We found ourselves sat in a tourist office in the bustling highland town of Huaraz. The air outside was crisp and the weather changeable, from bright sunshine to a biblical downpour in a matter of minutes. Opposite us was a man with shoulder length black hair named Marco. Marco had been telling us about a few of the treks in the region, some sounded hard, others sounded impossible. Somehow we were persuaded to sign up for the Santa Cruz trek; a 31 mile, four day, three night walk through Peru's Cordillera Blanca. It sounded hard but Marco assured us that it was manageable and gave us rough estimates of how long the daily walks would be, his estimates sounded fine and we'd hoped to be able to do a multi-day hike in South America. I used the trek as an excuse to buy as many bars of Cadbury Dairy Milk as Craig would let me for 'sustenance' during the walk.
The next day, with butterflies in my tummy we woke and packed a small loaned duffle bag with a few essentials, chocolate included. I was feeling apprehensive, it had been ages since we did any proper walking and we'd never done a multi-day hike before. Even as a keen camper at home I wasn't sure what camping in the complete wilderness would be like or what the bathroom situation would be (spoiler alert; there were no bathrooms or toilets for that matter at all throughout the entire trip, cue lots of people ducking behind boulders). Our minivan coasted around Huaraz picking up more people and then we set off. The drive was a couple of hours and as we gained altitude the views became more and more picturesque. The landscape was awash with vibrant green hills, lake water bluer than I imagined possible and winding dusty tracks. We stopped for breakfast and to pick up our park tickets and enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about the group that we'd be trekking with. Finally we made it to Vaquería the hike starting point. Another van load of trekkers arrived making our group much larger than the maximum suggested but there was no turning back now.
On we walked and I was pleasantly surprised to see that the path headed downhill. It was lovely to walk through tiny villages; men in groups greeted me as I passed and sleepy pigs napped on the path edge, a little boy witnessed me slip a little on the rough track and giggled. After a while the track levelled and then inclines began to appear. The thin air started to take its toll and I gradually fell behind the group, I lost sight of them altogether at one point and had to wait for the guide and walker behind me to catch up to point me in the right direction. Waiting behind set me back even further and my morale started to drop. The donkeys, driver, cook and her daughter all passed me in quick succession. In the back of my mind I remembered reading about the trek and how day two in the Huaripampa Valley is notoriously difficult due to its uphill nature all the way to the pass. I kept thinking if I'm struggling with this then what will I be like when the terrain is so much harder? I found myself feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of the longs days ahead and began to feel tearful. Craig had stayed behind to urge me on but we were still only half way to camp. The rough estimate that Marco had given of around 3 hours on the first day was completely out. The thin air and uphill track slowed me right down and made me doubt my abilities.
Finally after what felt like an eternity the camp came into view. The small dining tent was overcrowded and as we were the second to last to arrive there was no room and I felt a little left out. I decided to sit in the kitchen tent with the cook and her daughter, the donkey driver and guides. The stove heated the tent nicely and I was given a lovely cup of hot tea and a seat with plenty of room to sit on. I listened as the guides chatted in Spanish, picking up as many words as I could and relished the relief of getting off my feet. The sky had turned inky black and torches were needed to navigate to our little soggy tent for our first restless night. As I lay in the cold sleeping bag on the hard ground I could hear the tumultuous river just metres away, how I wished I could magic up a little dinghy to take me back to the start and to civilisation.
