Authentic Peru: The Santa Cruz Trek

Authentic Peru: The Santa Cruz Trek

I gasp for oxygen in the thin air. Kneeling next to me, a fellow hiker from Italy, Andrea, passes me his homemade granola. I take some with gratitude, and we motivate each other to keep going.

As I stand up, the world around me spins out of control. Altitude sickness is getting to the best of me, but I take a few more steps. Almost there.

Andrea and I are just two of the ten hiking enthusiasts in our group who are doing a four-day trek in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca mountain region. It seems that more people want to see the “real” Peru, opting for the Santa Cruz trek over the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Don’t get me wrong. Machu Picchu is undeniably beautiful, but the Santa Cruz trek is one third of the price and comes without hoards of tourists with selfie sticks. It’s with a small group with local mountain guides, a few perpetually irritated donkeys, and two trusty village dogs who follow you the duration the trek. This, my friends, is Peru’s Santa Cruz trek.

DAY 1

We meet outside of the Galaxia Agency at 6 a.m. There are nine people in our group along with three local guides. I sleep through a 4-hour bus ride through the mountains until we reach the Huascaran National Park. At that point, we continue driving on a bumpy dirt road for another hour, passing Lake Llanganuco with its captivating turquoise water, preparing us for the astounding scenery we’d be experiencing in the upcoming days.

Shortly after the lake, we ascend up the side of the mountain with our driver blaring the horn before every blind turn, hoping to avoid a head on collision with another van.

We reach the top of the Portachuelo Pass at 4,767 meters and continue down until we stop at a tiny, secluded mountain village. This is where we’ll begin hiking once the guides load the donkeys with equipment.

Day One’s hike to our campsite took about three or four hours and is fairly easy. The landscape along the way was absolutely breathtaking. We also passed through another village where locals living a much simpler life greeted us in between their daily routines.

It struck me as fascinating that there’s this village so far up in the mountains, so far removed from society. My world is seemingly completely different from theirs, yet as the barefoot kids waved and smiled at me, trying out their English with timid “hello’s”, I felt the human connection we shared. Just like me, they have hopes and fears and the desire for happiness. These small, but precious connections are yet another motivation to travel off the beaten path.

Once we got to the campsite, two out of the three guides were already there and preparing our dinner. There were two big tents, one where they cooked and another where we ate. We also drank hot tea to warm up because the temperature dropped significantly after the sun set.

We had dinner as we huddled inside the dining tent, and our guide, Ronald, shared stories about the spirits residing over the valley. We leaned in with anticipation from his stories. It wasn’t until we were proper scared that he wished us all a good night. We each went back to our tents and quickly fell asleep after a long day’s journey.

DAY 2

We wake up with the sunrise and a cup of coca leaf tea, a tradition passed down from the Incan civilization useful for acclimatizing to the high altitude. Today would be the most grueling day by far. We’d be walking five hours uphill until reaching Punta Union, a pass at 4,750 meters. Our guide explains to us that the trail was heavily used in pre-Columbian and colonial times to transport goods from the eastern side of the Andes to the main valley.

We begin the climb, up and around rocks and boulders, the Peruvian stairway to a heavenly view. After a few hours, we stop for lunch as we reach a plateau with yet another fantastic view of the surrounding snowcapped mountains.

When we got back on the trail, I look back at Freddie, our cook and guide, with a look of pure exhaustion and ask rather desperately how much longer we had. Oh, not too much further, he shrugs. I have a feeling he was lying, and an hour later, I was sure he lied.

My muscles burn with each inclining step as the path jutted even further up the mountain. We start really getting into the incline portion of the pass, and this is where I meet Andrea. Step by step, we manage to make it to the top.

The view from beyond Punta Union is sublime. The impressive, snow-covered Mt. Taulliraju sits majestically behind its topaz glacial lake. I almost can’t handle the supreme wakefulness of the moment. I stand there, feeling small and insignificant while at the same time feeling totally connected to it all.

I allow the fullness of the panorama to fill my vision for a while. Moments later, the sky opens up and snow begins to fall. The icy snowflakes bounce off my rain jacket, falling onto the earth below. I pull on my bright, handmade mittens from a market in Huaraz before getting back to the trek. After two hours of walking gently downhill, we finally spot our campsite.

It has been an exhausting, unforgettable day. We take ice cold baths in the nearby river before the sunset, and once it did, it got numbingly cold. The wind howls, wildly whipping the corners of the dining tent that we huddle inside. I silently wonder what I had gotten myself into. We gratefully receive dinner made by the great Freddie.

