The Great Divide

Montana dirt road

A .kmz file of the route for Google Earth: Great Divide kmz

If you have between seven and fourteen weeks to spare and love mountain bike touring, this is the tour to take. I enjoyed every minute of it and have been heartily recommending it ever since. There are two caveats, it would be useful to have some sort of bike touring or backpacking experience beforehand and you must be prepared to cycle uphill, a lot.

Planning

That said, this is not an especially difficult route to plan as Adventure Cycling have done all the hard work for you. They initially planned a route that ran from the Canadian border with Montana, through Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado and finished at the New Mexico border with Mexico. Since I rode the route, they have added a short northern extension up to Banff National Park in Canada making the total route distance 2700 miles. After riding some extra off route into towns for food and accommodation, I’d expect this to rise to over 3000 miles.

The book on the route is available from Adventure Cycling and also from Amazon in the UK, and details more or less everything you need to know. It is well worth also buying their maps of the route which show helpful things like food shops, campsites and bike repair services. They also include some elevation diagrams which, unfortunately are so inaccurate as to actually be a hindrance in planning your day.

Of course there is no need to ride the whole route in one go. It can easily be broken down into shorter chunks; my friend Fraser who was unable to take more than three weeks off work, rode with me from Canada to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. For a short trip, this section through Montana is probably the one to do since it is incredibly beautiful, and doesn’t have the really high mountains of Colorado or the desert of Wyoming or New Mexico.

My family, and other animals

I won’t go into details on the route since it is readily available elsewhere. Likewise, I won’t exhaust my superlatives on the scenery: have a look at the photos. Instead, perhaps I should mention a few things that you might not have expected on a trip of this nature.

It is very much a wilderness experience, you’ll be camped under the stars for the majority of nights. You’ll see a fair bit of wildlife too, hopefully not within your tent. Grizzly and black bears are common though we didn’t encounter any. We did see moose, elk, deer, chipmunks, a diamondback rattlesnake, black widows and we heard plenty of coyotes.

Most riders invest in some anti-bear pepper spray, which the man in the shop was keen to tell us would also work on mountain lions, before adding ‘of course, you’d never see a mountain lion coming’.

There are plenty of interesting human characters to meet too. This is small town America and it’s inhabitants are some of the friendliest anywhere. If you’re coming from overseas, they won’t share your political views and they won’t have a clue where you live, but they’ll help you in any way they can.

We spent a great evening at Warm River campground in Idaho with two seperate local families. First, we were lent an inflatable raft to float down the river, given beers to drink in the raft, and given a lift back in the kind raft-owners truck. The name of our benefactor? ‘They call me The Bullet’, he said.

After The Bullet had left, leaving us with a further 10 beers, we were invited to our neighbours’ camp dinner. The happy family we dined with was the result of a successful first date in which Romeo had taken his future wife bear-baiting. One to try in the future…

Five very different states

The crossing to Colorado exemplified one of the striking things about this route: the sudden scenery changes. The Divide in Wyoming is made up of the Great Divide Basin, a desert where little rain falls and, that which does drains inwards and evaporates. There’s little surface water and we ended up doing big milages, 100 mainly off-road miles in a day at one point, in order to reach water sources. A fascinating experience but we were certainly glad to reach the state border!

All at once, the scenery changed. Now it was lush green alpine meadows and aspen trees. The first store that we arrived at was a beutiful timber cabin with a healthfood cafe, a welcome contrast to greasy Wyoming fare. That’s one of the things about the Divide – just when you might be getting bored of it, it throws up something completely new and fresh. It does this time and time again, more-so than any other route I’ve ridden making the experience that much more compelling.

Southern Peru

El Misti

The Plan

I had never travelled outside of Europe and the US, so when Fraser and I decided to take a foreign cycle trip, we had a lot of the world yet to explore. Our basic agenda was to travel for about a month in an area unlike any we had experienced before. We wanted somewhere with a unique culture, probably in the third world, somewhere where there was spectacular scenery and challenging cycling. Our mothers wanted somewhere safe. Southern Peru and Karakorum were the areas that most appealed to us, however whereas the political situation in Kashmir was worsening, Peru was fairly stable under the newly elected President Fujimori, and this was therefore our chosen destination.

Culturally, its roots lie in the Inca dynasty and the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century. In his Chronicle of Peru, written at that time, Pedro de Cieza de Leon wrote:

‘Where have men ever seen the things that they have seen here? Where was it known that so much wealth could come from one land? And a land so extensive, so rich, so abundant that it cannot be bettered. And to think that God should have permitted something so great to remain hidden from the world for so long in history, unknown to men and then to let it be found, discovered and won all in our time!’

