* An abra is the name for a high mountain pass in Spanish. The word abracadabra is an incantation used as a magic word in magic tricks, and historically was believed to have healing powers when inscribed on an amulet.
So I headed out on what would be one of the most challenging routes of the trip, a high altitude jaunt where we would remain above 4500m for a number of days and tackle passes over 5000m each day. We would need to carry food for several days at a time. Weather was extreme at times, camping through two snow storms. We did not exhaust ourselves or stress, instead Nathan and I possibly laughed too much. Two people in the wilderness starved of any other real human contact we made up elaborate jokes and our English humour had us giggling at high altitude induced flatulence.
There are some people who genuinely thrive in physically tough, mentally challenging extreme situations in the wilderness. I am not sure I am one of them. When I am lying in my tent and it’s -10° c and too cold to fall asleep I dream of those sweaty nights in the Mexican desert when we wouldn’t even unpack our sleeping bags, or of the Colombia coast where we would cycle to the rhythm of Champeta and Cumbia music and eat watermelons on the side of the road. It is not that I complain out loud or even in my head when I am in tough conditions or riding difficult routes – I thrive on it, I am doing it, and I am having fun but at the same time I recognise how tough it is, and how this could be other people’s idea of hell. I sometimes consider myself a wimp but I am driven through that perception by remembering what a good friend once said– make the most of each opportunity. And you know what? After a while it no longer feels like a hardship, because you are having fun, because it becomes your routine and then you realise that it is not hard any more. Chance meetings have led my adventures on to some challenging routes, to roads that have introduced me to a new type of fun. That fun and those feelings are something I want to continue. I am also driven by curiosity, I want to know what lies beyond the paved roads, beyond the villages, above the tree line where even water does not flow. I want to know what it feels like to cycle higher than I had ever been before, I want to challenge myself, I want to be in places where the only noise is the wind whistling in my ears.
24th July – Antabamba to camp
Antabama is at 3660m above sea level and leaving town that day we would be heading up to the mountains, where we would remain high for several days. Leaving Antabamba through small settlements and ever impressive views, progress was hampered by another puncture, this time in the back wheel. I removed a small thorn from the side wall of the tyre, hoping that this would be the last. I had obviously unknowingly lent my bike in something spiky a few nights before and was continuing to pay the price. There was more traffic than we were expecting, a few vehicles an hour. In the late afternoon we dipped down to a river crossing, gathered water and then continued up hill to find a camp spot.
Nathan found a perfect spot above the road, so it involved some pushing but once we were up we were totally hidden behind a wall. We were not yet so high that it was too cold, which meant we slept comfortably. In the morning we were able to get away without having to defrost the tents which has now become our morning routine.
25th July – camp to camp
We started the day on a climb – this is how I like to start out, bagging some height in the first part of the day. Within a few hours we were at the top of our first high pass of the route, at 4870m. That morning we had woken to clouds which didn’t dispersed throughout the day; this was rare to us cycling in Peru’s dry season, but during the coming days something that would become quite normal as we remained in the high mountains. Nathan had crushed the pass with such ease and was waiting for me at the top – something that would become a theme just like the looming grey clouds.
A cold descent with clouds and cold wind left me chilly and slightly anxious that this would be my overriding sensation for the duration of the route. As the route opened out we passed through rocky roads and the bleak but enchanting scrub land that would become so familiar to us. During this route we stopped almost each lunch time at a flowing water source (stream or river) so that we could use the water for cooking and then cleaning our pots – we ate instant noodles almost every lunch time between villages.
We then headed up on a steep, bad surface, at times I would loose my balance under the rubble, struggle to regain momentum and therefore have to push until I could get back on my bike. Nathan rode the whole way. Just as I approached the worst part of the climb the looming clouds imploded and we were in the middle of a snow storm. Quickly putting on my waterproofs I then pushed the rest of the way to meet Nathan, huddled and waiting for me. We ummed and arred for a bit whether to wait out the storm or to keep riding; we decided to keep riding. With just 100metres left of ascending, we were at the top. By then the weather had cleared and we were able to appreciate the white blanket of snow that had dropped on the valley below. We made our way down to a junction and then considered beginning the next climb, but we came across a small lake which made our decision to stay put, it is always easiest to camp near a water source.
That night was probably the coldest of my tour so far. We recorded a low of -6° c whilst eating dinner (good preparation for the Bolivian alti-plano). I stayed warm by putting on every item of clothing that I own, and remaining inside my sleeping bag. Nathan and I created a wind shield by putting our tents together at angles, whilst he made dinner of spaghetti and soya-meat chunks. That night we drank several cups of the curiously named Peruvian hot chocolate, Cocoa Winter’s, now a camp staple. The jokes that we make up during these cold camping nights really help to keep us warm and moral is always high. A favourite is to pretend you are on a survival T.V programme and talk through everything you are doing. That night I managed to sleep cosily.
