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Backpacker Magazine – November 2013

Best Culture Hike: Santa Cruz Trek, Peru

by: Kim Phillips

The head of the Santa Cruz valley. (Photo by Kim Phillips)
The head of the Santa Cruz valley. (Photo by Kim Phillips)
A Huaripampa valley local. (Photo by Kim Phillips)
A Huaripampa valley local. (Photo by Kim Phillips)

Shopping isn’t typically part of my backpacking itinerary. But I can’t resist browsing a set of wool hats hand-spun by the young Peruvian woman sitting beside me a few hours into the Santa Cruz Trek. It’s all part of the local flavor that suffuses this 27-mile trip, which passes through small communities of Quechua people (descendants of the Inca) en route to the dramatic, 18,000- to 20,000-foot peaks of the Cordillera Blanca range. 

Dozens of backpacking routes lace this area, but Matt and I were especially drawn to the Santa Cruz Trek. In just four days, we could not only climb a 15,584-foot pass crowded by glaciered peaks, but also get a firsthand look at everyday life in two indigenous villages along the way.

We begin with an early-morning bus ride from Huaraz that shuttles us up razor-tight switchbacks to the tiny town of Vaqueria. From there, we hike into the folds of the Huaripampa Valley. The trail is easygoing, but we stop frequently to observe the day-to-day life of the people around us. At one small farm, a handful of men hunch over, working rows of leafy maize crops. Just past them, another farmer plows a field with a couple of bulls. Minutes later, two black-and-white piglets trot up to investigate us. A grandmother and her granddaughter wave to us from their porch. 

We see a few other backpackers along the way, but the trail really belongs to the local families—dressed traditionally in vibrantly colored skirts, sweaters, hats, and shawls—and the young men driving pack trains of donkeys who pass us occasionally. 

After 3 miles, we pass the last of the houses and enter Huascarán National Park. That night, behind our tent, the moonlight illuminates a serrated ridgeline of 19,000-foot granite peaks. Three days of demanding climbs and incredible scenery await; I pull my new wool hat over my ears and drift off to sleep.

Do it Fly into Lima, Peru, and catch a bus to Huaraz; buses leave daily from Huaraz to the start point in Vaqueria. From the end point in Cashapampa, catch a shared taxi (colectivo or combi) to Caraz, then transfer to a minibus heading to Huaraz.

$23/person. Ask the bus driver to stop at the Huascarán National Park entrance station to pay fee.

May through September

North Cordillera Blanca ($12;

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