Is the Santa Cruz Trek for You?

The Santa Cruz Trek: Logistics and Planning

What about me? Can I do the Santa Cruz Trek?

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The Santa Cruz Trek is well worth doing if you are up to the challenge

This is what you may be asking yourself. The scenery looks great, sure, but can I do it? How hard it is really?

If you are an experienced hiker with lot of time spent at high altitude the answer is an emphatic yes, you can. Santa Cruz is considered, by the standards of multi-day treks in high alpine areas, to be relatively modest. Nevertheless, it is a formidable challenge and cannot be dismissed lightly.

If you are a less experienced hiker, and particularly if you have little or no experience at high altitude (above 10,000 feet) there many things to consider before you decide. Most hikers probably can do this trek, particularly if they opt to go as part of a guided expedition (which we definitely recommend for the casual hiker.) But you must aware of the many challenges that you will face on this trip, and particularly the great challenge of altitude sickness when you attempt to cross Punta Union.

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It all comes down to the pass called ‘Union.’

The entire trek basically boils down to Punta Union, in our opinion. Other than the one pass, the grades aren’t terribly steep, the trail is not unusually difficult in most places (though it has some rough areas) and at just four days in length – and half of that all downhill – it’s not especially long. If you can make it through this one pass, then you can probably do the rest with no problem at all.

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Highlights:

  • One of the Best Hikes in Peru
  • In our opinion, the natural beauty of this trip blows away the Inca Trail
  • Incredible high Alpine scenery, especially the middle two days
  • View from Punta Union beyond description
  • Recommended to all fit hikers who can tolerate high elevation
  • Best time to go is the dry season, May to September
  • Very good chance of good weather if done in season, especially July and August
  • We hiked in early July and had nothing but clear weather
  • See some of the biggest mountains in South America (and outside of the Himalaya, in the world!)
  • 22,000 foot Nevado Huascaran, Peru’s highest mountain
  • Other notable peaks include Pisco, Chacraraju, Artesonraju, Alpamayo and of course Nevado Santa Cruz
  • Eye level views of impressive glaciers
  • Turquoise mountain lakes
  • Weird UFO-like cloud effects over the peaks almost every morning
  • See (and walk through) the astounding aftermath of a HUGE avalanche
  • Other than Punta Union, no major obstacles along this trail
  • Many guided options available out of Huaraz
  • Huaraz itself, perhaps the best hiking town in South America, is well worth seeing
  • Take a day to see Pastoruri Glacier
  • Generally safe; robberies not an issue
  • Almost no road walking
  • Horses can be rented in a ‘contingency’
  • Hiring guides is easy and affordable
  • Generally speaking, Peru is not expensive, though it has become more expensive lately
  • No technical equipment or training is required, you just walk
  • If you go with a guided hike, meals and much of the gear is provided
  • This can be (and often is) attempted independently
  • If this isn’t enough for you consider the Alpamayo Trek or, if you are REALLY hardcore, the Huayhuash Circuit

Considerations:

  • Altitude is a serious consideration here
  • 2-3 days of acclimatizing in Huaraz recommended
  • Altitude affects people differently; even fit people can be wiped out by it
  • Hard to know how altitude will impact you until it does
  • 15,000+ ft Pass of Punta Union is higher than most Gringos will ever go
  • We saw a LOT of young hikers utterly destroyed by the pass
  • Minimum three days; four recommended
  • Most do this in the clockwise direction, leaving from Cashapampa and returning via Vaqueria (we would advise considering the opposite)
  • No Incan Ruins on this trek (See Inca Trail)
  • The trails go through some fairly remote areas
  • No towns, stores, roads or easy ways of bailing out
  • In 2015 there were NO working bathrooms en route
  • Despite what many trip reports say, there was no opportunity to purchase supplies except near the very beginning and end (exactly where you won’t need them in other words.)
  • Strongly recommend water treatment tablets or filtration system
  • The valleys are HEAVILY grazed by cattle and other domestic livestock
  • If you don’t like being around large quantities of animal dung, this may not be your hike
  • Expect cold (sometimes below freezing) mornings
  • If you tent, remember you must lug your supplies over Punta Union
  • On guided tours, it is sometimes difficult to figure out in advance what the guides will and won’t do, and what the exact itinerary will be
  • Conversational Spain-talk necessary if you chose to go independent
  • The drive in and out, while spectacular, is long and quite hair raising at times
  • Biting flies are legion in the lower campgrounds
  • With all that said above about how great the weather is, I have read many trip reports where Punta Union was completely socked in, which would really suck.