This was clearly somewhere worth visiting.

Fraser’s plan was to roughly follow a route that an adventure travel company runs from Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city, to Cusco, the centre of the Inca world. To carry our luggage, we invested in a BOB Yak trailer which we would take turns to tow.

Reality bites

We arrived in Arequipa to a purity and, at 2325 m, a paucity of air that was a direct and most welcome contrast to London. The area is a high desert with hot sunny days and freezing nights. The classically conical El Misti and the marginally higher Chachani volcanos rise straight out of the plains and dominate the horizon at 6000 m above sea level.

Whilst researching a possible route to cusco, we encountered a problem that would be with us throughout the trip, our maps bore little relation to reality. Distances were utterly unreliable. On one of our better maps, El Misti lay on the wrong side of the city and they had entirely neglected to include the great hulk of Chachani.

Having spent a couple of days acclimatising and seeing the tourist spots, such as the fascinating Monasterio de Santa Catalina, we set off up the mountain. This was undoubtedly the most gruelling bike ride I had ever attempted. We had been advised to ride continuously for about two hours in order to avoid stopping in a dangerous district on the outskirts of the city. In the event, we passed through without incident and out into the wilderness beyond. The experience was unforgettable; the scenery was extraordinary – barren and dusty. Arequipa was soon a toy town behind us and the hill was relentless. I began to suffer from the effects of the altitude at around lunchtime and worse, we began to realise that the distances on our map were far from accurate.

At three o’clock we realised that if we could not make it over the crest soon, we would be stranded as night fell. Therefore, after over six hours of solid climbing, we reluctantly turned around for the downhill back to Arequipa. Two hours later we were in the hotel, ravenously hungry and with some serious re-thinking to do.

Canon del Colca

The Colca Canyon has been claimed, at 3400 meters, to be the deepest in the world. We had intended to see this impressive gorge on our way to cusco, but following our setback we decided to use the popular tourist buses to get to the far end of the canyon and then to ride back along it for three days. We therefore found ourselves at the Arequipa coach station at two in the morning, bikes and trailer in tow.

We left at this ungodly hour in order to arrive by dawn, the best time to view the canyon’s most famous resident, the Andean Condor. With a three metre wingspan and weighing in at 10 kg, this is arguably the largest flying bird in the world and is a truly spectacular sight. Several of them seemed to enjoy the attention they were getting and soared within meters of us. After a couple of hours of condor-watching we set off by bike and received nearly as much attention as the birds.

My second trip to Peru, in 2005:

Near Hualhua Peru - Almost everyone who visits Peru travels straight to the south. We'd be taking rather longer...

 

A guide we chatted to remembered some cyclists making the trip once before, but he had not seen anyone do so for several years. As the tourist buses don’t stop at the towns they pass, the places we visited were untouched by tourism, and were that much more interesting because of it. For the next week on our convoluted route to cusco, this was a persistent theme. We stayed with locals, most of whom were happy to put us up and feed us for a couple of dollars.

Cusco

After a week of frugal living, it was a relief to check into our hotel on the main square in cusco. We spent a day resting our legs in the city, an extraordinary mix of colonial buildings on Inca foundations, and began to plan our week in the area. The most rewarding day of the whole trip was spent riding to Inca Pisac, a deserted Inca settlement high above the River Urubamba, a distant tributary of the Amazon. En route, we visited a series of Inca ruins and the modern village of Pisac. The whole ride was about 90 km and it is fair to say that none of it was flat. This was what we had come for; impressive scenery, great riding and fascinating ruins. Better still, no other mode of transport could have allowed a similar trip; we didn’t have to share the sights with fifty other coach-borne tourists and when we finally arrived at Inca Pisac, we appreciated it all the more for having climbed there ourselves.

I had realised before we left England that we would be pretty close to the edge of the Amazon Rainforest, but couldn’t think of a practical way of getting a glimpse of it. In cusco however, we happened upon small advert for a company running mountain bike trips in the area so we followed it up. For a modest sum, a German ex-pat named George took us on a three day ride down into the cloud forest on the Eastern edge of the Andes.

George was an enthusiastic and interesting guide, and as we had a support vehicle, we had the luxury of riding without luggage. The area itself is surely one of the most staggering places to ride on the planet. In a single day, you can descend from over 4000 m to around 1000 m altitude and pass from the barren, dusty climate of the high Andes to the lush green of the cloud forest, the most bio-diverse area on earth. This ride was a fitting end to our travels in Southern Peru. It combined all elements that make the area so special – a fascinating mix of stunning natural location, charming villages and friendly locals.