Travels AS a Burro .:. Santa Cruz Trek

Perhaps the biggest lesson of all came a few weeks after the trek, as I was writing the blog itself. This lesson was in non-attachment. Because this trek was so awe inspiring, I couldn't leave out many details. This being so, I spent at least eight hours writing the first entry. I was revising it for the last time when I accidently erased the entire thing. In the moments of panic that followed, I had no choice but to be present during my freak out. My notes, of course, I had thrown out the day before. After some deeeep breathing and support from Vern and Katie, I decided that I would try to re-write it. With Cuba Libre (rum and coke) in I go. Maybe the first attempt was too long anyway...
Although the following may sound like a tale of unfortunate events (omitting the above paragraph), let me assure you that every minute was an adventure. Had things not unfolded the way in which they did, it would not have felt like 'our' trip. Strange and random occurrences seem to be the norm of our travels. And besides, the amazing untouched beauty we experienced, as written beautifully in Vern´s pervious blog, made it more than worth it, but it always does.

As Vern and I reach our six months (Jonas and Ehren are at four), we feel like traveling veterans, knowing most of the tricks of the trade. But the thing about traveling (and life for that matter) is that you will never know everything and there is always a humbling situation or lesson around the next corner. With the ease and comfort we felt in Colombia and Ecuador, we were excited to see what Peru had in store for us.
It's not that Peru is hard to travel through, but just a bit more of a struggle. The poverty seems to be a bit more evident here than other countries and because of this, our interactions with Peruvians seems to be less personal since we feel like walking money signs. Perhaps we have become a bit too trusting or just lost some of our ´flow´, but we have missed a few buses, taken an accidental four hour bus detour and just been finagled out of our money more than in the past. Each country seems to have a theme and I would have to coin Peru with preservancia (perseverance). This being the case, I envisioned the four day trek through Santa Cruz to be no exception.
Day 1 departing from Huaraz
We woke up around 5:45 am almost by accident, considering our alarm never went off. Jonas and Vern heard a noise from another room that awoke them. We packed up the necessary food and prepared to leave. Never before have I felt more like a turtle, or rather a burro gearing up for a journey. Our backpacks were a decent amount heavier than normal but Jonas more than outdid us with his pack weighing more than a young adult.
After heading out, we realized we barely had enough money to get us through the park and back, but as always we started off optimistic. We had spent the last couple of days mentally preparing for the trek and therefore felt fresh and buoyant. Our first bus from Huaraz to Youngay was uncomfortable. Our heavy bags were on our laps and because the road had terrible pot holes, the bus driver viciously swerved from left to right in an effort to avoid them. For some reason, unannounced to us, he also decided to drop us off 15 minutes away from our destination. We made the last bit of travel to Youngay on foot. Once there, we quickly discovered that we had missed the morning collectivos (bus) which took us up the next four hours to Mayaria, where we could start the trek on foot. The next collectivo didn´t leave until the afternoon which wouldn´t get us there until early evening and private cars were asking for way too much money. Jonas went searching for other alternatives while Vern and I sat in a moment of despair, praying for sunshine.
Jonas shortly returned with a cab that would take us half way there to Cebollachampa. This was at the base of the hike to Lago 69, so we figured with could extend our trip by a day and camp there for the night. Because there were already two people in the cab, I got the pleasure of riding in the trunk. Thankfully, my view got better as we started to climb in elevation. Rigid black rock reached straight up for the clouds, glistening with moisture. As we reached Cebollachampa, it began to rain which evoked feelings of intimidation for the whole endeavor.
Before departing, our cab driver demanded a 20 soles ($7 dollars) tip for getting us into the park for a cheaper price earlier on the road. Hesitantly, we handed it over.
The hike to Lago 69 is six hours roundtrip but we only made it thirty minutes that day. It didn´t take long to feel the weight of the bag and with the rain starting again we decided to save our legs, backs and dryness for the four days through Santa Cruz. We found a nice patch of land near a tranquil river and began to set up camp. Setting up camp was lengthy and because everything was wet we (Jonas) were unable to start a fire, but we had found ourselves a nights rest in a fairyland.
