When researching beforehand for our time in Peru, I discovered a trek that I was even more excited about than the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. This trek was the Santa Cruz trek that takes place in the Cordillera Blanca, just outside of Huaraz. This 31-mile trek that spans across valleys, steep, snowcapped mountain peaks, rivers, and large, brightly colored lagoons, is revered by many as one of the best and most beautiful hiking routes in the world. Reaching an altitude of 15,580 feet (4,570 m) above sea level, this posed quite the challenge for two people that’s lived most of their lives down on the ground. We were supposed be picked up at 5:50 in the morning, but as we patiently waited outside our hostal, the van never came. Sore and exhausted from the trek the day before, I have to admit I was slightly hopeful that they had forgotten us. However, 30 minutes later they came rolling up, and we got into a tightly packed van with 8 other hikers.
The drive into the mountains was an adventure in itself. We drove a total of 6 hours with the last half being up a winding dirt road that seemed to never end. The views we saw on the way up were only a preview of what was to come. Since it is the rainy season in the highlands, we were taking a gamble on whether we would even get to see the incredible scenery or not. As we began our walk, we were immediately reminded of this as it started to rain. Fortunately, it didn’t last long and we were able to march to exhaustion in mostly dry clothes. The start of the walk is on a trail that winds its way in-between villages. It was fascinating to get to see a glimpse of what life is like living in the Andes. Along this walk, we were passed with ease by locals that were unaffected by the altitude, stampeded by donkeys, and played with some local kids who had set up a road block. They were so cute and we thought it was all fun and games until they wouldn’t let us through. “Propina! Propina!”, they would yell. This means “tip” in Spanish, so we gave them a bag of M&Ms and this seemed to do the trick. After a steady uphill climb, we reached an amazing valley with stunning views of the Andes around us, horses and cattle grazing, and a peaceful river running beside us. With the level of difficulty being low and the scenery so beautiful, I just wanted to walk in this valley the entire time. After 5 hours of walking, we set up camp near a stream, ate supper, used the local facilities (aka the nearest bush), and let the soothing sounds from the babbling brook lull us to sleep.
We woke up early the next day to get a head start on our most challenging hike; and since it typically rains in the afternoon, we wanted to try and get the majority of the hike done before the rain rolled in. It was a bit cloudy, but every now and then there would be an opening allowing us to see the sun illuminating the snowcapped peaks. With this impressive scenery, you are really able to understand what people mean when they talk about mountains being majestic. The mountains were so tall. I’m not sure if I ever saw where they stopped. As we walked and took in the splendor of the Cordilleras, we were amazed at how high they were. But then a cloud would move and you would see another level of mountains unfold, and then another – it was insane viewing this slideshow. We then began our steepest ascent to the Punta Union pass. Staggering our way up this steep, rocky path, we felt the altitude take its toll. While our heads throbbed, we gasped for air, and paused every 15 minutes for water, the donkeys carrying the camping equipment trotted passed us and the donkey drivers ran alongside them. They made it look so easy! Halfway up this steep ascent, we decided to refuel and take our lunch break with easily one of the best lunch views I have ever had. We sat across from a beautiful stone-grey mountain with a sharp peak covered with snow. It must be too good to be true – and it was. Not quite finished with our lunch, it began to hail. We put in a post-lunch batch of coca leaves and began our race against the weather to the top. Even with new energy and motivation, this still was not an easy task. We were cold, wet, and still couldn’t catch our breath. After another steep, 30-minute climb, we reached the top. The view of the turquoise lagoon below was remarkable, but we due to clouds, we weren’t able to see the snowy peaks surrounding it. But the hardest part was behind us! It was all downhill the rest of the way.
Our guide informed us that we only had 2 more hours before reaching camp. Speaking of our guide, she wasn’t exactly skilled at time forecasting. First of all, she didn’t speak any English, therefore never felt the need to inform us of anything going on. But if she said 2 hours, what she really meant was 3 or 4. And if she said 4 hours, what she really meant 5 or 6. So we just learned to adjust her timeclock and carried on. However, this was our first time going downhill so we really thought maybe it was only 2 hours. After 2 and a half hours had passed and we were all alone, we began to wonder if we had made a wrong turn. When 3 hours had passed and the rain increased, I started to keep my eye out for a cave to crash in for the night. Fortunately, we saw our tents in the distance. Another half hour and we had made it. But our clothes were soaked and we were freezing. This was definitely the most difficult night for us – it was impossible to get warm! We all sat in the dinner tent shivering. With a small tent and 10 people inside, you would think we would be able to accumulate some heat. However, the zipper for the entrance was broken and it just flapped about in the cold wind. We ate around 6:00 and immediately went to our tent to see if our body heat and sleeping bags would do the trick – no such luck. The rain had gotten our sleeping bags wet and the floor of the tent. As we laid there shivering, Hanna stammered that she wished we could just go home tomorrow and not have to spend another night in the cold. We woke up to more poor weather, and Hanna’s wish was granted as we gladly accepted our guide’s proposal to shorten the trip by a day. This meant we would have to eliminate a loop that included viewing the Artesonraju mountain, which is where the movie production company, Paramount Pictures, received the inspiration for their logo. But being wet, tired, cold, and not even 100% sure we would even be able to see it, we unanimously elected to finish the trek. We did this in about 7 hours, but it was all downhill. It was nice getting a “breather” from being out of breath, but this was killer on the knees. Each steep step down on the loose rocks became more difficult as the wear and tear on the knees worsened. Back at our hostal, a warm shower and bed never felt so good.
While this doesn’t sound like a very glamorous trip, it was truly a spectacular journey. The scenery we saw was unlike any I have ever seen in my life – quite possibly the prettiest in the world. We were also able to gain a true sense of accomplishment as we endured this treacherous hike in the altitude and “roughed it” in the wilderness. The Inca Trail would surely be a piece of cake compared to this! Machu Picchu, here we come