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.
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.
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.
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!
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.