Santa Cruz Trek: Days 1 and 2

P1140599Van pick up at  my hostel 6:30AM at the start of the first day.

 I signed up for the trek through the owner of my hostel. I did not have any idea how many people would be going, nor did I have much of a clue as to what I might actually encounter. I read about  the Santa Cruz Trek online. I knew it  consisted of  4 days hiking and 3 nights camping. I knew there would be spectacular scenery.  Several sites billed it as ‘moderate’ in difficulty.  I felt I could negotiate ‘moderate’.

I had also followed the recommended procedure of spending at least 2 days and nights in Huaraz prior to the trek (if coming from the coast/ sea level)  to give the body a chance to adjust to the the altitude.  I spent four nights in Huaraz and I walked around town 3 to 4 hours each day.  My backpack had everything I could think I might need.  I rented a pair of trekking poles from an outfitter.  I was as  prepared as I knew how to be… or so I thought as the van pulled up.

15 people including the driver were in the van when I piled in . I made the 4th person in the rear bench seat. There was a mix of young men and women. The group was quiet during the ride from Huaraz to Yungay.

March is in the low season for Huaraz based tourism. Different tour ‘operators’ put our one group together. My sense is that the many different tour operators and guides know one another very well and ‘share’ when it’s off season.

Huaraz to Yungay: 3 hours. Then the van turns onto a gravel road continuing on an uphill curvy route. We stopped at a place where some in the group had a quick breakfast. Not far from the breakfast stop is the park entrance. We were all required to sign in and pay 65 soles each, the park entry fee (good for 14 days).

The van ride continued past the park office. We stopped to admire Llanganuco Lake. Many places in Huaraz offer a visit to this lake as a ‘day trip’. We continued onward uphill beyond the lake.

P1140603Llanganuco

P1140621Above is looking back on the road we traversed. Encountered 15 minutes of sleet on the way up. 

 We arrived  Yanama around 1PM. Next step was to unload the gear from the top of the van. Next, the donkeys were loaded with the mess tents, food, propane, and tents/sleeping bags for the group.  Each person had their own packs and water to carry.

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Began the first steps of the trek about 1:30PM

I learned that we would have one guide. Her name was Margarita. There would be one donkey driver and one cook. These people, (and the donkeys) made it all possible for the rest of us (the paying clients).

The trek would entail 48 kms total. Day one hike would be a short one, three hours (four for me) before setting up camp. Day two would be the ‘tough one’… 7 hours total;  4 all uphill to Punta Union a 15,000 ft mountain pass… and 3 hours down a steep, very rocky course. Day three would not be as much of an uphill course, but it would also take 6 hours to complete before camp. Day four would be mostly downhill and it would take 3 and a half hours (for me… some did it in less than 2 hours)

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Above: Scenes of first day’s hike.

I lagged behind everyone on every day of the journey. Both of my ankles have sustained past injuries and I’m not as spry as I once was. This did not cause a problem for anyone. Everyone hikes at their own pace.  I will admit that my group picked up my slack by pitching the tents every night without my assistance.  They were all very patient with me.

Food was memorably delicious only because it was hot and shared. We all turned in shortly after dark. Breakfast would be served at 6AM. Everyone had been informed that the following days journey would be the most challenging.

A tiny bit of confusion swirled around which of the other 12 clients would be my tent companions.  I wanted that decision to be made by the guide or by common consent within the group. I wound up tenting with the young men from Switzerland and Quebec. I slept in the middle, because I needed to exit the tent several times each night.

The ‘client group’ consisted of: two young women from France traveling together,  a husband/wife from Argentina (I think) who were now living in French Guiana, another couple: young woman from Germany, young man from Brazil, two men from England who had been pals for many years, and five solo travelers; a young woman from Korea, a young woman from New Jersey, a male teen from Quebec, a young man from Switzerland, and myself. Most of the group were 20’s or 30’s. The English men were 40ish and 50ish. And me… the senior of the group. By the end of the 2nd night they were calling me ‘Popi’.

Photos below were taken during day 2 of the trek:

P1140684Eddie and Ian

P1140686The Quechua guide; Margarita and Carlos

P1140699P1140706P1140707Everyone has passed me… patient Margarita assures me that I am strong and can make it to the pass… up, up, up. One foot in front of the other… 

P1140711I made it!  4 and a half hours, uphill every step.  At 15, 584 feet above sea level.

P1140720At Punta Union Pass. From upper left: two French ladies, the French Guyana couple, Ian, Eddie, the New Jersey gal, Carlos the Swiss farmer, the German girl and her Brazilian boyfriend, Nickolaus from Quebec, me, the young Korean lady.

P1140738The real heroes of the trek

We stopped ate some lunch at the pass. Most of my companions had been there for an hour by the time I arrived. They continued on ahead of me toward day two camp. The donkeys always passed me in the afternoon. I didn’t mind. I preferred everyone hiking on ahead so I didn’t feel like I was inhibiting their enjoyment.  Margarita would hike on ahead with the cook and then they would sit and wait for me to catch up… then they would go on ahead again.  I had the Spot device and I always carry a whistle.

The next three and a half hours were very hard on my ankle. There were many smallish rounded rocks… and it is well understood that downhill inclines are tough on knees. I could not have done this trek without the trekking poles.  I was careful and took my time. Did not break any speed records, but I enjoyed the scenery and ignored the ankle pain.

Back at camp that night, everyone could see I was hurting. One of the French ladies offered me some of her ibubrophen. I felt like kind of dumb for not thinking of pain meds for myself.

Enjoyed dinner and the good natured international language banter.

The camps were always adjacent to running water. The soothing nature sounds blended in with visions of the days scenery as I slept, waking on the hour almost to the minute through the night.

Had ankle and knee pain, but that was soothed by thoughts of the next day’s (7 hour) trek that was reportedly going to be much less demanding than today’s journey.

Being in Nature and sensing that you are part of it all causes all of Life’s dramas… and real and/or imagined pains to fade into the darkness… to be absorbed in the sounds of water negotiating gravity and rocks… seeking it’s level.

The next day would begin just as this one had… dawn in the crisp mountain air… muffled murmurings of younger companions, fumbling half awake in unfamiliar tents and sleeping bags… shuffling about half clothed, huddling themselves together, thinking  of warm mate de coca and breakfast.  Then plodding forward, one foot after another through fairyland scenery,  sun rays glistening off the white of the snow capped peaks.

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Next: Santa Cruz Trek Days 3 and 4