Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

Looking Over Laguna At Punta Union 4750m @ Santa Cruz Trek, Cordillera Blanca

Ass-tronomical View @ Laguna Wilcacocha Trek, Cordillera Blanca

After a pretty comfortable night bus we arrived in beautiful Huaraz. At 3032m the air felt pretty thin and it was a lot colder than on the coast. We were picked up by Humberto the owner of the “hostel” we had booked. He drove us all to his hostel which was literally his family home and even gave us drinks when we arrived. He lived with his lovely wife, teenage son and cheeky and sassy daughter Adriana who was five. He had another son that was a bit older who played semi professional football. It was not at all a hostel but definitely a home stay. They had a cage of guinea pigs on the roof that I spent the next few days worrying about everyday whether they were going to end up on our plate one evening as Humberto’s wife (I can’t remember her name) offered to cook dinner for us which we gladly accepted the first night as we were shattered.

Everyone went to their room for a little nap, Rachael had started to get pretty unwell with a cold. We went out for a walk to have a chat it’s tour companies and generally see what was about. We sat down for lunch and saw Marco and Lara (from our San Blas trip) walking on the street opposite. Jess and I jumped up and ran out to chase the down the road. They joined us for lunch which was an amazing menu del día with delicious soups. Peru are so good at soups! Minus the chicken feet obviously. Later this day, we discussed our tour options over drinks and then went home for a delicious three course typical Peruvian dinner served up by Mrs Humberto. We played cards and enjoyed our evening in their living room.

Moountains @ Santa Cruz Trek, Cordillera Blanca

Hiking Buddies @ Laguna Wilcacocha Peak, Cordillera Blanca

Next day, Rach was unwell so stayed at home while the rest of us went on our first acclimatisation hike. Rach has a love/hate relationship with hiking (mainly hate) so it was for the best. We had been warned many times that we needed to acclimatise before we attempted high altitude hikes like the multi day Santa Cruz hike we wanted to do. We started with a beautiful hike to Wilkacocha which was the lowest peak at 3720m. We walked down to the petrol station and jumped into a busy local collective to the start of the trail head. The hike was not very difficult but it was quite steep. The weather was clear and beautiful and as we walked through really country Peruvian villages we were totally surrounded by rolling hills and of course the snow capped high peaks of the Cordillera Blanca. The Cordillera Blanca or “White Range” is part of the larger Andes range and goes on for over 200km. I didn’t visit there last time so it was new for both of us and absolutely spectacular. It has many peaks over 6000m including possibly the most famous, Huascarán at 6768m.

At the top at Laguna Wilkacocha, we could see for miles. It was really beautiful. The Wilcacocha Laguna or rather grubby stagnant lake was a little less impressive than the surrounding view. As we started to walk back down we saw a group of farmers using long reins to trot two horses and a donkey over some hay to compact it. This may not sound that exciting but it was beautiful to watch given the dramatic surrounds.

Trampling Hay @ Laguna Wilcacocha Peak, Cordillera Blanca

Pig In A Bucket @ Laguna Wilcacocha Trek, Cordillera Blanca

We basically ran down and after grabbing a collective back into the town we got off at the huge local market to get food to cook later that night as Humberto and his family were out watching his youngest son play football. We also managed to book another night stay in a hostel as Humberto’s place was going to be full so we couldn’t extend.

Back at home Kiwi Adam cooked up his infamous chilli con carne with Bec and myself has chopping helpers. We cooked early in the afternoon as we shared the kitchen with the family so it was easier to get it done to stay out of the way. Some of us were a bit disappointed that it wasn’t a hostel but it was really nice staying with the family, despite Humberto being a bit pushy with his on tour company.

Laguna Churup @ Cordillera Blanca

It took forever for us to decide which company to do our multi day Santa Cruz Trek with. There was really very little difference between the final three companies we had found and with six individuals that didn’t feel strongly either way but after much deliberation we finally decided on the best sales pitch. After much deliberation we booked with Quechuandes because they had an emergency horse and carried oxygen and the Belgian lady Marie was super friendly.

Feeling pretty accomplished after our most efficient day ever as a group, we went home to eat our pre cooked Chilli con carne. Humberto was a bit annoyed we didn’t book with his company but he had no online reviews and we just felt more comfortable with Quechuandes, plus the price was the same. We spent the evening playing cards with cheeky Adriana who just bossed everyone around and completely ignored her mother.

