I’d been in Huaraz for 3 weeks. It’d been a fantastic stop filled with mountain biking, trekking, good friends and much needed repairs. But the itch returned and I’m really excited for this next section of dirt routes toward Cusco and the Sacred Valley. Not particularly popular on the main backpacker and overlander vehicle routes, I was excited for some long sections of silent wilderness, immense mountains, and unknown vistas. Aside from some short day rides for fun, I’ve been largely off the bike in these last couple weeks. My trek through the Cordillera Huayhuash had left my heart soaring but my feet badly bruised. I’d hiked 9 days on minimal sole running shoes carrying a pack full of food and supplies. I took a couple recovery days before heading South but it may not have been enough… Plus a sore throat was looming within…
Day 1: Huaraz to Pastoruri Ranger Station
My new friend Albert was inspired to escort me out of town to the first dirt turnoff from the highway, about 65 kilometers away. My legs were so sluggish. My bike felt so heavy. With Albert’s unloaded rig and dependably light and positive attitude, he easily left me behind only a few kilometers out of the city. My frustration with his every word and smile was a clear sign I was fighting a cold and would be better off suffering alone. We bid farewell after sharing a quiet brooding (for me) meal, I felt guilty for my inability to access a better attitude in the moment. He’d been such a kind and friendly adventure companion these last few weeks I didn’t want to leave a bad taste in his mouth. But some things are just beyond our control I hope he didn’t take it personally!
Previous map sleuthing had elucidated an interesting route passing by Volcan Pastoruri, surely I would lose all this busy highway traffic from here.
First sighting of a Puya Raymondii plant. Known only to grow naturally in this small area of the Andes, this peculiar enormous (this one was at least 20′ tall) high alpine plant was quite a surprise.
As the evening light began to fade, I searched for flat ground. Gotta watch where you sit around here… lots of tiny little spikey cactus balls!
Day 2: Pastoruri Ranger Station to Huallanca
It took me the entire afternoon to cover about 20km. stopping every 200m at times. Breath was remarkably hard to acquire above 3800m despite having just spent 10days between 4200 and 5100. Continuing to climb up the long valley towards Pastoruri, I noticed a few lone alpacas wandering in the high grass…
This one seemed to exhibit a slightly higher degree of pizazz than its peers. I actually thought it was a fake, like some Peruvian version of a scarecrow, until I saw it move and walk. It’s owner/handler was napping a short distance away in some low grass. Didn’t really seem like a photo posing kind of thing, just some guy who liked to dress up his alpaca. Weird. But kind of fantastic.
A large stand of Puya Raimondii plants with their characteristic 40 year flowers loomed over me as I rounded each arid corner.
Cars heading toward the lookout to Pastoruri Glacier would pass now and again, but rarely. The primary vehicle traffic were tourist busses filled with gawking spectators snapping photos of the suffering cyclist swallowing small dust clouds as they passed. But for the most part it was silent, still with a slight breeze, gorgeous.
It took all morning to cover the 23km from the ranger station to the Pastoruri park entrance. I rode up to the trailhead and bought some lunch (really disappointing soup) from a woman there, then considered my options. It was nearly 2pm. If I hiked up to the glacier, it would be at least 4pm when I got back on the bike. I was at 4800m and it was cold at mid-day. I would have to sleep at high elevation which meant another very cold night. plus… above all, I just wasn’t that excited — about anything really. The low energy I was feeling from the previous day had carried over and I just wanted to keep moving. Compiled with the continuous tourist train of bus-driven people leaving and returning from the glacier in near constant flow, the crowds tipped the scale. I turned around and without regret continued UP the climb on the main road.
Endless climbing and descending ensued that afternoon. Just when I thought it would be a short climb over a pass to begin the descent, it would continue up forever. An extra 20km of ups and downs more than I’d bargained for. I had to walk some very moderate grade sections due to a complete lack of energy. Every point I’d reach where on my GPS I thought I’d read the descent would begin turned out to be a misread. Eventually the dirt road did start descending and spilled out onto a paved road a few KM down the way. It was freezing cold and snow/hail was starting to pummel my face. Still wearing nothing but my standard attire of paper thin bike gloves, shorts and a sleeveless shirt, I aerodynamically tucked my way into a shivery descent, unwilling to stop in order to layer up. Bad choice. 10 minutes later I began to shake and shiver so uncontrollably I almost crashed a few times, my hands fuzed to the handlebars as ice blocks. Relenting to the writing on the wall I stopped to add layers. My hands were so frozen at this point I could not access the motor control to unsnap the clips on my bags to open them, eventually resorting to teeth and fists to get this simple job done. I pulled out my new huge wool mittens with wind/waterproof liners I’d recently acquired in a shipment from up North, but took about 10 minutes to wiggle them on over my unwieldy digits. Ugh.
