Peru #11: Huaraz and the Santa Cruz trek

When I said I’d be going to Peru, some hard-core hikers I know in Brazil had insisted that I go to Huaraz, six hours north of Lima, for some spectacular views and great hiking. The city itself isn’t that much to write home about, but is the base for setting off on tours into the snow-capped Andes mountain range which ominously overlooks the city. To say the views once you’re out there are beautiful doesn’t do it justice. They are absolutely spectacular.

Getting there and where to stay

Having been about six hours south of Lima in Paracas to see the Islas Ballestas, I figured I’d hotfoot it all the way through to Huaraz in one go, instead of spending a night in Lima, though sorting out buses was a bit of a faff, as transport generally is in the Peruvian capital. The problem stems from the fact that there is no big bus terminal from which all bus companies leave as one finds in other cities, and you instead have to go one of the company’s mini-terminals in the district of La Libertad, not too far out from the centre of the city.

Online research told me that the area in and around the terminals was a little grim, but I still opted not to take a taxi from the PeruBus headquarters where I’d been dropped off as I sensed I wasn’t too far away from where I needed to be. As usual, a throng of taxi drivers were lurking as we got off the bus, but I ignored them and set about getting some information about how to get to the bus terminals. Unfortunately, no one seemed to have any kind of idea  and several company employees and café cashiers directed me towards the hyenas (taxi drivers). I didn’t want to resort to feeding them and instead hunted down an internet connection so as to activate my maps. The terminals I was looking for weren’t actually that far away, and seeing as it was still early evening and light I decided to walk. As expected, nothing dramatic happened on my walk there and ten minutes later I ended up at one of a dozen or so mini-terminals clustered together near the national football stadium and bought my ticket to Huaraz for 80/S. Absolutely no need for a taxi.

I managed to sleep all night and got into Huaraz at around 7am. The city itself is rather small and I’d screenshotted myself the route to Caroline Lodging, a hostel I’d been recommended by a French guy I’d met in Paracas on a boat. It’s in a residential area a little out of the centre, but the neighbourhood is perfectly safe. For the tidy price of 15/S you get a bed in very cosy shared dorm and a decent classic Peruvian continental breakfast of bread, butter, jams and coffee.

What to do

I’d arrived a little late to get on the day’s Santa Cruz tour, the 3-night/4-day trek through the mountains, so opted to go horse-riding instead, an activity that always finds it way on to each of my trips.

I organised the activity through the hostel for 60/S and was bussed out to a farm where I’d met Cañon, my trusty yet rebellious steed for the day. We went riding with the landowner’s son and though the horses were obviously accustomed to the route, there came moments where they refused to jump streams or go through narrow passages and a lot of grunting and kicking ensued. The four of our horses had a particular formation they liked to go in, and whether the way I held the reins or kicked Cañon in any way made a difference I don’t know. After about an hour or so we came to the viewpoint, from where you can see the city of Huaraz and the white-tipped peaks, including Huascarán, the highest mountain in Peru. The way back down was quite laborious and seemed it would never end. My loins were getting a bit of friction, what with the bounce-bounce of the saddle when the horses decided to go for a trot, but luckily I made it back without getting too raw. After dismounting the horses, the ranch owner and his family were nowhere to be seen, so I figured it was on me to get a bus back to Huaraz alone. Not too complicated in the end, as they passed along the main road outside the farm and I got one for 1/S.

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Now, in terms of culinary delights, my attention had increasingly been drawn to cui, roasted guinea pig. I’d normally have no issues with weird food, but this particular dish, a fave of Peru and Ecuador, was served in a very gruesome way. I think they basically shave the thing and chuck it in the oven, as it arrives on your plate, claws, head, teeth and all. Apparently you’re supposed to grab it and munch on it as if I were a piece of fried chicken, though I had been warned that it contained lots of small bones. Not too keen on crunching claw, I’d delayed trying it, but now I was in Huaraz, where it’s apparently the best place to eat the rodent. However, figuring I was about to embark on a 4-day trek through the wilderness, I didn’t want to test my stomach, yet still saw fit to eat fish and rice, something I would regret in the coming days.

cuy-al-horno

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The Santa Cruz Trek

The main attraction of Huaraz is the Santa Cruz trek, the 4-day/3-night hike through the Andes. While I was there it was December, very much out of tourist season, and I arranged  a tour through the hostel for 320/S, plus 65/S for entry to the park, which I considered a tidy bargain, given that tents, sleeping bags, food, transport  and donkeys are included. Doing the trek alone is possible, but perhaps not advised, as opposed to in Colca Canyon, for example, as the routes aren’t clear and there’s pretty much no civilisation on the whole trek. Besides, other tourists had told me that savings were minimal if one does it alone.

I was picked up at the hostel at 6am and we were taken the four and a half hours to the start of the trek in Vaqueria in a minibus. On the tour was another English girl, a German, a Chinese couple, a South Korean girl and a pair of Canadians, and we’d all get to know each other well over the next few days. We were led on the tour by Patricia, a short and very giggly local lady. On the ride up we passed a gorgeous crystal blue lake set against the backdrop of the snowy peaks.