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Before you go

Sylvia and I did this trip with a guide agency in 2015. A guide, cook, meals, tents and mules were provided (the mules carried the gear, not us.) Unlike our 2011 Salkantay Trek, we were NOT part of a tour group; these guides were hired for us alone. While being part of a group is fun, having our own private guides certainly had advantages too, one of which being that we went at our own pace (as opposed to Salkantay where we were continually, if gently, hurried along.) Our guide, Freddie, was attentive and knowledgeable. We would go the guided route again at Colca Canyon and Misti in 2017.

It is NOT necessary to hire a guide; you could do this trip entirely on your own if you chose. This option is recommended only to very experienced and self-sufficient hikers. Note that Santa Cruz is much more difficult to do independently than most of the Inca Trail options or Colca Canyon, because there are no re-supply or lodging options available.

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We did the trip in the opposite direction that most do it; IE, counter-clockwise. This was a decision made by the guides, and we can’t fault them for it. In fact, while I would stop short of actually advising you do it this way, it did have some serious advantages. It saves the million-dollar view from Punta Union until the moment you burst through the pass, for one thing, and while the downhill beyond the pass was steep in many places, I could only imagine what a slog it would be coming up it. If you have NOT yet acclimated, this might be the better way to do it, because it saves the pass for the third day (we crossed on the second.)

Most start in Cashapampa coming in via the town of Caraz, and leave via Vaqueria and the town of Yunguay. We did the reverse; we went up, rather than down, the dramatic Portachuelo de Llanganuco. It seemed no less impressive on the way up.

I would also strongly advise taking a side detour to view the Alpamayo from a position of advantage if you can. Again, the counter clockwise direction may help with this, because you would do it at the beginning of the third day with the pass behind you and the rest all downhill. If you do it going the other direction, it adds to the climbing.

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If you want more information about independent trekking, the best places to start are the hiking blogs of Cam Honan and Rick McCharles, who have vast resources devoted to independent hiking.

https://besthike.com/

https://www.thehikinglife.com

 

What Do I Need To Bring?

The following items are mandatory:

  • Rain Gear
  • Good boots or shoes
  • Hydration system
  • Pack (doesn’t have to be a full multi-day pack)
  • Extra warm layers, including gloves and hat
  • Sleeping bag (carry one even if the tour company says they provide one)
  • Water purification system

The following items are NOT mandatory, but are advisable:

  • Sleeping pad (Even if the tour company says they provide one, two won’t hurt)
  • Snacks
  • First aid gear (especially some sort of aspirin or ibuprofen)
  • Camera/phone
  • Charger for above
  • Something for the altitude

If you go with a tour, leave the following at home:

  • Tent
  • Stove

 

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Note that in 2015 Brian and Sylvia hiked without a proper water purification system; we were forced to rely on the guides to help boil water for us. This was a major oversight on someone’s part. There are very few reliable water sources along the route (none I would advice a Gringo drink from.) Unlike other long distance hikes we have done in Peru, there were NO stores or merchants along the Santa Cruz Trek for the majority of the way. Thus, be prepared to filter your own water.

A note on snacks…we brought a goodly number of them, but our guides also provided us a whole ton of snacks along the way…so many in fact that we ended the hike with more snacks than we started with. We easily could have ditched every snack we carried and used extra space saved for a water filtration system. As always, it is VERY useful to know in advance what will and won’t be provided by your guides if you go that route.

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Which brings us to the final item about gear… In every adventure we have planned in Peru, there has been some degree of disconnect between what the tour company told us via phone/email and what the guides told us once we were on the trail. Sometimes we were pleasantly surprised; other times, the surprises were less pleasant. Try to find out what, exactly the guides will be doing for you and what they won’t. Will they be providing ALL meals or just dinner? How about snacks? Will you have tents, or tents with sleeping pads, etc? Can any gear be sent ahead on the horses? And then of course, you must factor in that anything the tour company tells you may in fact be completely wrong.

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How can I get ready?

