The Tierradentro National Archaeological Park is home to what is believed to be the greatest number of cave tombs in Latin America. There are dozens of them, some dating back 1,400 years. It’s a highlight for many travelers to Colombia and the place is unlike any other archaeological site in the country. However, we were a little distracted by the firefights between Colombian soldiers and FARC rebels in the surrounding foothills when we were there…
The foothills around the Tierradentro Archaeological Park in Southern Colombia are usually peaceful.
FARC guerrillas near Tierradentro
During the more than 18 months we spent traveling in Colombia we heard many personal stories about the FARC and the ongoing violence associated with the rebel group which has been operating in the country for decades. These stories brought the grim reality of living in a country that’s been essentially fighting a civil war with guerrillas into stark relief.
But nothing prepared us for our one and only firsthand encounter with the FARC as we arrived in San Andres de Pisimbala, the village in southern Colombia which is the gateway town to the nearby Tierradentro site.
NOT what you want to see when you rock into town: Colombian soldiers in the streets of San Andres de Pisimbala after FARC guerrillas booby-trapped the local school with land mines.
And when we say “first hand” we mean the town’s school, just one block from our guesthouse, was booby-trapped with land mines, Colombian soldiers were in the streets, and FARC rebels were in the hills. When those opposing groups began shooting at and shelling each other, we hid in the kitchen of our guesthouse (La Portada Hospedaje) numbly trying to process the tense, powerless reality of being caught in the crossfire.
Structures protecting entrances to the elaborately painted and carved underground tombs at the Tierradentro Archaeological Park.
Exploring Tierradentro (finally)
Once the FARC and the Colombian soldiers had moved on, things returned to normal remarkably quickly in sleepy San Andres de Pisimbala. The Tierradentro Archaeological Park (20,000 COP or about US$7 per person for a ticket that’s good for two days) also opened up again so we finally had a chance to explore what we’d come to see in the first place.
The decorated interior of one of the man-made underground tombs at Tierradentro.
As we said, Tierradentro is unlike any other archaeological site in Colombia because it’s home to a very high concentration of elaborate cave tombs – more than 160 of them. The area has been excavated since the 1930s and experts say some of the tombs date back up to 1,400 years.
Geometric shapes in red or black pigment are the main motifs inside the tombs at Tierradentro.
The tombs exist inside man-made “caves” called hypogeas which were dug into the ground. These are accessed via hand cut steps that form steep, curved staircases that take you from ground level directly down into the dug out space – like entering a crude cellar.
Hand-cut staircases like this descend steeply into each tomb.
Once inside, the spaces are impressively large. Big enough to stand up in and walk around. There is lighting inside, but bring a flashlight to be sure you can really see the tomb decorations.
Tomb painting at Tierradentro.
Almost every interior surface is painted using red or black pigment to create geometric shapes, animals and human faces. Niches are also dug into the walls of the tombs along with carvings.
Human figures and carved niches inside a tomb at Tierradentro.
There are also two small museums on the site, but it’s the tombs, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, that are the highlight. They’re spread out over a fairly large distance on sloping hillsides, so be prepared to do some walking. And, as we said, bring a flashlight. If you have a tripod, bring that too to assist with your shots inside the tombs.
In addition to the underground tombs, the El Tablón area of the site also has carved volcanic stone statues which you can hike to when FARC rebels and Colombian soldiers aren’t trying to kill each other in the hills, which we hope has stopped since both sides signed a peace treaty in 2017.
We started the month of July 2017 in the small town of Huancavelica high (and cold) in the Peruvian Andes. From there our road trip crossed Southern Peru to Lake Titicaca and then traveled into Bolivia where we spent time in La Paz, drove Bolivia’s infamous “Death Road,” then headed down to the Uyuni Salt Flats where we ended the month. In total, our road trip traveled 1,794 miles (2,887 km) in July and you can see the same spectacular scenery that we saw through the windshield of our truck via the drive-lapse video at the end of this post.