As I continued the descent, the rain started. From a sprinkle to a deluge, my first real rain here in Peru. Soaking wet and now cold again, I rolled through the darkness into the surprisingly large town of Huallanca. First sign of a hotel was taken as there was no hint of rain respite. I dove into the piping hot shower of my $7 luxurious abode. It would be my first night in a bed for over 20 days since I camped on the grass in Huaraz. What a treat. A large fried chicken dinner later, I crawled under the covers and allowed myself to get sucked into the one cheesy action flick that was in english on public television. I did not see it through to the end…
Day 3: Huallanca to Baños
I rolled out of Huallanca early, past La Union to climb a long steady slope over a high pass to the town of Baños.
A long fast and well-banked descent dropped me into Baños. In the town center I chatted with a couple locals about the towns in the area. I was just preparing to continue to the next town, my goal for the day, when I was informed of how Baños got it’s name… well… obviously. TERMALES! (hot springs). I rolled the 4km off-route to a wooden Inca sculpture signaling the entrance to the baths. Lovely. It would be just 1 Sol for general entrance and 3 soles for a private room. I sprung for the big spending, about .90 cents US. There were 2 outdoor pools. The larger one was marked “Sin Jabon”, was lap pool sized, and touted a rather uninviting brown color. The other, smaller pool was marked “Con Jabon” and had it’s own slightly murky color, but slightly more neutral tone likely due to the amount of soapy residue in the water. I didn’t care. I wanted to get warm and wet. If the locals were in the water so too could I be. Warding off the endless “There’s an enormous white alien in the pool” stares I was receiving, I closed my eyes and enjoyed the warmth. A few minutes later, the private room opened up and I moved my stuff in to the tiled space, set the piping hot water to fill the large jacuzzi shaped tub, and eventually had an hour of blissful soaking.
I’d planned to get more writing done that night but got mired down upon realizing I’d not edited any of my photos since the Ecuador border. It was about 1000 photos. Shit. I got through a small chunk and woke up a few hours with my computer still resting on my lap.
Day 4: Baños to Laguna Lauricocha
On Peruvian breakfasts:
The most popular Peruvian breakfast as I’ve seen it is called caldo de gallina (hen soup). It’s generally composed of a big bowl of chicken noodle soup with a hard-boiled egg and a chicken leg in it. Always filling not always the most satisfying meal in the morning but packed full of energy for the day!
Something is happening to my body… I still have the energy to ride from dawn to dusk, but can’t then turn around and write/read for a few hours in my tent. I stop moving and the body begins the process of falling asleep, no mater my level of verticality. If my intention is to leave more time for writing, I must actually save a percentage of my daily energy to allow it to happen. Is this age? Or long term effects of chronic physical exhaustion? The truth is I don’t really care. I believe in honoring the messages the body offers regarding its needs, regardless the reason.
A long steep climb with a stomach full of soup was a bit challenging to reach the small hamlet of Paracsha. I had originally planned to ride up there last night after the hot springs, but … well… come on: they’re hot springs. All you want to do after soaking is fall into a bed! After a cheap meal and a lovely conversation with the owner of the only restaurant in town, I continued hoping to reach Laguna Lauricocha by nightfall. Water access with a view. I was so very right. I realized that just over those mountains in the distance were the Huayhuash mountains, where I’d just completed the 8 day hiking adventure (see last post). I landed at the far end of the lake in an abandoned ranch with soft grass and a tiny trail down to the frigid lake.
— sometime in this entry, write about the stone wall ranches I see everywhere, and my analysis that in comparison to other places at this altitude, wood and barbed wire are likely scarce and expensive while stones and free time are in surplus
Day 5: Laguna Lauricocha to Oyon
Leaving Laguna Lauricocha, I rode into what I’d hoped would be a particularly gorgeous section of trail given the abundance of steep cliffs and lakes I saw on my topographic map. It was mind-blowing. Every turn revealed a new fantastic mountain or glacier feeding deep dark blue lakes.
