to view all photos from this set click here.
There is a sense of gratitude and humility that comes with forced time off your bike. Because with that forced break you get to remember all over again that there is no sweeter feeling than when your body and your bike are working as you want – you get to be exactly where you should be, doing what you set out to do, and if you are as lucky as I have been you get to do it all in great company – it’s the feeling that the stars have aligned. You have comprehended the fragility of your body and your bicycle, both of which you must trust and rely on to take you all of the places you want to go, and all the places you never expected to be.
I recently had to wait out a course of rabies injections, and was once again reminded of the fragility of life on the road. Then during this ride there was a day when so many things went wrong with my bicycle and my kit that I was left saying a prayer to my one remaining functioning inner tube, praising it, and loving it to do it’s job and take me on this journey.
Because of the routes that came before and after I did not dwell on this ride for long. Now, however, with some time off the bike I have had the real pleasure of recalling all the great memories through photos and scrawled notes and I can really appreciate what a gem of a bike ride this was. This route reminded me why bike touring Peru is such a dream, it provided everything – a little solo riding, Inca ruins, diving down to desert canyons before days of slowly and methodically working our way up switchbacks, riding through pampa along tough dirt roads, and just lots of smiles and laughs with locals. This route was a lot of fun without being eye wateringly difficult, perfect after being off the bike for a few weeks.
This blog post is long over due, we have been riding pretty much constantly since leaving Ayacucho, days off have been spent in small towns in the depths of valleys without internet, this however has also been a blessing as we have done what we should really do on rest days, and rested.
Peru Peru, what shall I do?
Peru means ‘land of abundance’ in Quechua (the indigenous language of the Andes, and still an official language of Peru) and it really is just that. I made a conscious decision in Peru to stick to the country’s Andean mountain strip (to the west lies the coast with plenty of archaeological sites I would love one day to see, and to the east lies the amazon, a topography that really captures my imagination). Even by prioritising the mountains I continued to feel overwhelmed and constantly excited about routes to ride, that ‘kid in a sweet shop’ feeling I always go back to. Peru’s greatest gift to the world has been the humble potato, but Peru’s greatest gift to the cycle tourist is it’s incredible scenery and extensive network of unpaved almost traffic free roads.
British people should remember Dale Winton’s supermarket sweep, the television programme where contestants would run around a supermarket aisle filling their trolleys with items of the greatest value during a short allotted time, and you would win bonus points for special items. Our time in Peru feels just like that, with a 6 month visa and a limited budget (and more importantly the threat of Andean rainy season always pushing you south), it is necessary to pick and choose. And so I chose to forgo a visit to the most famous tourist attraction in Latin America, Macchu Pichu in favour of riding my bicycle. I love ruins, I love history and would one day really love to visit this Incan archaeological wonder and The Sacred Valley (I would hope to return with the patience to sift through the tourist hype and with a more sizable budget), and so for now I choose the mountains, the wilderness, some of the best riding of my life and the company of a very fine English chap. Nathan’s account of this ride can be read here.
12th July – Ayacucho to some restaurant on the road
An early rise to get to the hospital for my injection. I then went to visit a women’s knitting project run by the organisation Solid International. Ellen and Jan my Belgian couch surfing hosts work for this organisation who are doing great work, buying alpaca wool at a fair price from alpaca farmers and then employing women to sort the wool, spin it and then knit hats and buffs which will be sold internationally for a fair price. There was even a children’s crèche and school on site as well as a refuge for victims of domestic violence. I hear that this beautiful knitwear may soon be available in the U.K through Cotswolds outdoor shop, so watch this space! I was excited to be back on the road but my progress was hindered somewhat as it took me a few hours to get out of the city. I thought I was being clever by mapping the exit with google maps, but this directed me on to the wrong road, something I only worked out after climbing a really steep hill.
I had a 40km climb on tarmac to get out of the valley, this was my first time climbing on tarmac for a few months and it was here that I realised how strong I had become, I was now conditioned to get myself and my bike up steep unpaved roads so by using the same force and energy on tarmac I was just flying. There was not much fun to be had that day. I reached the top of the climb in the late afternoon and saw that there was a huge satellite with some outhouses located on top of the hill. I made my way up there, with the plan of spending the night there sheltering from the wind against the buildings. I was quite content with my little spot when a car came down from the top of the satellite, the family whom worked there told me that there was a village just below where I could stay. They assured me if was 10 minutes in car, which meant I would be able to cycle in an hour with the remaining day light. I made the decision to push on. This ended up being a really foolish thing to do, there was no way that this was a 10 minute journey by car, something which other vehicles that I stopped also confirmed. I made my way down the hill, there was no where descent to camp and the day light was fading. I finally made it to a small settlement where there was a restaurant. I was incredibly frustrated with myself and I think really it comes to my own lack of experience of solo cycling – I am so used to having someone to bounce ideas off that I am not totally comfortable with my own judgement when solo.