Do as much hiking as you can. If it is possible, try to do as much acclimatization as possible at high altitude. Note that for most of the people reading this, the previous sentence translates into “the impossible.” There is no high-altitude hiking to be had east of the Rockies, so for three quarters of the US and lower Canada, that’s a non-starter. If you live in the UK or Ireland or Australia…same applies. You will need to do as much aerobic exercise and walking as possible, preferably off-trail with a pack of 15-20 pounds.

In the specific case of the Santa Cruz Trek, Brian had no problem with the elevation and Sylvia did. This was an exact reversal of the situation in 2011 when we did Salkantay. Again, tolerance of high elevation is a very difficult thing to gauge in a person. Fit people are generally better prepared for it than unfit people, but even that isn’t always the case. Sylvia and I had approximately the same level of fitness going into SCT; hers was perhaps even better, because thanks to his ‘trick knee’ Brian a-cain’t run no more. yet she struggled far more than I did.

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Pastoruri Glacier served as a warm-up hike…if you want to call it that.

The best thing you can do to improve you chances is, arrive in Huaraz a few days early and do as much walking as possible. Sylvia and I did the tour trip to Pastoruri (nearly 17,000 feet.) It proved to be less than what Sylvia needed but…still, she made it.

Finally, I would recommend you be able to speak at least passable Spanish. Sylvia of course is fluent in the Spain-Talk, being from Peru. Brian meanwhile is confined to Tarzan Spanish; he is working on improve this. Our guide on the Santa Cruz Hike, Freddie, spoke more than passable English (as most guides do) but it greatly helps to know what the hell is going on around you. Needless to say, I would not do this hike independently unless I could speak the local language.

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The Santa Cruz Trek is a unique and once in a lifetime experience that is worth trying for. Unlike Machu Picchu you can NOT see this from a bus…this has to be walked, and the things you will experience are well worth the effort. Prepare as much as possible and be ready to deal with what comes up along the way. I believe that with some preparation, proper conditioning and the proper attitude, most able bodied people will be able to do this trek and will love it.

Interested? What are you waiting for? It’s there. Right now…it’s there.

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…And Of Course the End is Always a Downer

Santa Cruz Trek Day 4: The Final Day

**An older version of this post originally appeared in 2015 on the old legacy blog. We hope you enjoy this updated version!

The last day of our hike is here!

I emerged from the tent to clear blue skies and three freshly deposited cow turds. Folks I will say this up front…if you have problems will animal manure this is not you hike. I’ve said the necessary so let’s move on.

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Sylvia, ready to go on and fight shy of this place, as they say in Texas.

 

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Her husband is fair itchin’ for more!

On the other hand if you love hikes with staggering views then no hike could be better, and we had them every day of this trip…this day being no exception. Sylvia, feeling an intense desire to be back in the land of hair driers and flush toilets, was very keen to get going. Some people!

Our guide Freddie informed us that there would be no detours this day…there was only one way to go, and that was down. He estimated we would be finished by about noon. Which of course did not mean being home by any means, we were still a good two hour plus drive from Huaraz which is itself not exactly Malibu Colony.

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Destination Cashapampa

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Right away the downhill got intense. The valley of the Santa Cruise River quickly narrowed and became a gorge, through which the river tumbled down in a seemingly endless series of cataracts. The trail wound along the leftmost edge of this canyon…the views above constricted until we could no longer see white capped mountains, just the rugged walls of rock towering above us, and a wedge of sky blue overhead. Speaking of sky, some weather had moved in behind us from the high peaks and it looked, for a while, like rain might overtake us. But ahead all was clear blue, and the rain never did catch up.

This was a steep trail, at times ridiculously steep. Every time we passed somebody (or some heavily laden mule) laboring up I felt sorry for them. I was not happy to be walking down this slope on my Herman Munster like ‘trick’ knees, but I am sure glad we did not come UP this way. The incline just seemed never ending. Good choice by the guides to go THIS way. Most itineraries do the opposite.

And the slide zones we crossed…every quarter mile or so another one, some clearly older with moss covering the strewn boulders and others seemingly having happened overnight. Many were gravel, others sand. There were some dicey bits particularly when the trail went around blind corners, but we kept moving without mishap. I did stumble a few times.

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It is a long walk back to the nearest passable road.

We hiked a good two hours like this, and while it was hard on the knees, one good thing about going down is, you go fast. Sometimes the river ran right beside us, and sometimes it was two hundred feet below us. Always it seemed to be running away.

