Santa Cruz Trek in the Cordillera Blanca in Peru is one of the most underrated activities in the country. If you’re looking for a high-altitude, heart-pumping, and breath-taking (literally and figuratively) adventure other than the more popular and tourist-filled Machu Picchu treks, then this trek is for you. This Complete Guide to Santa Cruz Trek for Beginners will help you plan your trip.
About Santa Cruz Trek – Distance, Altitude, Location
Location – in Cordillera Blanca, part of the Peruvian Andes
Nearest tourist town – Huaraz (elevation 3500m), 400km from Lima.
Total Distance – 44km
Duration – 3-4 days
Starting elevation – Cashapampa at 2900m or Vaquera at 3700m
Highest Point – 4750m at Punta Union
Difficulty – moderate (but properly acclimatized beginners can do the trek)
Can be done with or without a tour guide
Santa Cruz is nestled amongst the Cordillera Blanca mountain range, part of the Andes. The whole trek will take you through 44 kilometers of valleys flanked by snow-capped mountains, a mountain pass, lakes, rivers, and steep climbs.
The trek can be done in 3-4 days depending on the speed you make. But when we did our trek, we preferred to take is slow to have time to marvel at nature and to do some side trips.
The highest elevation of the trek is 4750m above sea level at the Punta Union pass. From the beginning of the trek in Cashapampa, you will gain an altitude of 1850m. If you begin at the other end in Vaquera, the altitude gain will be 1750m.
How to get there
There are two ways to get to the town of Huaraz, the main jump point before starting the trek. First is by bus which costs 20-40 USD and takes about 8 hours from Lima. Another way is to get on a flight from Lima to Huaraz which is usually around 100USD and only takes an hour.
Huaraz town is a good starting point since most of the agencies are there. This is also where they pick up tourists for other hikes to the Cordilleras. The town is complete with sports shops, markets, restaurants, accommodations, souvenir shops, and many local attractions.
When to go
Santa Cruz Trek can be done all year round. However, the best time to visit is May to mid-September when the skies are clearer and the weather is more constant. On a good day, the temperature can be as warm as 25C but at night it can get as low as 5C.
We went in early March and the weather was unpredictable. The trek started with hot sunny weather but by the end of the day, we were hailed and rained on pretty hard. The campsite was flooded and we had to move to a higher campground. All our stuff was wet, even the sleeping bags, which made our first night horrible. Four out of 11 actually quit due to the combination of lack of sleep and high altitude sickness.
Can beginners do the Santa Cruz trek?
I consider myself a beginner, as in, no experience at all in high-altitude treks. My experiences only involved 3-5 short hikes to some volcanoes in Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines and that was it, all were just below 2000 meters.
My trip to Huaraz was not planned at all. I did not have any exercise except for some walks to the beach and swimming. Before Huaraz, I was drinking beers and cocktails at Huanchaco beach. The trip to Huaraz was a spur-in-the-moment thing.
Perhaps what saved me out there was the fact that we stayed in Huaraz at an elevation of 3100m for 5 days doing short day hikes to elevations 4000-5000m. This gave our body a chance to acclimatize to high altitudes and also activate my muscles for the long trek.
I was always last in the trek in a group composed of military men and experienced hikers. I attributed that to my lack of fitness but I’ve always arrived on time and I think I did pretty well in acclimatizing myself to the high altitude.
So as long as you are reasonably fit, with low-risk heart or lung problem, properly acclimatized, and do the trek slowly, you can do the Santa Cruz Trek as a beginner.
What is High Altitude Sickness?
Altitude sickness symptoms include vomiting, headache, feeling tired, dizziness, loss of appetite, and shortness of breath. A young man in our group in one of our day hikes said he felt like he had the worst hang-over of his life. He had to be carried by the guide back to the bus.
Your fitness level, gender, and age do not determine your propensity to get high-altitude sickness. Indeed, we saw many young hikers who look fit that was hit hard by altitude sickness.
Altitude sickness usually happens at elevations above 2500m when the level of oxygen is way below the oxygen at sea level. Acclimatizing helps your body produce more red blood cells that will carry more oxygen to your body.
How to prepare for the High Altitude Santa Cruz Trek for Beginners
The only way to know if you are susceptible to AS is if whether you’ve already had it before or not.
So if it’s your first time at high altitude, here are some things you can do:
1. Stay at high altitudes with less physical activity for at least 1-2 days.
Huaraz was a perfect jump-off point before going to Santa Cruz. Huaraz is at 3500m. On our first day, we just explored the city and taking it slow, sleeping enough, and eating healthy.
2. Do short day hikes
On our third day, we tested ourselves in our first high-elevation day hike. We went to Laguna 69 at 4500m and went back to Huaraz in the afternoon. By then you’d know if you have acclimatized. I felt a little bit of headache and tiredness but that was it.