Where we’ve been: July 2017 in Peru & Bolivia
From damp and cold Huancavelica, one of the highest cities in the world at 12,060 feet (3,676 meters), we continued across the Peruvian Andes to historic Ayacucho (watch our snowy July 4th morning drive leaving Huancavelica at 0:50 in our video at the end of this post).
From Ayacucho we made a beeline to the city of Puno on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca near the border with Bolivia. We then crossed into Bolivia, our 59th border crossing of the Journey so far, from Yunguyo, Peru to Copacabana, Bolivia (see this very tranquil border crossing on the shores of Lake Titicaca at 15:06 in our video at the end of this post).
Once in Bolivia, we drove to the world’s highest capital city: La Paz. From there we took a side trip to the Yungas region, a forested area between the high Andes and the lowland, Amazonian forest. In a mere 40 miles (65 km) the highway drops more than 11,000 feet (3,000 meters) from a 15,500 foot (4,724 meter) pass to the lowlands below. Although there is a now modern highway heading down to the Yungas, we couldn’t pass up the chance to drive Bolivia’s infamous Death Road.
Once considered “the world’s most dangerous road,” this dirt “highway” no longer lives up to that moniker. Yes, it’s still a narrow, one-lane road clinging to a sheer cliff that at times drops many thousands of feet into the ravine below. However, since the new highway was opened there is very little traffic along the dirt route save for a daily onslaught of tourist bicyclers making the descent and a few adventurous foreigners who want to drive this famed road. This means there is no longer the need to cling to the cliff’s edge while passing oncoming trucks.
Judge for yourself in the Death Road footage starting at 17:07 in our video at the end of this post).
After conquering Bolivia’s Death Road we headed south across the country’s high Altiplano to the city of Oruro. From there we made a side trip to the village of Orinoca, the hometown of Bolivian President Evo Morales, to visit the newly opened Museo de la Revolución Democrática y Cultura. Sometimes called the Evo Museum, many consider it to be a very expensive ($7.5 million US dollars), very large, and very remote homage to Evo himself.
From there, we drove south to the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world, where we ended the month.
Our complete road trip driving route map for July 2017 is below.
And don’t miss the chance to see what we saw out there on the road in Peru and Bolivia in July of 2017 via our drive-lapse video, below. It was, as always, shot by our Brinno camera which is attached to our dashboard.
Colombia offers a wide variety of landscapes full of unexpected beauty including the Tatacoa Desert, a place that could be Colombia’s next UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Tatacao Desert in Colombia may not be a real desert, but it’s still beautiful.
Landscapes and logistics in the Tatacoa Desert
Spanish conquistadors called this 128 square mile (330 square km) area “The Valley of Sorrows,” which seems unnecessarily harsh. The Tatacoa Desert isn’t really a desert at all but a dry tropical forest just a few miles from Colombia’s mighty Magdalena River. The area actually gets measurable rainfall. In fact, water is what sculpted many of the area’s most beautiful landscapes and gullies.
Erosion left behind from an era when the Tatacoa Desert was lush and filled with water.
Experts say the area is full of fossils too, left over from an era when this land was lush and filled with life. The area also delivers world-class stargazing and is home to an observatory that you can visit. In 2012 the Tatacoa Desert was submitted for consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s currently on the “tentative” list.
Apart from geographic beauty, the Tatacoa Desert in Colombia is known for fossils and some great star gazing.
You will be as surprised as we were that there is no entry booth, entry fee, or visible sign of any type of management of the land. We just drove in and began exploring the area via the decent dirt road that runs through it.
On the road through the Tatacoa Desert. This sign is the most official thing about this place which has no formal entrance and no entry fee.