And then around the bend the valley opened up and beyond lay our destination…Cashapampa, a dot on the map of the Andes but it was where we needed to go. We steadily watched it approach with mixed feelings. I was tired and ready to be done and go ice up my knees, but I also wished to be back in those mountains for one more day…would another day sepnt with the Alpamayo, with Nevado Santa Cruz, and with gleaming Huascarin be so bad? But it was not to be, civilization lay ahead. Sylvia’s feelings were shall we say less mixed. She was missing the views to be sure, but what she really wanted was a view of a real bathroom.

 

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The trail crossed innumerable slide zones

Soon enough we were there. We passed through a livestock gate that led under the town’s aqueduct, which we then walked beside for a while. We were now back in farm country and on each side of us were fields of potatoes, wheat and Quinoa. Soon we saw a shrine up ahead of it and to the right a Ranger Station. Here it was at last! Cashapampa, the end of the trail.

Most people actually begin the hike here and go in the opposite direction, and so there is a sign here, outlining the hole hike. Near it we saw another sign, this one not official…it read, “Stay here drink beer.” A statement dear to my own heart, but I was not quite ready for a Cusquena yet…once we were back in Huaraz, then I would indulge.

We reached the bottom of the hill where there was a friendly store. The guides did in fact sit down for a well-earned beer while we had cold water and, to my great astonishment, an ice cold Coke. (Coca Cola is not rare even in the Andes, but what they consider cold there is what I might generously term luke-warm.)

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Sylvia also made another finding…There was a toilet! True it was out back in the middle of a field behind a construction site, and like many an Andean toilet it was curiously lacking a seat, but still it was an extravagance compared to what we had been seeing. Sylva pronounced this the greatest ‘throne’ ever.

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Oswaldo, our tour arranger, soon showed up with the car. Me, Sylvia, Freddie and Edwin piled in for the journey out. This road was not quite as steep or precipitous as the one inbound but…it was still pretty damned nerve wracking. There was a lot more traffic on this road, and all of it seemed to pass us just as the car turned into a blind corner, or in a narrow stretch between adobe walls where seemingly just one car could pass. Peruvian drivers have an unusual method of dealing with these situations. Both drivers simply continue heading straight for one another; at the last minute, both cars somehow miss, and both drivers continue on without any visible reaction.

At one point, we had to back up and let a gigantic ten wheel truck go by. As the truck slid past just a hair’s breadth from the window I saw, incongruously, that the driver had stenciled one of those family logos you see on minivans to the side of the truck…daddy, mommy, kids, dog cat.

Oswaldo skillfully had us down to blacktop in about an hour and then it was yet another hour to Huaraz…stopping for ice cream along the way. I can only express tremendous gratitude to him, and to Freddie our guide, to Edwin our cook, to our mule driver Ariero and to Sylvia, above all, for putting up with this. How many women who are not exactly dedicated hikers would have parted with running water and bathroom facilities for most of four days? But even she agreed the views were worth it.

This sort of trekking is not for everyone – though in my opinion, anyone who is reasonably healthy could do it. The challenges and obstacles are mental as much as physical. Travelling in Peru is exhausting and takes a great deal of patience, and sometimes things do go wrong, but the rewards are obvious. We did what we set out to do…we hiked in the second highest mountain range on earth. It was everything I ever wanted to do. And I did it with the person I love most.

The end was a downer, of course…but still, what ending could have been better?

(And yes the hot water back atn the hotel worked for a change.)

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NEXT UP: Can Anyone do the Santa Cruz Trek?

Landscape With a History of Violence

Santa Cruz Trek, Day 3: The Santa Cruz Valley

**An older version of this post originally appeared in 2015 on the old legacy blog. We hope you enjoy this updated version!

Waking on the third morning I was greeted, as I stuck my face from the tent, by a cow. This animal, standing about twenty feet away, took one look at me and beat a hasty exit, stage left. I can only imagine what went through its bovine mind; the image of me crawling through the opening of the tent had probably convinced it that some alien jellyfish had given birth to an even stranger humanoid hybrid. Whatever, I was up, and it was clearly going to be a beautiful day for hiking.

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The Alpamayo beneath one of those weirdly beautiful cloud formations that are dime a dozen on Andean mornings. 

