Santa Cruz Trek Unguided

We came to Huaraz for 3 reasons. To hike Santa Cruz, the most popular trail of the nearby Cordillera Blanca, to recover our tired legs with a few ales at Sierra Andina brewery, and to eat a mean curry after a 9-month curry hiatus.

The curry was amazing. Head to Chilli Heaven for a huge Indian curry and delicious Mexican fare. As for our hopes of a long afternoon sinking beers, we were SO disappointed to find out Sierra Andina had recently closed their taproom to make room for their upcoming expansion in production. The good news is you can get their beer from a lot of outlets, including Chili Heaven.

Huaraz, about 8 hours from Lima, is Peru’s hiking capital. The town itself is quirky, authentic and a little rough around the edges with a lot of locals bustling around. However in terms of it being a tourist friendly information hub for all your expeditions it’s a little difficult to navigate, especially if you want to avoid being part of a tour. It’ll take you asking around 5 different people to make you more confused than when you first started. How does everyone have a different answer to the question – ‘do you need a guide to hike the Santa Cruz trek?’

When we arrived we headed straight to iPeru, the trusty information centre located all over Peru, to find out more about the trek. They had a basic map, little information and told us we couldn’t enter the Huascaran National Park (where the Santa Cruz trek is located) without a guide… With this in mind we switched our focus on doing a mini Huayuash trek in Cordillera Huayuash (a more hardcore trek, up to 10 days). We knew a guide wasn’t required here, but an expensive map and compass were. To confirm we asked the same questions at the Casa de Guias and they were uncertain as to whether or not we needed a guide for Santa Cruz. They sent us to the national park office who straight out said we couldn’t enter the park without a guide making the decision to visit Huayuash easy.

Later that day we checked into Aldo’s Guesthouse (link) where we met Aldo who also owns a tour company, Galaxia Expeditions. Honest, friendly and an all round nice guy who never tried to sell us a tour, which we appreciated a lot. He seemed confused as to why we were opting to trek the mini circuit in Huayuash as opposed to the Santa Cruz trek. After telling him about our day he looked even more confused and said plenty of people trek Santa Cruz without a guide. For 50 soles each (20 AUD) he was happy to take us to Vaqueria where we could start the trek and assured us that we’d be able to get into the park without any problems. According to Aldo the Santa Cruz trek is much more scenic and enjoyable than the mini Huayuash trail. Long story short you can trek Santa Cruz without a guide. Aldo also thought we’d have no trouble getting to Vaqueria on our own using public transport. We didn’t want to risk it at the time but definitely agree with him now. There were a lot of unguided hikers that we ran into along the way that likely would not have bothered with the precautionary steps that we took.

Also we highly recommend staying at his guesthouse. We had a good sized room with a double bed (or matrimonial as they call it), private bathroom, hot water (gas – such a novelty) and great Wi-Fi for 40 soles per night per couple (16 AUD) if you stayed for more than one night (the single night rate was 50 soles). And they offer a free place to store the stuff you don’t need while you’re trekking.


Santa Cruz Trek details:

4 days / 3 nights – maximum altitude 4750m

65 soles (27 AUD) per person for a 21 day multiple entry pass to the Huazcaran National Park. Camping within the park is free.

Start/finish: Vaqueria/Cashapampa; degrees of difficulty are similar regardless of which way you do it. Take a public bus from Huaraz to Yungay, then another to Vaqueria, or arrange private transportation with one of the tour companies in Huaraz. From Cashapampa you can get a colectivo (shared ‘taxi’ – they shove 10 people inside a wagon for 2 hours and you may get lucky and have a lovely Peruvian grandmother sitting on your lap) for 10 soles each (4 AUD). It will take you to Caraz where you can get a bus back to Huaraz. Ask around for directions because it’s a little confusing working out where the buses leave from.

