Like many who make their way to Huaráz, Peru, we decided to do the Santa Cruz Trek. That is until Jo, owner of Jo’s Place, got wind of our plans. I believe his exact words were “The Santa Cruz Trek is rubbish; it’s rubbish. I’ve got a trek for you.”
“Oh, yeah,” I asked. “And what’s it called?”
“It should be called ‘Jo’s Trek’ considering all the people I’ve sent off to do it,” he declared.
Well, we did finally decide to do “Jo’s Trek” instead of Santa Cruz, and it turned out to be a tough hike up Quilcayhuanca valley, over Huapi Pass, and back down the Cojup Valley.
And we don’t regret the decision. The trek was amazing. But don’t take our word for it…
[cue Reading Rainbow music]
We awoke early enough to catch a 7 AM combi from Huaráz. There are several different combi stations by the river and we just kept asking until someone pointed us to the correct one. The combi was to take us through Llupa and on to Pitek, the town (or rather, the small group of buildings) that lies at the base of the Laguna Churup day hike. However, for some reason, our combi driver didn’t feel like driving all the way that day, so he dropped us at Llupa, adding another hour onto our hike.
But hey, at least we only had to pay S/5 and not S/10.
The hour-long hike to Pitek took us through tuber-planted terraces and alongside humble farms. We were already sweating in the hot sun when we arrived to the base of the Churup hike at Pitek. We chatted with the ranger and paid him the S/65 park fee. Then we followed the dirt road into the Quebrada Quilcayhuanca.
Above: The road into Quilcayhuanca Valley from Pitek
It’s like some humongous mythical beast dragged its claws in the earth and opened up deep valleys into the heart of the Cordillera Blanca. There are many valleys like this one leading into the heart of the second-highest mountain range on Earth, and I was glad we chose one off the beaten path. We walked for about 40 minutes from Pitek until we got to the park boundary proper. It’s also here that farmers have built a large stone barricade so that their animals can wander freely within the valley and not escape. The gate was closed, so we simply climbed over the fence.
Steep, rocky walls, a meandering stream, soft meadows with free-ranging cows, sheep, horses, and donkeys, and best of all… the promise of white peaks up ahead. It’s around an 8 km walk and mostly flat, but don’t let that fool you. We were already feeling breathless!
Me: How’d those boulders get there?
Adam: Don’t think about it too hard.
As the afternoon wore on, we could see that the valley split in two with Quebrada Cayesh veering off to the right. We caught up to the spectacular mountains ahead, passing dozens of cows, who looked at us with mild curiosity as we walked by.
The valley is divided in two by Nevado Andovite, and we camped in the lee of a huge boulder on a rock strewn pampa. Wild horses clopped through our campsite just a few minutes after we pitched our tent. Adam lay down for an afternoon catnap while I scrambled up on one of the boulders to write in my journal. I wrote that I see a hawk… or a condor – I couldn’t tell. A dog came through our camp looking for food, and finding none, moved on.
We haven’t seen anyone since the park entrance.
Above: Our campsite the first night. Behind us to the right is Quebrada Cayesh with its namesake peak just visible over a shady ridge.
Above: Dusk falls as we look down towards the head of Quebrada Quilcayhuanca. I believe that from left to right we’re looking at Pucaranra on the left, Chinchey in the middle, and Tullparaju on the right.
We were unreasonably fatigued for what easy hiking we’d done. Well-sauced spaghetti did little to assuage the altitude-induced headaches pounding behind our eyes. As night fell, Adam caught sight of a curious little fox who stared at him for quite some time. He was a, lovely big fox with the trademark long and bushy tail. After a while, he seemed to remember that he was supposed to be scared of us, and he slinked off into the underbrush.
Despite our fatigue, it was a generally restless night for us – all thanks to the altitude, of course. I wrote in my journal the next morning that “it was a sleep of a million interruptions.”
The next morning, I awoke to birdsong and lowing cows. The headache still throbbed in my head. I think as the morning wore on and we did our camp chores, we began to feel discernibly better. Around 8 AM, the sun gained advantage over the mountains and suddenly our valley was flooded in welcome warm light. We sipped scalding hot coffee feeling our cold bones warm up and we stomped off any lingering stiffness and aches. Our headaches began to fade. After oatmeal and brushed teeth and various other duties, we looked at each other and decided we felt better. Much better in fact.
Which was a good thing, as we made ready to really gain altitude.
Above: Scrub bush, lichen, and little flowers add color and texture to this high-altitude terrain.