We drove past a few basic eateries and camping areas, and locals are allowed to live in the desert so you’ll see their herds of goats eking out a living in the arid landscape like only goats can. Mostly we saw cactus, dramatic gullies, quite a few falcon-like birds (which turned out to be American kestrels, we believe), and towers of eroded land that reminded us of hoodoos in the US southwest.
We saw many of these birds which, we believe, are American kestrels.
Whatever you do, get an early start. In the morning we enjoyed cloud cover and moderate temperatures around 70 degrees (21 C) but the afternoon was sweltering.
While the Tatacoa isn’t, technically, a desert it still gets wicked hot by the afternoon. Arrive early in the morning for the most comfortable conditions.
Where to sleep and eat at the Tatacoa Desert
Unless you intend to camp in the desert (which is totally possible and allegedly awesome), the closest accommodations are in Villavieja about 2.5 miles (4km) from the desert. We stayed at Hotel Oasis de la Tatacoa where doubles are 120,000 COP (about US$40). We later walked past Yararaka Boutique Hotel which looked like a great option for anyone able to splurge a little more.
Eating was a bleak proposition. Avoid a place called Monterrey unless you like flies and terrible service. We got passable fare at Sol, Sombre y Sabor.
There really is no other landscape in Colombia quite like the Tatacoa Desert.
Let’s get this straight once and for all. The law in Bolivia is clear: foreign tourists do not pay the 13% IVA hotel tax in Bolivia (we’d call this a VAT or Value Added Tax in English). However, every hostel we’ve stayed at in La Paz has slyly added this tax onto our bill. Because we’re allergic to any type of travel scam (and on a tight travel budget) we’ve argued the tax and managed to have it removed from our bills. But it’s no fun feeling ripped off and it’s no fun arguing, so we did a lot of leg work so you can easily avoid being overcharged at hotels and hostels when you travel to Bolivia.
Avoid this rip-off hotel tax in Bolivia
Foreign tourists are exempt from the IVA hotel tax in Bolivia because the hotels themselves are not required to pay the tax for foreign guests (only for Bolivian guests). So, every time a hotel incorrectly charges a foreign guest 13% on top of their hotel bill they can pocket that money which can add up to thousands of dollars a year at a busy hostel or hotel. Yeah, that makes us mad too.
We got sick of arguing about the tax law with hotel staff so we set out to get our hands on official Bolivian government documents that spell out the law which says foreign tourists are exempt from the IVA hotel tax. It wasn’t easy, but after asking reputable hoteliers, contacting the Bolivian Vice-Ministry of Tourism, and talking to the tourism police in La Paz we finally collected the necessary documents.
We’ve put together a PDF for you to download, printout, and show to any Bolivian hotelier that tries to charge you the tax. The first two pages of this document are from the Bolivian Tax Authority and they were sent to us by the Bolivian Vice-Ministry of Tourism. These docs explain how hotels handle the foreign tourist tax exemption. The third page is a printout from the Bolivian Tax Authority’s website and it more clearly addresses the foreign tourist exemption. The fourth and final page is the relevant portion of the specific law that exempts foreign tourists from the tax.
So far we’ve only encountered problems with this tax in La Paz. Perhaps it’s less of an issue in other areas of Bolivia. But we still recommend that you use our link, print out these official documents, carry them with you, and show them to any hoteliers who insist on charging you this tax.
If you get any guff or are ultimately somehow forced to pay the tax, you can also denounce hotels by giving the hotel name and details of the interaction to the local tourist police office (though when we visited the tourist police office in La Paz to denounce Rendezvous Hostal and La Posada de la Abuela Obdulia for trying to charge us for the tax, we were referred to the nearby Camara de Hoteleras office). Just the threat of denouncing a hotel to the tourist police is usually enough to get the tax dropped from your bill.
We’ve been using Booking.com a lot lately and the site has a statement on every Bolivian hotel listing that explains that foreign travelers are exempt from the IVA tax (see above), though we believe the in-country stay limit is under 183 days, not under 59 days as the Booking.com blurb states. Regardless of the Booking.com statement, both of the La Paz hostels we booked via the site tried to charge us the tax. If you use Booking.com, leave reviews of properties that try to charge you so that other travelers can be aware and so that Booking.com can be aware.
