Santa Cruz Trek
Have you ever seen a dog’s entire head disappear into a cow carcass? Neither had I until I’d completed the Santa Cruz trek in Peru. Not to be confused with Santa Cruz in California, there were no skateboards, palm trees or G-strings on this hiking loop. In fact, there were very few man-made objects to be seen along the way. It was just huge glaciers and an extreme amount of donkey dung covering the trails that you needed to hop scotch over. It’s one of the most popular hiking routes in the Cordillera Blanca (White Mountains) due to it’s large concentration of peaks with around 33 summits topping 5,400 meters.
We were standing in front of one of these peaks called Alpamayo, which according to our guide and Google is considered to be the world’s most beautiful mountain. Most people would be content with the fact that they had seen the most beautiful mountain in the world, but not me, that’s not how I operate. Our guide was explaining a little about the landscape and I was patiently waiting for a pause in the conversation to remark on his statement. The rest of the group went silent, looking up in awe at the majestic peaks until I broke the silence. “Isn’t beauty subjective?” I inquired about his statement. “Surely what you consider beautiful in a woman would differ to what I consider attractive” I stated. I don’t think he’d ever been pulled up on this point before on the Santa Cruz trek because his look of confusion spoke volumes. He’d been delivering the same script for the past few years and now he was fumbling through it looking for the section where one of the hikers questions him. “It’s the most beautiful mountain in the world” he repeated. It seemed that his sense of national pride had blinkered any chance of having a logical debate with him. To him this was the most beautiful mountain in the world, full stop!
During the relatively casual first day of hiking on the Santa Cruz trek, Patrick and I were loitering at the rear of the group. I’ve always preferred to hike at the back to create a chatter free buffer zone from the rest of the group. The only chatter I wanted to hear was that of the birds squawking around me. We stopped for a drinks break and noticed that one of the village girls had been following us. She had been keeping her distance from us, Patrick pulled out some biscuits, the shiny wrapper attracted her attention immediately. “Cookies” she pleaded desperately. I’d seen so many tourists in the past giving kids unhealthy snacks, patting themselves on the back thinking they had done a good deed. However, the reality was that they were just contributing to their already poor diets lacking in good nutrition. I’d told Patrick not to give her any of his junk food but something a little more nourishing. He handed her a banana and after rummaging through my bag I found a quinoa bar to give her. One of the best thing about South America is that quinoa is not labelled as a super food like it is here in Australia. There it’s just a considered a food and subsequently quinoa related products are relatively cheap to buy.
Patrick guessed that she was about 10 years old but to me she looked like a man child. If you are not familiar with this term it’s used to describe a young person having the features of an older one. She must have had quite a hard life already because she looked old and frail. Patrick asked her in her native tongue what she was doing wandering around alone. She replied that her mother had died and she was now living with her grandparents who were not very nice people. They obviously were not feeding her well because she was out scavenging for extra food to eat. It reminded me of the story of Cinderella, a young girl living with her wicked stepmother, but this was no fairy tale, this was real life!
There would be no Prince Charming to rescue her, no ball for her to attend, all she had in front of her was hardship and misery. Who knew how long she would have followed us on the trail if we hadn’t had given her some food. I felt so depressed. This wasn’t a one off case, there would have been many more like her living day to day, no bright future in sight. I’ve worried about getting a good deal on a new iPhone and this girl didn’t even know if she would be eating that night. It showed on her face, she looked hopeless, nothing to live for, how do you keep on going knowing that the next day would be just as bleak as the last?
zero star accommodation
There were no dormitories, lavatories or kitchen facilities to make yourself a cup of coffee on the Santa Cruz trek. When tucked away in your tent at night, all you had protecting yourself from the powers of mother nature was a thin fabric lining of a cramped tent. It was back to basics, fire, water and shelter having been plunged back into the stone age. I looked around the group imagining who would be involved in the battle for leadership if things went down the Lord of The Flies route. The first night’s camp site was more of a place to anchor a boat rather than pitch a tent! Surely this location was not fit for purpose, there were small lagoons all over the place.
Our guides were nice enough to erect our tents for us whilst the rest of us started to prepare for the chilling onset that ensues as soon as the sun disappears. I’d put on all the clothes that I’d packed and would continue to wear the same clothes for the next 3 days on the Santa Cruz trek. After you wear the same clothes for such an extended period of time they become a second skin, like the Stockholm syndrome, you grow attached to your captors and don’t want to let them go. To add to this lack of hygiene, there were no showering facilities, unless you were prepared to brave the freezing river to bathe. The decision was unanimous, we all went unwashed for 3 days. The only practical option available was a whore’s bath as one of the guys described to us, washing the crotch and underarms with a damp cloth.
The one thing I never leave home without is a packet of baby wipes. You never know when there’s going to be a lack of toilet paper in the bathroom and you’re forced into sacrificing a pair of underwear in the process. On this subject, Andrew, one of the guys on the Santa Cruz trek, had told me a story regarding a guy who had become unable to leave a country because he’d run out of passport pages to stamp. This was not entirely unusual but what was odd about this story was that he had used some of the passport pages to wipe his own ass when he’d run out of toilet paper!
