There are already a lot of blog posts out there telling you all about the Santa Cruz trek so rather than writing a guide on how / when / why to do this trek, I’ll tell you about my own experience.
Back in September 2018 my partner and I were traveling to Peru for the first time and we had planned a few overnight hikes. We had done treks before (like the Overland track in Tasmania) but neither of us had experience with altitude. We had packed Diamox in case of emergency but we weren’t too keen on using it unless necessary.
We landed in Lima (which is said to be the second driest capital in the world after Cairo – I highly recommend not wasting any time there) and took a 10 hour bus to Huaraz, north of Lima. We stayed a few days in Huaraz to acclimatize (Huaraz is 3050 meters high while Lima is at sea level), did a day hike (to Laguna Wilcacocha, 3725m) and thought we were ready to walk the Santa Cruz whose highest point, Punta Union, is 4750 meters high.
We left Huaraz early in the morning and caught two “colectivos” (local buses) to Yugay and then Vaqueria in Huascaran National Park where the trek starts.
Our backpacks were pretty heavy (I’d say they were about fifteen kilos each) but having done overnight treks before we thought we’d be fine. We could have paid for a tour including a guide and mules to carry our bags but it isn’t our cup of tea. We much prefer carrying our bags if that’s what it takes to go at our own pace, feel isolated and therefore closer to nature. We might change our mind as we get older but that’s not today’s topic!
On the first day of the Santa Cruz trek we met two other hikers who had also chosen to do the trek unguided which reassured us. After walking for a few hours, we all felt more out of breath than expected. Slowly but surely, we made it to camp just before dark. The local ranger told us the next day was going to be hard with more than 1000 meters to climb. He could tell we were not acclimatized enough as the first day should have been easy but really we had struggled a bit. He let us sleep on the floor of his cabin so we wouldn’t have to pitch our tent or pack it in the morning. It enabled us to leave at dawn the next morning but we still wouldn’t make it to the next camp till after 7 pm that same day. Needless to say it was a f.u.c.k.i.n.g l.o.n.g d.a.y.
The more we went up the heavier my bag felt. I thought about all the food I had packed and could have left behind. Step after step, my legs were becoming weaker, almost unable to carry me. As we approached Punta Union, the highest point on the trail, I gave in and let my partner carry my bag in addition to his (there are times when you have no choice but to drop your ego and that was definitely one of them). It did make it easier but it was still bloody hard. We finally made it to the highest point and got rewarded with spectacular views.
These amazing views gave me the strength to smile but I wasn’t feeling too good!
Not a soul around. We enjoyed these impressive landscapes on our own. Believe me, I felt very small in that moment…
The sun was going down quickly and we were still quite a few kilometers from the campsite. After the rush of adrenaline we experienced crossing Punta Union pass, altitude caught us unaware once again as we were walking down. I felt dizzy and nauseous, I kept on stumbling, in others words I clearly needed to rest.
There were many, many, many breaks that day!
I have to admit I was so relieved when we finally pitched our tent that I cried for quite a while! I didn’t have all my wits, I felt very weakened, simply exhausted.
The next morning though, the sun was shining and I felt rested. The symptoms of altitude sickness were gone, I couldn’t fathom what we had been through the previous day.
Enjoying the morning sun before packing up
The third day of the Santa Cruz is very easy. It goes through a dry zone (I don’t know if it’s a desert technically but it sure feels like one) and then along lakes and rivers. It’s mostly flat and then down the all way, in others words… easy peasy (although some might see it as a knee buster, the slope being sharp and rocky). As we went down we saw a lot of hikers walking the other way. They didn’t know what they were getting themselves into! I do think starting the track from Vaqueria was a better option. We struggled because we were not acclimatized enough but I believe the way we went was easier and also enabled us to get the best views. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you need more advice!
The take away is that we totally underestimated the effects of altitude even though we had read heaps about it and tried to do things right. We might have been fit and young but that doesn’t prevent altitude sickness. We made it in one piece and this trek will probably remain one of our best memories of Peru but it was tough and it could have gone wrong so if you’re preparing an altitude trek, set aside quite a bit of time to acclimatize rather than rushing into it.
In an other article I’ll talk about the Annapurna Base Camp trek that we did in Nepal where thankfully we didn’t feel the effect of altitude basically because the trail climbed more progressively than in Peru. More to come!