We kept to a faded path on the left side of the valley up until our first camp. Upon leaving, we crossed straight through a marshy bowl and up into another pampa. Here the path ahead looked less clear. Which way to go once we crossed the pampa? Luckily, someone had erected a little cairn which lead to a path, over a stream, and right up a rocky scree where the remains of a few stone huts were evident. Once we looked up to our left, it was obvious where to go. A series of zig-zags went relentlessly up the side of a steep ridge.
Trudging up the switchbacks we gained altitude steadily and the views of our surroundings opened up tremendously. The first thing we saw was the blue-green waters of Laguna Tullpacocha catching the glacial melt from Nevado Tullparaju. It was a tough ascent, and we stopped a couple times to catch our breath and drink water. After the switchbacks, I no longer had it in me to hike briskly. Every step past this point was slow and labored.
Finally, the switchbacks led us to a large meadow, and Jo promised us that a climb up to the lake hidden by the ridge on our right would be worth it, as the vantage point would yield us views on the best possible path up the difficult ascent at the back of the basin.
I dropped my pack and scampered up the ridge. After glimpsing a disturbingly large grey rodent dashing under a rock at my approach, I came to Laguna Cuchillacocha
Above: Laguna Cuchillacocha at the base of the impressive Navado Pucarana. You can just see to the right a manmade concrete retaining wall used to control the water levels.
Peering out from the top of the ridge that kept Laguna Cuchillacocha from sight, I looked West – the direction of the pass, supposedly. Our path ahead was unclear. I could not make out a trail. All I knew is that it looked extremely steep and decidedly un-fun. Adam and I took a few minutes to rest and eat granola bars in the basin before scouting out a way up the steep slope. That’s when we saw the cairn.
There wasn’t an apparent path by the cairn, but it seemed to indicate we go up from there. We did, and soon we could see another cairn, and another. We picked our way carefully up a steep incline. The obtuse upward angle, uneven terrain, and the altitude reduced us to taking three steps and resting. Then three steps. Resting. We moved at the speed of snails.
Rivulets came down off the ridge above, making some parts of the ascent marshy. On the way up, we reached several small pampas that could have been suitable for camping. However, the ground was rocky and uneven and it would have been difficult to find a flat place for our tent.
A little chocolate energy to tide us over until dinner time. We’re resting here on a flat outcropping with a small pond.
The afternoon progressed. We pushed for one final burst of energy to get us to the campsite we were aiming for. We moved slowly as the altitude seemed to push us one step backward for each one we took forward.
Above: Leaving the little pond in search of a flat area with three ponds
As promised in our instructions, we finally found a flat pampa with three ponds. At 4800 meters, we were guaranteed a restless night of headaches and nausea, not to mention waking up gasping for air from time to time. But it was worth it. It was the highest I’ve ever camped, and the views were breathtaking. It felt like we were on some other planet.
It was cold up there, too. I left one water bottle outside the tent kept another inside my sleeping bag. The one outside the tent was frozen solid the next day. Having to get up in the night to use the bathroom was a chore that squeezed all the breath from my lungs and pushed the cold wind into every pore. The upside was that the vault of the heavens seemed close enough to touch. The sky was a black velvet cloak, inwrought with the heavenly seamstress’s most delicate handiwork. Breathless and shivering in the inky night, I actually lingered for a few minutes to stare at the milky way. For all the discomfort and pain, this moment made it all worth it.
The next morning, we both felt pretty rough. But once the sun penetrated our little platform, we felt its reviving energy fill our bodies with pluck. We enjoyed our coffee while our sleeping bags and tent were out on boulders to let the sun eliminate the condensation they’d accumulated overnight. Our lethargy, thus turned to energy, vented into heady bubbles of anticipation.
We then began the ascent to the Haupi Pass.
Above: Adam leaves behind our campsite with a two of its three ponds visible.
All I can say is that if it wasn’t for the cairns, it would be difficult to make out a path.
See what I mean? This is the way forward, directly West toward the pass. Do you see a path? I sure don’t. But luckily I can spot the cairn in the distance. For good trail karma, we added a few cairns of our own and repaired one or two that had fallen over.
For true mountaineers, this wouldn’t have been a difficult ascent. No ice picks, crampons, or climbing ropes are needed. But for me, at least, it was the hardest, most extreme 1 and 1/2 hours of trekking I’ve ever done. The altitude turned each breath into hard labor. The rocky scree beset us with wobbly ankle-crunching stones. I kept imagining kicking a tiny pebble and starting a massive rockslide. To boot, the wind picked up and started to howl. It was all we could do to maintain our center of gravity low and pick our way slowly and carefully over the rock scree, while always searching for the next cairn.