Yes. A traffic light.
The only downside of there being a road through this majestic wonderland of visual delicacies is that it was created for access to mining… As I approached the center of the largest mining area (there seemed to be one at the end of most lakes) the fences appeared and this lone traffic light to help manage the “high flow” of traffic through the area (about 3 trucks per day as far as I saw).
AN IDEA ERUPTS:
It was during this section that I began to sauté a growing “big idea” within my head which grew in detail with every bend and every increasingly fantastic vista… BUT… it deserves its own blog post. Coming VERY soon…
Having surmounted yet another 16,000+’ pass, I screamed down the smooth dirt road toward the town of Oyon with high hopes of a comfortable bed and a hot shower… Looking back up at those glorious mountains though… it’s a hard place to leave. The descend got sandier and rockier as I crossed from freezing cold thin air of 16,000’ to the blistering heat of nearly sub-tropical 12,000’. The descent was so interesting in terms of climate shifting that I missed my turn to Oyon by over 5km. I had to find another back road and an extra 800’ of climbing to get back up to town! The raging descent was totally worth it.
Oyon did NOT capture my heart. I’d considered spending 2 nights there to catch up on some writing but the lack of hospitality and dinginess of the town as a whole turned me off. It was dirty, and there was a hardness I felt from the people, a distinct lack of feeling welcome. From the first search for a hospedaje, each hotel l checked out enticed me with an employee that seemed generally off-put that I DARED to bother them. One such woman after much cajoling showed me the room. I agreed to a price then asked if she could open the metal front gate so I could get my bike inside, as the small 1/2 door opening I’d entered through was too narrow. She halfheartedly looked in a desk drawer then shared that she could not (more likely would not) find a key to open the gate. Upon clarifying that without this I’d have to stay somewhere else, rather than even looking any further she took the towel she was about to put in my room and just threw it back in the storage closet and walked away. The room I ended up taking was a 3rd story plywood cube down an alley. Dogs barking inside the hotel halls all night long. This was not my ideal R&R location.
Day 6: Oyon to Hotel on Rio Chekras
Dropping down another 5000’ into a sweltering canyon, I realized I’d just have to climb up the other side. Sigh. The little town of Churín at the bottom seemed to be laden with hot springs and was a center for manjar blanco (dulce de leche) production. But it had a weird Coney Island feel that warded me off enough to start my way up the next climb.
Fish farms. They’re everywhere around here. Big operations along all the major rivers, definitely gave me pause about not using my water filter in these seemingly clear flowing waters.
I’d seen no settlements for hours other than the odd fish farm. Then magically, around a bend I see a couple of buildings with a big HOTEL sign climbing 1/2 way up a 4 story building. Very out of context for what I’d been seeing. The hotel was still actually under construction but one wing of rooms was complete and ready to rock. Due to the unfinished entrance, I got a fancy, posh room alone in the hotel for a little under $5USD. How can you say no to that?? Complemented by a huge fresh fish meal, I slept in heaven. Such a difference from the tawdry and uninviting Oyon.
Day 7: Rio Chekras to Plateau over Parquín
Yeah, this chick’s got style.
It was a LONG day of extremely steep roads right from the start. By lunchtime I’d already climbed over 4000’ over only about 10 miles. I reached the still sweltering town of Parquin too early for the one eatery to have opened quite yet. I asked a man and his daughter if there were other options for buying a meal in town and almost without hesitation they insisted on feeding me lunch at their home. Inside their walled-in yard, they walked me up to a small hut at the far end. Inside was the man’s wife finishing up the lunchtime stew. I crawled past her to the wooden stump I was told to inhabit, and was handed a large plate of potatoes and lentils with a side of chicken leg. Fantastic. We shared engaging conversation about their lives, about my life, about living simply and about feeling peace.
I pushed on late into the afternoon full of inspiration. And great food.
Didn’t make it all that far. About 8 more kilometers took me about 3 more hours, and the sun was starting to set. I’d climbed over 6000’ in about 17 miles. It took ALL day. Luckily I had a fantastic view from my evening perch.