Morning. It was cold, damp and I was feeling tired. With coca tea slowly warming my hands I thought about the walk ahead. I knew I needed to just take it step by step and so I tried to think positively. We started the walk and the rest of the group managed to zoom ahead with seemingly no trouble. I started to wonder if I was just completely unfit and irresponsible for taking on a walk I couldn't manage. I remembered Marco's words about how the walk was fine, manageable, not a problem even for those without experience with altitude. I started to feel completely duped. As with the day before I started to struggle as soon as the path turned uphill. The guides were supportive, praising me for every milestone I got to. At times the tight feeling in my chest and the nausea stopped me in my tracks and I struggled to walk more than a few feet without stopping. It was such an unfamiliar feeling, as someone who usually loves walking I was left feeling disheartened. Tears welled up in my eyes and even nibbling chocolate couldn't save me. With each step I edged closer to the pass, the highest point and most difficult aspect of the trek. At my insistence Craig rushed on ahead to photograph the breathtaking scenery, I didn't want us to miss having photographs of the landscape while the weather was clear. With me was Inbar an Israeli girl walking at a similar pace and the main guide. After hours of pain I was finally starting to develop a rhythm with my walking, I was able to notice the outstanding beauty surrounding me. It was quiet except for the wind and Inba's chatter. The peaks were snowcapped and seemed to shimmer in the sunlight. The sky was in a continuous state of flux, blue sky, then fluffy white cloud, then grey sky filled with hail and rain ready to litter the hills and path. The trail turned rocky and steep but I was able to manage it, my breathing was still laboured but somehow more manageable and the tightness in my chest had subsided. With great effort Inbar and I reached Punta Union pass at 4750 metres and hugged. It was an amazing feeling, I was full of elation. Craig was in his element photographing everything he set his eyes on. At the pass we could see the long path we had walked and the long path still ahead, but thankfully downhill. We drank in the view of the glacial lagoon and white peaks before walking on.
Our guide walked ahead to help with camp and left us with route instructions. Despite being downhill and our pace being much faster the journey was still long. Halfway down the heavens opened and soaked us to our skin, even our waterproof boots were full of water as the rain ran down our legs. We reached camp completely soaked only to be told off by our guide for leaving the pass too late, in reality we'd not stayed long at all. The rain would have caught us even if we'd left at the same time as the guide, our pace was just not quick enough. We huddled into the kitchen tent where the gas stove could take the chill off and we removed our sodden boots. The lovely cook gave us cinnamon tea and fried cheese pastries which were perfect. At bedtime we found that the sleeping bags had got wet so we layered up as much as possible and miraculously I managed to sleep for most of the night.
By morning everything was still drenched so we had to put on wet clothes and boots. As the sun rose the heat intensified which was only a good thing to help dry us all out. At breakfast I could see that my damp legs were steaming in the warmth. It had been decided that we'd all complete the walk in a day, it meant an extra couple of hours of walking but once we'd finished we could relax until pick up the next day. The walk took us through the valley and along the rivers edge, the terrain was relatively flat and easy. We were able to sit and enjoy the surroundings at various points with less pressure. In one spot cows grazed on the bright green grass, some hid behind boulders and birds danced in the sky. After several hours and very tired feet we made it to the final camp and received a cheer from the rest of the group who had already arrived.
We sat in the sun with a refreshing drink and petted the dogs that had walked the entire route with the guides. Once Inbar had arrived we jumped in the van and trundled down the road to the natural hot springs. We jumped in, soaking our tired limbs in the hot water. In the evening we listened to a local man sing and play a string instrument, he was a little intoxicated so his voice wasn't entirely in tune but it made for a fun experience. I managed to get a really good nights sleep and for our last breakfast we were treated to pancakes with sweet dulce de leche, a favourite that I've missed since we left Argentina. The van was packed and after a slow start we made our way back to Huaraz stopping at an artisanal ice cream shop on the way. Once back in Huaraz we recovered in our hotel room and then met the group in the evening for a pisco sour. A few of us decided to treat ourselves to a delicious meal at Chilli's; a place that Craig and I had been looking forward to eating at since we discovered it on TripAdvisor.
With the trek behind us I vowed internally never to sign up for a multi-day hike again but in reality I'm proud that I stepped outside of my comfort zone. I questioned myself at so many points, and only made things worse by comparing myself to others and putting pressure on myself to walk faster. I learned that altitude and I aren't the best of friends but with perseverance and belief in myself I can achieve anything.
Apologies for all the moans and groans during that post, never have I ever felt so physically pushed to my limit. Have you ever stepped out of your comfort zone and embarked upon a physical challenge? Let me know in the comments.
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