And so it happens again that I leave a country one more time and call it my favourite country so far.
Peru treated me well, a good thing since it took a hell of a long time to make my way through and threw at me more than 40,000m of elevation. Sure there are easier ways to get through the country, but the mountain’s on offer are among the highest in the world outside of the Himalaya, and the friendliness of the locals made the long journey through the highest parts of the Andes one big, long, strenuous and ultimately beautiful experience.
Travelled: ~4000 km
Lago Titicaca – Arequipa
Lago Titicaca on the Peruvian side of the border doesn’t offer the same road access as the Bolivian side. The route here traces the border through a number of large towns en route to Cusco, the pavement is a pretty welcome site after the sandy, washboard roads which made up most of the Bolivian Altiplano, but you can’t breathe a sigh of relief just yet, since the country is yet to show the force of its almighty climbs through the Andes’ stone giants.
After Puno I said goodbye to a friend and turned off the main road to snake my way down towards Arequipa. The elevation profile looked promising, dropping 2,000m in the space of 300km or so. I was expecting a cruisy ride downhill but instead was confronted with blisteringly cold nights in the tent near 4,500m and winds which rivalled those in the South. I regularly took refuge in shady roadside restaurants or huddled behind the large road signs indicating turnoff’s to the various mines in the area. I crossed 9,000km for the trip wearing every bit of clothing in my bags and with snot freezing quickly as it dribbled out of my frost touched red nose. When I did sleep inside it was usually in freezing cold concrete boxes which necessitated sleeping with my sleeping bag on top of the covers. The coldest night left frost on the windows until close to midday and flash froze my water bottles before 11am in the morning.
I imagine it’s probably nicer riding through the summer, but no matter the season you still enjoy riding through a high and sparse landscape with volcano’s and frost covered peaks in the distance in every direction.
Approaching Arequipa Reserva Nacional de Salinas y Aguadas Blancas casts it’s presence and throws a collection of snowcapped volcanoes at you as I rolled through the shadow’s of Chachani, Misti and Pichupichu. These mountain’s are prehaps the most striking I’ve seen in the Andes, largely because once you decend to Arequipa near 2,300m, the mountains stand nearly 4,000m above you to make you feel truly small. From Arequipa’s Plaza de Armas you can see most of the volcanoes in the area which makes for a pretty beautiful backdrop.
The Plaza de Armas in Arequipa is also the most beautiful Plaza I’ve seen here in South America. Sure Buenos Aires has the culture, and the wealth of activities around Cusco makes it an obvious tourist magnet, but the polished white marble in Arequipa could have you believe you were in any great European hub. Venture a few blocks away to remind yourself where you are as the city folds back into its dusty South American reality.
Arequipa – Cusco and Machu Picchu
I took a 3 week hiatus in Arequipa, which allowed me to head across to Spain to a friends wedding and test my Spanish amongst the old pro’s, pleased to say it held up okay. When I returned I took care of some equipment issues before starting the climb back up to high altitude and to Cusco.
Back at altitude the road quickly turned to dust and climbed further, up to near 5,000m. Road work meant the roads were being watered and I often had to stop to dig mud out from my one remaining mud guard. By the time I reached Cusco I would ditch it altogether, acknowledging I was filthy most of the time already and the mudguard couldn’t help that. I had my first brush with altitude sickness after the rapid climb on fresh legs, with a night spent camping by the road and throwing up a mix of vegemite, avocado and tomato.
Approaching Cusco I heard word from a friend of a large group of cyclists heading off track towards Ausangate to climb up to the much touristed Cerro Colorado, and made good pace at the end to catch them for the adventure. There ended up being 5 of us spending more than a week off the main road camping in small Peruvian pueblo’s where our Spanish would be useless among the mainly Quechua speaking locals.
In Cusco I headed towards Hostal Estrellita which is basically the meeting point for all cyclists in the area, with everyone trading advice and stories about the lovely and eccentric owners. I crossed paths with a cycling duo from Chile and Colombia and we set off to ride out to Machu Picchu together.
The ride over to Ollantaytambo is an easy one, and when we arrived we spent only enough time to find a place to store our bikes while we figured out how to cheaply access the world wonder. It involved a $1 minibus to near the local train tracks and then a full day, 30km trek along the tracks (dodging loco’s) to reach the hub of Aguas Caliente. We tried our luck with some fake student cards we printed in Cusco to minimise the cost, but when they didn’t work explored options to sneak into the site.