Day 8: Palquín Plateau to Abra Mio
Starting the day continuing up an endless climb, I’d be reaching 16,000’ again before long. Crossing a lone llama farm, I appreciated once again the trend of seeing how “fences” are built in Peru. Not wood nor wire, but stones. The most readily available resource in the dry and high Andes, stones are used to build houses, walls, even water catchments. These obedient llamas seem to follow the walls’ suggestions despite how they could more than easily jump those very walls. Interesting.
Summiting yet another high pass, these mountains just keep getting more impressive!
More stone walls dividing up the countryside. Despite the land being taken over by ranches and farms, I marveled at the feeling of the stone walls. Somehow far less intrusive than wood or wire fencing.
As day stretched to evening, yet another climb. Luckily on a very smooth dirt road.
The sun initiated its final descent toward the horizon and the surrounding mountains exploded with color. Riding during the “golden hour” as photographers call it is one of my favorite things in the world. Knowing that suitable camp sites abound, there is no need to worry about where I’ll sleep, so I can ride right through the light show, only stopping as the deep purples turn to blues with just enough light to throw up a tent, boil some water and hunker down.
Day 9: Abra Mio to Sangrar
Back up at 16,000’ it gets pretty chilly at night. I awoke to a chilly 7°F morning, with frost all over the bike and no desire to leave the comforts of my comparatively warm tent. But moments later the sun burst over a low point in the distant mountains and the direct solar rays boosted the air temperature immediately. Now to wait for the frost on my stiff frozen tent to melt, then dry…
Yes, it actually looked like this.
Some time later in the day, I descended into a long undulating valley, following very well built water canals that stretched around and through the surrounding mountains for the entire day. Turns out this is part of the water system designed to supply areas as far as Lima out on the coast!
Laguna Marcapomacocha. Crystal blue waters with sweet shore birds and wandering camelids abound.
Passing the tiny hamlet of Sangrar, I found a perfect flat perch out of site from the road, surrounded by towering peaks. The camping around here is pretty fantastic.
Day 10: Sangrar to Yuracmayo
The llama farms turned more to alpacas and sheep around here. Some may ask, logically, “what’s the difference between them??” Well, after some research and asking locals, these are alpacas. They’re a little smaller than llamas. They’re more often (but not exclusively) white like sheep, and their hair is thicker and bushier than the longer straighter llama hair. They have more snubbed noses as well. I’d also add that alpacas are a little higher on the cuteness scale. But very interesting to llamas, alpacas and sheep all in the same places, they’re very similar.
So this morning I found the cartoon setting on my camera. I had high hopes of photographing a super hero storyline, but upon seeing the photos, it fell a bit short. Alas.
A close look inside a roadside altar placed atop Abra Sungray (Abra means pass in Quechua).
Dropping off the pass for a long fast descent, I reveled at how spoiled I am these days. Every single day I see insane peaks. Every single day some fantastic dirt descent through them.
A quick restocking of food and supplies in the small riverside town of Chicla and I climbed back up towards a big lake, Yuracmayo, where I’d camp that night.
Early evening shadow shots.
As the final hours of light cast across the far peaks, it was time to find a place to camp. But around here: no visible flat ground. I reached the town of Yuracmayo with minimal light to ask anyone if I could camp near their home, so I rode back down the road to the most accessible flat place I could find…
Yep. I’ve mananged to go over 2 years without sleeping in a cemetery yet. Until now. This one had no graves within it, just some recently graded soil and a lot of alpaca droppings. But the ground was flat, wind protected, and had a strange eerie beauty to it.
Mac and cheese. My parents didn’t call me ‘Roni for nothing.
Day 11: Yuracmayo to Tanta
Yep. Another huge climb, another huge descent. More insane beauty.
Just after crossing into Reserva Nor Yauyos, my rear tire went flat. I’d been running a tubeless system(using a liquid sealant in the place of inner tubes) since Canada, and occasionally one still gets flats. Usually due to a bigger hole than the liquid can fill or due to the liquid drying up inside the tire over time. This was the latter. Normally a quick fix: pop off the valve core on the air valve and spray some liquid in there, spin the tire and pump it back up, no unmounting needed. But the extremely cold evening air with it’s powerful winds caused a slip of the hand, breaking the valve off inside the valve stem.
I was really tired, and had mapped out that I could arrive to the next time with just enough light and find a warm cheap bed. But hadn’t accounted for a technical issue. Quickly threw a tube in and pumped it up.
