Santa Cruz Trek (Cordillera Blanca) (part 1)

Getting there

It took 25 hours to get to Caraz from Arequipa; an overnight bus to Lima, followed by a day bus that followed the mist-shrouded desert coastline of Peru, before turning inland to climb up to the Huayllas valley and the small city of Huaraz, trekking capital of the Cordillera Blanca. From here we sped things up a bit by taking a local taxi for the 45 minute trip down a valley lined with snowy peaks to Caraz, a small village trying to compete with Huaraz for the tourist dollar (but with little success). It was a much quieter place and closer to the start of the Santa Cruz trek - we liked it.

View of Huascaran from Caraz - draped in
cobweb clouds

The last rays of sun illuminate 6750m Huascaran, Peru's highest mountain

The main plaza of Caraz

Laguna Paron Day Walk

We had been out of the high mountains for some time now and our red blood cell count was feeling low. Moreover, Caraz is only 2290m above sea-level. To prepare a bit for the Santa Cruz Trek, we decided to do a day walk at Laguna Paron, an area of reputed great beauty set at the head of deep valley in the Cordillera Blanca, an hour's drive from Caraz.

The impressive 1000m black rock walls

Farmlands on the way up to Laguna Paron

View toward the mouth of the Paron Canyon

First view of Laguna Paron in its alpine setting

We travelled up to the lake by taxi, climbing up a rough dirt road past small houses, fields, crops and orchards, guided upwards by the icy 6350m pinnacle of Nevada Huandoy, to eventually reach the mouth of the canyon that led to Laguna Paron. Looking the 1000m high almost vertical walls and dark sculpted granite spires, we knew that we were arriving at somewhere special; looking the large mass of greyish cloud at the head of the canyon, we weren't quite sure what we would actually be able to see.

Blue lupins and turquoise water

After a series of switchbacks that took us up the steep bed of the Rio Paron as it rushed down through the canyon, we arrived at the lake. At 4200m, a few hours walking here should help get us back into high altitude trekking mode.

Despite the cloud, it was still an impressive sight, held back by a steep morain on one side and a sheer granite cliff on the other, the turquoise waters of the long lake took our gaze back to its far end and the glaciers of Nevados Pyramide (5880m) and Chacracaju (6120m). The clouds covering their peaks hid the scene that adorns many postcards, but we could not help but be impressed by the setting.

Morain wall below Huandoy

On the track around the lake edge

Looking back up Laguna Paron

Lunch in the shade of a Quenua tree

Farewell Laguna Paron

Climbing the morain high above the Paron River

As we walked around the northern edge of the lake, lined with blue lupins beneath steep cliffs, the sun broke through to shine on the 6350m peak of Huandoy high above its southern shore. Cloud drifted past the mountain and the great slabs of the glaciers perched on the edges of rocky precipices high above the turquoise waters.

The glaciers of 6350m Nevado Huandoy

We retraced our steps and did a short climb up the rocky morain on the southern shore, to get a closer look at Huandoy and at the impressive views down toward the mouth of the canyon, where the sun still shone brightly. Finally, we wandered several kilometres back down the valley floor, partly along the road, partly along tracks that took us through the thick shrubs and forest of scraggly but strangely aesthetic quenoas, their orange paperbark flaking from their trunks. Eventually, we reached a bridge across Rio Paron, where our taxi was waiting to take us back down the valley to Caraz.

Huandoy appearing between the clouds

Nello in the Quenua forest

Another view of the 1000m canyon walls

The Paron River

It had been a good reacclimatisation stroll, but the cold wind and grey clouds that seemed to expand behind us were a bit worrying. We were off on the Santa Cruz Trek tomorrow - would it be our first trek in South America to be spoiled by the weather?

