Getting to Huaraz and the Santa Cruz Loop
If you want to experience a trek with snow-capped mountains in the Peruvian Andes, then the Santa Cruz Loop in the Cordillera Blanca is for you! In April, we were eager to get into the Huascaran National Park to view the peaks that we had heard about from climbers: Alpamayo, Huascaran North and South, Chacraraju, Piramide and Pisco. These are all in view....as long as you have a relatively clear day!
The normal 5-day trek seemed, on paper, too formidable for us, so we asked for an extra day to slow the pace down. We will thus describe a 6-day trek but be assured that most people are just fine with five days.
In order to get to the Cordillera Blanca, you will take a bus north from Lima. Seven hours and 400km later, you arrive at Huaraz, the largest city in the vicinity. We stayed just north of Huaraz in the town of Monterrey at El Patio Hotel. El Patio is a rustic villa-style hotel with a courtyard in the center.
It was strongly suggested that we spend a day or two acclimatizing to the altitude (10,404 ft). This is a good idea if you come directly from a low elevation. There are many possibilities for day hikes and tours in the area to get accustomed to the altitude... before heading higher!
Who is "we", you ask? Barb and Sandy were a group of two for this trek.
Day One - to Vaqueria
After a good night’s rest at El Patio Hotel and a “typical” breakfast of eggs, buns, jam, coffee, tea and juice we were picked up by our guide, van driver, and cook. Our guide had extensive experience in all areas of the Cordillera Blanca and was very knowledgeable about the culture, flora and fauna.
Our guide shared a map with us so we could see the route we were taking and how we would trek the Santa Cruz Loop. We would start at Vaqueria and end at Cashapampa. Many other groups do it in reverse. We found that the route we took was easier and the views quite spectacular due to the angle of the sun.
Our group stopped at the entrance to the Huascaran National Park to pay the park fees. We then drove to Laguna Llanganuco, a beautiful lake in the midst of the mountains. There, we walked around to read the interpretive signs and watch local residents preparing food and dances for an exhibit. We moved on to take a longer walk up the Quebrada Yanapaqcha Valley alongside a beautiful stream. Many of the snow-capped mountains were visible, most notably the signature peak of the Cordillera Blanca, Huascaran, and opposite that, Huandoy. Their white peaks were awesome!
Continuing in the van, we climbed to the pass at 15,635 ft (4767m), stopped for pictures and ate a delicious lunch prepared our cook. Finally, we got out and started walking on an old Inca trail. Soon, we arrived at our first campsite, Vaqueria (at 12,135 ft), where the crew had set up camp and the cook was preparing tea and supper. It should be noted that we did not have any porters on this trek. The burros carried all our gear... and it was quite a load!
Our guide was a good story teller, so we had a pleasant evening over supper, coffee, and tea while he told of his escapades and about the local people and customs. The descriptions of the local farmers were most informative and helped us to understand and appreciate their way of life.
Day Two - To Parla/Tuctu
Chopicalqui peak is the backdrop for our first camp.
We awoke the next morning to a beautiful view of Chopicalqui Peak as a back drop to our tents (picture time!). The sun made it brilliant! After morning tea and washing up, we ate breakfast and were on the trail by 8:15 a.m. Day two was the first day of “real” hiking.
Our burros passed us, heading for the next camp.
At mid-morning our burro driver (and burros) passed us as we climbed gradually through the valley. Our cook also went ahead to prepare our lunch. During the day, we were impressed with the mountain peaks –- one that looked like the Matterhorn was Chacraraju Peak. More pictures!
We hiked through farmland, passing farmhouses where local people were working and children were playing.
In the afternoon, we met small groups of backpackers hiking without a guide. Some were alone and ahead of their group. One young woman asked us where a campground was and found out she had passed it. Had she kept going she would never have met up with her group! We finally persuaded her to go back and later we saw her setting up camp with her group. She had been at least two hours ahead of them!
When we reached our camp at the end of a ridge we found ourselves in a beautiful meadow in the Paria/Tuctu area (13,125 ft). We were tired after 11km of hiking uphill but knew the real climb was going to be the next day!
Day Three - to Taullipampa
On this day, the goal was to continue up the valley to Punta Union Pass, a high point of 15,580 feet. Our group was on the trail by 8:30 a.m. We had spits of rain off-and-on all day, and we advanced slowly due to the rocks and ragged trail. We were often short of breath due to the high altitude.
We reached Punta Union pass at 15,580 feet.
