Posted by: Jessie Kwak | September 28, 2009

We had so much fun, I can’t even remember if it rained.

Where do you go when you want to trek Peru? Huaraz. And what do you do when you get there? Why, the Santa Cruz trek, of course: a four-day hike through hyperbole-defying high-altitude terrain. Rob posted a photo essay of the hike on the photographs page–here’s my word essay.

We signed up through our hostel—Caroline Lodging—and got a $10 discount for having our own gear, which meant that the trek ended up being only $90 per person. We were lucky enough to get farmed out to the expedition company Galaxia. We’d heard good things about Galaxia from John of Chicago, and since our return we’ve heard reports of people who went through Caroline Lodging’s tour company and they said that the gear was sub-par and the trek unorganized.

Our guide was Miguel Ochoa, who has worked in these mountains for six years, and our group was a diverse one: Enrique and Sara from Spain, Béné from Paris, and Chloe and Dennis from Canada, Florida, New York, and London. It was quite a small group, since we are nearing the end of the busy season: unintuitively, the winter months are the most popular with hikers because the summer months bring the rains. But I’d rather have gotten the rain than the tourists.

The Santa Cruz trek is one of the most popular ones in Peru, due to its beauty and its accessibility. It’s only three or four days, depending on your speed, and there’s only one major (4800 meters) pass to ascend. Even though Rob and I hadn’t done much hiking lately, we were acclimatized enough that we had no problems.

Day 1: At 6am we’re loaded groggy into a van. We strike out north, stopping in Yungay for breakfast, then head east into the mountains, climbing into the Cordillera Blanca and the Huascaran National Park. The park is gorgeous, with clear turquoise blue lakes, chalky rivers, steep mountains and brilliant white peaks. We climb a torturous path out of the valley, crest the pass at over 5000 meters, then descend just as torturously down into the next valley.

Road to Santa Cruz Trek Peru

Winding roads and harrowing ascents

We’re introduced to the donkeys in the town of Vaqueria,which is only on maps because it’s the start of the Santa Cruz trek. Chickens inspect our luggage as we munch on sandwiches, waiting to begin. It is cloudy with a slight drizzle. The first part of the hike is through the village, steep trails and gulleys that the locals walk every day to get to their homes.

Chicken inspecting backpacks at start of Santa Cruz Trek


Some homes along the trail have been set up for gringo education, with cuy farms, traditional weaving, etc. We don’t stop, as the rain is fast approaching and we have no desire to get caught in it.

The changing climate of this trek was the most interesting part—near Vaqueria it is lush and smells like the Olympics, wet humus and glistening ferns, mossy ground springing underfoot, mist rising. The sun breaks through from time to time to dry us before the rain drenches us again.

We reach our first camp site mid-afternoon, struggle with tent setup, drink tea, swat at the flies which pester us in tiny swarms. They are everywhere, when you breath in they stick to your tongue. We fall asleep to the sound of rain and the first chapter of The Godfather (thanks, Eric, for the Audible subscription).

Day 2:

We wake up to the sound of rain, but it stops just enough for us to break camp. We struggle into our still-damp rain gear, preparing for the hardest day of the trek. The flies begin to swarm almost immediately, rushing us out of camp.

It gets even more beautiful as we climb, and Miguel points out where the peaks would be if they weren’t cloaked in gray clouds. I tell him I don’t believe that there are mountains. Everything is damp, the ground, the air, our clothes. We climb. The higher we go the more tiring it is—Miguel climbs with his hands in his pockets, and we’re strung out behind him in various degrees of acclimatization and fitness levels. We take frequent breaks, approaching the snowline with our eyes always on that notch in the mountains which we will improbably pass through. Lakes cluster below us, pooling in shallow holes, crystal clear agate green, rippling in the wind.

The ascent to the pass is a narrow series of ancient-looking switchbacks, built up with stone. We can see the top: Miguel is waiting there a silhouette, and it makes the ascent easier to hear clapping as one person after another makes it. Soon they will clap for me, too.

In the gap at the summit we take photos with the sign: eight hikers and the clouds that plague us. The Santa Cruz Valley stretches before us, lakes and a river, olive green and burnt orange. All the rivers run colored here, rust red or chalky white.

View of the Santa Cruz Valley

The Santa Cruz Valley

We eat lunch and watch the donkeys descending ahead of us. Humberto the cook, the arriero Eugenio, and his eleven-year-old daughter Lourdes came jogging past us as we struggled up the pass. Lourdes, wrapped in a colorful shawl, picked her way absently through the rocks. She’s done this before.

We made camp that second night in the valley and huddled in the meal tent, exhausted and freezing, waiting for breaks in the rain. Miguel brought out the UNO cards, and explained the game to the Spaniards. They caught on quickly. The house rules were similar to the Kwak Family Killer UNO rules, just without the vicious slapping. We play until dinner, then, exhausted, crawl into our damp tents. For Rob and I, the saga of the Godfather continues.

Day 3:

The Santa Cruz Valley is a nice surprise. We descend into a flat plain and sunshine. The walls here shoot skyward, waterfalls cascading off glaciers become rivers that carve deep channels through the valley floor. We’re warm and dry for the first time in days, but behind us sweeps a dark cloud, blowing down the valley and dashing us from time to time with rain. It always seems to be getting closer, but it never quite arrives. Apparently this new valley we’ve found ourselves in in one of everlasting sunshine.

We’ve descended from the rocky heights into a high-altitude forest of peeling-bark quenual trees and sky-blue chocho andino bushes. By the time we camp that night we’ll be in desert, with agave and cactus, and rather alarmingly large spiders.

We see more and more hikers on the third day—nearly every time you stop to go to the bathroom you find that the secluded place you’ve chosen has been chosen many times before, and the trail is perilous with donkey-shit mines. The secluded beauty of the pass disappears: we are only seven of the thousands of people who make the trek every year. Miguel tells us that this trek is a nice relaxation for him between ice-climbing and peak-summiting. When pressed, he considers that he must do the Santa Cruz trek at least twenty-five times a year.

We lose the Spaniards today, as they have a plane to catch that will get them back to work by Tuesday. They hike on ahead with our cook, Humberto, who then hikes back in time to cook us a fantastic dinner of spaghetti with home-made pesto sauce, delicious soup, and chocolate pudding. UNO takes us late into the evening and we go to bed warm and dry for the first time in two days. Don Corleone is shot down in the street.

Day 4:

It’s a short hike today, all descent through high-altitude desert into a river valley forested with eucalyptus. I’m disappointed when we see our first sign of human habitation, the homes, trout ponds, aquaducts, etc., that hint at our all-too-sudden arrival in civilization. We hike down to the center of Cashapampa and wait for the van home, making dinner plans for that evening, when we’ll eat cuy and drink pisco sours with Miguel.

Now, sitting in a little cafe back in Huaraz, it’s hard to imagine that we were just trekking among those white peaks I can see from my table. Were it not for the cold I’m fighting off I just don’t know that I’d trust my memory….

View of the mountains in the cordillera blanca

Clearer skies



  1. […] of Lima. This text is in French but Jessie and Rob were with us and blogged all about it right here. Also, Rob did take some pretty amazing pictures that you can find here, here, here and here. More […]

  2. […] with adventures. Visit Peru’s receding glaciers, go mountain climbing, or take a hike like the Santa Cruz trek through the Cordillera Blanca. Take a trip to the ancient capital of the Chavín, the amazing […]

  3. […] with adventures. Visit Peru’s receding glaciers, go mountain climbing, or take a hike like theSanta Cruz trek through the Cordillera Blanca. Take a trip to the ancient capital of the Chavín, the amazing […]

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