That night, the bitter cold cut straight through our thick sleeping bags. We shivered and turned all night. It was miserably cold, yet we managed to fall asleep out of sheer exhaustion.

DAY 3

When I unzipped the tent the next morning, a sheet of ice falls to the ground. Oh the joys of camping. 

I seemed to have gotten sick overnight from enduring the intense cold and lack of sleep the night before. Thankfully, Day 3 is a fairly easily walk. We stroll along the river in the valley for a few hours and after that, a continual decline for about two or three hours.

Once again, the views are stunning. Waterfalls gush out of mountain sides and the downhill section seems to be neverending. We follow the river until we finally reach a tiny village in the middle of nowhere. Once we arrive to the village, we spot our tents set up at a modest campsite. A family was smart enough to turn their backyard into a campsite for exhausted backpackers, so we hang out with this Peruvian family as we drink beers in their backyard, celebrating our feat. We did it!

DAY 4

Greetings from roosters permeate into my dreams. I reluctantly leave my dreams and realize my current situation. I am in a sleeping bag. In a tent. In someone’s front yard.

Memories of the night before came back to me. There were card games and a joyful atmosphere. There was an apologetic drunk guy playing the harp, singing passionately traditional Peruvian mountain music. It was a colorful scene. Things really got interesting when he did a coca leaf oracle reading on Dani. He told Dani to take out five coca leaves from a little plastic bag, crumple them in his hand, and then gave him his prophecy based on the layout of the leaves in his palm. Turns out his propechies were eerily accurate. Shortly after, I decided it was time for bed.

This is the last day of the Santa Cruz adventure. We pack up our tents for the last time and head for the natural hot springs. We enjoy our last moments together as a group, laughing at newly acquired inside jokes, relishing in the sense of upliftedness and celebration upon completing the trek. 

It wasn’t before long until the mini van picked us up and drove us back to Huaraz, indicating the end of our beautiful hiking journey through the Andes.

Thank you to Galaxia tours, our local guides, Pachamama, and the best group of fellow hikers I could’ve asked for.

Monthly Recap: ‘Tis the Season in San Francisco!

Monthly Recap: ‘Tis the Season in San Francisco!

 

Wait…December is already over?? This can’t be real life. It seems like I was just writing the monthly recap for November and now it’s already January! Life comes at ya fast.

When we left off, I told you I’d been backpacking through South America. November was fast paced and full of travel. By the beginning of December, we finally made it to Cusco, the capital of the ancient Incan empire. You can’t visit Cusco without making a trip to the undeniably beautiful and epic Machu Picchu. It was stunning!

After a full week in Cusco including our 2-day trip to Machu Picchu, we took a quick 1-hour flight (as opposed to an 18-hour bus ride through the mountains) to Lima.

At this point, it was our last week in South America, and my boyfriend and I chose to stay at a lovely B&B called Casa Nuestra. It was absolutely perfect. Sometimes you have to #TreatYourself! I highly recommend this place if you’re ever in Lima.

We stayed in the artistic, bohemian neighborhood called Barranco where we spent a week of bliss…admiring the street art, trying out trendy Peruvian restaurants, and watching sunsets fade into the endless ocean horizon.

Alas, the time came when I had to say goodbye to South America. My lover and I went separate ways…he to Italy and I to the United States.

One red-eye flight later and I traded Spanish for Southern twangs. I was officially in Texas. I spent a week in Fort Worth visiting my best friend in the world. We rarely get to see each other because of our busy schedules, so it was a fantastic week!

I decided that after such a long time of not being back in the states, Texas was the perfect point of re-entry. It is essentially the most American of all the states. Lots of extremely friendly people who smile and open doors for you, sinfully good food in outrageous portions, and enough restaurants and shopping areas to keep you occupied for months. God Bless.

Next thing I know, I’m boarding another plane. This time it’s to San Francisco. For the first time in two years, I had the chance to spend Christmas with my family. A true Christmas miracle! I hope you, my friend, have had happy holidays as well, however and wherever you chose to celebrate.

HIGHLIGHTS

 

The highlight of December is split between so many different moments that it’s hard to name just one. Instead, I’ll choose a few words to describe how the “highs” of the month felt:

Aligned
Happy
Present
Cared for
Laughter
Vibrant
Heartfelt

 

Which words would you use to describe the highlights of your December? How can we use those words to shape this upcoming month?