However, one guy in our group had to be carried by the guys as he was vomiting and weak. He was given a pitcher of coca tea.
3. Drink coca tea or chew coca leaves
People who live on the Andes have always used coca leaves in their daily lives on high altitudes. Scientists have found chemicals that apparently help the body adjust to a low oxygen environment.
4. Take it Slow
Exertion makes altitude sickness worse as the body uses more oxygen to fire up the muscles. As any high altitude guys would say, walk slowly and enjoy the view.
5. Take medication
Acetazolamide is a drug used to lessen the effects of Altitude sickness. However, sources say that this must be taken days to weeks before the trek. Consult your doctor before getting this medication. Another medication that helps with AS is Ibuprofen. It generally relieves headaches related to AS.
As a doctor, I took Acetazilamide 2 days before the Santa Cruz and continued until the end f the trek (as mentioned above, Huaraz wasn’t really part of our trip to Peru).
What to bring – Santa Cruz Trek for Beginners
The tour agency provided donkeys that carried our bigger bags. We only had to carry a small day pack throughout the trek. This is what I brought during my trek:
2 pairs of long sleeved shirt (one is fleeced)
1 pair of long johns (saved my life from the cold)
Santa Cruz Trek for Beginners – Independent hike or with a Tour agency?
Our group opted to go for a tour agency. As an inexperienced hiker like myself with a not-so-optimum fitness level, I know i wouldn’t be able to handle carrying 10kilos on my back. We paid 400 soles each and this included the donkeys that will carry everything like tents, tables, chairs, and our backpacks. The price included the sleeping bags and tents if you don’t have one, plus the meals and snacks that are prepared by the cook.
A lot of travelers have tried doing an independent hike and I would say it is very doable. The trail is well-marked although some of the ways might be covered by fallen trees or eroded with huge rocks.
Where to Start: Vaquera or Cashapampa?
Both towns are at different elevations. Vaqueria is at 3700m while Cashapampa is at 2900m. Looking at these numbers, it is more reasonable to start at Vaquera so the elevation gain is smaller.
From Vaqueria, the Union Pass can be reached on the second day, gaining a total of 1850m elevation rather quickly. It might be hard to gain such elevation in two days but after the Pass, the trail becomes an easy descent to the end.
On the other hand, the trail from Cashapampa to Punta Union is a slow and constant ascent to Union Pass which can be reached on the 3rd day before descending to Vaqueria. Vaqueria also offers more transport that will take you back to Huaraz if you are doing and independent trek.
When it comes to views, starting in Cashapampa offers a constant and better view of the valleys and the white-tipped mountains for 3 days. Whereas, if you come from Vaqueria, you’ll have to constantly look back when you are past the Union Pass.
Santa Cruz Trek for Beginners Travel Guide – Day to Day Itinerary
Day 0 – Acclimatization in Huaraz and day hikes (May take 1-3 days)
When arriving in Huaraz, make sure to do a light activity like walking around town and sleeping enough. On 2nd or 3rd day, you may take day hikes to Laguna 69 at 4500m or in Pastoruri Glacier at 5000m. This is an important part of preparation if you want to do Santa Trek as a Beginner.
Day 1 – Huaraz to Vaqueria to Paria campsite
Duration: Huaraz to Vaqueria – 5 hours by car, Vaqueria to Paria campsite – 5 hours
Distance covered (hike): about 11km
Elevation gained: 300m
Highlight: walking through traditional villages on the highlands.
A car picked us up from our hotel at 4am. We went to pick up all the other hikers. At 7am, we stopped by a town to do last minute shopping for food. With us were the cook, the donkey herder, and the tour guide.
We arrived in Vaqueria after 4 hours of driving up the mountains (the views of the valley and lakes below and the snow-capped mountains were incredible by the way).
We had a quick lunch at the trail head and then we headed to Paria camp. The trek took 5 hours through villages along the river. It was a slow ascent and we eventually gained 900 meters in elevation.
Before reaching our camp though, it hailed and rained so hard out of a sudden. A lot of us weren’t prepared for the sudden change of weather from sunny to wet.
The Paria camp was flooded when we arrived. We had to move up about 500 meters where we found out that our bag and all the contents were wet. Apparently, the donkey herder forgot to cover the bags when it rained.
We were wet and cold when we arrived. The cook made some delicious soup to warm us up and some rice with meat. We then settled into our wet sleeping bags and tried to sleep miserably.
Day 2 – Paria Camp to Punta Union to Taullipampa Camp
Elevation Gain: 1000m
Highlight: Punta Union – the highest point in the trek
We woke up with little to no rest at all with almost all giving up on the trek. Four of the group had experienced altitude sickness and decided to turn back. Apparently, they went to the trek with no acclimatization at all flying from their country and going directly to Huaraz to start the trek.