We just got off the phone with a Booking.com customer service rep who explained that every property on the site has an internal rep who is interested in tracking and resolving any habitual problems, like charging foreign guests for taxes they don’t have to pay. To be super diligent, send a message to the Booking.com customer service email address as well if a hotel or hostel tries to charge you this tax.
Caño Cristales is one of the most spectacular destinations in Colombia. Here’s everything you need to know about travel to the river you’ve got to see to believe.
The Caño Cristales river in Colombia naturally blooms in a rainbow of colors during certain months of the year.
What is Caño Cristales?
The word caño refers to a river that’s less than 60 miles (100 km) in length and Caño Cristales is, in fact, very short as far as rivers are concerned. However, it’s got a big secret. For half the year, Caño Cristales, which is sometimes called the “the Liquid Rainbow,” “the River of Five Colors” or even “the Most Beautiful River in the World,” bursts into a Technicolor display (see even more proof of those lofty nicknames in our Caño Cristales photo essay).
Don’t call it algae! Close ups of the Macarenia clavigera aquatic plant which causes the remarkable colors in Colombia’s Caño Cristales.
You can thank an aquatic plant (it’s not algae) called Macarenia clavigera for this seasonal explosion of color. It’s found nowhere else on earth and at its annual peak it produces many shades of red (from pale pink to hot pink to blood red to maroon). Bright green colors happen in shady areas of the river and blue, yellow and orange are seen as well.
Shades of red and green are the most common colors in Caño Cristales, but blue and yellow are seen as well.
Where is Caño Cristales?
Caño Cristales is located in an area of western Colombia called Los Llanos which accounts for about a quarter of Colombia’s total land mass. Here, llaneros (Colombian cowboys) roam some of the richest tropical grasslands in the world along with massive anacondas, birds of prey, large groups of capybara, and what The Nature Conservancy has estimated to be the largest number of critically endangered reptiles on earth.
Baggage handling at the airport in La Macarena, gateway to Caño Cristales.
The gateway to Caño Cristales is the dusty town of La Macarena which is reached via flights in small passenger planes from Bogotá or in historic DC-3 cargo planes or eight-seater puddle jumpers from Villavicencio.
The plane we took from Villavcencia to La Macarena was missing a seat belt. The pilot apologized, but Karen flew without a functioning seat belt anyway.
Tour companies, including Eco Turismo Macarena which is locally owned and the oldest tour company in the area, offer all-inclusive package tours which handle the flight, your accommodation, your meals, and your guide.
Modern conveniences are slowly coming to La Macarena and its 5,000 residents. The luggage vehicle at the airport is a cart pulled by a mule. Twenty four hour electricity arrived around 2012, the town recently got its first ATM (though it’s often out of cash, so bring plenty), and all streets may be paved “soon.” Tourism is speeding the pace of modernization by creating jobs for many locals and dozens of young locals have been trained as guides, including many young women.
Kids in La Macarena demonstrating a beloved local dance.
Inhabitants of the Llanos are proud to be Colombian but they’re also proud of their distinct regional customs, including a very fast-paced traditional dance that involves bright dresses with plenty of tulle in the skirt and a lot of foot stomping. Charmingly homespun yet polished traditional music and dance performances are put on for visitors at the cultural center in La Macarena which has a distinct Wild West feel.
There are around a dozen guesthouses and a smattering of restaurants in La Macarena. We stayed in Hotel Brisas Shalom which was basic, but was also clean and comfortable with a private bathroom, TV, and a fan. Our many meals at Punto Verde restaurant were all good.
Our group takes a break while hiking to and around Caño Cristales.
How can I visit Caño Cristales?
