Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Santa Cruz Trek

Santa Cruz Trek

We made it to Huaraz ok on the overnight Cruz del Sur bus. It was reasonably comfortable, and even Shelley managed to get some sleep. They claimed to have wifi on the bus (when in cell phone coverage) although we didn't try it.

We fought our way out through the taxi drivers and tour agents swarming the bus terminal. One guy (Oscar) followed us down the street and actually was somewhat helpful. He led us to the hotel we had picked out of the book (Casablanca) but it was full. The he led us to another hotel (Eldorado) and it looked reasonable so we checked in. Of course, he wanted our tour business, but he was helpful even after he realized he probably wasn't going to get any business out of us. We crashed for some more sleep. (It was only 6am)

When we got up we went to Bistro de los Andes for breakfast. It's on the second floor overlooking the main plaza. Seems like a decent place.

We decided to do the Santa Cruz trek (in four days). This is the most popular trek in the area but I hoped that there wouldn't be too many people in low (rainy) season.  The first challenge was to figure out transportation. We could try to take local buses but the start and finish are somewhat isolated and it wouldn't be easy. We decided to try to hire private transportation - it would cost more but would simplify things a lot. We tried a few agencies but they weren't really interested in organizing just the transport and told us we could take the bus. We could have tried to just hire a taxi, but we weren't sure our language skills were up to arranging a reliable pick up at the end.

Again, a guy (Max) started talking to us on the street and I reluctantly told him what we wanted. He said "no problem" (that always makes me nervous!) and led us up to the tour agency he worked for. It was a small agency but seemed legitimate. He said he had a car that could transport us. Just to check we asked to see the car. It turned out to be a friend with a taxi, but it was in decent shape. I have no idea if the price was reasonable, he originally said 500 soles and when I questioned it (out of principle) he came down to 450. (about $150). We later saw posted rates of 120 soles one way, if that was per person our rate was ok. It's a long way - about 4 hours there and 5 hours back.

Next we found a bus line (Movil) with a day time trip back to Lima. We found their office and bought tickets. We were early enough to get "first class" seats (only $5 extra).

So far so good. To reward our progress we found the California Cafe that had been recommended to us. (I'm not sure where "California" comes from - I think the owner is from Amsterdam.) It's a nice place with comfortable couches and chairs and a big book exchange. And good coffee :-) It seems to be the hangout for the Peace Corp kids.

Next on the agenda was to buy gas for the stove and food for four days. We shopped at a couple of the bigger "supermarkets" (not very big by our standards) and also bought a few things at the market. The markets are fascinating but the meat sections are somewhat gruesome, especially for vegetarians! At home we're not accustomed to being quite so "face to face" with the source of our meat.

The book said we were supposed to get park passes (Parque Nacional Huascaran) but that most people didn't because no one checked. Being law abiding Canadians we tracked down the park office and bought them (after wandering around the building till someone told us to go upstairs). As it turned out, they did check our passes at several places so it was good we had them.

We went for supper to Bruno's Trattoria, a little place just around the corner from California Cafe. (The owners were having a birthday party for their daughter.) Good ravioli and a cheese, potato, and mushroom crepe.  (Not exactly local food, but to be honest, we haven't been too crazy about most of the local dishes we've tried. Sorry, can't help being gringo tourists at heart.) The best part was profiteroles for dessert :-)

The next day we got picked up at 6 am and drove to Cashapampa, one end of the Santa Cruz trek. We had a flat tire along the way but the driver (Nino) was quick changing it. We were just glad we didn't get a second flat in the middle of nowhere. It was a beautiful clear day and we had great views of Huascaran and Alpamayo.  I thought about asking the driver to stop so I could take photos but I didn't (except for one of Alpamayo), thinking we'd be seeing lots more on our trek.  As it turned out, those were the only clear views we got all week - that damned rainy season thing!

Doing the trek in four days meant relatively short days hiking-wise (four to five hours per day).  The first day climbs about 800m from 3000m to 3800m, fairly steeply at first and then levelling out into the Santa Cruz valley. Lots of cattle and donkeys, but no people - we didn't see a single person, even a local, all day.  But the donkeys were friendly :-)

We camped at Llamacorral, one of the "established" campsites you are supposed to use. The only thing at these "campsites" was an outhouse building, but sadly these were all totally trashed - no doors, roof half gone, holes in the walls. I'm not sure if this was vandalism or just weather and animals. The cattle and donkeys kept the grass cropped super short, nice for tenting, but they also left cow pies everywhere. Despite being the only ones there, it was hard to find a spot that was flat, no cow pies (or at least no fresh ones!), and not under water. Did I mention this is the rainy season? The ground was water logged and there were streams, puddles, and swampy ground everywhere.