Day 1 - Cashapampa to Llamacorral (10km - 860m ascent)

We met Eliab our cook in Caraz and headed off in a taxi for the 1½ hour trip winding up the steep slopes of the Callejon de Huayllas to Cashapampa, our starting point for the Santa Cruz trek at 2900m. The glistening pyramid of 6240m Nevado Santa Cruz peaked through a gap in the mountains, beckoning us on. Our arriero Luis was waiting in Cashapampa with a mule and two donkeys. We had decided to do a non-guided trek, and Luis and Eliab, both only Spanish speakers, would be our companions for the next five days. It would be very good Spanish practice for us!

The 6240m pyramid of Nevado Santa Cruz

Eliab and Nello at the start of the trek

The mouth of the Santa Cruz Gorge

Path up into the gorge

Our gear transferred from four-wheel drive to four-legged drive, we set off with Eliab, strolling through the town to register at the National Park office and start our first climb. We soon arrived at the Santa Cruz River spilling out of a cleft in the mountains. This narrow gorge was our entry passage into the diverse landscapes of the Cordillera Blanca. Passing through a grove of eucalypts, we started to climb steeply along a dusty path beside the river. The sun shone hotly as we pushed steadily upwards past red, yellow and blue flowering bushes.

The gorge walls began to close in and the waters of the Rio Santa Cruz rushed noisily down their rocky bed, tumbling and cascading over boulders, the sound reverberating off the gorge walls. It was still and hot as we crossed a large rock fall where a slab of the cliff had fallen into the gorge only 3 months earlier. Without realizing it, we had gained 500m in altitude and the form of the gorge was changing. The slope lessened and the river ran more quietly as it flowed beneath a canopy of shady trees, their branches covered with green and crimson-leafed bromeliads. Bromeliads also clung to the boulders on the river bank and valley floor.

Rockfall in the Santa Cruz Gorge

Loking back down the gorge

The Santa Cruz River

The stony path up the gorge

Rock spire at the top of the Santa Cruz Gorge

Bromeliad covered trees on the river

The dark rock spires of the gorge walls towered high above and a glistening waterfall tumbled down from some invisible mountain stream. The sun still shone, but a cool wind began to blow down this higher part of the gorge, refreshing us somewhat.

We found a pleasant little clearing next to the tree-lined river for our lunch break, protected from the wind, before heading on once more. From here the valley began to widen, though maintaining its steep-walled glaciated profile. The trees along the river gradually thinned out, replaced by low shrubs, scattered with red tubular flowers, as we entered a more exposed part of the valley.

Waterfall in the gorge wall

The Santa Cruz becomes more gentle

Track between the old stone walls

A good spot for lunch
We followed a broader path that meandered along a rocky ancient morain; many of the rocks had been used to build low stone walls, built over the centuries by local communities to hold their cattle. We met several of these mountain cows on the way.




The valley was now quite flat and, in the distance, we had our first glimpse of Nevado Taulliraju (5850m), its peak hidden by cloud. For the moment, though, the steep valley walls hid most of the snow-capped ridges of the Cordillera Blanca.

Luis and the donkeys catching up to us

A curious ball cactus in flower

In the upper valley - looking towards distant Taulliraju

Finally, we reached a wide grassy area with a stone-walled enclosure containing several tents; we were at Llamacorral, at 3760m our first campsite on the trek. There was one group of four and three pairs of independent walkers, but Luis had already arrived and claimed a good campspot for us, protected from the wind which was becoming stronger and colder. It was a good place to pass the last half of the afternoon, though the sun disappeared early behind the western wall of the valley.

Campsite at Llamacorral

5850m Nevado Taulliraju at he head of the valley

We retreated to the dining tent for a snack of biscuits and guacamole and a chat with Eliab; he told us of his love for cooking and his plans to go to Lima to study to be a chef - our mouths watered at the thought of gourmet meals on the trip ahead! That night, as the tiny wind generator at a small house 100m away whined incessantly, we ate thick vegetable soup, followed by chicken stuffed with tasty local herbs and betterave on a bed of spicy quinoa with creme caramel for dessert. The trek had begun well!