There are two guide associations in La Macarena and they are impressive examples of community tourism and how an organized approach can help assure that the locals benefit from tourism. Our guide was Erika Diaz who was born in La Macarena. When we met her she’d been guiding for about five years following training with the Cormacarena cooperative. Her knowledge, English, and personality were all great.
Our guide Erika Diaz was born in La Macarena and received guide training and jobs through one of the local guide associations.
To reach these magical waterways, visitors and their guides (it’s mandatory to take a local guide and group size is limited) take motorized boats from La Macarena and travel on the Guayabero River followed by a short jeep ride. Keep an eye out for macaws and howler monkeys. Three hiking trails give visitors access to the Caño Cristales river system.
One of the boats that takes travelers on the Guayabero River to access Caño Cristales.
Be prepared for wet feet. We wore our Crocs with socks. The hiking is easy (boots really aren’t required) and when the Crocs got wet it didn’t matter. Swimming is not allowed in areas where the very fragile water plants are found, but there are some designated swimming areas, so wear your swimsuit. But skip sunscreen and insect repellent. Both items are not allowed because they harm the plants.
The “Rainbow River” living up to its name and fame.
What about FARC?
We wanted to drive to La Macarena along one of the handful of rough roads through the grasslands, but we were warned against it because of FARC guerilla activity. Some trails to the river system are accessed by driving over portions of the so-called “guerilla highway,” a rough dirt road built by FARC, in some cases using the forced labor of FARC prisoners.
For years Caño Cristales was inaccessible due to guerilla activity, though some intrepid locals visited Caño Cristales on day trips anyway. The Colombian military (with a little help from their friends – we saw a few US military personnel in the region) eventually gained control over part of the region, including La Macarena. In 2005 the area opened to tourism.
The Colombian government gained control of the La Macarena area from FARC rebels and the region was officially opened to tourism in 2005, but reminders of the guerrilla legacy can still be seen like these Colombian soldiers and this anti-FARC sign.
We did see many soldiers and a lot of military presence as well as some anti-FARC signs, but we never felt unsafe in any way. The peace deal between the Colombian government and FARC rebels in 2017 and the subsequent demilitarization of the rebel group is likely to reduce any FARC presence in the area even more.
A boy plays with bullet casings at a military post in La Macarena.
What’s the best time to I travel to Caño Cristales?
Plan your trip between June and December. That’s when water levels, water flow, and water temperature combine to create the perfect conditions for the Macarenia clavigera plants to flourish. At other times of the year water levels are too low or the flow is too fast and the plants become dormant and colorless.
Caño Cristales showing its colors like no other river in the world.
The classic Santa Cruz trek through the Cordillera Blanca in northern Peru is one of the most popular multi-day hikes in the region. It delivers lush valleys, a daunting chain of enormous, jagged, and snow-capped peaks that combine the most dramatic elements of the Alps and the Himalayas, and challenging and satisfying trails. Here’s what you need to know about this spectacular Peruvian adventure. And don’t miss our awesome drone travel footage and time-lapse starry sky video for added inspiration.
The Santa Cruz trek is named for this peak, 20,535 foot (6,259 meter) Santa Cruz mountain.
What is the Santa Cruz trek?
The classic Santa Cruz trek, named for 20,535 foot (6,259 meter) Santa Cruz mountain, is a 32 mile (51 km) one-way trail that can be trekked from either end in either direction in three or four reasonable days. It travels through Huascarán National Park which protects a huge portion of the Cordillera Blanca area of the Andes including nearly 20 peaks over 19,000 feet (6,000 meters), all covered with more 700 glaciers (hence the name Cordillera Blanca which means white mountain range in Spanish). Walking the Santa Cruz trail from Cashapampa to Vaqueria (as we did) you’ll ascend about 13,000 feet (3,900 meters) and descend about 10,000 feet (3,000 meters), reaching a high point of 15,616 feet (4,760 meters). Ready?