The family there let me stay on the restaurant floor and insisted on feeding me, without payment. I was given some pretty horrible soup with meat bits in, I somehow managed to empty the contents into my water bottle when no one was looking and later pour the stuff away outdoors. I slept incredibly well and had set my alarm for ridiculous o’clock with the plan of arriving in Vilcashuaman for the world cup final.
13th July – restaurant to Vilcashuaman
When the alarm went off I could not get up, and just left at a normal time. The family were really intrigued by my camp stove and my coffee sock and posed next to me for pictures whilst I prepared breakfast. In Peru people always want to know the cost of things, your flight, your bike, and this family were the extreme.
The ride to Vilcashuaman was all unpaved, with a downhill trend through agricultural land, all burnt golden yellows and scarecrows. The last almost 20km was a sort of frustrating up hill which saw me arriving at Vilcashuaman just before half time of the world cup final. Nathan had been waiting in the town for a few days so that he could watch the cup final, which tied in well with me coming to meet him so that we could continue together. It was good to see Nathan again and hear his tales of the Great Divide part 3 and the first half of the 4. I was baring gifts from the city – proper coffee and fuel for our stoves.
14th July – Vilcashuaman to desert camp
Vilcashuaman was an important Incan administration centre back in the day, and their plaza was used for ceremonies and sacrifices. After breakfast we wandered around the village, checking out the temple of the moon and the sun. Those pesky Spanish conquistadores had build a cathedral on top of the sun temple, you can see they really could not compete with the legendary Incan brick work.
We were out and heading up hill by 10am. We lunched in deserted village where we had hoped to buy snacks but it seemed as though all the shop keepers were out working their land. We then zig-zagged down to a desert valley, it was like cycling on dry moon rock, here we found a place to camp amongst the prickly bushes. It had not been a tough day but I was tired. Nathan grumbled a bit about mosquito bites but for me this was perfect, I found a little place just big enough for my tent and I was able to sleep without my fly or even zipping up my sleeping bag. In my tent I could lay on my back and take in the stars above before falling asleep.
15th July – desert camp to Chilcayoc
We pushed out of the bushes that had been our home for the night and crossed the precarious looking bridge.
We quickly found our rhythm as we begun our day of climbing along gentle switch backs. We’d climbed 1000m by lunch, and stopped in the village of Belen. We got pissed off with the price of eggs (2 for 1/s, rather than 3 for 1/s as is normal). We sat on the floor of the village plaza and cooked up fried eggs, watched by some village children, with whom we later shared our biscuits. We continued along more switch backs all afternoon.
At 4.30 we arrived at a village but decided to push on further, arriving in Chilcayoc as it was getting dark. I wandered around trying to find a hospedaje but the one possible place had tiny rooms not big enough for our bikes, so I went back to the municipality and found the alcalde (mayor) and his jolly wife. He said we could sleep in a spare room of his house. Although this was just a dusty floor surrounded by sacks of potatoes we felt as though we’d struck jackpot. We cooked up a most delicious pumpkin curry feeling pretty pleased with ourselves.
16th July – Chilcayoc to wild camp
More endless climbing all day, we were feeling pleased with our progress until during our lunch break we realised that we had not actually hit the pass. We had several further high points before we joined a track. This track should have been really incredible but we felt a bit dispirited by lack of descending, combined with Nathan’s camera breaking. We found a good camp spot and gathered water from the pond, siphoning off the swimming insects. Everything was made good with a few cups of hot chocolate before bed.
17th July – wild camp to Pampachiri
We set off in the morning, and soon joined a bigger road which made us glad we’d camped where we did. We then descended down to Autama, where a fiesta was going on (Peru’s patriot holidays) . Everyone was telling us we should stick around for the running of the bull, which only encouraged us to get out of town as quickly as we could – I was also keen to avoid the bloodshot-eyed stares of the drunk men. We sat on the outskirts of town and watched a brass band follow the bull up the hill to a chapel. Down to Soras and then Larcay where we stopped for lunch. All the shops and restaurants were closed due to more fiestas bar one place which served us arroz a la cubana. Post lunch proved plenty of ups and downs and we then got caught in a hail storm which killed our motivation to begin a climb and wild camp as had been our plan, instead we took a 3km detour to Pampachiri. We found a a small hospedaje and ate more pumpkin curry.
18th July – Pampachiri to Chalhuanca
Back on route we began an enjoyable climb, with some fun rough parts that really got Nathan excited.
Down to Saranya for lunch where we were watched by most of the village kids whilst we fried eggs in the square. How strange would it be if some weird looking foreign people turned up in your village square and started cooking their lunch? We were larking around with the kids, and this series of photos happened.
Leaving the village we encountered a road block and were told we would have to wait 4 hours for the road to open. We loitered for a bit before making a break for it, the construction workers loved it, they stopped their digger so we could pass and they waved us on. At the other end of the road blockade a woman with the walkie-talkie told us ‘son malos’ – ‘you are bad people’. She said it so sincerely that I felt terrible for ages. We continued our descent to the almost traffic free Abancay-Nazca highway and rode easily to the motorway town of Chalhuanca. Here we found a hotel way beyond our usual budget where we luxuriated in wifi, a bed and hot showers for a few nights before we hit the road again.