Day 2 - Llamacorral to Taullipampa (18km - 650m ascent - 250m descent)

By morning the wind had dropped to a gently breeze that barely turned the wind turbine and there was not a cloud in the sky. Soon the sun burst out above the distant silhouette of Taulliraju, washing out the eastern horizon in a blaze of light. At 8am we were ready to head on up the valley from Llamacorral eastward into the early morning sun. We followed the babbling stream across the grassy flats, which eventually narrowed as we neared a rocky spill from a gap in the southern wall of the valley.

The Santa Cruz River babbling through the valley

Early morning in the grassy flats of Llamacorral

The ridge of Nevados de Caras gives us a taste of what is to come

Above the snowy ridge of the Nevados de Caras appeared and then disappeared as we continued our way slowly upwards. The valley widened again and we reached the lower end of Ichiccocha, a shallow reed-filled lake where cattle grazed contentedly on the grassy flats around it. We also wandered contentedly around its shore in the warm morning sun, practicing our Spanish with Eliab, as Luis and the donkeys passed by with our gear for the next campsite.

A deep cleft in the wall of the valley

Nello heading up through the lupins

View of Laguna Icchicocha and Taulliraju

Our faithful caballo bringing up the gear

The reedbeds of Laguna Ichiccocha

At 4200m we didn't expect to see a black-capped gull

Looking back down the flat valley between the two lakes

Laguna Jatuncocha sparkling in the morning sun

Passing the lake, we climbed gently up a rocky area to the next level of this high valley; behind a long boulder-strewn slope lay Jatuncocha, a larger deeper lake whose emerald-green waters were framed by the steep walls of the once-again narrow valley. We strolled around the edge of the water, past superb orange-flaking bark trunks of quenoa trees.

At its upper end, high above to our left, the snow-capped peak of 6040m Nevado Quitaraju peaked through the clouds that had formed during the morning. From the gap below, a long set of cascading falls tumbled down into the valley. A little further, we crossed a sidestream formed by twin waterfalls several hundred metres above that merged to a single fall tumbling down the steep rock face - magic!

On the shore of emerald-green Jatuncocha

Quenua tree next to the lakeside track

Trail through the quenua thicket

6040m Quitaraju above a ribbon waterfall

The landscape broadened yet again as we crossed a wide grassy pampa at the high end of the lake; a place where wild horses grazed peacefully as we passed by. The stream here flowed slowly and quietly along a meandering bed across the flat pampa. Ahead, for the first time, Taulliraju was disappearing as the valley curved, only to be replaced by the 5810m glacier-topped form of Pucajirca Sur; the procession of alpine peaks continued.

View back over Jatuncocha in its steep-walled valley

Heading down the road to the high pampa ...

... where wild horses grazed

After a long pleasant stroll across the pampa, during which we passed two groups heading in the opposite direction, we climbed yet again. This time we followed the stream up its rocky bed, strewn with grey and orange boulders. We reached the plateau of Quishuarpampa, a good place for a break in the shade of the trees before undertaking a small but impressive sidetrip.

The river at Quishuarpampa - a good lunchspot

View of our track up from the hanging valley

About to crest the lip of the valley and see...

...magnificent 5945m Alpamayo

Turning off the main track, we headed up through the shrubs and trees to start a long series of zig-zags that would quickly take us 200m higher up to a hanging valley. As we climbed, the panorama of our path up the Santa Cruz Valley opened out. Soon, however, we caught our first glimpse of our goal, the 5940m glacier-clad peak of Alpamayo, considered by some to be one of the most beautiful mountains in the world (though more so when viewed from the north-west). At each corner of the track our views of this mountain and its neighbours expanded.

Eventually we climbed over the lip into the valley of Quebrada Arhuey, opening out to a magnificent cirque of glacier-crowned jagged peaks (Quitaraju, Alpamayo and Pukarashju). Eliab declared it our lunch stop; we elected it to our list of "world's best lunch stops".