We hadn’t even hit the trail yet, but our guide, Yumer, was already psyched.
Finding a trekking company in Huaraz
You can do the Santa Cruz trek on your own. No guide is required, the trail is clear, and the camping areas are obvious. But to do that you’ve got to be happy carrying your tent, food, stove, and fuel (water is available in streams at camping areas, but must be boiled or purified). We’ve spent many months of our lives schlepping fully loaded packs through big mountains, but not this time.
Instead, we started sifting through the dozens of trekking tour companies in Huaraz that provide varying levels of support and service including tents and food and pack animals to carry it all.
Up, up, up into the Cordillera Blanca.
We ultimately found Orlando Quito, owner of Eco Ice Peru. Orlando is a certified mountain guide who was born near Huaraz and he also worked and trained in tourism in Lima. He was offered a tourism job in Germany but he wanted to return home and do something in Peru so he started Eco Ice Peru in Huaraz a few years ago.
Eco Ice Peru is not the cheapest tour company in Huaraz, but we liked that since you get what you pay for and once you’re out on the trail that can mean bad food, bad guides, bad tents, and, ultimately, a bad trek. Eco Ice Peru is also far from the priciest company in town. They occupy a middle ground that allows for traveler’s expectations and needs to be met without frills.
On the Santa Cruz trail through Peru’s Cordillera Blanca with Mt. Artesonaraju in the background. A different face of this very pointy mountain is said to have been the inspiration for the peak in the Paramount Pictures logo.
We also liked Orlando’s commitment to hiring local guides (including a female guide-still a rarity on the trail), and his more than passing concern for the environment.
So, how did it go?
The classic Santa Cruz trek: day by day on the trail
Here’s a map of the classic Santa Cruz trekking route followed by details about each day on the trail.
Day 1: Cashapampa to Llamacorral camp
Total distance and time: 6.7 miles (10 km) / 5 hours
Total climb: 4,719 feet (1,438 meters)
Total descent: 1,987 feet (605 meters)
Max elevation: 12,549 feet (3,824 meters)
Our first steps along the Santa Cruz trek from Cashapampa were deceptively flat and friendly. That soon changed.
Our first day started with an on time early am pickup from our hotel (Villa Valencia) in Huaraz in a comfortable private van just for our group of seven trekkers. Some of Orlando’s steps to do what he can to protect the environment were also apparent from day one when we were each given a reusable, washable, locally made fabric bag full of trail snacks which we used every day instead of plastic bags.
An important thing to remember about the first day of this trek is that it begins with quite a drive out of Huaraz to the trail head. We left the city around 6 am and didn’t start walking until 11:30. Our starting point, Cashapampa, is also at a relatively low elevation of just 9,550 feet (2,910 meters) which means temperatures can get hot–especially with a start time of high noon and a 2 mile (3 km) uphill climb to kick things off. The hot, sweaty work was exacerbated by a nearly shade-free trail. Be prepared for heat and sun.
Lake Jatuncocha, just one of the gorgeous bodies of water we passed during the classic Santa Cruz trek through the Cordillera Blanca in Peru.
The slow climb is part of the reason this relatively low mileage day took nearly five hours. Camp was all set up when we arrived and we were happy to find new Doite tents (a solid Chilean brand). We were also delighted to see that Orlando provides three person tents but only puts two people in them so there’s plenty of room for bodies and bags. Orlando’s sleeping mats were great too. Instead of inflatables, he provides thick foam pads inside a grippy fabric sleeve that helped keep our sleeping bags in place and really kept out the ground cold.
Our icy tents in the Tuallipampa campground at daybreak.
Add in a basin of warmed water to wash hands and face, tea time with hot drinks and snacks, and chocolate balls for dessert after dinner and we could get used to this…
Below you’ll find our time-lapse video, shot with our Brinno camera, which we set up overnight at the Llamacorral campground where the valley walls framed the sky perfectly.
