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Parque Nacional Huascaran: Santa Cruz Trail

A great friend who had travelled through South America a few years back wrote us an email of his highlights and the Cordillera Huayhuash was on it. This is the main reason we started looking into the park in the first place and we ended up being beyond thankful for his recommendation. Our timeline for the area was right around a week leaving us short of the longer treks around the Huayhuash, so we began looking in the more northern Cordillera Blanca and found the Santa Cruz trail. With a little research we realized it was absolutely doable unguided and started prepping for the three night, four day trek. After a few days of driving from the north, through the desert and the Canon del Pato, we arrived near the starting point for our time in the Cordillera Blanca!

The campsite where we were staying (and leaving the car unattended for 3 days) was perfect. Just 5 minutes outside of the town of Caraz, Camping Guadalupe is run by Jaime, possibly the friendliest and most helpful host ever. He is very excited about getting campers to come to his property and takes great pride in having a clean bathroom with hot water, a nice grassy camp area, and is currently building a great bricked terrace as a BBQ/dining area. Jaime's puppy, Manchas, was notorious for stealing socks. We took two days here to acclimate a little and prep everything. We met a great French couple, Benoit and Elodie, and enjoyed our evening sharing stories and the ups and downs of life on the road. They left the morning of our first day and when we saw them pull back in that afternoon, we knew something wasn’t right. They had broken their left rear shock on the road back from Laguna Paru. Since they actually had a spare shock with them, Jaime got right on the ground under the car, swapped the parts and fixed the problem. Another testament to how awesome this guy is. That evening we got to spend another night hanging out with Benoit and Elodie, talking again about the many aspects of travel versus life at home. Sometimes you think you’re the only one that listens to the same playlist over and over or that the passenger has an invisible brake pedal that she uses daily, but then you talk to others and you realize you’re not alone. The next morning we stuffed ourselves full of an egg, potato, cheese and rice breakfast, donned our packs and started our walk to town.

The route to the trailhead was easy but long. First we caught a colectivo into town and then grabbed a tuk tuk to the bus area. At the bus stop (a dirt lot with four buses and taxi) we had to wait for the van to fill up. The last passengers in the van were two American guys with backpacks and once their gear was (loosely) strapped to the roof, we were off. As we drove away, Eric and I were both in the front seat, not by choice but rather necessity, with me on his lap, music blaring and an hour long dirt road ride ahead of us. Once at the trailhead the Santa Cruz Valley was looking back at us and it looked great. Our packs were heavy but our spirits were high. After talking to the only other foreigners on the bus, it turns out they are Nathan and Indy from Illinois and are trekking alone as well. We paid our 130Sol for the park fee and were on our way. The first hike took about 4 hours including breaks and snacks. We finally saw the view of the snowy peaks we had been waiting for and arrived at the first campsite of Llamacorral and set up next to our new Midwestern friends. The donkeys in the area were much friendlier than the cows and had no qualms about being in our space, or chewing on our things. We cooked pasta that night which was so bad it made us pretty excited for ramen the next day. That evening we shared sips from the flask and received a lesson in finding constellations, which was cut short by the cold night.

The next morning, Nathan and Indy were much more efficient in their packing and getting their shit together so we ended up leaving about an hour behind them. The second day was probably the easiest but the longest. Also we ended up walking through a huge array of landscapes. We walked through a wet valley, pasture type grass land, a huge sandy riverbed, around an incredible turquoise lake and up through the rocky high altitude plants. Everywhere we looked we could see a snowy peak or an enormous glacier, hiding behind the valley or smack in front of us. It was unbelievable how much natural beauty we were surrounded by the entire time. We would have to turn around so often to make sure we weren’t missing the view behind us as well. Arriving to the second campsite was the cherry on top. The view was spectacular. We arrived around 2:30 pm that day to our camp at Taullipampa and decided to take it easy and have a late lunch while Indy and Nathan attempted to make it to another nearby lake. We set up camp, played cards, tried hard (but failed) to avoid sunburns and took plenty of photos. The next day we would be crossing the pass at Punta Union so we tried to lighten our packs by eating as much as we could and continuing to work on the flask after dinner. That evening we pulled our mats and sleeping bags out on the grass and all looked at the stars together under the direction of Nathan, via his brother’s instructions (he works at NASA). If we were really still and stopped the rustling of our sleeping bags, we could hear a few pops and cracks of the glacier in the night.

