Being in the Sierra (mountains) of Peru I have become an addict. I arrived in Huaraz, my head buzzing with excitement about the routes we had taken, the spectacular passes with tough but oh-so-worth-it climbs, amazing quietness of a night wild camping, washing and taking drinking water from rivers, and that sense of peace and freedom which is like nothing else I have experienced in my life. I have become addicted to mountains.
I felt conflicted – sort of disappointed that we were already one third of the way through Peru, if I had the chance I’d do it all over again. I also felt like a kid in a sweet shop pondering the up and coming trails south with wide eyes, as well as suffering with FOMO (fear of missing out), looking at the map of Peru and more specifically the Cordillera Blanca I saw so many options of routes to take, lakes to visits, mountains to pass, there were so many places I would want to go.
The Pikes, a double ‘ard pioneering duo from England seem to be incredibly passionate about these mountains, and have just ended a long stint exploring by hiking and biking small trails around the Cordillera Blanca, Negra and Huaywash, I understand they are in the process of writing a book, which is incredibly exciting. They have ridden their bikes all over the Andes, and the Himalayas, and these mountains are their favourite, which sort of speaks volumes. (Funnily enough Harriet Pike worked in Cotswolds outdoor shop in Covent Garden, and when I was buying my kit for this trip she was there to help me make all the best choices, thanks Harriet, my rab boxers are still going strong and advice about food clips was golden).
So, it would have been cyclists sacrilege not to take the bikes out for at least a short loop of the Cordillera Blanca, and the closer we cycled towards these mountains the more I looked forward in anticipation to getting my bike up there. Once in Huaraz, Jukka, Jo and I planned to do the popular cyclists route from Yungay – Yanama – Chacas – Punta Olympica – Carhuaz, the route would be 4 days of long climbs, thrilling descents, snow capped mountains and azul glacier lakes, a mixture of tarmac and ripio, and of course the (in)famous snowy mountain pass, Punta Olympica.
6th – 12th May Huaraz
We’d based ourselves in Huaraz to rest and do our usual rest day jobs and I’d given myself the task of finding a new sleeping bag and roll mat to deal with the cold nights that were only going to get colder. I’d heard from The Pikes that Santiagos House was a good place to stay in Huaraz, so this is where we ended up- along with a number of touring cyclists.
There was hefty Alex from Austria, a lovable bear, Alex is pretty black and white and would say things like, (about blogging) ‘why does every cyclist think they have a story to tell, and need to get philosophical’. Then there was Nathan from England, a fellow vegetarian who’d started off in Alaska 4 years ago; he a strong aversion to tarmac roads, and is on a personal mission for freedom, oh and he checks the Daily Mail website religiously for Blackpool football results. When we first met he was fighting a chest infection and was a pretty different person,but now he’s back to health again and it turns out he’s actually pretty jolly. Here were already more cyclists than any Casa Ciclistas I’ve stayed in, and then Ruth and Will arrived, hailing from my beloved Hackney. I loved this couple and so great to share stories of home, of the same stomping grounds, and to make plans to take a ride to the Essex seaside on our Condor Fratellos once back on home turf.
All of these beautiful people became my friends, and we shared long breakfasts on the terrace, amazing food (I made quinoa burgers made with local ingredients from the market) and stories about life on the saddle that would bore the hell out of anyone not on a bike. Subjects included how to deal with dogs… most people swear in their own language, Ruth carries a plastic child’s spade handle in case she needs to fend them off, and well, me… I just like to SHUSHHHhhhhhhhhhh at them, trying to kill the situation with kindness (Alex taking the record of being chased by a dog for a total of 26km). I was surrounded by excellent company.
12th May – bus to Yungay and then Yungay to Lake Llanganuco by bike
So, after too many trips to the vegetarian cafe (set meal for about £1.50) and many long long breakfasts on the terrace chopping it up, it was eventually time to get our bikes onto the bus to head to Yungay. We had to pay double to put our bikes in the mini bus but this only worked about about £3 per person. For this 45 minute long journey I wore my helmet, as the bus was such a tight squeeze that the handlebars were right in my face.
From Yungay a dirt road slowly winded by the mountain until we entered the national park in the late afternoon. I’d changed my crank in Huaraz so that I could have a smaller gear to handle the mountain climbs better, and this was the real opportunity to test it out. Jukka said to me –
your green and pleasant country has it’s cycle heroes, so use them, and show me what you can do.
We were also travelling light for the first time, leaving most of our stuff in Huaraz to make these climbs lighter and the descents more fun.
Once in the national park we rode between two mountains, creating cold shade before arriving at Lake Llanganuco, we were about to set up camp when one of the park rangers who runs the offices by the lake said that we could come inside for tea, we hadn’t packed our stove (planning to just live off oats and cold coffee for 4 days) so this seemed like a good offer, we ended up sleeping on mattresses indoors.
