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Peru's Cordillera Blanca

Laguna 69 and the Santa Cruz trek

Story by Heather & Pravin August 9th, 2017

We were in a bit of a daze when we arrived in Huaraz, Perú, due to the length of time it took to get there from Cuzco. We left Cuzco by bus at 6PM on May 24th, arrived in Lima at 3PM on May 25th, caught another bus from Lima-Huaraz at 10PM on May 25th, and finally arrived in Huaraz at 7AM on May 26th. Two night buses in a row and 36 hours later - this was new territory for us!

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laguna 69 day hike

We were eager to embark on some of the treks we had been eyeing up in the mountain ranges around Huaraz, but thought it best to start off slow and take a day trip to the oft-photographed Laguna 69 after having one good night's sleep in Huaraz. We set off early, around 5AM, as it was three hours by bus to the starting point for the hike to Laguna 69. There were a lot of other people doing the same trip, but everyone spread out quite quickly and the trail didn't feel crowded until the final vista on the lakeshore. The first part of the hike was flat and meandered through grazing lands for some incredibly cute high-altitude cattle. I've never seen such furry, gentle-looking cows before!

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Eventually the trail started to climb, and as we got higher, the skies got darker. Views of the surrounding peaks were limited by the clouds, but luckily the land around us was spectacular, with colourful wildflowers, waterfalls, and small glacial lakes.

As we arrived at the lake, we were delighted to find that it is in fact every bit as turquoise as all the (many) photos we had seen previously showed. We were sad to not be able to see the snowy peaks rising from the opposite lakeshore, but the waters of the lake itself were mesmerizing. As we sat and had lunch beside the lake and tried to keep warm with all of our layers on, the skies produced rain, hail and even a bit of snow! Amazingly enough, this didn't deter several hardy hikers from stripping down and jumping into the frigid waters for a very brief swim.

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santa cruz trek

After feeling comfortable and well-acclimatized with the high elevation of the Laguna 69 hike, we decided to tackle our first multi-day high-altitude trek, called the Santa Cruz, located in Huascarán National Park in the Cordillera Blanca.

We started off very early one morning from Huaraz and took a couple of colectivos to eventually arrive in Vaquería, one of the access points for the trek. Here we set off on the trail, and made our way past many small homes and farms in the initial part of the valley. The first day's hike was quite easy, and we stopped for lunch at the National Park warden's guardhouse. He had an extremely friendly donkey who mooched insistently for our food and tried to follow us as we continued along the trail.

We arrived at our first camp and set up our tent just in the nick of time; as we pulled the fly over, the first drops of rain started to fall. We had a lazy evening sheltering in the tent from the rain, and then accidentally fell asleep! We woke up around 7PM in the pitch-black darkness and had to hurriedly cook our pasta dinner in the rain by headlamp.

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Day 2 dawned bright and sunny, much to our relief. Without the cloud covering of the night before, we were actually able to see the many peaks encircling the skies around us - it was a wonderful surprise.

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Although the trail was very easy to follow, at one point we were alerted by a friendly French couple to the fact that we, along with them, were no longer on the main trail. We had ended up at a side campsite in a sunny valley, and after checking our maps and figuring out where we needed to go, we took the opportunity to dry out our tent from the previous night's rain. Then we began a long, uphill slog on a rocky slope that would eventually take us all the way up to Punta Union, at 4,750m. It was tough going at times, and I definitely felt the heavy weight of my multi-day pack, combined with the limited oxygen of the altitude.

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It was quite a relief to reach the top, and even more so to find that there was not even a breath of wind blowing - exactly the opposite of what we normally expect on a mountain pass. The sun was so warming and the views so stunning that we ended up spending almost two hours relaxing at the top and chatting with some fellow Canadians from Toronto.

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The hike down the other side of the pass took us back down into the valley and to our next campsite. We chose a spot a good distance from the rest of the groups, and enjoyed a peaceful evening watching the river for trout (Pravin) and playing with the many stray dogs (Heather). There was more rain again, but luckily the drops only started falling just as we were tidying up from dinner and ready to head into the warmth of the tent.

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On Day 3, we woke up bright and early and packed up camp without cooking a hot breakfast. We had a small snack on the trail, and set off for Laguna Arhuaycocha, a side trip off the main trail - one that we were thrilled that we took the time to do. The trail was steeper than we had anticipated, and we were ravenously hungry by the time we crested the last rocky ridge before the lake and saw the turquoise waters sparkling in the morning sun before us. We cooked up a ridiculously large pot of oatmeal and had a leisurely cup of coffee lakeside - it was quite tough to finally convince ourselves to get up and start hiking again!

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After a steep descent back down to the main trail at the bottom of the valley, the rest of the day's hike was flat and very different from the previous day. There were gorgeous coloured shrubs and flowers on all sides, and the ground was sandy and dry as the trail followed the winding river towards the far end of the valley.

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Our fourth day on the trail was amazingly bright and beautiful, and we took our time preparing breakfast and packing up in order to enjoy the clear blue skies. As we were finishing up, a tiny, über-friendly donkey came trotting down the path and came right up to us, mooching for food. It was bold and curious, and loved being petted and seemed to be even happier posing for photos.

Eventually we tore ourselves away from the little donkey and it moved along to our camp neighbours to see what it could get for food. We set off on the trail and began the long descent towards Cashapampa, the town where we would exit the trail. Given that we had descended a long ways from our initial and highest elevation points, the last day was by far the hottest. The plants and insects along this stretch of the trail were completely different from the higher elevations of the rest of the hike, and the sheer number of butterflies alone was astounding. Once we made it down to Cashapampa, we celebrated our completion of the trail with a cold Coca-Cola from a stand at the village entrance, and hopped on a colectivo back to Huaraz where we would arrive just in time for lunch and equally importantly, a shower.

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Footnote: Next up: Ishinca Valley
Huascarán National Park, Ancash, Peru