The Alpamayo Cirque - viewed from the "world's best lunchspot no. 18"

The impressive 6025m Nevado Artesonraju

Orange-barked quenoa trees on the path

Looking up the morain blocking Laguna
Arhueycocha and its cirque

We stayed for about an hour taking in the panorama of these superb mountains as clouds drifted by their peaks; high above, through our binoculars we could see the tiny shapes of a team of climbers heading up the icefall to Camp 1 (tomorrow they would climb Alpamayo and it was good to know that they wouldn't have set out if the weather wasn't going to be fine).

The jagged razor-edged profile of 6040m Nevado Quitaraju

A lone trekker wandered down from the valley further on; his accent gave him away as a fellow Australian as he told us that the scenery higher up was the best that he had ever seen. We had originally planned to go no further, but plans are made to be changed.

One hour later we found ourselves standing on the terminal morain of Laguna Arhueycocha; having followed the quebrada up to another broad pampa directly beneath the Alpamayo Cirque, passed the climbers base camp in its beautiful setting of tall quenua trees and climbed the rocky morain.

View across Alpamayo Base Camp to the peaks on the southern
side of the Santa Cruz Valley

From our vantage point at 4400m, we looked across the turquoise waters of the laguna to the long glacier and icefall that tumbled down into its far end. With every passing cloud or puff of wind across its surface, the tint of the lake changed. The odd small iceberg drifted in the milky green water, while above the glacier cracked and groaned. Even higher, the jagged, fluted, snow-capped ridges of Nevados Pucajirca Oeste (6008m) and Rinrijirca (5810m) framed this setting.

Back to the west, across the valley was a panorama of the needle of 5880m Nevado Piramide, the Matterhorn-like pyramid of 6025m Nevado Artesonraju and the extended ridges of Nevados Paron. Our friend was not far wrong!

Can you spot the climbers? Look high

The peak of Alpamayo 1750m above the pampa

Glacier tumbling into the milky green water
of Laguna Arhueycocha

Pale green face of the glacier and iceberg

The fluted ridgeline of 6008m Pucajirca Oeste
high above the lake

Across the valley the cornice capped peak of
5880m Nevado Piramide

In the full sun the water looked even milkier

The 5850m peak of Nevado Artesonraju
piercing the clouds

Nello and Elaib passing through a grove of orange-barked quenoas

The afternoon was passing quickly, so sadly we left this magical place, retracing our steps across the pampa, dotted with prostrate yellow and white daisies and blue lupin spikes, to our lunchspot.

Alpamayo landscape

Blue lupin spike

Flowers of the alpine pampa

Crossing a mountain stream

From here we headed east again to traverse the steep tussock grass covered slope of the Santa Cruz valley, dotted with blue clusters of lupin flowers. Every so often we stopped to admire the changing views behind us of the steep-walled and narrow Santa Cruz Valley and the two beautiful lakes that we had passed earlier in the day.

Crossing the grassy slopes above the
Santa Cruz Valley

View back down the valley to the high pampa
and Laguna Jatuncocha

View up Quebrada Arteson to Nevado

Taulliraju reappears- magnificent in the
late afternoon sun

Ahead we could see tents dotted in another flat and open grassy area - we were finally nearing our campsite at Taullipampa. Another short descent to cross the river and we were there. It was a beautiful setting with views of the peaks all around - the east dominated by Taulliraju which had reappeared in magnificent splendour, while to the east lay the glaciers of Artesonraju and part of the Alpamayo Cirque.

Taullipampa - elected to the list of "World's best campsites"

Santa Cruz sunset

A pinkish tinge fringes the peaks in the last rays of the sun

When the sun drops at 4160m, the cold quickly creeps into the bones; we retreated to the tent and, over another of Eliab's gourmet camp dinners (asparagus soup with garlic bread and spaghetti bolognese), we reminisced on the day and the variety of landscapes that we had experienced; voting it our best single day of alpine trekking. It had been a wonderful day of discovery of the Cordillera Blanca - the brilliant sunset was simply a bonus.