Icy Peak @ Santa Cruz Trek, Cordillera Blanca

Nerds @ Santa Cruz Trek, Cordillera Blanca

The next morning we had planned a big hike to Laguna Churup. I had read a blog written by some Kiwis about how Laguna Churup was just as challenging but way less busy than the very famous Laguna 69 Trek so again after a lot of deliberating and back and forth we decided to go for the quieter hike. Jess had spent the first few hours of the morning being very unwell. She want alone. The symphony of toilet flushes that consistently sounded between our three rooms was music to Jess’ ears. It wasn’t just her, we had cleverly given ourselves food poisoning. The effects ranged from the most serious who was not able to move without bodily “expulsions” to Jess in the middle who could just about get to and from the bathroom to me who just had a bit of a tummy ache. After a lot of back and forth (quite literally), we decided to just go for it and surely the open air and high altitude would cure us?! We managed to get out the door and to the collective by 9.30am. We sat waiting for the collectivo to leave. Let me set the scene- a very enclosed environment where six people with food poisoning, most of whom had taken emergency rescue remedies for the short journey) were quite involuntarily filling the air with what can only be described as demon gases. With as many windows open as possible, we headed off to the trail head.

Reflection @ Laguna Churup, Cordillera Blanca

Luckily everyone made the journey without decorating the inside of the van and as soon as we arrived Jess and Rachael raced for the two toilets. It was a pretty horrendous day to be hiking. Basically, because it’s so cold in Huaraz, Peruvians don’t believe in fridges which means the mince we bought from the market had probably not been refrigerated ever. We literally cooked for ourselves because we wanted to avoid food poisoning because Mrs Humberto didn’t have a fridge. Oh what a mistake to make. We gave ourselves food poisoning trying to avoid it!

That Water @ Laguna Churup, Cordillera Blanca

We started off strong with poor Rachael bringing up the rear very slowly as she was already sick let alone the added food poisoning. Every few steps we heard a “sorry” from one of us, followed by a “for what?” and a “oh my god *wretching noise*” as the remaining group behind walked into a demon gas cloud. It was honestly one of the worst smelling hikes we’ve ever done including hiking around sulphurous geysers! Despite this it was also one of the most beautiful! It started off with a log of stone steps but then changed to scaling up rocks with ropes and chains and walking through dry rocky outcrop. We walked right to the top to get a fantastic view over the whole valley. We continued down to the Laguna which was absolutely stunning. The water was a vibrant turquoise and there was a mountain glacier in the background. The Cordillera Blanca there have been 722 glaciers recorded in the 1990s and it holds the most ice in Peru. In a more recent count in the early 2000s there were only 485 left because of global climate change. It was estimated that since the 70s they have retreated and by over 15%. We had lunch at the Laguna with incredible glacial views and despite everyone feeling pretty rough we were all enjoying ourselves.

We Made It! @ Laguna Churup, Cordillera Blanca

The walk down was a lot steeper and we may have gone slightly off track and ended up having to shuffle down a very steep gully which was actually very fun! We got down pretty quickly which was lucky because we got the very last collectivo back to town.

We had dinner cooked for us this time and everyone went to bed still feeling pretty awful. During the night the water had stopped so that meant no water to drink or to flush the toilets with which was pretty awful for some of us. The next morning without showering we said a warm goodbye to Humberto and his family and moved to Big Mountain hostel in the centre of town. We spent most of the day resting and getting over our self inflicted food poisoning. It was a pretty cool hostel with a huge roof top terrace with kitchen and big social areas. That night we had another family dinner without meat this time.

Lagunas Azules @ Santa Cruz Trek, Cordillera Blanca

The next day we were up and ready very early to start our four day Santa Cruz trek. Underrated and overlooked unlike all the other hiking in Peru around and to Machu Picchu, we would be hiking along what was said to be one of the most beautiful treks in the world. Over 50km of beautiful scenery without the tourist presence. We hadn’t realised that the first part of our big hike would be a six hour drive to the starting point (information clearly withheld from all of the tour companies we had spoken to!), so when we finally started the hike, after a huge breakfast stop, it felt like we had already done a whole day and everyone was very sleepy. Also in our group were François from Switzerland and Celiné from France. They had just met before the trek and Celiné was only just over a week into her six month trip!

Our small bags with a 4 kilo allowance were loaded, along with all the camping gear, food and equipment needed for our trip onto some very fluffy and sweet donkeys which Rachael named Cute, Cuter and Cutest. We hiked for about three or four hours that day and it was pretty easy. The scenery was absolutely stunning, snow capped mountains, blue lakes and lagoons, the clearest rivers and streams and amazing glaciers on mountain tops.

Cute/Cuter/Cutest @ Santa Cruz Trek, Cordillera Blanca

Horse and Peaks @ Santa Cruz Trek, Cordillera Blanca

When we arrived at our first night campsite, everything was already set up including a toilet tent (a tent over a dug out hole complete with toilet roll and a trowel), our tents, a kitchen tent and dining tent. It was amazing, the donkeys were all unpacked and grazing and we quickly put long sleeves and long pants on to keep from getting eaten alive by mozzies before watching a beautiful sunset over the valley. Dinner that night was delicious and we were even joined by some very sweet dogs. Everyone was ready to turn in after a few games of cards. That night it was very cold but the stars and the scenery had made up for all of that.