19th – 20th July – Chalhuanca
Rest days writing blogs.
21st July – Chalhuanca to camp
So by the time some essential faffing was done it was already mid day by the time we headed up and out of Chalhuanca. We achieved in these following two days of cycling what could easily have been done in one. That afternoon we headed slowly up on switchbacks, we both felt lethargic, progress hampered further by a passing storm which saw us huddling under some shelter of a campesino’s hut. Once the weather had passed we headed out of our enclosed hut to the sound of some people obviously handing around outside. We felt a little sheepish as we emerged onto the road but were met by some particularly jolly Peruvians drinking chicha (fermented corn drink), out of a giant fuel bottle, which they offered us. One of them spoke some English and said ‘travelling by bikey, nothing more?’.
We carried on up and up until there was not much light and we needed to find a camp. We had not found any water source on the road so we would have to make do with the water we were carrying in our bottles for cooking dinner and breakfast. We found a camp, which at the time we were quite happy with, it was enclosed in a wall and bushes kept us out of view from the road. It was however a bit too enclosed and this meant the air was incredibly damp and cold. We planned how we could best cook with the water that we had and managed to produce super noodles with vegetables, and have enough for coca tea. Luckily we had bought some milk in Chalhuanca which was a saving grace at breakfast time.
22nd July – camp to Sarayca
It all fell apart
Up and out of camp we were keen to get on our way to find some water. My sandal had broken, so I had to cut off the loose piece so I could still wear it. I’ve been making do with the bike sandals I have started with, my waterproof socks helping me survive the wet, cold and snow. I would have to wait until I arrived to La Paz, Bolivia as a friend is coming out with some proper shoes.
It wasn’t long however before I had to stop with a puncture. The ground near the camp had been quite prickly and it seemed that I had punctured the side wall of my tyre, probably whilst leaning my bike down. Changing the inner tube at the side of the road I managed to give a passing car a message to Nathan about what had happened. I finally caught up with him at a stream that we used to fill our bottles, before we began to descend. Then, another flat tyre, which transpired was caused by the valve of the new inner tube being broken, so another change of inner tube and down we went. It wasn’t long before I realised that the tyre was loosing air again, another faulty valve, I could not believe it. We decided that there must be a problem with the tyre, causing the valves to come loose. I did not want to take any more risks so got out my spare tyre and put it on the bike. It was already lunch time so whilst I did this Nathan heroically made us lunch of powdered mash potato mixed with powdered soup, sounds pretty dire doesn’t it? And although it did look like nursing home slop it tasted great.
We finally made it down to Yanama and stocked up on sugary snacks before continuing our descent down to the river valley. The topography had changed to dry burnt farm terraced land, the route lined with cactus. I could not relax and was convinced that I was loosing air from my tyre, I was right, I had a slow puncture. We rolled into the village of Sarayca, surreal place, through talking to some locals it seemed that a previous resident of the town had found his fortune in Lima and come back and built a mansion in the middle of the village, as well as totally transforming the village square. The gated mansion we are told is only occupied a few weekends a year. It seemed so obnoxious amongst the tiny adobe houses of the village.
We found a place to stay with an incredibly kind woman, who originally we thought lived in the village. We later worked out that she and her siblings had grown up here but had since left to find work in Cusco, they were returning for a mass in memorial to their mother. We were given a floor and a bathroom, whist I got to working in my bike, again fixing a puncture. I was no longer carrying any spare inner tubes and about to head out into one of the toughest routes in the Andes. I said a prayer to my tube to please hold out and do it’s job for me. And what else? The foot cage on one of my pedals snapped, so I was now just riding with one, AND, part of the frame on my pannier had cracked so I had to zip tie that together. I could not believe it, I had had the same amount of flats in one day as I had had in the previous 14 months.
The family that were hosting us had bought a whole dead bull which they would in part cook up for their family reunion but mostly this was a gift to the other villagers. So we slept in a room without a door with a whole dead bull on a table next door, and whilst I was working on my bike several people were butchering up the animal, taking bits off to divide around the village. Such a bizarre situation for us.
23rd July – Sarayca to Antabamba
We woke up early, keen to make up for the previous days lack of productivity. My puncture repairs had worked and we were fine to get going, descending down to the river valley before continuing along and then up and up. That day the overwhelming feeling I had was gratitude that nothing else had failed. It was not however a fun ride, we made our way up on dusty rubble, there was nothing much to look at but still enough traffic meaning that we struggled really to find our rhythms. For lunch we ate a pretty unsatisfying stale bread and a sachet of jam.
We made it to Antabamba, with just enough light left to find a hotel before it got dark. That day over lunch we had made meal plans and a shopping list as in Antabamba we would need to buy food for a further 4 days of riding. We ate a good dinner, gathered our food, and crashed, we were totally spent.
The following day we would head out on the toughest, highest, coldest route of my trip.
Utmost thanks to Pikes on Bikes for blazing the trail on the Great Divide, as you can see we continue to have a lot of fun.
- These Bits In Between, part 2
- Abracadabra – the toughest, highest, coldest route