Day 4 of backpacking the Santa Cruz Trail in the Cordillera Blanca dawned with welcome sun to help us dry out. To see how we planned for our independent trek, see Planning an independent backpacking trip on the Santa Cruz Trail, and to read about our first day, see Hiking the Santa Cruz Trail in Peru: Day 1.
In the morning the group who had camped near us was up and out before we had breakfast so we had the place to ourselves once again. Everything was still soaked and the air was crisp but the sun was shining gloriously to make everything happy and bright. I was too cold to take my long underwear off so I just put my hiking pants on over them. I dreaded putting on the wet boots but it had to be done. My dry socks stayed that way for about a minute before they were soaked through to my skin, starting with the toes and working their way back to my heel. I didn’t have any plastic bags to wear between my socks and boots but that didn’t matter either since I didn’t learn that trick until later. We shook the rain drops off, stuffed our wet gear inside of our packs and stepped resolutely onto the Mud Trail. Squish, squish, squish went my boots. After about 15 minutes my feet warmed up and it wasn’t too bad. My hands, though, were freezing and my wet gloves were useless. I turned to ask Steve to secure my walking sticks to my pack so I could free my hands to put in my pockets, when I noticed that he was wearing socks on his hands. “OMG, what a great idea. My hands are freezing. Is it working?” I asked.
“Yeah, my hands are warm.” We unpacked my pack and I dug out my socks, which, of course, were in the bottom of the pack. I was so happy after that. I didn’t even care about my feet.
The walking was easy on a gentle decline and the path improved quite a bit. The air became dense and humid as we lost hundreds of feet of elevation. As the temperature rose, my long underwear felt like overkill but I left them on. The terrain was less rugged than the high alpine but the intense green of cropland was surreal, as if psychedelics had been dropped into our hot chocolate. It was like a fairyland where Shrek’s relatives might live. It would not have been surprising if a hobbit had rounded the corner to offer directions. Instead, we came across a local man wearing cotton pants, a light jacket and small battered daypack. He didn’t look like a trekker. We greeted him with our limited Spanish and exchanged pleasantries but were soon beyond my comprehension. He kept saying something I couldn’t understand and it sounded like a question. Finally he pulled off his pack and as he opened it I spied a clipboard. “Oh, he needs our permit. He’s a ranger.” I said to Steve.
“Ok, Ok,” I said to the ranger. “Boleta” (ticket) was the closest word I could come up with to let him know I understood.
“Si, si,” he said as Steve groped through his pack until he found the permits. The ranger took down our information on his papers, then started a new line of questioning. I furrowed my brow and concentrated very hard until he finally said, “pasta” and I understood that he was asking if we had any food left over. I felt bad that we didn’t have much and wondered if he was hungry or if he sold food to trekkers. No one in this land of abundant produce and grain looked like they were starving but his tattered clothes and pack demonstrated that he wasn’t that well off. I ferreted out a couple of energy bars and presented them, which he accepted gratefully.
Soon we came to the fields we had seen from a distance and found ourselves walking along a fenced hacienda of impressive size. A very large homestead was surrounded by corrals, grain storage, a large garden and yard. We had reached civilization. Gradually, more houses appeared, most with animal pens attached or nearby, many housing the furry “cue” (pronounced coo-eee), the guinea pigs that are raised for food. Different varieties of potatoes and quinoa were drying on mats in the sun. Ladies in traditional Quechua dress with heavy wool petticoats and tall brown top hats chatted incongruously on cell phones while shepherding babies through buckets of water for their bath. Steve pulled out the guidebook because it had said that there was a confusing maze of paths out of the valley. We were pondering our map when a man walked by and said, “Vaqueria?” We responded affirmatively and he pointed us in the right direction.
The trail angled steeply up the hill and my long johns were definitely feeling like the wrong fashion choice. We wondered if we were going the right way because we weren’t expecting any uphill. That was silly in this mountainous region where everything goes up and down. A young woman in skinny jeans and two extremely well dressed children, a boy and girl, overtook us on the trail. The woman asked if we were going to Vaqueria. Hmmm. How did everyone know where we were going? As if tourists would be going anywhere else. “Follow me,” she said, turning onto a narrower trail that led away from the road. Suddenly concerned, I asked Steve if this was really the way. He shrugged. I guess so. I hoped we weren’t being led somewhere dangerous but we proceeded to walk on the trail. I looked longingly at the road, which seemed to follow a gentle gradient. We climbed much higher and I scrambled to keep up with the woman and little kids. The boy coughed a gurgling wet cough every now and then and it turned out she was taking him to the doctor in Huaraz. Great, I thought, not only can I not keep up with a four year old, I can’t keep up with a sick four year old, one who is so sick his mother has to take him on a two day round trip to the closest doctor. As they scampered up the trail without breathing hard, I was overheating like crazy. I let them get ahead and finally stopped in the middle of the trail to strip my long underwear off, hoping no one would come by.
We eventually reached a paved road. Our guide was chatting with the proprietor of a roadside stand while the kids sat quietly in a chair. Whew, we made it. I inquired about a restroom, dreading what I might find. The proprietor pointed across the street where I was pleasantly surprised and perplexed to find a gleaming, white tiled bathroom with a flush toilet, running water and soap. Very fancy for a mountain town. No one was charging money or anything.
When I returned with freshly scrubbed hands and face Steve said, “Good news. There’s a van driver who will take us all the way to Huaraz.” Wow, what a deal. I didn’t really care how much it cost, knowing that it couldn’t be that much.
“How did that miracle materialize? Wait a minute. I’ll bet there’s a coconut telegraph going on here,” I said. Our guide had a made a phone call from her cell phone and so had the man earlier who had asked us where we were going. It’s entirely probable that a phone call was made to the proprietor of the shop, who alerted waiting drivers that a live one was on the way. Regardless of how it happened, we were grateful. We tried to pay so the family with the sick child could get a ride with us. They refused, saying that they preferred to take the bus. We wished we could have done more for the boy.
The ride down the valley was as amazing as the hike, dropping thousands of feet in a series of tight switchbacks with amazing views of glaciers and pointy peaks. It gave us a glimpse of what we might have seen from Punta Union if we had had clear weather. We were happy to stop at the trailhead for Laguna (Lake) 69 to pick up some other passengers as we were smitten with the beauty of Mt. Pisco. This is a popular dayhike to a lake, and to a basecamp for mountaineering expeditions on the icy mountain. The van took five hours to get back to Huaraz. We were grateful to be off the trail, but as always, already missing the wilderness. The van driver dropped us at the town square and we walked back to Olaza’s Guesthouse, where were greeted like old friends.
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Day 4 stats:
Route: Paria to Vaqueria
Starting elevation: Approximately 12,467 feet (3800 meters)
Ending elevation: Vaqueria 12,139 feet (3,700 meters)
Mileage: 8 miles
Hiking time: 4 hours from camp to Vaqueria (including breaks)
Drive: Vaqueria to Huaraz
Drive time: 5 hours
Overall impression: Easy day but with an unexpected bit of uphill at the very end.
Route: Cashapampa to Vaqueria
Starting elevation: Cashapampa 8,202 feet (2900 meters)
Highest point: Punta Union Pass 15,584 feet (4,750 meters)
Ending elevation: Ending elevation: Vaqueria 12,139 feet (3,700 meters)
Total mileage: 31 miles (50 km)
Itinerary: 4 days, 3 nights
Recommended guidebook: Peru’s Cordilleras Blanca & Huayhuash, by Neil and Harriet Pike