The next morning it seemed that all of us slept pretty poorly but knew that the pass was supposed to be the hardest day. Nathan christened the morning by ridding his pack the weight of the baby food oatmeal he had purchased and again they were gone and ahead of us by at least an hour. Both Nathan and Indy are endurance and distance runners so Eric and I felt like lazy bums with atrophied muscles. The hike up to the many switchbacks was incredible, getting closer and closer to the glacier as we walked, until a high altitude Andean lake came into view and made it even better. The view from the top was not the best view of the trail but it was so rewarding on day 3 to make it and walk on towards the deep valley on the other side. There were lakes visible from the top and we wound our way down through two or three tour groups and some independent hikers as well. The downhill takes a toll that is so different from the uphill and it is almost worse. Our campsite for the evening, Paria, was much further than expected and with a lot of dried up water sources along the way, we were left with a half full bottle to sustain us for much too long. When we finally arrived we set up again next to our camp mates and they kindly informed us of the bathing/swimming hole right down stream. That evening we feasted on whatever packets we had left. Eric was salty Nathan created the potato and ramen mixture I vetoed the evening prior. We finished off the whiskey and again laid out under the stars. We saw multiple shooting stars, Scorpio, the tea pot, the center of the Milky Way, and we’re going to say we saw the great square of Pegasus. Because who can’t make a square with the starry sky.

The final day our speedy partners said they would rather walk with us than carry the guilt of us missing a ride. We all happily walked together, only getting off course once and Indy only getting one foot fully immersed in mud. The walk out was just like the day before, longer than expected. Again we hiked through so many different variations of landscape from the rocky sides of the river, to massive fields between valleys and eventually small farms and houses. As we exited the park we had about an hour of additional walking through rural farm areas. Locals are not allowed to live within the park but they do live right on the border. Children ran up to us yelling “gringo” and “galletas”. Nathan was Santa Claus with a chocolate bar and bag of cookies for the first set of kiddos. The second set of 4 were more like scavengers as they gathered in a line and held hands in front of us. The only girl spoke and asked for something for tooth pain for the oldest boy. His face was incredible swollen, he was missing teeth and some fingers. The reality of the life they lead kicks in when you see how physically affected a child is, not only covered in dirt and grime but things that can never be replaced or changed. We provided her two low-strength advil gels and she was sharp enough to ask exactly how to take them - obviously not her first time. The rest of the walk out was slow and uphill but we finally made it to our final point in Vaqueria. Just in time to catch the 12:00 bus back to Yungay.

The van ride down from the end point of Vaqueria was an adventure in itself. We had 17 people in the 12 seater van and believe it or not, FIVE sheep on the roof. Yep, five. We'll wait while you do a double take on the photo below. The entire ride was approximately 3+ hours. We traveled over a pass in the van similar to the one we just spent three days walking towards. The switchbacks were tight and constant for two hours out of the three. The views were still incredible for our cheap and mildly safe transportation back to town. Unfortunately, five sheep was one too many up top. And as amazed as we all where when they started lowering the small farm down from the roof, one guy never woke up. Seeing the sadness that the family had, and the anger from the grandmother, one dead livestock is a huge deal, although nothing could be done. When we finally made it back to Yungay, the four of us decided that before a bus home, a beer and large plate of food was in order. So we went to the square and ordered 4 beers, 4 waters, and 4 arroz chaufa. We can’t begin say how enjoyable it was to be able to join with Nathan and Indy on the trek. While we were hiking separately throughout the day, maybe leap frogging a few times back and forth on the trail, to come back and make camp together every evening was perfect. We loved learning a bit about them from their stories and personal adventures and although they both are at different points in life than us and each other, they have so much to share and are great people. Another amazing example of the connections, although sometimes short, that you get to make on the road.

As we were walking back from the road on our small final stretch to get to Pedro, Jaime’s neighbor stopped us and insisted on sharing his beer. He was having quite the party and wanted us to stay and but settled for the one celebratory drink. When we arrived to Camping Guadalupe and the truck, we were welcomed again by Jaime and set everything back up. Pedro felt like a mini hotel compared to our tent and we were excited for a good nights sleep. The great Brazilian couple we had met just the day before we left for the Santa Cruz trail were still there with their son and an older German couple soon arrived in a huge green Mercedes west German military bus, painted Kelly green. After we had unpacked, showered and had dinner, we all gathered and we had an evening filled with stories and so much laughter. It might have been the bottle of Ouzo, the banter between a couple married for 30+ years or the animated story telling abilities of Marco, but for a group of odd travelers to all laugh so hard was amazing and the perfect last night near the Cordillera Blanca.

I think we would both agree that it was one of the best weeks of our travels thus far.

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