13th May – Lake to Yanama
Mauricio the ranger was a funny guy, he spent 22 days of the month manning that office, so I guess he’s used to being alone, he quizzed us about our lives at home, and had some pretty quotable opinions on birth control and Chileans. He told Jukka that his name didn’t count (Jukka, no vale?!) as yukka, (pronounced the same ) is a root vegetable in Latin America. There was some wind that morning and he came out and said “hay demasiado aire”, – there is too much air, which we found hilarious.
After a morning swim in the cold lake we cycled gently up to a 4700m pass, slowed down by wanting to take so many photographs. We then made a long descent into Yanama, where we found a cheap guest house to sleep.
14th May – Yanama to Chacas
We woke early the following morning, determined to get on the road early, after taking it a bit too easy the previous days. We climbed about 700m to a pass, Jukka and I had a race as I was loving how much easier it was to move with less weight, and I want to improve my tolerance to high mountain passes, this was part of my training plan.
We then continued down, stopping for lunch in Sapcha, before continuing down further, descending at speed on these dirt tracks I felt like a down hill mountain biker, incredibly thrilling. Back on tarmac we headed up hill to Chacas, where we decided to call it a day.
A memorable night with the Matogrosso Church
Chacas is home to the Matogrosso parish. 30 years ago an Italian priest came to this valley and decided he wanted to built a church in the town, there are now numerous Matogrosso churches around this valley. The parish is now huge, home to around 60 Italian missionaries have decided to settle here. The church buildings are sprawling and include the living quarters for the Italians, a school, sports courts and a carpenters work shop which is responsible for magnificent building work and balconies around the town square. This seemed like a good place to spend the night, so in I went to ask – we were given our own dormitory, a pesto pasta supper and a breakfast of Italian goats cheese and real espresso coffee, with an Italian bialetti coffee kettle. Oh, and I almost forgot, we had a HOT shower, the bathroom finished with a giant Italian porcelain sink, we joked that they probably imported San Pelegrino water for the shower too. Jukka joked that this was pretty good value accommodation for free. When we got back to Huaraz, Nathan already knew about this place, and the pasta eating, having read about it on other cyclists blog, great minds.
We set off early as we had a big climb ahead of us, although this was made a lot easier as the road was fully tarmac. I challenged myself to try and get up the hill faster than I normally would do, using this ride as a training for the more challenging roads I will be taking south. Here we bumped in to a British cycling touring couple. I found Jukka as the top of the mountain, he had been waiting an hour for me, he is a machine. We then waited another hour for Jo Jo to catch us up.
In recent years a 2km long tunnel has been built so that cars no longer have to go up to last few hundred metres of this snowy mountain pass. This means that cars continue on the tarmac, through the tunnel, which I have read is the highest of it’s type in the world. The old ripio track over the Punta Olympica still exists, I think used exclusively by cyclists and women chopping herbs from the mountain side.
I felt incredibly privileged to be able to take this pass, the track is already in pretty bad condition, and pushing in necessary in places, there are so small rock landslides, and all it will take is just one more landslide to make this pass un-passable, so we may be some of the last cyclists to make it through this way.
Making the last few hundred metres of climbing was slow, first we stopped at the most blue, beautiful lake I had ever seen. So blue, a crayola crayon type azul that you could never image existing in nature. I was fine at 4800m but once we ascended higher my chest began to get a bit tight. The altitude was getting to me and I thought about people with lung failure that I once worked with in hospitals, each step was a bit of an effort. It was at this perfect moment that we saw Alex and Will (from the hostel) coming down the hill, they had started the loop in the opposite direction a few days after us. We were so happy for this thin-aired reunion in such a memorable place, and it was great to say goodbye to Alex again before he journeyed north. He gave me a puff on his inhaler, which really helped me. Oh, and I had stupidly left my iphone in the dorm of the church, so I gave Will and Alex strict instructions that they must stay at the church to retrieve my phone (Will bringing to back to Huaraz for me), I was so fortunate with that one.
Once at the top of the pass there was snow for around 100 metres, which I didn’t totally enjoy due to nausea.
We then decended for 50 windy and cold kilometres on tarmac, through pampa, and back down in to Carhuaz. This was the end of some of the most spectacular days of riding of my life. We jumped in a mini-bus back to Huaraz, paying the driver a bit extra to drop us off at our door.
photo of the trip, well done Jukka
enjoying the pampa
lots of dead rigor mortised cattle and donkeys in the valley, maybe it was too cold for them? Nothing like a bit of realism to bring you back down from such intense natural beauty
back down to Peruano civilisation
Red cheeked, tired but thrilled we were back in Huaraz.
view all photos from this set here.
- Dead Flag Blues
- Shedding Skin