We had added protection from the surrounding Polylepis trees. They are an indigenous tree found in the Andean Highlands, commonly referred to as the paper tree (arbol de papel) due to its papery layers of bark ( The Polylepis had vibrant moss growing freely on them, with branches reaching out towards small thin black shrubbery. The whole scene was enchanting yet ominous, very reminiscent of a Tim Burton film. The rain was pretty consistent throughout the early hours of the evening. Vern and I exchanged looks, wondering what we had gotten ourselves into. As I drifted off to sleep in the security of my sleeping bag, I thought to myself that this might be the most physically challenging thing I had ever done. 
Day 2
I woke up to the cold nipping at my nose as I emerged from the warm cocoon of my sleeping bag. It had rained the whole night, so I was happy to wake up warm and dry. We packed up in about forty minutes and made our way back to the road to catch a bus we had heard would pass at 8am for Mayaria. As we waited, we prepared some cold avena (oatmeal) with the company of a cute cow that circled us with curiosity. Speaking with a taxi driver, we found out that we would have to pay an additional 65 soles to enter the park higher up. Because we had taken the cab the day before and tipped the driver more, we only enough to enter the park but not to return to Huaraz. We would cross that bridge when we got there…but damn Peruvians!
A bus finally passed at 10am. The next two and half hours were steep, traversing a constant switch back until the lake below looked like a small bowl of water. The road was narrow and rocky and at times is felt like a tire was hanging off the cliff. But finally, after a day and a half, we made it to our starting point on foot. We psyched ourselves up and looked over the simplistic map we had. Right off the bat we headed in the wrong direction for a few minutes, quickly retracing our steps and heading down the right track.
As we began our first incline we also approached a small town. I had put a few chocolate bars in the visible side pocket of my back pack and this made us very popular among the cute kids who were just getting out of school. A group of seven or so kids followed us up our first ascent while we started to huff and puff. They relentlessly asked for our sweet treats as if they had been trained to do so. Some followed us up further up the hill while one continued to ask for ¨la la la galleta¨ (the the the cookie!). Even after we had handed all our chocolate out, kids would yell from a far for cookies from the gringos. Despite their innocent desire for sweets, it was easy to see that these kids lived in a very small and often difficult world. A few of them looked visibly ill with crust around their eyes, and only having three fingers and toes. It was clear that labor started early here when we passed a girl no older than eight chopping wood behind her house with a large ax.
We went on until we reached a beautiful pasture where the clouds cleared and the sun invited us to rest ourselves over lunch. With tuna, cucumber and tomato sandwiches, we relieved our bare feet in the cool grass. This trend of sunny lunches continued the rest of our trek, and today the setting was timeless within this stone enclosed pasture with horses and passing sheep attended by their shepherd.
Upon finishing, we realized we had just reached the checkpoint were we would have to pay the resented 65 soles each to enter. I was washing our dirty dishes in the bathroom when Vern came in and whispered that I needed to pretend to be our guide. Evidently, tourists aren´t allowed to enter the park past three without a guide, which was about the time we had arrived. I guess if there was one country that I would try to imposter it would be Peru. More times that I can count, locals have asked me what part of Peru I am from and with the upcoming election I have been solicited to vote a few times. I put on my best Peruvian accent and addressed the park officer. Although I am not sure how much they bought it, they let us in but instructed us to tell others we were all tourists if we were asked.
The next couple of hours was like a walking meditation The rain composed our marching melody that kept us going even when the weight of our bags seemed too much to endure. Still, there were pleasant distractions along the way. We saw very few people but rather cows, bulls, horses and our fellow friend the donkey who we had a new found respect for. That afternoon, we walked until we couldn´t walk anymore. The relief of the day came when we took off our packs for the last time. But the work didn´t stop there; we immediately began to set up camp, followed by preparing dinner. The former hopefully happening before the rain set in for the night and the latter being enjoyed during the darkness of night. Naturally, it rained through the night, rain collecting pools of water in our tarp cover.