It had not been nearly as cold a night as the last by my reckoning, but despite this, and despite the presence of hand warmers, Sylvia once again could not get her feet warm. Perhaps just as I need a new pair of knees, she needs new temperature regulator. We breakfasted, had coffee, and filled our water supply with quality H20 kindly boiled by the guides. We got more snacks (more than we could deal with, actually) and we were ready to go.

Freddie the Guide told us that we had two options for today, basically….we could hike for six hours on flat terrain and have great views, or we could hike a short distance uphill which would take us maybe an hour out of the way, at most, and have even greater views. A nights rest had done wonders for me (as had that foot bath in the mountain stream) and Sylvia, chilled as always, was looking to warm up. We were feeling chipper. We opted for the scenic route.

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Redecorating, Andean style…Views of the mammoth slide zone. First, where it originated, and second, where it ended up. 

This trail was sketchy in places, little more than a goat path, but Freddie knew what he was a about. In no time we were standing at the gates of the Alpamayo – which is not only a cluster of peaks but also the name of yet another hike even more intense than this one. Freddie said that two more hours of this would take us to the base camp by which serious mountaineers attempted the Alpamayo and Santa Cruise Peak. This Trek is NOT for the faint of heart…it is longer, it is further, it crosses multiple mountain passes, and it is colder. Are there are just as many flush toilets on that hike as this one…zero.

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Sylvia poses with Alpamayo

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Look familiar? This mountain, Artesonraju, is reputed to have been used as the Basis for the Paramount Pictures logo. Imagine it with stars circling overhead…

We soon started down, and on the way out passed a mule train and some hikers that were in fact returning from the Alpamayo. They passed as we stopped to rest in a wooded campsite near the river. This campsite bordered on the edge of a titanic landslide zone that, a few years back, buried the entire valley in snow, rock and mud and wiped out two picturesque mountain lakes. It also killed numerous cattle whose bones can still be seen strewn about everywhere. The destruction is the most complete I have ever seen, surpassing even that which I had seen at Mt. St. Helens in 2008…but of course, I had visited almost three decades after the fact while this landscape’s history of violence was recent.

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Down on the slide zone…a beautiful lake used to be located right where the photo of this beautiful woman was photo was taken.

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We crossed this area of destruction, which was like walking on a fine sand beach, for hours. Sometimes the trail was right on the washed out area and sometimes beside it. It went on for miles, proof of the terrible power of the slide. Finally, it petered out and we came to the last remaining untouched lagoon or lake. Here we had lunch. Some of the surviving Isreali kids caught up with us and stopped for lunch too. Freddie told us the story of a young woman who he’d had in his group a couple years ago who had collapsed from fatigue near Punta Union, and he’d had to bodily carry her up the mountain…where the views magically revived her. He also told us he liked the pace we were going at (despite my ‘trick’ knees) and that the most fit hikers he’d ever met were inevitably Austrians. It was hard to be a guide for Austrians, he said, because they can hike all day and never stop.

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The avalanche spared some of the lakes at the end of the valley.

Most of the rest of this day passed without incident. It was a long, but easy, day of hiking. We passed the ruins of two abandoned bathrooms (the National Park administration apparently does little to maintain anything here) one deserted village, probably abandoned on account of the slide, a woodpecker and one or two very large (blackbird sized) hummingbirds. At was no shortage of views, including several amazing waterfalls…sometimes appearing on both sides of the trail at once, as glaciers to either side of the trail melted. All the previously day while we had been our tent, we’d heard the rumblings and cracking of avalanches from the glaciers and ice fields above. But that had ceased with the coming of night.

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Ghost village…nobody home. The building on the left, sadly, was once the banos. 

We crossed a spring of ice cold water that issued from one of these falls…coming as it did from the high country, Freddie pronounced this the only water source along the whole way that was fit for drinking. I didn’t chance it though…what was fit for a Peruvian guide might not be fit for Gringo Grande. There was no telling what was upstream, could have been a dead cow 100 yards away. So we settled for dousing our hats and cooling off a bit.

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The campsite soon hove into view…I think this was Llamacoral or somewhere near it and it was a nice spot, right by the river…but alas the cows and mules crowded in here too. As I gave myself a foot bath for the second time, some flies the size of pterodactyls took enormous bites out of my leg. I’d been bitten by a similar fly in the high jungles near Salkantay…they were like North American black flies only six times bigger and left bloody, circular welts.