One subject that most people avoid like the plague is the issue of waste management. To me, there’s something so natural about defecating in the woods, although it can be quite uncomfortable if you pick the wrong spot. There’s a whole process behind selecting a venue in which you need to weigh up your options between seclusion, comfort and environmental factors. That evening on the Santa Cruz trek I’d found the perfect spot to part with my bi-product of digestion, a fallen tree branch to perch myself on. This position was extremely comfortable because I was positioned in a manner mimicking a porcelain western toilet that I’m accustomed to. I’ve had difficulties getting used to other styles of toilets, particularly in SE Asia where they use squat toilets.
It’s such a tiring experience as the position you are in gives your quads a workout that would rival any gym! My uncle had told me a story from when he was in the Army about their bathroom practices. You’d dig your own hole and then cover it over once you’d completed your business. On one occasion, he had gone through the usual routine but upon looking down into the shallow pit his faeces where nowhere in sight. He was perplexed as to where his bum rubbish had gone! A quick emergency check of his pants ruled out any case he’d missed the target. Looking around the hole provided no answers as the subject was nowhere to be seen. After a minute or so of desperately searching the area he’d started to question whether he had actually gone in the first place! Finally calling off the search, he trudged back to camp where he was met by a group of mates laughing. They had caught his faeces mid flight with a shovel then had made a stealthy retreat with the steaming parcel.
There were 3 of us sharing a tent for the two nights on the Santa Cruz trek, Zack, Patrick and I. Since we had all decided to keep the same clothes on we had hiked in, the wafting scent of the previous days hikes lingered in the air of our claustrophobic habitat. I couldn’t get my sleeping bag to zip up the entire way so I just lay there helpless with a cold arm hanging out onto a damp mat. All our camping gear was waterlogged due to the porters lack of forward planning. For some reason they would never cover the donkey’s cargo with tarps in preparation for rain.
They would always wait until it rained before deciding that covering our camping gear was a good idea. The problem I had with that was that it rained everyday yet they never had any foresight to cover the equipment. My cold arm was preventing me from sleeping, if only I was a mannequin I could have removed the limb and throw it into the bottom of the sleeping bag! Zack had decided to sleep the other way around so his feet were in line with my face. I’ve never understood the notion of sleeping top to toe for opposite sexes, your genitals are still lined up, there’s still opportunities for fooling around sexually, so why bother? Needless to say, morning couldn’t have come fast enough and we were up before the sun had risen, huddled in the dining tent, awaiting our breakfast.
I don’t recall exactly when Perro joined us, he just sort of appeared, leading us along the Santa Cruz trek. He must have done that trek a thousand times before because he always knew what direction to walk in. Even more amazingly, he knew all the best lookout points for us to take photos! He’d actually stop and sit there, taking in the surrounding views. I swear he actually enjoyed looking at the scenery. He’d sit there staring out into the distance. When someone approached along side him on the trail off he’d run off again to show us the way.
By the end of the Santa Cruz trek we’d amassed a pack of dogs that loved to chase the grazing cows. At one location, after the dogs had started to chase a cow, a llama appeared from the other side of the field running to its aid. The llama was huge in comparison to the dogs! If one of its defending bucking kicks had hit its target it would would have sent the dogs flying. It was hilarious to watch a llama defending it’s cow friend, I wondered if they were best buddies, chewing grass together, snuggling at night to keep each other warm. Eventually the dogs gave up and joined us back on the trail, like children bored of playing with their new toys.
Perro was such an individual, the other dogs would seek shelter in the tents when it rained but not Perro. He was a lone wolf, he’d curl up into a ball and grit his teeth, comfortable to bear the unfavorable conditions alone. When we were nearing the end of the Santa Cruz trek, we passed another group walking the other way. As soon as Perro had entered our lives he disappeared with another group. Perro had dedicated his life to walking the Santa Cruz trek back and forth, he had a passion for hiking.
After briefly exploring our new campsite we all gathered in the communal tent after it started to rain on the Santa Cruz trek. The Canadians pulled out a pack of cards, such a versatile item to carry whilst traveling. The typical discussion ensued about what game to play until they settled upon a game called War. There were several names for the same game but the premise was the same, the winner was the one who collected the entire deck of cards.
Matching cards placed either side of another card was what is known as a sandwich. This was the part of the game that made things interesting as players battled to slap the pile of cards first in order to win the pot. It had everyone on the edge of their seats but also bred an atmosphere of resentment as players complained about their competitors card placing techniques or slapping styles. I had nicknamed Patrick “Subway” as he was crowned the sandwich king by the end of the game. A few days after the Santa Cruz trek I bumped into the Canadians. One of them had a swollen finger which he explained was the result of Patrick and himself playing War at a bar. After contesting a sandwich scenario, the Canadian had come off second best as his finger was dislocated in the process of slapping the pile of cards.
One of the dogs on the Santa Cruz trek I’d witnessed chewing on the inside of a dead cow had slipped into the tent. It’s whole head had been inside of the cow carcass! This was no magic show, there were no smoke or mirrors creating an illusion, the dogs head was fully submerged in cow as it ripped out stringy sections from the inside. It wasn’t a visual cue that alerted us to it’s presence fact but rather the offensive odor that emanated from the intruder underneath the table. After locating the beast we quickly banished it from the tent and got back to the task at hand of spectating and mediating the game of War. Dinner would be served soon but I didn’t care, I was on a knife’s edge waiting for someone to slap the deck of cards hard enough to break our dinner table in two!