The Agony and the Ecstasy
Trip Start May 01, 2010
90Trip End Apr 30, 2011
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We arrived in the trekking town of Huaraz after a 24 hour journey involving 3 buses. It wasn't as bad as it sounds though as we travelled courtesy of Linea, one of several luxury bus companies in Peru. These buses are expensive compared to the normal buses but definitely worth it over long distances. They are double deckers and we booked ourselves the VIP seats downstairs which are as big as first class airplane seats, recline right back and you get served meals! Nice!
The last bus travelled through the night so we arrived in Huaraz early in the morning. Huaraz is located in a valley at over 3000 metres and is flanked by the brown slopes of the Cordillera Negra on one side and the white peaks of the Cordillera Blanca on the other
We spent the first two days in Huaraz relaxing and getting used to the altitude in preparation for our 4 day Santa Cruz trek. On the third day we decided to do a day hike to Laguna 69 which we were told would be a good acclimitization hike. We drove for three hours up into the mountains and entered the Huascaran National Park where we stopped at the ranger station to pay our entrance fee, before passing the brilliantly turquoise Llangunuco Lakes and the start of our walk. We were at 3800 metres and felt the effects of the altitude immediately so started off at a gentle pace, slowly climbing through a beautiful rock strewn valley. We thought that being an acclimatization hike, the lake would be just a few miles away at the head of the valley. Little did we know! When we reached the end there was no lake and we saw that the path started to climb steeply. We followed the path up for over an hour before reaching a very steep section, at the top of which we assumed would be the lake. Wrong again
By the time we reached Huaraz, it was early evening and we were exhausted. We had a quick pizza and packed our things ready for the next day.
At 6am the next morning we met Freddie, our guide for the trek, and Julien and Clemence, a lovely French couple who were joining us. We had decided to save some money by taking public transport to the start of the trek instead of a private car
We walked for five hours on the first day, passing remote Andean villages with adobe buildings where old women wear traditional clothing and young children play in the dirt and say 'Hola' as you pass. Then we passed into the national park and walked through a wide valley passing llamas, donkeys, horses and cows including many bulls, which fortunately seemed very placid, interested only in munching the grass. That night we camped in a beautiful spot next to a small river under an imposing ridge of ice and snow. We were well looked after by our guides who had already put up our tents by the time we arrived and welcomed us with a cup of steaming hot chocolate and freshly made popcorn followed by a warming dinner, well needed as it became very cold as soon as the sun went down
The next day was very tough with a climb of 900 metres up to Punta Union pass, located at 4760 metres. The main difficulty was the altitude which makes it hard to get enough oxygen. We took it slowly though and the pain was eased by the sensational views of all the snowy peaks around us and deep valleys below. About half way up we met a group of Peruvian soldiers coming the other way. They were dressed in full battle gear and carrying scary looking guns but were very friendly and all stopped to say 'Buenos dias, como esta?' Then it was the final push up and over Punta Union pass, an imposing wall of rock that nearly killed us! Julien and Clemence reached the top before us and by the time we arrived, we learned that Julien had just proposed to Clemence and she had said yes! After hugs and congratulations and a picnic lunch, we started the long descent down into a vast U-shaped valley to our campsite at Taullipampa (4250 metres), a gorgeous meadow sitting at the foot of Nevado Taulliraju and its glacier. To help with the altitude we were served Mate de Coca, a tea made from coca leaves. In Peru, coca is grown widely and is perfectly legal as it has been used by indigenous peoples for centuries.
After a freezing night, we awoke early and hiked up a remote side valley where the walls were cloaked in the wonderfully twisted quenua trees, to Laguna Arhueycocha, another perfect blue glacial lake. Then it was back down into the main U-shaped valley that should be in a geography textbook, passing several waterfalls, and two large lakes with an interconnecting marshy area where we spotted Andean Ducks with bright blue beaks, Andean Flicker, Andean Lapwing, Puna Ibis, some geese and an Andean Coot. After about 8 hours of walking, we arrived at our third and final campsite, again in a perfect setting in a small grassy area, amongst boulders and by a river.
Our final day took us down the valley through a landscape that looked like a giant rockery in an ornamental garden with glacial boulders scattered amongst bromeliads, cacti and alpine flowers with an ever present river running alongside. The early morning light gave the whole valley a warm glow. As we got lower the valley narrowed into a dramatic canyon and we followed the winding path down and down until we reached Cashapampa, a small village at 2900 metres and the end of our trek. We were exhausted but happy as we sat down to wait for a minibus back to Huaraz. Freddie tried to negotiate a ride for us in a very comfy looking minibus but for some reason the driver wouldn't agree to take us all the way so we ended up piling into a taxi along with all our gear and another random person making it four in the back and three in the front along with various things attached to the roof
Notes for travellers
Santa Cruz trek arranged through Olaza's hostal (highly recommended) -
Private driver to Lake 69 (cost 160 Soles also arranged via Tito at Olaza's)
Trek company - Quenual tours (cost $120 each + $15 each for sleeping bag rental)