The cost of an all inclusive guided trek (mule/food/transportation/equipment) is 120 USD for 4 days… pretty good value if you aren’t keen on carrying your gear or you don’t have all the gear (hiring gear is pricey!).

We got picked up at 6am by the team at Galaxia. After a long and windy drive we arrived to Vaqueria at 11am and set off. The first part of the trek took you through some remote Andean villages – it was cool to see how these friendly people lived. There were plenty of kids around too and they weren’t shy about asking for money and cookies. If we had of known we would’ve brought along some extra giveaways (although Jana thought they were probably eating their fair share of sugary processed foods given the state of their decayed teeth). The first day is meant to be the easiest day but we were battling a residual bout of food poisoning so that mixed with the high altitudes made the day anything but.

We arrived at ‘camp’ around 4pm and it was just another soggy patch of grass with a sign and a hole to shit in. Literally a hole with half a wall next to it offering no privacy whatsoever. For this reason we didn’t camp at the designated camp spots from then on meaning we spent the rest of the trek in solitude and ended up in some much nicer places.

Day 2 is the hardest day with a 900m climb over a 4750m pass. It’s not the hardest walk ever, but it is a gradual and relentless climb that took us 8 hours (with lots of breaks).

We split the last half of trek into 3 days instead of the traditional 2 so we ended up walking on average 2-3 hours per day in the late morning to a nice spot in the valley to camp. This section was our favorite and I enjoyed having some time to take it easy and soak up the beauty of the Cordillera Blanca.

Water sources are always readily available except during the high climb, so come prepared on day 2/3. Also make sure to bring along a water filter because cow, horse and donkey shit is EVERYWHERE! There’s also A LOT of rain (we hiked during the rainy season after all – the only upside to this of course is that there’s not too many people out on the trail) so we found rain pants a welcome comfort. At this time of year a lot of the trail turns into a sloshy mud fest. Be prepared for your feet to be covered in a mixture of mud and dung for the entire trek. If you’re really lucky you will repeatedly step into what you think is only a shallow puddle and end up shin deep. Hiking shoes are a must (we ran into a miserable looking pair on day 1 who only brought sneakers…).

Trekking food tips

Breakfast was not a hit. At the supermarket we found some interesting looking oats that looked promising. We went a little overboard and bought 2 packets thinking they would be a hit. Oats with kiwicha (a member of the quinoa family) and oats with quinoa with added cloves and cinnamon. We also bought a travel friendly manjar blanco (Peruvian caramel) to sweeten things up. It just turned into a gluey mess and that was the last thing my bowels needed.

You can find cheap bulk foods at the mercado central and a big bag of nuts made up our lunch. We also had a few instant noodle packets for those days where we arrived at camp early.

Most days we stuck to trusty pasta, which comes in handy 250g packs – the perfect amount for 2 people (you tend to get less hungry at altitude so you won’t eat huge meals like you might at lower altitudes – bring smaller snacks to fill in the gaps). We found some Peruvian seasoning packets for arroz con pollo, which were delicious with some fried up salami and garlic. Check out the recipe here. When walking we like spicing everything up with salami and garlic. You can easily render off some of the salami fat first and then fry the garlic in it. It has heaps of energy and it keeps very well – especially in cold climates. Just get a chunk cut off one of the big sticks of salami at that supermarket, it’s much cheaper than buying little prepackaged chorizos.

We also trialled lentils for dinner. This didn’t go so well as they took forever to cook. We forgot to consider that water boils at a much lower temperature at high altitudes. In saying that, they did turn out pretty damn well. We added a fair few garlic cloves, a carrot and a stock cube into the boiling mix. When it was ready the garlic and carrot got mashed up into the lentils and it tasted delicious. It’s quite fuel intensive though so I probably wouldn’t do it again (it would be better suited to lower altitudes).

All in all it was a fantastic place to visit the Peruvian Andes, with good access from major cities, lots of supplies in Huaraz and seriously stunning scenery.

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