Located in the Cordillera Blanca, the spine of the Peruvian Andes closest to the coast, the Santa Cruz trail cuts through the Quebrada Santa Cruz Valley in Huascaran National Park. Snow-covered peaks, hanging glaciers, gushing waterfalls, aquamarine lakes and fascinating sub-tropical flora all await discovery. After acclimating to the altitude in Huaraz, located at 10,000 feet, and doing a day hike to Lake Churup at 14,000 feet, we were ready. To see how we planned for the independent trek, see Planning an independent backpacking trip on the Santa Cruz Trail.
We arranged for a ride to the trailhead through the guesthouse where we were staying, Olaza’s Bed and Breakfast. For 150 Soles (USD $45) we were transported in a private, air-conditioned sedan equipped with seat belts. Collectivos, local vans also known as combis, are much less expensive but also less convenient with many stops and one transfer at Caraz. Heading north, we sped along the highway on the valley floor until we reached Caraz. Our driver had to ask for directions a few times and eventually, after climbing steeply up the side of a mountain, we arrived in Cashapampa, where the driver tried to usher us out of the car. However, we insisted that the driver find the trailhead before we exited the vehicle. When we spotted a narrow lane intersecting the road with a prominent wooden sign painted brick red with white letters that proclaimed, “Ruta de Trekking Santa Cruz,” and a stick figure representing a hiker with a backpack and walking staff, we disembarked. We had big smiles all around as we vigorously shook hands with the driver and congratulated him on his success. All told, the ride was about 2.5 hours.
We walked down the lane lined with houses on the right and a brushy creek on the left. After about five minutes we came to a tiny wooden structure painted the same brick red that the trail sign had sported which served as the permit office. I fussed with my gear in an adjacent three-sided structure adorned with religious images, which was slightly concerning, while Steve completed paperwork and paid the fee of 65 Soles (USD$20) for the permits to the official at the kiosk. We chatted with a large group of young people who were just finishing the trail but their guides were shepherding them down the trail to the finish line. We were also anxious to get going as it was now mid-morning and we had miles to go before we reaching our first camp at Llamacorral.
Finally, we shouldered our packs and set off on the trail. The sun we had enjoyed during our ride was vanishing quickly as heavy, gray clouds gathered among the mountaintops. Right away we were stumped by the Lonely Planet guidebook we had borrowed from our guesthouse. A gushing river poured out of the gorge we were to walk through and the guidebook said to immediately get on the left side of the river. The well-traveled path clearly went on the right side of the river, there was no bridge and the volume of water prohibited any thought of fording the deep water. There also was no visible track on the left side. We debated a few minutes, shouting over the sound of the roaring water, and decided to take the obvious path on the right and see what happened. We never did see a path on the left side. We crossed through a doorway to the trail. Literally, it was a wooden doorway supported by two large piles of stones on either side of the trail, topped with a roof comprised of several logs. Whether ceremonial or a true gateway I wasn’t sure but it provided a nice marker for the beginning of the trail.
Like the start of any trail, particularly one preceded by a lengthy car ride, I felt stiff, my legs felt like lead and my pack hung heavily from my shoulders. We were somewhat acclimated to the altitude after a couple of days in Huaraz and our day hike the day before, but the thin air still made me gasp. The elevation at Cashapampa was 8,202 feet, not bad compared to where we were headed, but enough to take my breath away.
Great walls of rock, much of it covered with a light layer of green vegetation, rose up thousands of feet on the side of the trail, the tops now shrouded in ghostly gray mists. As the ridges on each side plunged toward the river they almost met, but the forces of water had carved out this path, leaving a little space for us. Like interlocking fingers that had been pulled apart we could see mountains beyond mountains parting the way a little bit at a time.
We hadn’t been walking up the gently ascending trail for long when we had to pull over for a couple of mules and a muleteer wearing a lime green modern daypack and baseball cap. Three mules were loaded down with huge duffle bags, plastic barrels, burlap sacks, wooden cases and cardboard boxes. There were no other hikers around so I wondered if this was the support team for the group we had talked to at the trailhead.
The trail bent to the right and we lost sight of civilization. It was relatively easy hiking on the loose gravel path and now the river was a couple of hundred feet below us. I worried a bit that we wouldn’t be able to get water when we camped and hoped there would be a footpath to the river or that the trail would rejoin the river later on. We saw evidence of small landslides that had swept across the path, jagged gashes scooped out of the side of the mountain above us, the path cleared painstakingly and a pile of rubble below us. The clouds were descending and we knew what that meant. Rain was on the way. This was mid-April, the tail end of the rainy season, and afternoon showers were common.
Suddenly we descended and were by the foaming river once again. Movement caught my eye and I was startled to see a black and white cow, much smaller than ones we see at home, with very short, curved horns. She was munching happily on the green grass and paid us little attention.