26th July – camp to Huacullo
That feeling when the sun hits your camp after a cold night is like nothing else, a truly magical moment of being on a bike tour that I never stop appreciating. Strong coffee and a mountain of porridge is our daily rocket fuel. That morning we faffed for about an hour more than normal, I think the previous days snow had taken it out of us.
We made our way up to the first gentle pass, down and then up to a steep pass before a magical breathtaking descent to a river where we ate lunch. We then headed up to 5000m pass; for both of us this was our first pass over 5000m, something we had been close to achieving for a while. Once up there I recalled how I had felt at my first pass over 4800m, Punta Olympica, I had been nauseous and short of breath; we realised how well acclimatised we had become over the past few months in the high Peruvian Andes. Descending a little before again passing over 5000m and then making a downhill trend through some more open pampa and valleys down to our first village in 3 days, Huancullo.
As we approached the village we wondered if this could be it, or was it just a mining complex, it was tiny. At 4690m above sea level it was the highest village I had ever visited. We found the village’s only hospedaje on entering, and straight away checked in. The village is off grid and solar panels only produce enough electricity for one hour a day. Never before have I stayed in a hotel room with a candle by the bed side. We were able to charge my camera in the municipal building / bakery, where it seemed the rest of the villagers were charging their mobile phones.
That night was Nathan’s turn to retreat under the covers whilst I had the arduous task of trying to devise meals that would see us through the next few days from the shops limited supplies (oats, super noodles and pasta, punctuated with chocolate bars, then repeat for 4 days). We were thrilled to find a giant tin of peaches which we ate with evaporated milk, it felt like we were living in the Blitz. This week was the country’s patriot holiday so we were told everything was more quiet than usual. The teenage girls running the hospedaje directed us through the complete darkness and blustery cold of the village to a small restaurant where in candle light a man prepared us eggs, very under cooked rice and some chips.
We recorded the temperature of 5° c inside the room, a whole 11° c higher than the previous night, but still not exactly cosy. These sort of guest houses always provide around 4 thick blankets on the bed but sleeping under them is pretty claustrophobic and moving is almost impossible, so we always opt to use our sleeping bags.
27th July – Huacullo to Huarcaya
That day we woke and were told that the village’s communal tap had frozen over so would have to wait an hour or so for it to thaw out. Not happy to wait around to make our breakfast we opted to eat bread, eggs, and jam.
We powered on to Culipampa, another village comparable in size but with a more friendly feel. The local shop was a lot better stocked and even offered a few bits of fruit and vegetables, adding some colour to our increasingly beige diet. The beautiful and warm shop keeper boiled eggs for us (the previous village shop had only been able to sell us 2 eggs) and provided us with coffee and tea, here we restocked on the wider variety of chocolate bars available. We would recommend to anyone doing this route to push on to Culipampa if possible as it seemed on the whole a more pleasant place to be. During our coffee drinking a local man around my fathers age entered the shop, and pointed his sling shot at Nathan. We were a little confused by this situation but I asked if the man had ever met a Gringo before. His friend answered (I think the man could only speak Quechua) that he had not, which explained his reaction. This followed with some good natured smiles and banter. We were the first white people this man had ever met, and we were dirty, wind beaten and tired, ha.
We started to climb up to Abra Culipampa (5045m) in good spirits following the interactions in the village below. On reaching the pass the topography changed, now so high above the tree and water line we were cycling through moon dust.
After lunch we then began climbing up and up to another pass over 5000m. There was a lot of mine traffic that afternoon which made it hard to keep a rhythm. They often want to stop and talk, which can feel quite draining when putting all my mental and physical effort into the climb. They all said, ‘be careful up here, it can get very cold’.
We made it to the top of the pass in the late afternoon and descended 9km to the small village / mining camp of Huarcaya. We were cold from the descent so decided that we should try and find some shelter for the night, if possible. In these situations (like with answering truck drivers questions) I take on the role of public relations, Nathan is much more reserved and would usual opt to wild camp rather than going through the hustle of asking around for a place to sleep. We bagged some bunks in the health centre and spent a happy night chatting with the young doctor and nurse who had been posted out here (working 15 days on over a month, before making their 2 day journey home to the state capital of Arequipa, to then have 2 weeks off). They fed us, plied us with pisco and asked a lot of question. We were shattered and slept so well in our bunks.
28th July – Huarcaya to hut
There was no hot water or shower in the health centre but the opportunity to wash our faces and hands properly with running water was now a rare luxury. At breakfast it was our turn to share food, we made coffee and porridge. Kimberlyn and Augusto both looked pretty solemn as we said goodbye, they said they would worry about us up on those mountains.
We started the day as the previous day had done, continuing flat along a valley before going up, up and up. We turned off and made it to the top of the 5116m pass before mid day.
I spent 20 minutes eating biscuits, Nathan had been at the top for a while and had already done his snacking so he took the time to take some photos.