Day 3
As we were packing up, we saw a group of trekkers passing shortly followed by donkeys carrying their belongings. The burros were accompanied by their Peruvian guide. He greeted us warmly and we joked about how much stuff we had with us. He offered to take some with him. At first we declined but then had a moment of insight and handed over the tarp, a huge relief for Jonas that day. One of the first great Peruvians we had met.
It wasn´t long until we started our ascent up, up and up. I started reciting the Gayatri mantra ( in my head on repeat for what must have been an hour or so. When I got over that, the scenery provided me with awe inspiring distraction. We saw so many different skies on our journey. There were heavy and thick clouds that seemed to carry with them the weight of the world. We saw blues that were deep and vast like the ocean. There were thick and low rolling skies that came during the night with the promise of rain. My favorite, were the light clouds that danced closer to the ground then the rest and had a mystical air about it, uncovering the land before us as we walked forward. There were so many waterfalls everywhere that it was easy to see how this area of land created its own water cycles; these patterns we were able to observe and learn pretty well.
A bit before midday, we stopped to snack on a peanut butter sandwich, as the skies opened up revealing sky high glaciers sitting atop rigid rocks; this site was a gift from the gods. We were given enough time to savor our sandwiches and such a unique site when, like usual, we had to continue before the ever chasing storm caught up to us.
Then we entered the hardest uphill of the trek. The whole morning had been an incline, but what had started as a steady slope was now a 45 degree incline of slippery rock. My prior meditations weren’t helping as they had before. All I could do was consciously take each step, sometimes stopping every ten or twenty paces to acclimate. I felt the force of my legs and the thin air enter my lungs and leave my body. Although I would say that we pursued the rock face for almost two hours, it is hard to say because all sense of time was lost to the sensations of the body and persisting up the mountain. The major rock face transformed into a stairway made of boulders as we reached the peak. Just as we thought it would never end, our eyes caught site of the burgundy sign, “Punto Union 4,750 meters (15,580 feet).” Seeing this I couldn’t help but do a Rocky's style victory dance.
After a quick celebration of smiles and a few photos, it was time to head downwards. This panoramic view was perhaps the most impressive; we were like ants looking out from the very highest ant hill. Our efforts upwards were rewarded with an opening of crystal blue sky, and a view of the vast and winding valley below. To our right was the colossal tri colored landscape; the glaciers sparkling in the sun and still towering over us even at this altitude. Below the glaciers, lay a turquoise lake that led into the dark green valley as far as the eye could see. The Andean air was so fresh it was like inhaling mint ice cream that invigorated your entire being.
 Under the warmth of the sun, we sat in pure admiration for Mother Nature’s artistry. Everything felt so alive and a veggie wrap had never tasted so good. Suddenly, we heard a crack and boom that you could feel vibrate in your chest. Looking around to see what had happened, another quickly followed. Small avalanches were falling from the snow capped glaciers. Now, PachaMama was putting on a show for us. We watched and listened intently hoping for a full blown torrent of snow to fall to the lake below, but once again the storm persisted on following us, so wanting to stay dry we packed up and moved on.
Continuing down, we retrieved our tarp and went another thirty minutes before making our camp for the third time at about 4250 meters.
Day 4
Lesson: when camping, never leave your things where they may get wet. Seems like common sense, but I had left my boots on the side of my tent that was open to the elements and because it had rained during the night, they were now ten pounds of saturated moisture. EVERYTHING was wet. That morning I started off feeling slightly miserable since everything I owned was wet and I had to put all of those things in my pack only adding more weight. After thirty minutes of feeling sorry for myself, I remembered where I was…PERU…and that I was simply resisting what was happening in that moment. Like in life, the “bad” makes you appreciate the “good” just like the rain makes you grateful for the sun. Just then the sun started to come out and once I started walking I forgot all about my wet shoes.