I was very hesitant about visiting the Machu Picchu, from afar it seems to be a tourist trap which is no doubt beautiful, but serves to empty your wallet easily also. After the fact I’m so pleased I went out to see it, because there’s nothing I can say to describe the perfect structures and energy that leaches into you from Incan ruins. If you don’t care about getting that tourist snap which you’ve seen a million times, you can venture down into the ruins early in the day to have the place to yourself – exactly what I did and absolutely worth it.
On return I headed out to Nevado Ausangate with some other cyclists to trek around the massif. Ausangate is the highest mountain in the area, and (at least to me) infinitely more appealing since most backpackers opt for the (I’m sure) also beautiful Cusco hikes to Machu Picchu, which make’s Ausangate a quiet, peaceful and commanding alpine oasis.
Cusco – Valle Rio Apurímac Ene
There’s not a lot you can do about the road after Cusco if you want to stay in the mountains. It repeatedly punches you in the gut with 2,000m climbs taking 2 days to summit, before a measly 3 hours of downhill and a repeat beating. I opted to turn off shortly after Ayacucho and head down into the jungle to travel north through the Amazon on local lancha’s (longboats).
Most cyclists opt for the famed Peruvian divide here from all accounts is some of the best isolated riding in the world. I don’t regret heading into the jungle, but boy I don’t miss the humidity. I rode as far as Puerto Ene where I found a boat heading North to Puerto Ocopa, and then navigated on a pretty terrible road to Atalaya where I found another boat to take me North for 20 hours to Pucallpa.
When I did ride I made an embarrassing pace, needing to stop at every roadside Quebrada to wet myself, clothes and all, on account of the heat. By small graces there was plenty of shady watering holes near the main roads to take a dip along the way.
The folks in the jungle here are an interesting group – everywhere you ride in Peru you’re chased by cries of ‘Gringo, gringo’ but locals and small kids. It’s not meant as an insult and is just their way of acknowledging you as a foreigner. In the jungle the cries continue, but feel a hell of a lot more aggressive. When I asked other Peruano’s about this they simply stated that there are broad cultural differences with the jungle dwellers and the rest of the country – I may not ever understand.
Pucallpa – Huascaran
When I reached Pucallpa and started ascending towards the Cordillera Blanca, the heat manifested in the heaviest rain I’ve seen in years, and cut the riding days in half as I ducked for shelter every chance I could. My rain gear is definitely no longer waterproof. Lot’s of climbing here but with the altitude came the friendly locals again, and I was repeatedly gifted banana’s and pineapples to fuel me up the hill.
The Cordillera Blanca
What can I say, the best riding I’ve found on this trip. I passed the Cordillera three times, at Pastoruri, Punta Olimpica and Portachelo de Llanganuco. All were equally breathtaking and there’s no way I can write about them adequately in 3 paragraphs – read the full account here or watch the video below.
The Cordillera Negra and the Northern Jungle
At this point a lot of Northbound cyclists are well and truly sick of the mountains and opt for the flat and slightly more dangerous coastal route past Trujillo. If you venture North in the mountains you are rewarded with the stark contrast of the Cordillera Negra, which is similar to the dry red mountains further South in the Andes around Mendoza.
It’s hard work though, and I think if I had ridden the divide route I would be tempted by the coast also. The reality is that back home we have plenty of coastline, and the mountain’s are a lot more interesting to me – after so much climbing to date I reasoned ‘what’s a bit more?’
When you finally break clear of the Andes here you are spat out into the lush green jungle once again to battle heat, humidity and mosquito’s until after the crossing to Ecuador where the climb’s start again in full force and without any consideration for switchbacks or comfortable cycling grade’s.
There are two contender’s for this honour in Peru.
Trekking around Ausangate I was caught in a blizzard at a 5,100m pass and looked for a quick exit from the storm. Almost miraculously a local appeared with trusty steed to lash our packs down and get us out of the worst of the storm. When we finally surfaced many kilometre’s further along the track, we were invited in to a local hospedaje and promptly offered tea, popcorn and pasta.
I don’t know if these local’s were just incredibly friendly or if they could actually tell how appreciated this act would be, but it saved the day for us which was relatively miserable otherwise.
In the North of Peru I’d spent a few showerless days collecting dust along a detour road to get me off the main highway near Cutervo. Rose and family could see I hadn’t eaten well and invited me in for coffee and tamales before making sure I had access to the municipal pool for a dip and to wash the days of filth off of me.
Without question in the Cordillera Blanca. Nothing can compare to the feeling you get surrounded by the mountain giant’s here – even if you wake up to a frost covered sleeping bag and have to drag yourself out its warmth to get moving.