Sun Setting Behind the Mountains @ Santa Cruz Trek, Cordillera Blanca

The next morning we were woken early with a hot cup of coca tea to help with the altitude and each tent was given two hot bowls of water to wash with. It was just fantastic, it felt pretty luxurious considering where we were! Everything about this company was fantastic, our guide and cook were really nice and friendly and the other helper were really hard working.

Lupin In The Valley @ Santa Cruz Trek, Cordillera Blanca

We packed up and set off on day two of the hike, said to be the hardest and most gruelling as we were going to pass over 5000m and face some serious uphill. After a delicious breakfast we packed up and headed off on our five to six hour hiking day. As we left we walked past a huge dead horse and the two “very sweet” dogs from the night before were eating it! A bit grim.

The hike really was not as bad as they had said, it was tough in parts and for those of us still suffering from the end of the food poisoning they did struggle a bit and don’t get me wrong, everyone’s devil farts were still in full flow, but overall our group smashed the peak and the insane views were more than enough to make up for the challenge. Jess and I probably felt the fittest we had been all trip and enjoyed every second. We had lunch with the most incredible view of the bluest glacial lake and the views over the surrounding valleys were nuts! Everyday we were given a huge lunch bag with sandwiches, fruit, nuts, biscuits, chocolate etc, way too much for most of us. At the end of each day, Jess and I would bag up our left overs and for weeks after the hike we were eating these amazing snacks!

Donkey Brains @ Santa Cruz Trek, Cordillera Blanca

Not A Bad View, Day 1 @ Santa Cruz Trek, Cordillera Blanca

We continued on to our camp which again was already set up. The cook and helper had packed up everything after we had left that morning and overtaken us on the ascent. I get that the donkeys go a lot faster but the two guys were not riding the emergency horse at any and we’re basically just half running the hike. They must have been extremely fit! That night we slept at our highest camp which was exceptionally cold but after some more great food and card games, we all slept ok. It’s sometimes hard to sleep at altitude because there is less oxygen, which triggers an unstable breathing pattern as your body is trying to get as much oxygen as it normally does. Hopefully we will come out of this week as fit as the Kenyan runners who train a high altitude to be the top in the world! Hopefully.

Rest With A View @ Santa Cruz Trek, Cordillera Blanca

Paramount Peak @ Santa Cruz Trek, Cordillera Blanca

The next day was our longest hike and was supposed to be nine hours. We hiked down to the valley floor and along it for ages. It was really pretty and the scenery changed dramatically every day. This was one of the best hikes I had ever done and recommend it to anyone! If my chubby little body can get through it easily, anyone can! We crossed paths with another group and bumped into a woman we dove with on the Galapagos the month before!

We hiked past the famous mountain that is supposed to be the mountain in the Paramount Pictures logo and to be fair, after comparing it once we got back, it looks identical! We did an optional extra section where we hiked up to another glacial lake which was really beautiful but the day really didn’t take as long as they had said and we were moving at a really good pace. The scenery was just epic and none of my photos do it any justice.

Camp Puppy @ Santa Cruz Trek, Cordillera Blanca

That night we all had so many blisters and most of us only had our walking boots with us, why didn’t we bring flip flops?! Never again! Putting the same boots on and dirty socks over the bulging painful blisters was horrible. Rachael and I both got a blister from Huaraz each that lasted until Bolivia which was crazy! Rachael’s was amazing and looked like just a little bubble on her big toe but never seemed to pop!

Santa Cruz Crew @ Santa Cruz Trek, Cordillera Blanca

The next day we hiked out so fast in about six or seven hours. Our guide by the last day had hung back to help pack up and we pretty much hiked alone the whole day. Maybe he was bored of our company? Or couldn’t stand listening to us play the alphabet game again. It was an epic hike and we would highly recommend it. The Cordillera Blanca is really undersold and it is honestly very comparable to the beautiful scenery of Patagonia and South Island New Zealand! It really is worth going to Huaraz. We would love to come back and do the Hauyhuash trek which is about ten days.

Big Mountain hostel kindly let us shower and we somehow got our laundry done and returned to us within a couple of hours at the magic laundry place opposite before we all headed out to Lima on a night bus. Again Jess and I sat up top with the cattle class but slept so well after an exhausting eight days of high altitude hiking!

Ice Ice Baby @ Santa Cruz Trek, Cordillera Blanca

Half Way @ Santa Cruz Trek, Cordillera Blanca

Farm Life @ Wilcacocha, Huaraz

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