We were told that it would usually rain in the afternoons around 3pm. That was the case the first day, but after that it rained more often than not, most of the night and much of the day. By hiking early in the day we avoided a lot of it, but we still were hiking in rain gear much of the time.

The second day was mostly flat along the Santa Cruz valley, past two lakes. We got occasional glimpses of higher snowy peaks, but mostly the clouds were hovering low above our heads.

The third day we went over the Puente Union pass - about 4800m  (15,500 ft). There was fresh snow at that altitude but not too much. We met two other hikers at the top doing the trek in the opposite direction. They wanted to know if we thought they could complete the hike that day - theoretically feasible, but a long way on top of the climb they'd already made to the pass. I'm not surprised they wanted to finish - they were in running shoes and with an army duffel bag for a backpack. But they seemed in good spirits.

We descended from the pass and set up camp in the rain. We were joined by a group of 6 or 8 with a guide and mules, again going in the opposite direction from us. After having the trek more or less to ourselves for 3 days it was a bit of a shock to have a group of young people hooting and hollering as they're apt to do.  At least some of them were fellow Canadians so we were treated to a rousing rendition of "O Canada". But the sound of the raging creek and the rain on the tent covered most of the noise. And they went to bed relatively early, tired from the trek no doubt.

The last day we hiked out to Vaqueria. We were in a beautiful forest of trees with red peeling bark, with green, green moss everywhere.  We managed about an hour of hiking before it started to rain. It rained off and on the rest of the way. Our pickup was scheduled for sometime between 12 and 1pm. We arrived at 10:30 figuring we'd have a couple of hours to wait, but we'd only been there about 5 minutes and a taxi pulled up. It turned out to be our ride. It was nice that we got picked up early because it's a long ride back, about 4 hours to get back to the highway at Yungay and then another hour back to Huaraz. First you climb up and up steep switchbacks to a 4800m pass, and then descend down and down even more steep switchbacks. If the clouds weren't so low I think there would have been some awesome scenery.

Back in Huaraz we moved to the Olaza Hostel. It had been recommended to us and we had checked it out before we left for the trek. We would have stayed there at the start but were too worn out to go searching for it. It's a very nice place and only about 70 soles per night (about $30) with breakfast included. It's a little way from the centre of town, but only about 10 minutes walk. There's a great sitting area on the top floor with more tables outside on the roof when the weather is nice. Recommended.

The next day we took it easy until our bus left at 1pm. It was nice to travel during the day so we could see the scenery, on the other hand, 8 hours of riding a bus does go easier when you sleep through it. We had tons of room in first class - only three seats across the big bus.
We're back at Villa Poinciana in Lima. Harry (the owner) is once more looking after us well. He had a taxi waiting to pick us up at the bus terminal (as he had similarly done when we arrived at the airport).

And now for something completely different … next we head to Bonaire via Caracas (Venezuela) for some scuba diving. It will be nice to be in one place for more than a day or two!


  1. Well, one thing about all the rain, it sure makes the colors vibrant! Wonderful pictures! Looks like an amazing trek!

  2. Your stories do not make me laugh at your struggles. I just admire your determination and your ability to handle such hassle.

    I also grieve for countries where confusion and inefficiency waste so much of their potential. There are few parts of the world where fifty years of peace, the rule of law and even half-sensible government would not bring prosperity. I am sure I have said all this before.

    We have lotsd of traffic roundabouts in England. When I see traffic approaching from four directions and slowing down for vehicles with priority so that the traffic sorts itself out safely, peacefull and rapidly I reflect that this is civilisation. It is not just the cops of whom we could do with more but in the victorian phrase 'enlightened self-interest'. perhaps even morality.

    Some communities seem better at it than others. So do some individuals: the ability to postpone gratification for a greater reward - get up in the morning to go to work - varies greatly between individuals.

    Solemn thoughts from a vivid decription of a lively scene.

    My own idea is a comfortable seat om a major airline, an airport like Hong Kong where formalities and baggage reclaim work quickly and efficiently and then there is a friendly face waiting to greet one and help with bags. Failing that a taxi-driver holding a placard with one's name.

    The sanitised international hotel is however going too far. Small enough to mske one as person, large enough to have an adjoining bathroom.

    Best of all is the Bed & Breakfast in Oz or NZ where one can end the day drinking with the proprietors. Have not tried Canadian B&B - doubtless similar.

    The hazard is that in ma ny countries the westernised facilities available to tourists ll rich beyond the hopes of the locals lead to ignoring and indeed not noticing the poverty and degradation of those outside the magic circle of dollars.

    I am being sententious again: enough.

    To have seen the landscapes, the plants and beasts and the people makes the hassle worthwhile. It is something to lift one's eyes to what there is to see in the world without a TV set. There I am, sententious again.

    Waiting for more.

    J A B