The Santa Cruz trek is the best known and most popular trek in the Cordillera Blanca, and for good reason. Over the course of four days, it loops around the highest part of the range, mostly staying beautiful alpine valleys, and giving stunning views of the range’s tallest and most beautiful mountains, as well as a series of spectacular lakes.
After successfully tackling a number of hikes so far on my trip (such as Volcan Santa Maria in Guatemala and the Lost City trek in Colombia), I had been pretty confident the Santa Cruz was well within my abilities.
Having completed the rather grueling Laguna Churup day hike, I suddenly wasn’t so sure. I had planned to do a second acclimatisation hike to Laguna 69 on my third day in Huaraz. Waking up that morning my legs were pretty stiff and my knee was still aching slightly. I decided I’d be better off with a rest day and prayed that everything would be OK for the saturday morning, although I decided to leave nothing to chance and spent an extra $12 hiring some good trekking poles, ideal for taking the weight of the knees on steep descents.
I was relieved to wake up early on the first day with the stiffness in my legs gone, and feeling pretty used to the thin air, both of which had me feeling more confident about the day ahead. Even better was stopping for breakfast on the way to the trailhead, as it gave me a chance to get to know the group a bit better – I’d be hiking with four couples (two fellow Brits, two Swiss, one British-Australian and one German-Peruvian), as well as a solo Brazilian guy. Quite a mix of nationalities and languages, but it soon became clear we all clicked really well and they’d be a great group to walk with.
The journey to the start of the hike was stunning enough in itself – as the bus climbed up from the village of Yungay (scene of the Western Hemisphere’s worst ever national disaster, the 1970s earthquake that buried the entire town killing all but a handful of the inhabitants) up into the valley, we were soon rewarded with a view of a beautiful turquoise-coloured lake, with Huascaran, the world’s highest tropical mountain towering above us. After that, the road climbed up a series of steep switchbacks towards a high mountain pass to take us over to the eastern side of the range where we’d start the hike.
We’d already been warned the first day was going to be the easiest of the lot, consisting of a pretty short, flat hike along the bottom of the valley. It was a nice gentle introduction to the walk, and all along the way we’d regularly be stopped by sweet local children begging us for our ‘caramelos’ (sweets). It was impossibel not to oblige. The biggest challenge on day one was getting used to the cold once night fell – at this latitude, the mountains are incredibly warm during the daytime (and the sun fiercly intense) – but with clear skies at night the temperature soon plummets and I needed every layer I had just to stay warm.
Day two was the hard one – and after Laguna Churup I worried how I’d cope, given we’d be climbing to 4750m, three hundred metres higher than I’d done a few days before. Luckily, my worst fears weren’t realised. It was pretty hard work, struggling up the steep slope, stopping for breath every few minutes, but I was determined to get there, helped along the way by the knowledge it would be a chance to stop for lunch, and then afterwards it’d be downhill all the way to the end of the trip. In the end, there was nothing as steep or as difficult as the final ascent at Laguna Churup, and I reached the top ahead of the rest of the group, giving my time to enjoy the amazing views all to myself.
The pass itself, called Punta Union, is a little notch in a high ridge dividing the two valleys, meaning you can’t see anything at all of what’s on the other side til you reach the final step. The second valley, Santa Cruz itself, is if anything even more beautiful than the valley we’d just left, looking down across yet more snow-covered peaks and towards another couple of bright blue lakes. After a slog like that, you really appreciate having donkeys to do all the hard carrying work (it’s quite an amazing sight watching them wind their way up the steep slopes with far more ease, and speed, than humans), as well as a chef to make nice filling meals on our return to camp – I can see the appeal of doing treks like this yourself, but the last thing I’d want to do is have to cook dinner once I’d finished walking for the day.
Soon we’d started the descent, this time with my fighting my natural instincts to race ahead, instead descending slowly making full use of my trekking poles to help my knee, which certainly helped – while I had twinges of pain it was nothing like as bad as it’d been on my previous day hike,
which came as quite a relief – I certainly wouldn’t have fancied three days of walking steadily downhill in constant pain.
The second night brought a little disappointment for all of us and quite a bit of discomfort for most. The disappointment was that Alpamayo, called the world’s most beautiful mountain (for its almost perfect pyramid shape) was shrouded in cloud. The discomfort was the fact that most of the group had fallen ill to diarrhea – whether it was brought on by dirty water or dodgy food we don’t know, but I didn’t envy the few who were up all night and then having to hike on the next day with depleted energy reserves. Yet again my iron constitution saw me through though, and I felt fit as a fiddle.
The disappointment continued the next morning, as Alpamayo sat stubbornly refusing to come out of the clouds properly. We got a brief, partial glimpse, but not enough to see it in its true majesty (although apparently we didn´’t miss all that much – it turns out it’s the world’s best when viewed from the other side anyway – you have to do the longer and tougher Alpamayo circuit to see that face). Still, the rest of the mountains did their bit to make up for it, and with their snow-capped peaks gleaming under the bright blue sky we certainly had nothing to grumble about.
The final couple of days follow the Santa Cruz valley back to civilisation, and it really is an awesome sight – the glacial valley has towering, steep-sided walls, with glacial waterfalls cascading down the sides at regular intervals, running into little streams that wind their way across the flat valley floor, and feeding the lakes we’d seen from the pass above.
Eventually we made it back, with tired legs but smiles on our faces, glad to be heading back to showers, beer and pizza. Turns out that my ‘acclimatisation’ hike to Laguna Churup had been more challenging than the Santa Cruz turned out to be, and I was extremely relieved that my knee had just about made it through without too much bother.
The hike gave me the best mountain views I’ve ever seen – it truly deserves the term breathtaking, and I have to say it was the highlight of my trip to date. The only thing that was worrying me was how on earth the Huayhuash circuit could live up to it (oh, was well as hoping that just the one rest day in between would be enough time for my legs to recover).
You can see all of my photos of the Santa Cruz trek here