A sub-zero wakeup call pushes me out of the tent at a fumbling shuffle, trying to get the gas stove working from inside thick gloves. As I knock ice off the breakfast bowls, I take in my surroundings; a wide meadow, thick with grasses and a stream bubbling through the centre, all shaded in the early morning with the sun still awaiting its entrance over the crest of the high mountain peaks surrounding us. It is breath-taking.
A brisk walk brings us quickly down to the road which we rumbled up two days previous, a twenty-minute wait presenting a combi stuffed with Peruvians that begrudgingly make space for us. The windows are open as we teeter over hairpin bends on the high switchbacks and our noses steadily fill with the dust thrown up by the wheels of the combi. By the time we arrive in Vaqueria I’m in possession of a thumping headache and retire to the shadows to swallow an ibuprofen.
- Washing day, Vaqueria
This is the start of the Santa Cruz trek, Peru’s second most famous route after the Inca Trail. We’re doing it backwards, for no clear reason. After a while watching the bustling arrival and departure of trekking groups with their telescopic walking poles and mules trains laden with supplies, we decide to hit the trail and leave the tiny village behind. The path twists and turns across hillsides and past adobe cottages which contain children that sit with mucus running from both nostrils, hands outstretched asking in single words for candies, biscuits, money. Eventually we break free of the scattered houses and push forward through shaded woodland and wide open pasture, all funneled in the same inevitable direction by the steep-sided Huaripampa valley, the straps of our packs biting with aching insistence into our shoulders.
Camp is eventually made a ten minute walk up from one of the main camping grounds in an attempt to enjoy the solitude and heavy silence of the wide open spaces. An early night and morning present a strong uphill climb for a few hours through ice-flecked peaks that sit so close you could almost reach out and touch them. We finally arrive at the imposing steep path to the Punta Union pass, at a lung-bursting altitude of 4750 metres. We sit on our packs at the base of the climb, contemplating it for a while as a stream of heavily armed Peruvian military stomp past us, occasionally relishing the opportunity to break their pace and make polite conversation with us. They are all delighted that we’ve chosen to come to Peru, and give us a cheery farewell.
We can only delay the inevitable for so long. The climb is hard, and we take tiny steps with lungs sucking hard on the thin air. A few thousand steps later, we zig-zag the man-made stairs that bring us up the near-vertical final few metres to the welcome sight of the saddle of the pass, and for the first time we can look into the Santa Cruz valley. Other trekkers begin to pile up onto the pass, wandering around with their cameras clicking, occasionally making loud comments about how it really wasn’t as difficult as the Colca Canyon. We stay long enough to enjoy our achievement and head swiftly down to a more solitary spot for a break, enjoying a rolling downhill at a plod as the rigours of exercise at altitude set in.
We make camp for what turns out to be the final night a couple of hour’s walk from the pass and I endure a long night staring at the roof of the tent in the darkness, my mind turning frantically over the same subject matter presumably short-circuited by the fierce ups and downs of the last few days. In the morning we rise blearily and continue on our steady path down towards Cochapampa, passing through glorious wide pastures, lakes that shimmer in the sun, eerie rock forests, whole hillsides covered by giant boulders torn from the heights by rock slides.
We pass the final campsite at lunchtime and realize that this is our last day. After a break we continue and the path drops away even steeper, continuing one turn after another. We realize that our choice of route has presented us with by far the easiest option for Santa Cruz; the other direction would involve a stiff climb for at least two full days. Helpful mule-drivers passing uphill at an impossible trot offer us a series of completely inaccurate suggestions of the time remaining down to Cochapampa, and when we exit the valley we are beyond exhausted, led by false expectation.
Looking back through the dust from the window of the taxi that carries us towards Caraz, the exit to the trail sits in the deep and imposing crack in the rolling foothills. Cochapampa is a tiny village about to be swallowed up by the creeping shadows from the exit to the Santa Cruz valley. I don’t want to go back to civilization.
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