Day 2: Llamacorral camp to Arhuaycocha Lake then Taullipampa camp
Total distance and time: 12.5 miles (20 km) including the side trip to Arhuaycocha Lake / 9 hours
Total climb: 3,501 feet (1,067 meters)
Total descent: 2,308 feet (703 meters)
Max altitude: 14,492 feet (4,417 meters) at Arhuaycocha Lake
Alpomayo peak looms in the distance during the classic Santa Cruz trek.
This was the longest day of the trek that started with a lovely gentle walk up a valley followed by a switchback climb to a stunning picnic site. Then it was onward and upward to Arhuaycocha Lake, fed by one of the more than 700 glaciers in the Cordillera Blanca. This side trip is not always included and all trekkers in the group need to be well acclimatized and reasonably fit to get there.
Arhuaycocha Lake is a very, very worthy side trip during the classic Santa Cruz trek in Peru.
Luckily, Orlando did a fantastic job of compiling our group to ensure that the seven of us (three Canadians and four from the US) were like-minded with pretty much comparable fitness and experience levels. This is not an easy thing to do and a mismatched group of trekkers with mismatched desires and abilities can make for an awkward trip. Everyone in our group, however, had the will and the way to get to Arhuaycocha Lake which turned out to be a highlight.
The color of Arhuaycocha Lake comes from minerals in the glacial water that feeds it.
Another angle on the needle sharp peak of Artesonaraju which is said to be the model for the Paramount Pictures peak.
Day 3: Taullipampa camp to Punta Union Pass to Ranger Station camp
Total distance and time: 9.7 miles (15.6 km) / 8 hours
Total climb: 2,602 feet (793 meters)
Total descent: 4,128 feet (1,258 meters)
Max altitude: 15,616 feet (4,760 meters) at Punta Union Pass
Our tents set up at the Tuallipampa campground with the Punta Union Pass taunting us in the distance.
The third day of our trek started with views of Punta Union Pass looming over our campsite as we packed and hustled to get warm and get on the trail. The climb up to the pass was long and filled with switch backs along a trail that was pretty chewed up by pack animal hooves. The pass itself rewarded with great views before we crossed over and began the steep descent down which was far longer than the ascent.
Rinrijirka mountain and Tawliquicha Lake on the classic Santa Cruz trek.
The high point of the classic Santa Cruz trek, 15,616 feet (4,760 meters) Punta Union Pass.
Throughout the trek the food was plentiful and tasty and cooked with love by Orlando’s sister Domi who was usually laughing in the kitchen tent. Domi hiked with us each day carrying a pack full of lunch and a thermos of coca tea. On this day she had pasta salad with tuna in her pack and it got us down the rest of the day’s long trail which continued steeply, then slowly eased to a gentle valley descent to our final campground just beyond a small national park ranger station where we had to show our entrance tickets again (so don’t leave them behind).
At camp, enterprising women from nearby villages set up “pop-up shops” on blankets on the ground to sell hand-made socks, hats, and even bottles of beer. We were clearly getting closer to “civilization.”
A surprisingly lush valley on the classic Santa Cruz trek with Tullparaju peak in the distance.
Day 4: Ranger Station camp to Vaqueria
Total distance and time: 3.3 miles (5.3 km) / 4 hours
Total climb: 1,630 feet (496 meters)
Total descent: 1,495 feet (455 meters)
Max altitude: 11,930 feet (3,636 meters)
A mountain lake become a mirror for the surrounding peaks.
This relatively short and gentle day was bittersweet as we left the mountains and national park behind and walked through a few tiny villages including the home village of our guide Yumer. It was great to watch him interact with his neighbors and family members and it was fun to meet his mother. Yumer is 27 and has been guiding for about four years. He’s enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and easy-going with good English skills. The fact that he grew up on the edge of the national park added a lot of context and passion along the way.
Back to “civilization” after four days on the classic Santa Cruz trek.