CHALLENGES

 

The most obvious challenge for me this month is diving back into a long distance relationship after more than four months of togetherness with my lover. When you spend that much time with someone, it feels natural to share your thoughts, feelings, and ideas with him, so it’s hard to be apart after all of those life-changing experiences together! But it’s okay, life goes on. We will reunite sometime soon 🙂

Thankfully I haven’t had too much reverse culture shock this time around, but it’s often a challenge when coming home after traveling long term.

INSIGHTS

 

Traveling the world is incredible, yet one thing that has been undeniably better than all the traveling is quality time with the people I love. My family, friends, and significant other. I don’t always have much time to spend with the people who mean the most to me, so when I do get to spend time with them, I’m reminded of how important this is. Relationships are what build us!

COMING UP

 

Next up, I’m flying to the Yucatan Peninsula TOMORROW, January 2nd. I’ll spend about ten days doing a meditation retreat in a pueblo near Valladolid and then a few days in the small beachside town of Tulum.

After Mexico, I’m going to…CUBA!!! I’m beyond excited to visit this fascinating island. This is something I’ve been wanting to do for a few years now, so I’m very much looking forward to it. If you’ve ever been and have recommendations, let me know!

 


 

Well, that’s the recap for December! How was your month? What were the highlights and challenges? What insights did December bring? Thanks for reading, and feel free to reach out anytime. 

Monthly Recap: November on the Road

Monthly Recap: November on the Road

Greetings from yet another bus in South America!

November has been full of movement. There have been countless adventures, big challenges, heartwarming connections, and the realization of some lifelong dreams.

For those of you who haven’t been following the most recent journey, my lover and I have been backpacking through South America since October.

At the beginning of November, we were in a village called Vilcabamba in Ecuador. This area is also known as the “Valley of Longevity” because the residents live to be extremely old (and happy)! It must be something in the water. Or it could be the gorgeous mountain views and ridiculously easy-going lifestyle.

After Vilcabamba, we took a bus down to Peru. After a long night bus, we spent one week volunteering at Casa Fresh, a beachside hostel in Huanchaco, Peru. The exchange was simple: free accommodation for 5 hours of work a day with 2 days off a week. Our work included helping the front desk with guests (check ins/check outs), working the bar, and refreshing the décor by painting the walls. It was a great experience! Thanks Clare and Casa Fresh family.

During our time in northern Peru, we also visited archaeological sites Chan Chan and Huaca del Sol y Luna from Peru’s Moche and Chimú civilizations. A must-see when in this region.

Before we knew it, we were packing our bags once again. Next, we spent time in Huaraz where we completed the Santa Cruz trek, a 4-day hike through the Cordillera Blanca mountain range.

Next up, we headed along the coast until we arrived in Huacachina, a picturesque oasis in the middle of the Ica desert. It looked like it could’ve been straight out of a movie scene. We did some sand boarding, dune buggy riding, and bodega touring. It was awesome.

From there, we took a cozy 12-hour overnight bus ride further south to Arequipa, a beautiful city surrounded by mountains and volcanoes.

And now, I’m sitting in yet another bus en route to the highest navigable body of water in the world, Lake Titicaca, which sits pristinely at an altitude of 3,812m!

Phew. That was a lot, right?

HIGHLIGHTS:

The highlight of this month has to be hiking the Santa Cruz trail in Peru. Check out these incredible views!!

CHALLENGES:

The biggest challenge of this month was the utter foreignness of some of the places we visited. The main thing that comes to mind is the environment in the markets in South America. There were animal corpses and intestines left and right, guinea pigs roasting on a spit, awful smells, piercing stares. It was traumatic! Those were the moments I wished I were back “home”, wherever that is.

INSIGHTS:

I’ve been on the road now for about six months, and it’s been incredible. I am extremely grateful to be able to learn and grow through traveling the world. Yet I’ve realized that even with all the adventures, eventually I want to be a part of community and work with a company I truly believe in. Maybe that means starting my own 😉

There are some things in the making! Now I’m just waiting for everything to fall into place as it always does. Just remember, we are here in this life to make the most of our gifts and talents, and if we’re feeling “stuck” or unhappy, we just have to dig a little bit to uncover what lies beneath and believe we have what it takes to succeed! You got this! Do what excites you, what inspires you the most. 

COMING UP:

The first half of December, we’ll be exploring Peru’s most famous region: Cusco. Then, I’ll be in Fort Worth, Texas visiting my best friend for a week. After that, Christmastime with the fam! After two years of spending the holidays without my family, I’m very excited to reunite with them once again.

 


How was your November? What were the highlights, challenges, and insights? What are some of your intentions for the upcoming month?