My 5-day hike through the Cordillera Blanca — Peru's highest and most spectacular mountain range, north of Huaraz — has been a tonne of fun, and a unique experience. It's the first hike that I've done (on this trip) purely for the natural scenery, rather than for the ruins, or for the animals. And it's the first hike that I've done solo, without a group or a guide, and without anyone to help me along the way. In my opinion, you can't say that you've backpacked through South America, until you've done something like this, and lived to tell the tale.
The scenery in the Cordillera Blanca is pretty daym amazing. However, I don't know that Santz Cruz-Llanganuco quite lives up to its reputation of being "the most scenic hike in Peru". It's nice — in fact, it's breathtaking — but by the extremely high standards of Peruvian mountain scenery, it's not the best. Personally, I thought that Salkantay was more scenic, and that the Cañon del Colca is the most beautiful natural area I've seen on my trip so far. Maybe it was just the weather — the meant-to-be-stunning pass of Punta Union was snowed over and cloudy as hell when I went through it — but in general, after everything else I've seen in Peru, the scenery here didn't quite blow me away.
Except for the grand finale today, of seeing Laguna 69. That really is quite a beautiful lagoon: I found it to be stunning. Whatever you do, if you plan on doing the Santa Cruz hike, then don't be tempted to make it only a 4-day hike, and to give Laguna 69 a miss. It's the highlight of the expedition! The snow-capped peaks of Huascarán, Pisco, and co. are also a beautiful addition to the hike's final day.
Everyone I spoke to is 100% right. Santa Cruz is not that hard a trek. Lots of people do it with an organised group, and with a guide and cooks and all that: but really, you don't need to. If you go at the right time of year, the weather is very pleasant. The steepness is quite moderate. The walking is not extreme in length: even for the hard day, when you scale Punta Union, it's not as big a day as I thought it would be. The trail really is very well-marked: there are signs at regular intervals; in most places, the track is very clear and very well-trodden; and there are generally hordes of other people to follow, making it virtually impossible to get lost. Plus, the campsites are perfectly spaced-out, they've all got more than enough flat tent space, and they're all right next to an ice-cold, fast-running mountain river (making cooking / washing-up / teeth-brushing / etc. a piece of cake).
The only piece of advice that I have is: do yourself a favour, spend the extra bit of money, and hire yourself a donkey! I didn't meet anyone else who didn't have their gear carried by donkey. It's perfectly possible to carry everything yourself — I did it with no problems — but hiring a donkey really makes things much more pleasant. I only carried everything myself because:
- I'm a tight-a$$
- I've carried everything before, back in Australia, and it's what I consider to be normal
- I wanted to say that I've done the hike without any help at all
Going it alone
South America has been spoiling me too much. Everywhere I've been, I've signed up for organised tours, where they treat you like a king: all transport organised; all meals taken care of; all gear carried for you; all setting-up and housekeeping done behind the scenes; and a guide to keep you on the path, and to explain things along the way. I was just sick of all that. I wanted the real deal. I wanted to feel like I was challenging myself. So I went alone.
I highly recommend it. It's been a great 5 days of walking at the pace that I want, of cooking and eating what I want, of sleeping where and when I want, and of navigating and going where I want. It's also been very social: I've bumped into different people every day, rather than being stuck with the same, insular little group for the whole expedition. And — best of all — for the majority of the time, when I've been all alone and walking along the scenic mountain paths, the serenity has been astounding.
I felt that there was something missing to my adventures, until now. After this, I feel like a backpacker.