Many people have heard of the Andes mountain range that runs from Venezuela to Chile in South America, but you really have to see in person the massive mountains and glaciers to appreciate their beauty, and Peru is an exceptional place to do this. Leading up to arriving in Peru, I was really excited to get into the mountains and trek. We love trekking because you get to really experience nature and all its elements, get your heart pumping, feel one with nature, and it really helps you think more clearly and deeply (almost like a form of mediation). I started hearing about two popular multi-day treks in the last year that sounded awesome: one is the Huayhuash, a difficult 10 day trek at high altitude. The other is a 3 or 4-day, 45 kilometer (28 mile) moderate trek through the Santa Cruz valley, and is known as one of the most beautiful hikes in South America. Seeing as how neither George or I had experience at altitude, we opted for the shorter trek to get our feet wet hiking at 15,000+ feet.
We arrived at the hiking/trekking mecca in Huaraz just after dark and were immediately greeted by the cold, crisp air, alpaca roaming free in our camp/hotel parking lot, and the local indigenous people in their very distinctive dress, which for women includes thick quilted skirts, heavy stockings and tall felt hats. All in all, a very fitting welcome to this mountain town.
First thing in the morning we headed out to the Laguna Wilkacocha trail-head for our first warm up hike up to 3800 meters (12,000 feet). We started on the steep trail up the mountain and immediately got our first taste of altitude… guess we’ll be taking this slow! It was quite humbling getting passed by the school children who were walking home up this trail. They clearly do this several hour walk every day for the privilege of attending school, and it made me appreciate the ease at which we are able to attend school in the US. We slowly ascended the mountain and were rewarded with the most incredible views of the Cordillera Blanca. This is exactly what I was dreaming about when I heard about this place over a year ago! And it made me so incredibly excited for our 4 day trek.
After making it back to the van to settle in for the night, I ended up getting a huge headache and George and I both felt super groggy for the next 24 hours. This was the altitude sickness that people talk about. We ended up giving some French hikers a ride back from the trailhead earlier in the day and they told us about a local remedy that would help…Coca leaves; yes, as in the same leaves that are used to produce a certain substance that is illegal in the US. Turns out chewing coca leaves and making coca tea is a very common remedy (I should note that it is totally legal in most countries in South America to have coca leaves, including Peru). So we went to the mercado and bought ourselves some coca leaves from a shady stand that sold herbs and tree bark for various remedies. It was an interesting day to say the least.
So with roughly 3 days under our belt acclimating in and around Huaraz we set off to start the Santa Cruz trek with our guide and hiking group who we met through Orlando from Eco Ice Peru. Orlando was great to work with and we had so much fun with our fellow hikers: a couple from Australia and two girls from Germany. We drove over a HUGE mountain pass to start on the other side in a town called Vaqueria. Now there would only be one way back over the pass and that would be to walk. The first day started fairly easy and we camped at 3800 meters (12,000 feet). The campsite view in the Huaripampa valley wasn’t too shabby either…
The next day we knew would be a tough one. This was our chance to cross the Punta Union pass at 4,750 meters (15,600 feet). The day started out calm, and picked up when we hit this huge rock face. It was a tough climb, but we knew we could do it. And the views of the mountains surrounding us on all sides kept us motivated. The cordilleras really felt mystical with their ominous clouds hanging around the glacier peaks.
The hike down from Punta Union should have been the easy part, but suddenly I had a wave of altitude sickness and started seeing stars. Nothing a little water and coca leaves couldn’t help with though. And just in time too, because we were nearing our campsite for the night set along the pristine Santa Cruz valley river. I felt like I was stepping into another time – a fantasy land. Beautiful winding rivers with lush greenery and rocks that seemed to pop in color. Oh and don’t forget the fantastic Andes as a backdrop! The pictures just don’t do this valley justice.
Day 3 we took a little detour to a glacier fed lake, Laguna Arhuaycocha which stands at 4,450 meters (14,500 feet). This was a long day of hiking that was really spectacular. More river valleys, glacier water, and we even got to see where the famous landslide of 2012 came through and buried a huge portion of the Santa Cruz Valley. Apparently since it was off-season no one witnessed the landslide, but it took out many animals who graze in the lush valley. I’d love to come back in 20 years and see the valley fully restored to its former state. You can already see where the river is once again carving a path through the debris.
The next day would be our last and final day of walking through the valley, and since we were headed down in elevation, we got to experience the river grow in velocity, and it kept us entertained with the it’s roaring sound.
When we arrived in the town of Cashapampa, we were all exhausted, but I’m not sure I was ready for it to be over. If there is any place you can really feel nature, this was it for me. George and I vowed to return someday and do the Huayhaush, that longer 10 day trek through the Cordilleras. Until then, I’ll be looking ahead to some more trekking in Bolivia, and definitely in Patagonia. So much nature to explore, I can hardly wait!