There were few clouds in the sky today and the sun gave us a new found energy. Into the marsh we went. From across the valley floor we could hear a couple of guys complaining and yelling at each other because they were getting wet. We couldn’t help but laugh because they had no idea what they were getting themselves into. But then again, rarely did we. At first the marsh started at barely an inch deep, but since it had rained so much over the last couple of days it began to get deeper and the patches of land to walk on got more narrow. Pretty soon the streams of water got wider until Vern had to make a running start to jump over the water. She never stood a chance and in the blink of an eye she slipped straight on her ass. Had she not had a backpack on, the fall would have completely floored her. We immediately started laughing so hard it probably echoed through the valley.
Even though we love to go on our own adventures sin guide, sometimes it’s nice to have a little help. Just then, the guide that had taken our tarp for us the day before was passing with his burros. He instructed us to take our shoes off and hike up our pants. Then he showed us a better route to take. Like turtles wading through water on their hind legs, we walked through the now knee high water as tactfully as we could. This is more difficult that you might think due to the weight of our bags; being sure footed was the only thing keeping us from literally drip drying our way out of the Santa Cruz trek. Thanking the guide once again, we put our socks and shoes back on only to cross the valley ridge and repeat this exercise twice more. At one point we were throwing our bags and then our bodies over streams almost too wide to jump and Jonas was nearly swallowed by murky waters whose depth was deceiving. Still, the sun was out and we were having a blast playing in a real life video game through all these checkpoints.
With every change in weather we experienced, there was ever changing scenery to match. Getting past the marshes we entered nature’s chess board, with huge boulders acting as the chess pieces and the river as our constant guide. We passed through fields of animal communities, with horses, bulls and cows all playing and living together so harmoniously. We passed through sites of civilizations longs past. The intact circular ruins were a testament to the safety of the valley. The river provided life and the high rock walls served as protection. At one point, we went around a  corner to find a few donkeys who were happy to get some attention and affection from a passing stranger. They may have gotten a dull reputation from the media, but their oversized ears and gentle demeanor make them impossible not to love. Later in the afternoon, our path brought us to trees who housed huge bromeliads with small brightly colored flowers. Here, the river was forceful which created a gentle mist that levitated to meet the clouds. Moisture was everywhere and sometimes it was hard to tell if it was coming from the ground of the sky. Soon we were walking on a rock pathway surrounded by fog. Besides the rocks that made up the path, other surrounding rocks were as big as houses and amidst the fog, played tricks on my eyes appearing like animal faces.
We continued down, down, down (which can be harder on the body then going up) until we caught glimpse of a town in the distance. Out of excitement, we nearly ran the rest of the way until we were in Cashapampa. Here is where we met the next great Peruvian. His name is Archilles and because it was too late to get transport back to Huaraz, he offered his lawn for us to sleep on. Although we were sleeping in our wet tents another night, we felt happy to have completed the trek. We prepared every last bit of food we had (so we didn’t have to carry an extra kilo of food back) and made delicious lentil veggie fajitas with a carrot, onion and cumber salsa. Soreness set in and sleep shortly followed dinner.
Day 5 Back to Huaraz
Because we only had 23 soles to get back, it was a little tricky but we made it safely and got our warm showers and clean, dry beds that night. In total, we hiked about thirty-five miles and 7,000 vertical feet over four days. Even with our added first night in Cebollachampa, we made it out through the Santa Cruz trek a day early.
Although it was ultimately the rain that made it challenging, the hike itself was time and time again rewarding. It was physically challenging but that was matched with constant breathtaking beauty and enhanced by amazing animal presence along the whole journey (the lack of human presence a plus). If you ever make it to Peru, it is not a trek to be missed.
And while pictures shed a glimpse of what we saw, they immediately loose depth and vastness. Words may paint a picture, yet they never reveal scents and sensations. However, these images will forever be etched in my mind to keep; to later reflect upon with my dear friends that I had the pleasure of sharing the experience with.
Next trek…Machu Picchu.