The rest of us had no rest with wet clothes and shoes. If the weather was gonna be the same as the day before – wet and cold, it will be difficult to do the most difficult part of the trek.
The itinerary today was to reach Punta Union, the highest point in the trek with an elevation gain of 1000m. We will need to walk 9 hours on our wet shoes. The people that remained doubted this but we still pushed on despite gloomy weather. From 11 people, only 7 of us continued.
The way to Punta Union was slowly ascending. It was only at about 1km away from the pass that the climb became suddenly steep. It was the most difficult part of the whole trek.
From the pass, we can see the power of the mountain in controlling the weather. From where we come from, the clouds were looming. But when we emerged from the pass, the weather on the other side was bright and sunny.
The view was outstanding with the snow-peaked mountains as backdrop for turquoise-hued lakes. The movement of the glacier can be heard from the pass. We took about an hour to just chill and enjoy the view and to eat our lunch.
Our 3rd camp was about 3 kilometers from Punta Union. It was the best camp throughout the trek. We had a great view of the mountains surrounding us. The rivers were also relaxing. One of our mates was able to fish some trout for dinner using sticks and worms.
The weather in the afternoon was warm and sunny and so we had the chance to dry our wet sleeping bags, shoes and clothes. Watch out for the cows though. They will munch on your clothes like what they did to my friend’s shirt.
Day 3 – Taullipampa Camp to Llamacoral.
Duration: 8hrs (with a side trip tp Alpamayo viewpoint and plenty of rest stops.
Elevation Gain: minus 400 meters
Highlight: passing through the valley along Laguna Jatuncocha and Laguna Ichiccocha.
We felt very energetic after finally sleeping in our warm and dry bags. From the camp, it will be a very easy trek to the next camp. But we decided to take a little detour to a viewpoint which was about 800 meters elevation from our camp.
From the viewpoint, was saw the majestic Alpamayo Mountain and the so-called Paramount Pictures mountains because it looked the same with the brand’s logo.
Then we descended to the valley where we walked along 2 giant lakes. We took several breaks just chilling on the side, taking pictures, and eating snacks. One of our friends even caught a trout from the lake.
We knew that the trek was going to be easy and so everyone took it easy. There nothing better than a picnic beside a beautifully-hued lake surrounded by grand white-peaked mountains on gorgeous weather.
We finally arrived in our camp in Llamacoral where we settled next to a river. Some of the hikers took a dip into the icy cold glacial river. It was funny to see. Be aware though, there are many small flying insects that bite your skin when it’s wet and exposed.
Day 4 – Llamacoral Camp to Cashapampa
Duration: 4 hours
Elevation Gain: minus 850 meters
Highlights: walking next to the river, beer at the end of the trek, and get together in Huaraz
Finally, it was our last day on the trail. We woke up early and packed up our bags. Our guide told us it was gonna be an easy hike to the pick up zone in Cashapampa.
The hike was very easy as the trail was always descending. We walked along rivers, small waterfalls, and he valleys slowly closed in on us, becoming narrower. And then we were greeted by small trees, steep and narrow walkways with the river on the side instead of plains filled with wild flowers and wild donkeys and cows.
We had to be careful walking on the cliff though. There were a lot of loose gravel and big stones. A wrong step can cause broken uncles and worse, a fall into the river or deep into a ravine.
We eventually arrived at the pick up point in Cashapampa. The porters have already loaded up our backpacks into a van that will take us back to Huaraz. There was a small restaurant there where you can buy some beers which was a great welcome after four days of trekking.
We arrived in Huaraz at around 4PM. At night, we went out with the whole team and celebrated in some restaurants where we had drinks.
Things to watch out during the Santa Cruz Trek for beginners
There were a lot of wild cows and donkeys along the trail. If you encounter one or a couple of them blocking your trail, just wait for them to move or slowly walk on the side.
Insects are everywhere. Make sure to put on insect repellent when you are not covered.
Always take your garbage with you. That includes toilet paper you used to wipe your butt.
There are no toilets along the trail. Find a bush to have your moment.
Walk at a pace you are comfortable with. Rushing and then stopping for breaks is not helpful. A constant pace is always advisable.
Water is gathered from the river and boiled. keep in mind that the whole trail is littered with cows and donkey so if you have a sensitive stomach, you will benefit from getting your own bottle with filtering system and a few tablets of charcoal.
Bring a little bit of cash. You will have to pay for the entrance fees that will be asked from you twice.
In summary, Santa Cruz is an amazing activity that everybody can do, even beginners, as long as you are prepared, abide by the rules of the trail, and enjoy and have fun while trekking. I hope this guide to Santa Cruz trek for beginners will help anyone who wants to have a different kind of adventure.
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