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Along with the guides, Freddie and Edwin, we enjoyed our last dinner of the trip. We were told tomorrow’s hike was all downhill and we would be out in a matter of hours. Sylvia, suffering separation anxiety from her hair dryer, was clearly looking forward to this. But I had mixed feelings. This was exactly what I had always wanted to do, and while I was tired, I couldn’t but wish for just a few more days exploring these majestic mountains.

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The Last Camp.

But we still had one more day of hiking, and this would test our knees and resolve quite sorely. Pun intended.

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Next up: …And Of Course the End is Always a Downer

The Other Side of the Mountain

The Santa Cruz Trek, Day 2: Punta Union

We awoke the next morning to the sound of the guides already up and busy with the camp chores. Sylvia had, as she often does, suffered through the whole night from cold feet. We had brought along a pair of hand warmers to counter this but, considering the next campsite promised to be colder, she was saving them for it.

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The Andes in dawn’s early light

The guides helpfully provided us a basin or warm water for washing, which I took to the most poop-free area of the camp so we could ‘use the facilities.’ I had already ‘tested’ the latrine that morning at 5:15 am and found it in good working order, as holes go. I was ready to hike. Sylvia was simply ready to get going.

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The way ahead was clear…up the long arm of the ridge ahead of us and then steadily higher until we crossed the spine of the Andes at Punta Union. This figured to be the hardest day of hiking. This figured, really, to be the whole hike, make or break.

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Strange cloud effects of the Andes

With the coming of the sun alpenglow broke out on the snowfields above, dazzlingly. The things we experienced this day cannot be described in sufficient terms, nor will any photograph do it proper justice. Language and technology both fail here. I can only say that no part of this ever changing landscape that in any way disappointed. Each minute brought stunning new vistas into view, and as we went higher, the more we saw.

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This way to the pass

As we traveled through the high valleys we could hear the echoes of the mule drivers cries as they called to each other and to their animals. The grass and scrub here was higher and wilder…no grazing cattle now, only the passing mule and horse trains and the human traffic they supported. Freddie kept us going, slowly, steadily, choosing always the best and least eroded routes.

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Traffic jam

At last we arrived in a great cirque surrounded on all sides by peaks and glaciers, some quite close, and filled with lakes of that strange turquoise color one sees only in mountain tarns and tropical lagoons. The locals do, in fact, call these high lakes lagoons…we paused by one to rest, our last major rest stop before attempting the pass.

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High Lagoon

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And there it was above us…a small notch in the rock atop an impossibly high wall looming before us. Freddie said an hour or maybe longer. It seemed like forever would not be long enough to surmount that, but then we noticed mule trains switch backing down the grade…it was not so steep as it appeared. And it brought to mind Glen Pass in the Sierra Nevada which I had done the year before…and which had looked, from the bottom, like an impossibility. But in fact it took just forty five minutes of invested sweat to conquer.

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The pass is the little notch just to the left of the guide’s head in this photo. Note the slide zone to the right that reminded me of Huntington’s Ravine in New Hampshire.
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Mule trains headed down

We began the assault. Right away I knew this would be more difficult than Glen Pass. More difficult, even, than Salkantay. Not only was the elevation and the thin air problematic, but the trail was quite steep, often over slabs of rock. This was not the even, modest switchbacks of Salkantay.

But we labored up, buoyed by the views which were incredible. We were eye level with glistening glaciers that seemed to beckon at arm’s length; and slowly the spine of the Andes, with its peaks beyond counting, rose out from behind the closer ridges where it had lain hidden. We were both going into new country, Sylvia and I.

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As we approached the final switchback Sylvia, whose stomach had been acting up all day, began to waiver. I encouraged her forward and we stumbled along. Freddie patiently set a slow deliberate pace, and I kept Sylvia going with frequent slogans and other propaganda designed to raise her spirits (“There’s the pass love, it’s not as far as it looks!”) And it wasn’t far, really, only it wasn’t close either. But it kept coming closer…we could see an imposing and well-built rock stairway that turned up and into it, giving it a formidable, castle-like look. Soon we stood at the bottom of this stairs, looking up through a portal in the rock.

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Final approach to Punta Union
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The guide was actually standing in the pass when he took this photo of us.

We paused for a break and some pictures. Did we have enough left in the tank to make it? Sylvia looked spent but I was certain she could…a few more feet and it was all downhill. And so she looked up at the shaft of daylight in the granite that loomed above, put her feet forward, took a few steps, then a few more…and she was through!

