Trekking Peru’s Santa Cruz trail

Famous for cutting through the Cordillera Blanca – the world’s highest tropical mountain range – this lesser-known alternative to the Inca Trail could be crucial to locals’ survival.

Hearts pounding, lungs gasping for air, and with barely the strength to put one foot in front of the other, even experienced hikers struggle up the 4,750m-high Punta Union pass in the heart of Peru’s Cordillera Blanca mountains. But once they reach it, they are rewarded with some of the world’s most spectacular views.

Stretching east from the pass is a long valley pocked with ultramarine lakes, watched over by sheer walls of striated granite that are striped with the wispy white of flowing waterfalls. To the west are the saw-edges of glacier-encrusted rock and ice, serrated by more than 30 jagged peaks heavy with snow, the highest of which is 6,768m-high Huascaran, the tallest mountain in the tropics. The Punta Union pass is only reachable by foot or mule along the spectacular 50km Santa Cruz trail, part of which is an ancient Inca road. The trail runs through a string of tiny mountain villages before cutting into the heart of the Cordillera Blanca, the world’s highest tropical mountain range.

But despite the breathtaking surroundings, and even though the Cordillera Blanca mountains can be easily visited as a short side trip from Peru’s capital Lima, most visitors skip the Santa Cruz trail. Most fly directly north to see Machu Picchu and the old Inca capital at Cusco, preferring to walk the more famous 45km Inca trail.

“Peru is both blessed and cursed by Machu Picchu,” said Dan Clarke of UK-based Real World Holidays. “It’s stunning for sure, but it’s just one of the many spectacular sights in this wonderful country. And when it comes to mountain views the Cordillera Blanca wins hands-down. There is simply nowhere better on Earth to see spectacular high mountains, and there are some incredible pre-Columbian sites nearby like Chavin de Huantar.  Thousands walk the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, booking months in advance, but walkers share the Santa Cruz hike with just a handful of other groups and there’s no need to book ahead. You get a far greater sense of solitude and communion with nature.”

Since 1975, the area around the Santa Cruz trail has been protected as part of Huascaran National Park. The park has been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1985 – designated as such for its wildlife as much as it is for its geology. Condors glide over the high mountain valleys, and the park is a haven for spectacled bear, puma, mountain cat, white-tailed deer and llama-like vicuña. Quechua-speaking people live in and around the national park, practicing a community-based agrarian life that has remained little-changed since the time of the Incas. But global warming is changing Huascaran National Park, and the spectacular snowfields of the Cordillera Blanca are in retreat. According to data from the academic journal Cryosphere published in a January 2013 BBC report, glaciers in the tropical Andes have shrunk by 30% to 50% since the 1970s. The Santa Cruz River valley and its environs is one of the areas that has been most affected.

“When I was a boy I was enchanted by the white mountains of the Cordillera,” said Oswaldo Maguiña Ramírez, director of the region’s leading trekking company, Siula Adventures. “I could see them even from the window of my bedroom. I’ve noticed how far the glaciers have retreated. For instance, San Cristóbal peak is now covered only by a light cap of ice and snow.”

The changing climate will affect more than the mountains and the spectacular glacial views. Hundreds of thousands of inhabitants in and around the Santa Cruz River valley depend on glacial water for domestic consumption, agriculture and hydropower.  According to Oswaldo, local people already struggle to make ends meet, something that is impacting the local wildlife as well.

“A few months ago I was walking in the park and I came across a dead condor,” recalled Oswaldo. “The park rangers told me that it died through eating poisoned meat left by farmers who feared for their livestock.”

The life of single lamb or young llama can make a huge difference to a family already on the breadline, and as water gets scarcer, villagers will become ever more dependent on tourism for their income. As such, visiting hikers have never been more vital to the people and the wildlife of the Cordillera Blanca, Oswaldo said.

Tourism gives locals employment as guides, porters and drivers, gives income to shops, hotels and restaurants in the towns and provides indigenous villagers with a market for their handicrafts. And if travellers come to see the condors, locals may learn that they can earn more money protecting a live bird than they can save by killing one. “Come to our Cordillera,” said Oswaldo.  “Walk the Santa Cruz trail. There has never been a more urgent time to visit."