We ate lunch next to a lake then made the final push up to the pass. We were rewarded at the top by beautiful views on both sides. Between clouds and a bit of mist the scenery was awe inspiring: valleys below us surrounded by towering ice and snow capped mountains.
On the other side of the pass, we got our first view of Artesonraju Peak that resembles the Paramount Motion Pictures logo.
We hiked in the shadow of Chacraraju peak.
We reached the Taullipampa campsite very late in the afternoon (6:00 p.m., to be exact) after a 13km day. Snacks and supper and then to bed -- we were exhausted!
Day Four - to Quisuar
For our “extra day,” we had wanted to split the day between rest and moving ahead. Our guide suggested instead, that we hike up the Arhuaycocha Valley to a moraine lake high in the mountains. We thought it was a good idea since we would get to see Alpamayo Peak up close. It is a “must see” to be sure.
The Alpamayo peak in clouds.
When we reached the lake, our cook had our lunch ready (love these treks!), and we ate alongside the glaciated lake where during certain seasons there are ice chunks floating on the lake. It is in this area that the effects of global warming are most striking. The lake had once been a glacier....and the surrounding area exhibited rock/scree, instead of ice and snow!
En route back to our campsite, we saw several Andean flickers and many wildflowers (photo ops, of course). The Quisuar campsite, named after a native tree, was in a lovely setting next to a rushing stream. We were treated to a supper of trout that the burro driver had caught while we were hiking!
Day Five - to Llamacoral
The valley, looking towards Casapampa from Punta Union pass.
Day Five was spent walking mostly downhill as we headed for Llamacoral, a spit of a hamlet with a “store”. Most people would look forward to buying a treat or drink there, but we were totally satisfied with all the meals and goodies we got each day. The trail was very pleasant with packed sand, mud, gravel and water (as in bogs and streams). It was a welcoming change from all the rocky terrain we had experienced!
Since the burros and horse were allowed to roam the hills during the night, the burro driver had to go up in the mountains in the morning to call for them. It is amazing that they were all ready to go at the appointed time in the morning! Our burro driver had acquired an extra burro for the day because his horse had gotten loose and headed downhill to Cashapampa. He needed the burro to carry some of the gear. Later in the afternoon, the horse was returned by a nephew, and the burro went back to his range land.
During the day, we passed Llamacoral with its campsite and very tiny store equipped with a wind powered generator. We were amused. Do not expect to get a beer there!
The wind generator (upper right) provides electricity for the store at Llamacoral.
Most backpacking groups starting in Cashapampa stay at Llamacora for their first night. Our group continued down to our campsite at “the beach”, a much more private and beautiful area. The “beach” is really a lush grassy area right next to a rushing stream. Very picturesque! We recommend this campsite!
Day Six - to Cashapampa and end of trek
The "beach" campsite south of Llamacoral.
The sun was shining brightly as we got up and had breakfast. After our burro driver “found” all the burros and had them together, we gave our crew gifts and tips and thanked them profusely for their service and their patience with our slow hiking. They were most appreciative! The last day proved to be a considerable downhill stint. It was very rocky and steep; in fact, we thought it to be very treacherous. We often commented that we were glad to not be going UP!
Hiking on old Inca Trails in the Santa Cruz Loop.
We were sorry to be ending our trek that day because we were having such a great experience. The trail followed along the gushing river and the landscape was truly beautiful. The trail was one with a stream, now and then, so we had to do a bit of rock hopping to stay dry. We took many pictures of flowers along the way!
On the trail we met groups of men and boys from Cashapampa, the village below, who were coming up to cut brush and clear the trail. They had burros and horses packed with supplies for the weekend. Some had bamboo fishing poles. They must have been the cooks! Most of the others had pick axes, shovels and machetes. There must have been at least 200 men and boys in all. Our guide knew several of them because they were burro drivers he had worked with in the past.
When we got down to the village of Cashapampa, we met the driver who had dropped us off five days earlier. We all went to a favorite out-of-the-way place for a picnic lunch. The burro driver had already unloaded the burros and headed back the on the same trail we come. It would take him only two days to take the burros and his horse back home the way we had trekked.
We returned to the El Patio Hotel, said our good-byes and spent the evening hanging out damp clothes and sleeping bags and taking showers. We were weary with a tiredness that one has after the exertion of a trek. But, we were delighted with the experience and spent several hours downloading and looking at our pictures. A fun way to end the trip!
The next morning, we traveled by bus to Lima for a hotel night there and a flight home the next morning.
Note: We used Adventures Within Reach for booking this trek; they were very helpful with customizing our trip.