We passed an Israeli couple hiking independently and exchanged a quick greeting and congratulated each other on doing it without a guide. Worrying as I had over the possibility of snow I asked the young man, who looked to be in his late twenties or early thirties, about the conditions. He reported that there was snow, which added to my anxiety, but he said it wasn’t dangerous.
With the first raindrops I donned my experimental gear. I usually hike in a raincoat and pack cover but had become intrigued with the idea of using a poncho. At first I loved but quickly became annoyed with the flapping nylon around my legs and wished I had my nice, neat pack cover.
As the views opened up the terrain became even more pleasing and we started seeing thin ribbons of waterfalls springing from the steep mountainsides, falling for hundreds of feet. We ambled by more cows, saw dozens of bromeliads clinging to rock faces and cheered when we saw a brief patch of blue sky.
We passed two guides setting up a camp in a small clearing. Six colorful tents nestled close together, green, orange and blue domed tents. The meal tent was larger with a pointed top like a circus tent. A red tent was really small, too small to spread out a sleeping bag. I had to mull that one over in my head for a while until I figured it out. “I’ve got it!” I said. “It’s a toilet tent.” The guides dig a hole for a latrine and the tiny square tent with the vertical zipper provides privacy.
It started raining in earnest just as we were thinking about lunch. We tried to find some shelter under the thick vegetation but it was a drippy and hurried affair. We quickly chowed down on local bread, a rehydrated black bean mix and some cheese we had purchased in town. We sat on my tarp, which protected us from the ground but rivulets of water rained down on us and pretty soon everything felt wet.
I kept scratching at my ankle absentmindedly. It felt like a leaf was continually brushing it. Suddenly I realized something was wrong and I leaped up from my soggy perch. After swatting at what turned out to be nothing I realized that at some point I must have brushed against stinging nettle or something similar. That brought a quick end to lunch as I hopped around on one foot trying to remember if there were any other side effects of stinging nettle. I couldn’t think of any, but I also couldn’t remember how long the stinging lasted and wondered if this little episode would linger for the whole trip.
The rest of the afternoon the walking was easy and I tried to forget the burning in my ankle. Late in the afternoon we started noticing some unusual rock formations. At first I thought they had formed naturally but then I started noticing a pattern and we debated what they could have been. When we saw a sign that marked our campsite for the night it became clear. The name, Llamacorral, said it all. The low walls, which were about three feet high, formed corrals for llamas and other stock animals. It didn’t look like they were being used for that purpose at the moment since cows and mules roamed freely through the large campsite. I was quite pleased that our first day of hiking was over. The long drive, rain and stinging ankle made the day seem longer than it was.
We hiked five hours and traveled 6.8 miles (10.9 km) the first day, which wasn’t bad considering we got a late start. We had already ascended 2,625 feet (800 meters) and according to the signpost, we were at 12,336 feet (3,760 meters). Another group was already set up so we scouted around and found a secluded spot on the far side of the camp. With the high mountains the sun didn’t last long and as soon as dusk settled the temperature dropped like a rock. Some of the young adults in the guided group started drifting over to ask us questions about doing the trek independently and it was fun to talk to them so I put off getting into my warm togs. It was quite an international group including Germans, Norwegians, and two Brits that we recognized from our hotel. Soon, though, I was shivering and had to excuse myself to change clothes in the tent. As soon as I put my long pants on the stinging intensified, my skin not appreciating the added stimulus. I took a diphenhydramine (Benadryl) capsule and it was like magic. Twenty minutes later I felt no stinging whatsoever. That was a relief!
I was trying a new tactic to deal with the altitude since the previous summer, when we hiked for three weeks at 8,000-12,000 feet on the John Muir Trail in California, I had suffered from chronic, low- to moderate-grade altitude sickness. This time I was taking acetazolamide (Diamox) in low doses, having started two days before ascending to Huaraz from sea-level Lima. I continued it during the initial part of the hike and so far seemed to be feeling generally better than usual with less nausea and fatigue and a better appetite. Time would tell whether it would help going over the high point on this trip of 15,600 feet.
Steve and I fired up our Jet Boil stove, and had a hearty meal of rehydrated Mountain House beef stew that I had brought from California. We turned in early knowing that we had a pretty big day ahead of us with quite a bit of elevation gain.
See Day 2 for the continuation of the hike.
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Day 1 stats:
Route: Trailhead at Cashapampa to Llamacorral camp
Starting elevation: Cashapampa 8,202 feet (2,900 meters)
Ending elevation: Llamacorral 12,139 feet (3,700 meters)
Mileage: 6.8 miles (11 km)
Hiking time: 5 hours with breaks
Drive time: 2.5 hours from Huaraz to Cashapampa in a private car [150 Soles (USD $45)]
Overall impression: Easy day, which was useful since we had to account for transportation time from Huaraz and allow time to acclimate to the altitude.
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