If you're fit and acclimatized and happy to carry your own light day-pack, it's possible to complete the 45-km Santa Cruz trail in a single day
Peru’s Cordillera Blanca mountains are like the Alps on steroids: taller, edgier and a little more dangerous. But once you’ve re-calibrated your body to cope with the thin air, the rugged Andean terrain is tantalizingly runnable. Indeed, trail running has become a popular sport in the Cordillera, with a challenging race series now organized by Sierra Andina Outdoors ( sierraandinaoutdoors.com).
With most of the best trails located above 3,000 m, running in the Andes requires fastidious acclimatization. Get started in the dishevelled but well-serviced city of Huaraz. Six hours north of Lima by bus, Huaraz is a hectic hub of climbers and trekkers that sits a lofty 3,052 m above sea level.
On day one, go for a brisk walk around the city centre. On day two, graduate to an easy jog. On the third day, attempt your first trail run, a lung-stretching dash up to Laguna Wilkacocha that climbs to a soaring but manageable 3,700 m. On the fourth day, it’s time to join the 4,000-m club with a gutsy 7-km grind to Laguna Churrup (4,450 m), a cerulean-blue lake perched in an icy cirque not far from Huaraz.
Save your best legs for the Santa Cruz trail—the cream of Cordillera hikes and, arguably, one of the finest in Peru. It’s a 45-km high-altitude rollercoaster through classic Andean terrain that’s sometimes called the “Inca trail of the north.” Tough mostly because of the altitude, the Santa Cruz is normally spread over three to four days with hikers renting arrieros (muleteers) to transport gear. However, if you’re fit and acclimatized and happy to carry your own light day-pack, it’s possible to complete the route in a single day. The trail is located 120 km north of Huaraz, necessitating public or private transport at both ends. It’s best done in an east-west direction, starting in Vaqueria and ending in Cashapampa, with a night spent in the village of Yanama to ensure an early start. The path is sporadically marked but not difficult to follow, reaching a high point of 4,760 m at Punta Unión and revealing a conveyor-belt of magnificent scenery framed by pyramidal mountains like Artesonraju (5,999 m), the former Paramount Pictures logo. Be sure to take water purification, food and extra clothes.