Our instructions said to take a left turn at a junction 1.9 km from the pass, however we could not see it, so ended up cycling a further 6km along the main road. We knew we had gone wrong but neither of us had noticed a turn off so we were unsure whether to go back. We stopped and waited, hoping our answer would come to us, waving down a car and then a truck to ask where we were headed which confirmed we were on the wrong road. We had to go back that same distance, which doesn’t sound far but going up hill at such altitude was tough and it was really beginning to tire me. We didn’t get to the junction until 2.20pm, 2 hours after we had left the top of the pass. We were both feeling pretty dejected, and the descent on a sandy and rocky surface was not much fun.
There was bad weather coming in behind us; we were being chased by giant grey storm clouds. We noticed a little hut, the door just covered by a crate, unlike the other two it neighboured that had padlocked doors. We soon found ourselves inside the little hut just as the clouds opened and the snow storm began. The hut was obviously occupied at some point, probably a nomadic llama shepherd. There were llama skins laid out on the floor and a kettle on a shelf, we knew the other huts were also unoccupied as when there is a person in these kind of places there is inevitably a barking dog. The gaps between the tin roof and the wall combined with the wind pushing the snow in every seeming direction meant that even inside we were getting snowed on. I huddled in a corner escaping the snow whilst Nathan opted for an alternative strategy of sitting with his back to the incoming snow.
We waited, finally eating our quite depressing lunch of boiled eggs and cream crackers and a humble carrot. By about 4pm I was fed up of feeling so cold, so we decided to put my tent up inside the hut. Although the snow had died down the sky still looked heavy and there was no point in heading out into the abyss. My tent just about fitted into the hut, although it involved arranging all the rocks which had obviously been positioned as seats. Nathan was not best happy at this point, he definitely did not want to share a tent and the only way we could position the thing meant us both having our heads at the narrow end. I hiked down to the nearby river to collect water, hiking at altitude is definitely harder than cycling and I had to take baby steps the whole way back up the hill.
That evening we made coca tea and pasta and crawled into our cramped sleeping quarters. I was pretty warm and cosy but poor old Nathan reported a restless night.
29th July – hut to Huactapa
That morning we woke to a wonderful winter wonderland and blue skies, the latter filling us with such relief that we were in a great mood.
We got away quickly, with only one tent to pack up. A short journey down to the stream crossing, and then up. It shouldn’t have been a tough pass but I really felt it, the surface was not great and near the top the combination of sand and snow was just energy sapping. I met Nathan on the descent, waiting for me before we began another climb.
I was beginning to flounder, the altitude, the cold, and the climbing was taking it’s toll, whereas Nathan was flourishing. Not once had he got off his bike to push on this whole route, and the distance between us as we climbed was only getting bigger. The first time we had cycled together after Huaraz Nathan was weak following a chest infection, then becoming poorly with stomach problems, eventually abandoning the route. Now he was back to full strength.
Each time I was at the top of a pass I had a chesty cough, so I took some puffs of an inhaler I was carrying which really helped. We began climbing again, knowing that this was our last high pass of the route, it was steep in parts and I had to push a little to find my position again. I was however determined to ride the whole thing, I did not know if I would ever be this high again and I wanted to make the most of every moment.
We drunk in these high altitude views, something that has become such a part of our lives over the last week, and both realised that by descending this final time we will leave all of this behind, highest altitude Peru was over for us.
We descended on a sandy and then bad surface, and then stopped for a lunch of coffee and super noodles before continuing up with more rain and snow causing wheel stopping mud before down to our first village in a number of days. Villagers just started at us as we cycled through. We continued along to a a village Huactapa, my camera battery was dead so this dictated that we had to spend the night in civilisation.
We arrived in the village as a frantic fiesta was under way. It was raining now and villagers were holding hands in a a giant circle doing some sort of frenzied hokey-cokey. The men were drinking and the older people were wrapped in brightly coloured criss-cross sashes made from un-knitted yarns of wool. We waited around as someone said they would find us a place to stay. I thought we had been forgotten with all the partying but then someone turned up with a key, we had bagged a place in the free municipal hospedaje. There were beds but they did not look appealing so we camped on the floor.
Just to instill gender stereotypes in our bike riding partnership Nathan worked on our bikes (we both needed our brake pads replacing after our long descents and mud, mud and more mud needed to be chiseled off the bikes), he did this whilst I made pumpkin curry and rice.
30th July – Huactapa to Cotohuasi
We slept so soundly and were not happy to awake. We were told we needed to be out of the building by 6am, so we vacated and made breakfast on the edge of the road. We took in the views of the village and the gorge reminding ourselves of how incredible it was, and something we can easily take for granted.
The climb was described as gentle but for us it was one of the toughest of the route. We then headed down with some more climbing before plunging into the Cotahuasi canyon, the deepest in the world.
We had to give ourselves a pep talk at lunch about getting our pedal on to ensure that we made it to Cotahuasi that evening. We managed to pull things together and ride the undulating tracks to Tomepampa. Here the road became paved and we raced against the remaining sunlight to arrive in the town of Cotohuasi, exhausted, red faced and giddy.
- Gratitude and Humility – out of Ayacucho, the Great Divide and onwards
- In deep – a bike ride between the two deepest canyons in the world and out again