Peru’s Cordillera Blanca

Since well before I left, more than a year ago now, I’ve dreamed of this place. I think there are a few reasons. The first being that Australia is mountain limited, Kosciuszko representing a small hill in terms of the seven summits, and the second being that the glaciated peaks of central Peru can’t help but offer that quintessential idea of adventure – high passes, remote landscapes that you don’t need to share and in which general inspire.

Before leaving I sat at home some nights watching videos of this place, people scaling glaciers, riders rattling their teeth on descents among stone giants and drinking tea in lofty outlooks. I crossed the mountains here 3 times altogether, and each pass was as dramatic and spectacular as I have dreamed. In all there are 5 road crossings to bridge the range, one occupying the drier Northern end, I feel like I got the best of them all, though it wasn’t without effort.

After the heat of the jungle, the weather turned decidedly mountainous before they properly came into view. As the road climbed slowly and the clouds spat out alternating rain and then snow, it didn’t exactly feel like the sharp interior of the park I was hoping for. This changed rapidly as the first snow storm eased off and the stars began to dot the sky around the jagged, white glaciated peaks.

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The first pass was through past Pastoruri Glacier, and was also the highest I took at just short of 4,900m. I don’t seem to learn from my mistakes, and camped at just about the pass to wrestle a headache for most of the night. Altitude headaches are strange and different to what you’d expect, though I’m sure they manifest differently for different people. Mine come in the form of a dull ache right at the base of the skull, so low that they could be mistaken for a crick neck almost. If I hadn’t experienced them a few times already, and always near 5,000m, then I’d probably make this incorrect assumption myself.

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The landscapes were spectacular, and once I reached the pass I was able to enjoy a rolling landscape which didn’t drop off too much elevation for 20km or so (truly appreciated given the effort it takes to get up to some of these places). I listened to a Willie Nelson track on loop for hours because it sat with the mountains so well and I took my time through the high points, stopping almost constantly to take photos and videos which I had already mapped out to go along with my new favourite track. When I finally reached Pastoruri the road descended quickly on a rough dirt track past flowering Puya Raimondii.

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I’ve become increasingly aware by taking these dirt tracks of the damage which cars do to the infrastructure provided for them, and in some sort of warped and cynical way it has me starting to believe that cars and motorists can’t really even be trusted with the resources provided for them. Because this section of road is the only way to reach the easily accessible glacier, and because of the large bromeliad’s, it’s become a tourist trail with buses flogging along through the day. As a result the road is a horrible mix of large embedded rocks on the straights and a track ground to sand on the switchbacks, not the most pleasant descent but at least it rattles your wrist’s enough to force you to stop and take in the landscape.

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After hours of slow descent I rolled onto the smooth pavement which flanks the Western side of the park and knocked out a fast 50km or so to Huaraz – what’s surely the Interlaken of South America. Huaraz itself is a pretty cool place, it certainly doesn’t have some of the flare that you find over here in the small villages, but I’m also confident that statement holds true for every country in the world. Asides, it has a couple of small breweries knocking out some pretty great beer and is generally filled with people hiking, mountaineering or climbing in Huascaran. It’s a pretty serious place for it where people are drinking away sore muscles or prepping for some pretty serious mountain ascent’s approaching 7,000m. There’s a few hostel’s which have in built climbing walls and of course the appropriate cycle touring establishments which are passed on by passing cyclist’s on approach to the city. I spent a few night’s there before deciding I had to get back into the park and I made a run for it to try and beat the weather.

Optimistic.

Huaraz sits at around 3,000m but the park bank’s sharply to pass closer to 5,000m. Because of this there’s really very little to guarantee descent weather once you head inside, of course we’re approaching the wet season over here also and being on the fringe of this period make’s the weather a hell of a lot more unpredictable.

As I approached the park the rain began, and the first day of riding I spent more time keeping my gear dry under a pergola than actual riding. When I got a break in the weather I hastily made a run for the park entrance hoping that maybe I would be invited to sleep inside rather than set up the tent. Armando was more than welcoming and before long he was brewing up a hot soup and I was sharing my collection of mangoes with him. I slept well on a dusty floor and hit the road early the following day to clear the pass at Punta Olimpica.

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The road tailored through Quebrada Ulta and then the switchbacks started, taking up more than the morning it should have on account of all the photo’s and generally shock/awe the place inspired. After lunch I rounded out the tunnel at 4,740m and opted to take it as opposed to the climb up higher on the old unpaved road to the true pass. The view’s were some of the best I’d experienced, an achievement held for all of 3 days.

After a quick descent I turned off road to climb over to Yanama and get well and truly saturated. I was warned repeatedly by locals which I passed that there were bad people in and around Yanama, ‘mala gente, muy mala gente’. Sometime’s it’s difficult to determine the truth behind this but I assume based on the frequency I received this comment that something had happened with a local and a tourist in the area, though I guess I may never know exactly what it was.

Through the afternoon the rain began, and a combination of again not wanting to saturate my gear and the local warning’s meant I heaved my bike up the last unpaved switchback’s to descend to Yanama. I’ve never been so wet or cold in my life. My wet weather gear is no longer waterproof, and this is not necessarily a problem except for the frigid altitude in the park. My cycling gloves became saturated, then my (once) waterproof gloves, and finally my merino gloves also. My down jacket became waterlogged. Finally, my iPod broke. It wasn’t a good afternoon and when I rolled into a little refugio in town I was pleased to find that for once there was working warmish water in the shower.

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Two days later I jetted for the final long unpaved climb to Portachuelo de Llanganuco and for once had a clean run of weather. I camped in the shade of the towering Chopicalqui and stayed up all night watching and filming the stars beyond it.

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The last battle I guess should have been the climb to the pass, but in truth the descent was a rough as the other descent’s in the park and took every bit of concentration to navigate the bike down what felt like a million switchbacks which all rattled to the bone. The feeling of reaching that pass is one of the most profound I’ve had, after a rich climb through glaciated mountains and laguna’s, a clean cut through the mountain’s open’s on the other side to reveal the Huascaran twin giants, as well as Pisco and a collection of other white mountain’s shielding the deep blue glaciated lake’s I remembered from Patagonia.

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After finally making my way to Yungay I felt the need for the cycling company back in Huaraz and I hopped an cheap minibus to fire me the 60km back south to the alpine hub.

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I also put together a short video of the time riding through the park which you can find here.

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