Up…up…and through!

Now it was my turn. I knew that on the other side was a view that was beyond anything I had yet seen. I wanted to come charging through at all once and see it. And so I took ten running steps and, without really thinking it through, ran up the slope and out through the pass…

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The other side of the mountain.

What a view! It was beyond anything I had ever imagined, and no photo that we took and no photo I have seen from anyone else captures the full effect of the view from Punta Union – Union Pass. Ahead, a river valley stretches away toward distant lakes. To the right is a bright glacier, almost blinding in the sun, stretching upwards for thousands of feet…below it is a lake of pure blue, stark against the gray rock. And to the left are arrayed jagged peaks like the fangs of some extinct beast. It is an overwhelming experience to burst through and be confronted with this view, so suddenly. It is as if the world has turned upside down. Like some door on another universe of greater possibilities, thrown open.

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Punta Union (Union Pass) at 14 599 feet is the highest point on this trip.
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Me, Sylvia and Freddie the guide

There is a sign and here we took obligatory pictures. On the rock near the sign someone had lain the jawbone of an unlucky mule…I think it was Hercules who went to battle and slew men with the jawbone of an ass? Well he wasn’t here but, seemingly even more unlikely, there was a dog begging for scraps in this windswept place. We took our pictures by the sign and then sat for a well-earned rest. Edwin, our intrepid cook, had arrived before us with a pot full of food. This was welcome.

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I spent some time filming and looking at some strange birds I saw in the pass, possibly Kites of some kind, and then it was time to move on. What else was there to do but go down? So we set out, downhill.

We descended first to the level of the crystalline blue lake we had seen from above. Even this was a ridiculously long way to go; but long before we reached this we had our first view of the campsite in the distance, a scattering of colorful dots that could only be tents along the river. It looked tantalizingly close, across a lower plain which looked tantalizingly flat. But if hiking has taught me one thing it is this: things that look tantalizingly close and flat are very often in reality agonizingly far, and far from flat as well.

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The downhill was steep, rough and tiresome. The nature of the trail continually changed, first dirt switchbacks with high step-downs, then rock, then a slope of fine, shifting sand, and then a loose scree and back to dirt again. For me with my ‘trick’ knee it was quite agonizing at times; Freddie the guide had stated the day before with some understatement that he noticed I ‘struggled a bit with the downhill.’ Basically, on the uphill I am okay, just any other middle aged hiker. On the downhills, thanks to bad knees and poor balance, I turn into Herman Munster. But, this is not new territory for me; I managed to avoid disaster and we made it through the descent without any mishaps.

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It was on the way down from the pass that we passed the stumbling, zombie like cadre of the Euro-Isreali youth hiking group. Several of these hikers were clearly shell shocked from altitude and fatigue and were just staggering forward. One poor guy appeared to have turned his ankle and was being helped along by his girlfriend…at least I think it was his girlfriend, else this woman was a saint. You do NOT want to blow a tire in the Andes, folks…ain’t no helicopter coming if you do. On the sloping plain below below we passed a guide coming the other way with a pair of horses. These were, as it turned out, to rescue a couple of the worst of the young people who had come to the end of their limit. They weren’t the last people we saw that day being shuttled about on four legged ambulances.

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We eventually reached the plain that had looked tantalizingly flat from above. As I half expected, it was actually a fairly moderate slope…downward still, nothing big under normal circumstances but by now my feel had swelled up to twice their normal side. I trudged forward in mummy like fashion, in increasing amounts of pain, following Sylvia and Freddie. Not much further, I was assured, not much further. But of course, it was much further.

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Looking back toward Punta Union.

Soon we did reach the outskirts of a fairly sprawling campsite strung out along the river…people, mules and other animals milled around like actors on a movie location waiting for someone to yell ‘action.’ Not surprisingly, our camp was one of the furthest in…Freddie and the guides deliberately picked sites that were remote and gave us a head start to the next day’s hiking.

But the next day was far from my mind at the moment. We stumbled into camp and nearly collapsed. We were out of water and exhausted; Sylvia’s stomach hurt and my feet ached. I went to bathe my feet in the nearby stream while Sylvia crawled into the tent to rest. The foot bath was AWESOME (if you ignored the bones of the dead cow that was down by the stream bank…as I did.) Just what the doctor ordered….the water was so cold I could only hold my feet in for maybe 25 seconds at most. But by the time I got back to the tent, Sylvia was shivering (it got cold real quick.) We were suffering from dehydration and had no water left.