Finally, windburned and short of breath, we made it to Huapi Pass. At 5100 meters we had broken all of our personal records for altitude.
How I had the strength to lift my arms and smile, I’ll never know.
Above: Adam looks out over the valley into which we’re about to descend. Nevado Ishinca towers over Laguna Perolcoha, visible opposite.
In the photo above, Adam is standing at the place where our descent begins. It’s a heartless, knee-grinding, incessant decline. The path is difficult to see, and several sets of cairns seem to disagree with each other on which way is least difficult. The valley yawns out below us, which you can see in the following photos.
Above: Looking right as we descend, you can see Navado Palcaraju, blinding white in the morning sun. Also evident is the ridge which hides Laguna Palacocha. It’s hard to miss the damage done by a 1940 earthquake, which caused the lagoon to breech the ridge and sent forth an effluvium of ice, water, mud, and house-sized boulders down Valley Cojup.
Above: Looking left as we descend, we can see our trek out. Huaráz sits just a few kilometers from the mouth of Cojup Valley.
Two hours into our descent, we stopped to huff the comparatively oxygen-rich air. The sun felt warm on our skin, and we peeled off our layers. It felt so good having all the hard stuff behind us. As Jo promised, we’d be “laughing the rest of the way home.”
See behind us? That’s where we hiked down from. It doesn’t look like it in the photo, but it’s steep!
After a while, the steep section gave way to grassy slopes, criss-crossed with cattle paths. Scrubby bushes and small trees reappeared. We passed several nice pampas suitable for camping, but we were keen to get all the way down to the valley floor.
We crossed a bridge over a glacier-fed river and began to follow the right side of the valley out toward the afternoon sun. I was fascinated by how different this valley was from Quilcayhuanca. It was scarred from the 1940 deluge and full of rocks and boulders, dips and rises. But it was beautiful and it was a huge relief to have come down from high altitude.
Above: Our third campsite
Surprisingly, the effects of altitude lingered a little bit, but not with the severity as the night before. We weren’t as hungry as one would expect after a long day’s hike, but we slept much, much better than on either of the two previous nights. Adam had his own reverie with the sky. Our heavenly seamstress seemed to let a few diamonds loose because Adam saw shooting stars.
The next morning, we packed up to much discussion of what we were going to eat when we returned to Huaráz. Burritos, bacon, hamburgers, french fries, and pizza all shared roles in our imagined homecoming feast.
Above: Packed up and ready to get to Huaráz
It was flat nearly the entire way out of the valley. I think we walked rather fast, spurred on by visions of food and cold beer. We had yet another day of great weather. In fact, we felt really lucky with the weather for the entire trek. The glacier-topped navados receded into the sunny haze behind us as our footsteps ate up the kilometers.
We reached the park boundary, once again marked with a retaining wall that kept in the free-ranging cattle. After about two minutes of walking by the road, we found a little, difficult-to-see footpath down and to the left into a brambly area. Moments later we crossed a small footbridge and followed yet another barely-there path along the stream until we found a manmade canal that diverted from the river. Once we found this, it was easy to follow it all the way to the Way Inn.
We’d hoped to stop in for a cup of tea, but the Way Inn was having an ayahuasca retreat and they weren’t keen to have outsiders interrupt their reveries. Apparently expanding your mind with psychedelics doesn’t always make one more hospitable. Too bad.
Or maybe it was just our smell?
Anyhow, a guy there directed us downstream via a series of steep community paths that finally led us to Llupa. After waiting 30 minutes, a combi finally came by and we headed back to Huaráz for a well-earned dinner.
While I have not done the Santa Cruz Trek, which is often hailed as one of the best hikes in the entire world, I’ll still go out on a limb and recommend doing this one instead. Why? From what I understand about Santa Cruz, this one is probably a little bit more challenging, and, therefore, more rewarding. That’s not to say it’s difficult. Quilcayhuanca was fairly straightforward to navigate with the instructions Jo provided. Also, the trailhead and endpoint are no more than an hour from Huaráz, whereas the Santa Cruz Trek takes 4-5 hours via combi each way.
Oh, and Santa Cruz’s popularity means you’ll likely run into lots of other people, including large groups and donkey trains.
For the independent trekker/backpacker, Quilcayhuanca is, for now, still sort of off the beaten path. But perhaps not for long.
[cue Reading Rainbow music]