Then it was time for the five hour drive back to Huaraz along the shamefully bad main road through Huascarán National Park (though there were signs of road work about to begin, so fingers crossed that this trip might be faster and more pleasant soon).
All in all, this trek was just the right combination of challenge and comfort for us with world-class scenery and all of our food, shelter, comfort, and safety expectations well met.
Check out our drone video, below, for a gorgeous new perspective on the classic Santa Cruz trek.
Trail tips for the Santa Cruz trek
At these altitudes it gets cold the minute the sun goes down. On the other hand, at these altitudes the sun is blazing strong whenever it’s out. So, layers are the answer and don’t forget the sunscreen (minimum SPF 30) on anything exposed (that includes lips, ears, and hands). And speaking of altitude…do yourself a favor and allow at least a few days in Huaraz (or nearby and much more charming Caraz – we recommend Los Pinos Lodge) to acclimatize before you start any trek.
Be sure to talk to your trekking tour company about including the side trip (about four hours extra, round trip) to Arhuaycocha Lake as part of your Santa Cruz experience. It’s a highlight.
Alpomayo and Quitaraju peaks.
In addition to the fee paid to your trekking tour company you will need to purchase your own entry to Huascarán National Park. We paid 65 soles each (about US$20) for a park pass that was good for 21 days. You can buy the entrance ticket at the park on the first day of the trek, or get it at the national park office in Huaraz near the main plaza.
Be aware that on January 1, 2018 Huascarán National Park entrance fees are set to double. We can only hope that part of that increased income will be put toward repairing and maintaining toilet facilities at camping areas on popular trekking routes like the Santa Cruz trek. Years ago round stone squat toilet facilities were built at the major camping areas, but they were never maintained and quickly became revolting, unsafe, and impossible to use.
Now trekking groups dig shallow holes inside narrow toilet tents for trekkers to use. Some areas of some camping sites are a mine filed of divets from dozens of toilet holes. This is clearly unsanitary and unsustainable and best replaced with well-maintained composting toilets. Unfortunately, none of the guides or locals we talked to were very hopeful that park officials in Lima would approve the construction of such toilets.
Dramatic landscapes everywhere you look on the classic Santa Cruz trek in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca.
Glad we had
Each trekker is limited to 10 pounds (5 kilos) of gear (including your own personal sleeping bag) for the donkeys to carry in addition to whatever you want or need to carry each day in your day pack. So, it’s important to only take only the most vital things and your trekking company should provide a solid list of must-brings.
Tullparaju peak seen from Punta Union Pass.
We can vouch for the importance of the following items that we were really glad we had: plenty of Point6 merino wool socks to keep feet blister-free while walking and warm and cozy in camp, body wipes (unless you don’t mind trail stink or you’re brave enough for a dip in the freezing cold streams at camp), our fleece mini pillow cases which we stuffed with our down coats to create comfy pillows, a PlatyPreserve booze bag full of Macchu Pisco pisco to share with everyone on the last night, our Crocs to put on with socks in camp, and, of course, the OruxMap app for Android that allowed us to track each day’s walk to get the geeky stats in this post. We also brought along some Farbar energy bars which are made by the folks behind Cerveceria Sierra Andina craft brewing company. Look for Farbars at Trivio restaurant or Casa de Guias all around Parque Ginebra in Huaraz (4.50 soles or about US$1.40 each). Our DJI drone and Brinno time-lapse camera were indispensable as well.
Farbar energy bars are made in Huaraz by the folks behind Sierra Andina craft beer.
We also picked up a great new must-pack trail trip from fellow trekker Allison. She brought a can of Pringles with her. After enjoying the addictive snack on the first day of the trek, she used the sturdy yet lightweight can with the secure lid as a trash container. Genius.
Eco Ice Peru hosted us on a 4 day/3 night Santa Cruz trek so that we could experience the company’s service, gear, and guides and tell you about it.