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We got to the start point by about midday and the first day’s walk was pretty easy, through flat green land with a few rocks here and there, with a gradual descent. The donkey ranger started after us, and somehow managed to breeze past us with his beasts and get to the night’s camping space a good while before us. Note that there is no camp site as such, rather flat land with some rocks providing cover from the wind. We pitched our own tents and I shared with the tall, middle-aged German, who I’d end up getting on very well with. There were also tents set up to serve as a kitchen and a dining room, and the food provided by Patricia was basic, yet filling enough. In terms of water, because there was always the river running nearby, we didn’t have to lug loads of it and instead Patricia would boil river water and we’d fill up our bottles in the morning.

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The first night was a little rough, because of the incessant rain and wind, and our toes got a little wet inside the sleeping bag, though we would learn from our errors and become better at pitching our tents on subsequent days. I’d tanked up on water during the day in an effort to combat altitude, which I must say wasn’t a real factor on the trek. This meant needing to exit the tent via loud unzipping a few times per night to take a leak, though I owed my tent buddy for his intermittent snoring. The first two nights’ sleep weren’t particularly comfortable, but when I grabbed two mattresses on the third night and refrained from drinking water after mid-afternoon, it made a world of a difference. Given there’s nothing much to do once the sun has gone down in the middle of nowhere, we went to sleep at around 8pm and thus by the time it got round to 5am I was ready to go, despite breakfast not being till an hour later. One of the motives being to find a spot to give back to nature before anyone else got up and caught me in the act.

Typically we would start walking at about 7am and go until about 3pm, giving sufficient time to set up camp, make dinner and give the donkeys a well-earned rest. The second day ended up being a rather tough one, as the horrible weather had meant we’d not slept that well. One of the Canadians was really suffering from altitude and vomiting, so he and his mate decided to walk back the half-day to Vaqueria instead of trying to get through the next two days in tougher terrains. Whether they made it I don’t know. And a good job they didn’t carry on, as this particular day was extremely rainy, windy and snowy, and ever-worsening as we got up higher in the mountains towards the high point, Paso Punta Unión, at 4750m.

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Despite the altitude it wasn’t my breathing which was the issue but the sheer cold. My fingers and toes were frozen despite multiple layers and when I let the South Korean girl, who was really struggling, borrow my snude, I felt the cold even more. Obviously on these trips, even though you’re strangers, you kind of have to stick together, so I made sure to help her and not leave her stranded. Our guide wasn’t around, because the donkeyman was having issues with his heavily-laden animals sliding all over place on the icy rocks and Patricia was needed up ahead to help push the donkeys’ asses when they were on the verge of sliding into the abyss. How they made it through in such conditions I don’t know. Hats off to the donkeys, which are extremely obedient creatures.

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There are points on the walk where it is not so clear where you have to go, so anyone doing the trek solo might encounter difficulties. Thankfully, on the other side of the Paso, the dark grey snowy skies gave way to sun rays on the horizon and as we descended it got less cold, though the way down was very slippery and wet with icy streams underfoot. Due to my trainers being quite worn, I had to take it pretty slowly, and I’d certainly recommend a pair of hiking boots so as to feel a bit more sure-footed.

After about 6 hours of walking, half of it in freezing conditions, we were relieved to be able to pitch our tents, and the German guy and I pitched ours in front of a big rock, well-protected from the wind.

The third day involved a lot of walking, which though straightforward and not so tiring, seemed never-ending.  Patricia laughed as the Chinese couple took a wrong turn and had to come back on themselves at the cost of about half an hour, remarking that ‘Asians can never follow the route properly’. We got some more amazing views of turquoise waters, gushing rivers and majestic mountains. When I arrived I was glad to see that the tent had already been put up, so taking advantage of the fact that it was moderately warm, I decided to take a dip in the river, which was incredibly soothing for my calves and a relief after two days or so without a wash.

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The final day entailed an easier walk of about three hours, again with fantastic landscapes, and we then caught the bus and got back to Huaraz about four hours later. Given that tipping is expected in Peru, we’d given 100/S for the guide and the same for the donkeyman, because supposedly, if you give everything to the guide and tell them to distribute it they’ll keep more for themselves as they are technically higher up the chain and have in actual fact hired the donkeyman themselves. The agency basically pays the guide x amount, who then organises the transport, donkeys, food and whatever else is needed, evidently trying to make as much reasonable profit as possible.

Conclusion

The trekking had been a tough, but worthwhile experience, if only for the spectacular views and being able to rough it for a few days. I dare say that doing the Santa Cruz trek is a must in Peru, as it will provide something different to what you get on the very touristy trails going to Machu Picchu. The fact that while we did the trek we only bumped into about ten other people shows how it still remains somewhat undiscovered by tourists, yet this makes it all feel  all that more exclusive.

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