The northern desert – bloody hell!
Almost everyone who visits Peru travels straight to the south. Machu Picchu and Lago Titicaca beckon; we’d be taking rather longer to reach them.
There are two main crossings from Ecuador to Peru and, having spent some time in the mountains, we decided to head down the coast. This coastal strip is a desert and since it is pretty flat we expected to make good time. Mancora, our first town was a delightful one off, a little gem of a beach resort slap in the middle of the desert. It is famed for its waves and attracts international surfers and backpackers alike.
Unfortunately, this was the one enjoyable moment in the following 500 km. One by one we succombed to stomach bugs and to make matters worse, a stiff headwind sprang up daily in the late morning. Riding 80 km in the desert into a headwind, with a high fever is an experience I hope never to repeat. Far from making time during this section, we were actually losing ground. We had to get Will to the airport in Lima and so decided to take a bus from Chiclayo to Chimbote. A brief glance from the window every now and then suggested that we weren’t missing much.
Even without the wind and the illness, I doubt that we’d have enjoyed this section much. Deserts are, by their nature, lifeless. This one even smelled of decay. Mile after identical mile, the Panamericana just continued on its straight route through the sand.
The Cordillera Blanca
Things took a turn for the better in Casma. A beautiful hotel whose English-speaking owner had rather bizzarely studied in Ramsgate, provided lunch. We had intended to continue on our way but the pool proved too much of a draw and we relaxed in the sun.
From here it was 120 km and a 4200 m climb to the Callan Pass and the 30 km descent into Huaraz. The numbers would suggest that this is not an easy climb; in fact, it is the biggest single ascent I’ve ever ridden, slightly trumping the one from Nasca. After around 15 km, the road becomes a dirt-track and it just goes up and up. There are a number of small villages with simple supplies dotted along the route and some of the friendliest Peruvians that I came across all trip.
Andrew and Will got ill again after day one and hitched a ride to Huaraz, leaving me to continue alone. The last 3 or 4 km are interminable as the route zigzags seemingly on the flat with the pass clearly visible just above. Of course, just keep turning the pedals and sooner or later you’ll get there! When you do, you’ll be rewarded with a sight worth waiting for – the Cordillera Blanca stretched out in all its glory. I decided that this was a view to enjoy for a little longer, pitched tent on the ridge and settled down for a cold but unforgettable night.
Huaraz was everything we’d been looking forward to in the desert. Sadly Andrew was still to unwell to take in much more than the fabulous view from our hotel roof, but Will and I made the most of it. We met up with Julio, THE mountain bike guide to the Cordillera Blanca and arranged to go on a singletrack excursion. The muletrack trails criss-crossing the hillside were made by the Incas but seemed purpose-built for mountain biking. A fitting end to Will’s holiday.
The ride south out of Huaraz was truly fabulous despite gaining 1000 m in altitude. Offsetting that is the knowledge that the road is about to take a 4000 m descent in the direction of Lima. At one point on the descent I met some other bike tourists going the other way. Unsurprisingly they were Dutch, and equally unsurprisingly their English was excellent so we had a good exchange of information about the road ahead. I was sorry to have to tell them that I’d just descended 50 km in one hour!
I caught a bus into and out of Lima, a very sensible precaution given the slums surrounding the city. There just seemed no point in riding in an unpleasant and dangerous environment like this – obviously it is different if your plan involves riding the complete distance of something like Prudhoe Bay to Ushuaia but I wasn’t so bothered. I’ve met very few experienced cyclists who don’t take buses from time to time.
Nasca to Cusco
This was an incredible route. By far the best road we rode in Peru, and Andrew and I both highly recommend it. It’s not easy though: you begin by riding from about 600 m to 4200 m as a continuous ascent and follow that up by almost daily climbs of 2000 m. We broke the initial climb in Hualhua, camping on the steps of the village school, where bizarrely we were joined by a couple of Australians in a camper van. Their contribution of a bottle of wine livened up proceedings considerably: some fine trail magic.
It’s not easy though: you begin by riding from about 600 m to 4200 m as a continuous ascent and follow that up by almost daily climbs of 2000 m.
The road is not busy, in fact Andrew, being rather bored, counted the vehicles that passed during the whole of the next day. He reached about 28. The pass tops out at Pampas Galeras, a Vicuña reserve which is home to 70% of the vicuñas in Peru. Vicuñas are the cutest of the camelids with their sleek coats and big brown eyes and they are highly endangered. Their wool is extremely valuable (hence the endangered status) and we later saw a Vicuña wool scarf on sale for $800. The road from Pampas Galeras winds across the altiplano proper and you really do get the feeling of being on top of the world.
Remarkably, given the inhospitable environment and the apparent lack of any shelter, there are people living up here. They seem to be llama herders and presumambly they have huts out of sight of the road. Camping wild, you get some idea of the sort of existance they must have and how hardy they must be. No sooner had we pitched tent on our first bitterly cold night than it started snowing…
Cusco to Lake Titicaca
Cusco is the backpacker centre of South America and it’s easy to see why: Inca history and beautiful landscapes are everywhere. Sadly, so are the other tourists. One of the reasons to travel by bike is to get away from it all and this was being thrown back into it. I had been before and knew that this would be the case; Andrew who hadn’t, obviously wanted to see Machu Picchu and the rest. To get a different perspective, we did a short loop on our bikes down into the sacred valley.
I must say that this was a really nice little tour, and if you were looking for a simple, short bike route in Peru, this could well fit the bill. Pisac and Inca Pisac were particular highlights – though Inca Pisac is not as spectacular as Maccu Picchu, the fact that you can wonder around on your own, and share it with nobody, made it all the more special for us. If you’ve just ridden to Cusco from the north or west, then the road south to Bolivia will seem a piece of cake. It is basically flat and the distances fly by. Unsurprisingly then, this was the first place that we started meeting other cyclists regularly. Titicaca was a dissappointment initially; it looked as if someone had pulled the plug and drained most of the water leaving only a marsh. As we discovered, the really spectacular views are to be had from the Bolivian side. Puno and the floating islands were fun, Juli, despite its billing as the Rome of South America, was not.