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Camp. Finally.

Fortunately the guides came to our rescue…they gave us hot tea by the cupful. This restored Sylvia’s juices to the point where she could come into the warm kitchen tent and eat something, while I drank cup after cup of tea and hot cocoa. When we went to bed that night, Sylvia with her hand warmers stuffed into her socks, we knew we had accomplished something. We had survived the hardest day of the trek and now, we knew, the rest was all downhill. As I looked at the night sky outside the tent that night, and the Great Sky River above me, I knew that this was what I had always wanted to do.

But we weren’t out yet. Punta Union was past, but two more days of hiking lay between us and civilization…

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Next: A History of Violence

Nevado Huascaran

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.

Map of the Santa Cruz Trek…Image courtesy of http://www.americas-fr.com

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.

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View from Portachuelo de Llanganuco…and yes, that white line down there is the same road we just came up.

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.

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The Cordillera Blanca…The White Mountains
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Rest stop near the roof of the world.

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.

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Us with Nevado Huascaran, Peru’s highest mountain.

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.

 

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After the last bathrooms are left behind…The trek begins!

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.

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Pa’s trick knee is actin’ up, must be weather comin’ in.

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.)

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This was about where we passed the last store selling bottled water (or anything else.)
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The spike-like mountain in the background is probably Chacrarajuconsidered the most difficult 6,000 meter peak to climb in the Andes.

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.

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All of the (in)conveniences of home, including cold and cold running water.

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.

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The ‘portable powder room.’

Sylvia was NOT pleased. But, this ‘powder room’ did have three things going for it….location. Location. And…location.

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Andean Sunset

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.

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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

A Slowly Dying Lake of Ice

Pastoruri Glacier…or, what’s left of it

**An older version of this post originally appeared in 2015 on the old legacy blog. We hope you enjoy this updated version!

Most trips to Huaraz include a side trip to Pastoruri Glacier, one of the few glaciers remaining in tropical South America. Except that nowadays, it’s more correct to say, what’s left of the glacier.

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On the bus in, playing ‘peak’-a-boo with nearby 20,000 foot peaks.

Pastoruri Glacier sits at 17,000 feet above sea level and can be reached by bus from Huaraz. This is not a short drive; at least two hours over gradually diminishing roads to the glacier. Some people apparently bike this distance, we saw at least a few people who were doing so. I don’t know who or what these people are; they must be stranded so near a yellow sun that it gives them super powers. I was not entirely sure the bus would make it.

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Puya Raimondi, or queen of the Andres. It can reach fifty feet in height only grows about 3000 meters altitude.

The Glacier is not what it once was. Sylvia visited here some years back, well before the ‘Gringo Friendly” walkway you see in the pictures was installed, and the walk was longer and rougher. She was saddened by what she saw; the glacier is now a fragment of what it was, diminished by the rise of global temperatures. Everywhere around the world they say the same thing; at Salkantay three years ago, our guides told us that the snow-capped peaks they remember in boyhood have receded. I won’t get too deeply into politics but if you are one of those global warming ‘skeptics’ – well, go ahead and take a look at the pictures.

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The ‘Gringo Friendly’ tourist walkway keeps the tourists moving at 17,000 feet.

Go anywhere around the world where there are glaciers and you will see the same. I saw blocks of ice the size of refrigerators marooned on the rocks, slowly melting away. In our lifetimes, it is likely there will be no more Pastoruri at all.

 

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Parts of Pastoruri glacier lie where the rapid melt has stranded them. 

The hike itself was easy but the elevation was a physical presence…just stepping off the bus I felt as if I would pass out. So we proceeded at a VERY slow pace and in time adjusted pretty nicely. The scenery was awesome, and as it was off-season (and late in the day) the place was almost empty. You could see spaces for thirty or more buses so in season this place must be a complete zoo.

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The long and winding — but Gringo Friendly! — Road. 

We must have been the last group of tourists to the place; on the way back all the women selling water and candies jumped on the bus with us, and along the way we met the guy renting horses, galloping down the road with his charges, headed back to the home pasture. And thus ended the first day of adventuring…leaving us to prepare for the main attraction…the four day Santa Cruz Trek.

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Next up: Nevado Huascaran

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