The tube had managed to develop a small hole from wear against something else inside my bag, and just hissed down to empty within seconds. I popped the second spare tube in. Same problem.
Now I’m pissed. One of those moments when I start yelling at inanimate objects for being “against” me. A few deep breaths with frozen fingers and I pulled out the patch kit. After a challenging and shivvvvvvvering 30 minute stop, I was back rolling. Bombing through tiny stone-walled farms and attacking the small climbs to reach Tanta.
I arrived an hour after dark (this shot taken the following morning). Quite a large town as it turned out, I rolled up the steep main street and found a huge fantastic meal and a dirt cheap room. Fantabulous.
Day 12: Tanta to Tomás
Over a lovely breakfast in Tanta I was informed there were old Incan hot spring pools a few kms down the road… I anxiously pushed through the rolling terrain to reach where they’d marked them on my map, only to find one tiny and very sludgy pool of luke warm water… Not exactly right. Maybe I’d have been more excited under different circumstances, but that morning I was well rested and well fed. I pushed on.
Fun overgrown dirt descent toward Vilca.
At one point I reached the actual ‘end of the road’, where the bulldozer was currently digging into the very steep mountainside to connect it with another dirt road about 10kms ahead. climbing up over the massive dirt piles past confused road workers, I found a hiking trail and continued on my merry way…
The trail got a bit rocky and steep in a few spots, but was by and large rideable. Lovely to be on single track, even if for a short while!
After passing through the surprisingly touristy town of Vilca, the road hugged a steep cliffside overlooking gorgeous waterfalls cascading over countless cliffs in the Paisaje Nor Yauyos Cocha.
Comparative culture shock of riding into a town big enough to have tight alleys in it. This taken in Huancaya.
From the final high town of Vitis, I was able to scream down the windy canyon road all the way to the river town of Tinco. What a ride.
In Tinco I decided to veer off my planned dirt route to head directly east to the city of Huancayo. I had run out of cash and there are NO cash machines in any of these mountain towns. Plus tomorrow was my Sister’s birthday, and I love being able to call family on their birthdays when I can on this journey. She is very near and dear, and I miss her deeply. No choice but to diverge. Luckily my defeat for electing the paved route was quickly overcome by it’s fantastic gargantuan canyon walls.
With barely enough space between opposing canyon walls for the river and the tiny one-lane “highway”, I had to be on high alert for cars descending the steep canyon road toward me. Hair raising but a climb like no other.
Narrowest point in the road, el Cañon de Uchco. So narrow that the road had to be dug into the wall on one side, as the river narrowly passed the 6’ gap between walls!
“Suffer without Crying.” Randomly inscribed on a rock by the roadside during a particularly steep uphill section in the canyon. I appreciated the support. In evening light I reached a widening in the canyon, enough to fit a small 2-block-wide town called Tomas. There was a small festival happening that night with a 3 piece trumpet/saxophone/drum group and the townsfolk all gathered in the square for drinking and dancing. With barely enough energy to shove my bike up some stairs to a cheap hostel, I crawled back down for a bite of food and festivities. As usual I was welcomed by the local people. Offered a beer within moments and followed by a plate of fried food, my stomach and heart appreciated the kind hospitality of Peruvians, yet again.
Day 13: Tomás to Huancayo
Almost all paved from here, I climbed for the first few hours to another near 16,000’ pass before descending into the Huancayo valley.
Vicuñas as I’ve shared in earlier posts are the wild little brother of the llama and alpaca. Still camelid in appearance they still have a more deer-like look to them. Evidently in certain areas they’d been hunted and raised for wool and meat, but now are protected in many places. Here I came across a vicuña repopulation reserve. Cool.
Alpacas wandering the high plains.
I reached Huancayo after 110km of hard climbs and rocketing descents, so weird to be in a real city. The last real city feel was back in Ecuador, a couple months back, so it was quite a shock. Luckily I found a resonable hotel to catch my breath with strong enough wifi to call my sis on her birthday. Mission Accomlished!!!
Now for a few days of rest before I power my way down to Cusco, Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley…
NOTE: Special thanks to Neil and Harriet Pike (Andesbybike.com) for designing and sharing what became the majority of this route. It was invaluable information to help guide my way.