks were poop free but because…well, we had to put them somewhere.
The second, and more shall we say impactful, revelation came as we watched the mule driver hurry off a hundred yards of so to set up our camps ‘powder room.’ Now, I had read trip reports which said that bathrooms were available on the trek, thought they were infrequent and crowded. This turned out to be untrue on all levels…they weren’t crowded, they weren’t infrequent…they simply weren’t. Our guides helpfully erected a privacy screen (sort of a nylon outhouse) around the plumbing itself, which was…a latrine. If you do not know what a latrine is, ask somebody who has been in the army. Or just go out and start digging a roundish hole in your backyard, about the width of the business end of a commode, and when you’ve gone down about two feet…you’ve got yourself a latrine.
Sylvia was NOT pleased. But, this ‘powder room’ did have three things going for it….location. Location. And…location.
After the camp was thrown together the guides served us hot cocoa leaf tea, which was welcome, and apparently helps with the altitude. It was starting to get cold…very cold. You lose the light quick in the mountains, and the sun sets quickly in the tropics to begin with. After tea we layered up with everything we had…our own tent was set up by the guides…and then it was inside the warm cook tent for a dinner of soup and roast chicken that REALLY warmed us up. Boy did that hit the spot! Before retiring that night we spent a few minutes outside the tent, headlamp off, just looking at the amazing display of stars…the Milky Way, the Great Sky River as Native Americans called it, shown brightly in the midst of tens of thousands of stars. You could see the nearby snow-capped mountains clearly in the starlight…It would be a cold night and we had a hole in the ground for bathroom but I could not think of a more beautiful place to be.
We returned to the tent determined to get a good rest because tomorrow would bring us to Punta Union.
Next Up: The Other Side of the Mountain