The heavens have opened all forms of wet precipitation as we stumble and fumble our way up slick rocks toward the Punta Union Pass at 14,599 feet. Rain turns to sleet, sleet turns to hail, hail turns to a soft snow and within a minute the sun is poking through the clouds.
Welcome to the most beautiful mountain range in the world, the Cordillera Blanca in Huascarán National Park viewed along the Santa Cruz trail. The Santa Cruz is a 50km (31 mile) ancient Inca road system cutting through valleys, passing numerous waterfalls and glacier runoff streams while surrounded by the highest tropical mountain range in the world.
For an unguided trip through this paradise, we’ve provided detailed information at the bottom of the post including gear rental, transportation and trail navigation.
Details For Your Own Unguided Santa Cruz Trek
Embarking on your own Santa Cruz trek can be tricky and confusing sorting through all the details, gear rentals, directions and of course the language barriers. Our Spanish is downright embarrassing making even the easiest task escalate into a chopped up mess of Spanglish! It turns out Spanglish is not as helpful as you would think. For Spanglish speakers such as ourselves, we can not say enough good things about Akilpo Backpacker’s Hostal. They speak English and genuinely care about your journey. They are your one stop shop for gear rentals, colectivo information and a nice bed.
Akilpo Backpacker’s Hostal provided us with gear at a reasonable price that kept us warm and dry. Renting gear can be a hassle in Huaraz because the quality simply just isn’t what most travelers are used to. Don’t expect your 2016 ultra-light tent to be in the line up. If you are super picky about your gear weight/quality you should honestly bring your own. There was nothing wrong with anything they rented us but it was not the lightest load. We were happy to have solid gear non-the-less as it can be hard to come by in South America. Thankfully, Akilpo had a wide range of quality and prices to pick and choose from. They’ll even store your extra luggage you don’t want to bring on your trek for free in a safe, locked room!
We hiked the Santa Cruz starting in Vaqueria and ending in Cashapampa. This is the route we would suggest because you will endure 1 grueling uphill day instead of 2. To get to Vaqueria, you will catch a colectivo from Huaraz to Yungay (45 minutes). Then, you will hop on another colectivo from Yungay to Vaqueria (3-4 hours). After you finish your trek in Cashapampa, you will catch a colectivo down to Caraz (1.5 hours) and will then walk a few blocks to the colectivo bus station where you will catch another colectivo back to Huaraz (2 hours). Sound confusing? It is when you haven’t experienced the transit system before but you’ll quickly get used to it. The drivers are usually friendly enough and will pay attention to make sure you get off at the right stop. The folks at Akilpo gave us wonderful directions for exactly where to find each colectivo and how much they would cost. Be sure to plan ahead and have small bills to pay for the colectivos.
Navigating the Santa Cruz
The trail is very straightforward. The trickiest portion of the trail is in Vaqueria walking through the village on your way to the actual trail. Follow the signs for “Punta Union” and “Huaripampa”. If you get lost, the locals are very friendly and will gladly point you in the right direction with flamboyant arm gestures and some giggles.
We hiked the Santa Cruz in mid-November which is very much the wet season. Many times the trail was either a mud pie or a flowing stream. Both of us hiked the entire trial in Chacos because hiking boots would be soaked through in no time at all. You do not want to hike 31miles in soggy, smelly boots! We suggest some type of breathable shoe or sandal that can get soaked and dry out within a few hours.
Maps can be purchased at California Café, right near the main square of Huaraz and a few blocks from Akilpo Backpacker’s Hostal. California Café has a plethora of hiking books and guides for the area, it’s worth taking a look and familiarizing yourself with the trail.
If you’re used to backpacking with freeze dried meals and Clif Bars, you will want to bring your own food from home! Huaraz does not have any “backpacker” freeze dried meals or high protein bars that we could find. If you do manage to find some of these around town you will most likely pay a pretty penny for them. We opted for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for breakfast and lunch while feasting on tuna and mayo for dinner! Granola and chocolate tided us over between meals. Any food was delicious after a long day hiking through the rain and calf burning elevation. Using all dry food allowed us to eliminate the weight and need for a cooking unit with utensils.
There are water sources all throughout the trail. We used a SteriPEN and iodine because there is plenty of live stock throughout all the valley sharing the water with us. When colleting water we would suggest getting it from a stream or river that flows quickly and is not in the middle of the trail. Walk an extra 2 minutes to a cleaner water source to avoid feces!
Other Relevant Information
This is by far best trail we have ever hiked in our lives! However, don’t be blinded by the beauty. This is not a maintained, hard-pack American trail; there are tons of variables on this trail. If you have even slightly bum knees or ankles bring at least one trekking pole or find a stick and love it. If you are planning your trek in the rainy season be prepared to get soaked. Bring pants that will dry quickly, a rain jacket or poncho that can take buckets of water and footwear that will do well with being wet. A pack cover is a must. Keeping your clothes and sleeping bags in plastic bags will keep them dry while you are trekking. This trail will amaze you and work you so be prepared! Lastly, make sure you do at least one day hike before jumping into the Cruz as your body needs to acclimate to the higher elevation. Many people do this hike with a guide and a team of burros to carry all the gear which is okay if you really need to. If you are young and able, don’t be an ass! Use your own. If anyone has further questions feel free to contact us and we will help in anyway we can. Happy trekking friends!