What we did
- Days taken: 10 (including 3 rest days)
- Distance cycled: 500 km
- Total elevation gain: 9,083m
- Max daily distance: 143km (highest in Peru)
- Max daily elevation gain: 2,713m (highest of trip)
- Max altitude reached: 4,333m
- Min altitude: 586m
- Nights spend under a roof (in a tent): 10 (0)
When it was finally time to leave Cusco, as always, we had a decision to make about where to go next. Like all the cycle tourists we met, and the majority of whose blogs we’d read, we were planning on cycling the ‘great divide’ route. No, not that great divide route, but the Peruvian version, so-named by Andesbybike.com, which is a series of unpaved roads linking the central highlands town of Huancavelica with Huaraz, gateway to the Cordillera Blanca mountain range that we’d been mostly dreaming about for the past five months.
But the dilemma everyone seems to face is that Huacavelica is at least a week’s cycling from Cusco, and there is no suggested route on Andesbybike between the two (almost every cyclist in Peru and Bolivia seemed to be exclusively following their routes). The bizarre result of all this is that, faced with the prospect of having to devise their own cycling route, most cyclists seem to choose instead to travel between Cusco and Huancavelica (or its nearby neighbour Ayacucho) by bus.
We (I) really didn’t want to do that, so instead, as our unofficial route planner, I got looking for alternatives. The most common route amongst the hardy cyclists that do pedal it seemed to be to follow the main highway out of Cusco on a (very) undulating westerly route through Peru’s central highlands. This seemed quite hard, so I kept looking. And you can imagine my delight when, after clicking first on Cusco and then on Ayacucho on the Strava.com route planner, the suggested ‘minimum climbing’ route actually went a rather different way, via the Peruvian jungle, on a road that was supposedly paved but that wasn’t even on our paper Michelin map!
I set about convincing Charlie that this was definitely a good idea, and that we shouldn’t pay any attention to the fact that this area was, as the heart of Peru’s ‘Shining Path’ resistance movement in the 1980s and 1990s, still the country’s terrorism and drug trafficking heartland! Amazingly it worked, though I think what actually convinced both of us was when we met Arne, a cyclist who had just completed the route, and told us that almost the whole road was indeed newly paved, with plenty of accommodation along the way. With our selective hearing we decided to ignore his other revelation – that there was a 1,500 metre climb right in the middle of route that hadn’t shown up on Strava (meaning this was actually the route with the most climbing). We could always worry about that later!
So off we went. First we picked a quiet route up to the Sacred Valley ruins of Ollantaytambo, via the surreal salt plains of Maras and the even more surreal Sacred Valley brewery, with a bar and craft beer/burger menu that wouldn’t have been out of place in the heart of Shoreditch. From here as expected the road went up – a long way – to the ‘Abra Malaga’ pass, before a dizzying 3,300 metre descent down an enormous valley to the jungle’s economic capital, Quillabamba. We did this all in one very long day, which turned out to have both the greatest total ascent (2.7km) and total descent (4.5km) of any single day on our trip. We then carried on into the sweaty heart of the jungle, passing by scores of avocado, banana and mango trees, and staying along the way in newly-built towns and villages serving the region’s developing mining industry, all the way to the Jungle’s other capital of Kimbiri, some 500km and 9,000m of climbing later.
But what happened after Kimbiri? I hear you ask. Good question! Well that huge pass in the middle of the route turned out to be really quite hard, and we both got quite ill after doing it. Not feeling much better after a day and a half off the bikes – Charlie in particular -, and not much enjoying the crap town that was Kimbiri, we decided that the upcoming 3,000+ metre climb back to the highlands was probably not the best idea. So we put our bikes and our backsides in a pickup truck and paid someone to drive us up instead!
Despite the warnings, there turned out to be little semblance of any danger on the jungle route, although large stretches of the road were eerily quiet. (We also took to staying in hospedajes every night, rather than camping, for some added security, as well as because it was so bloody hot). Instead, along the way we encountered some of the most friendly and open people we’d met since the trip began. The heat drove us to quite insane sugar cravings, and we were delighted to discover the jungle folk had a penchant for cremoladas (a sort of ice-cream milkshake) as well as all manner of cakes. That’s about as good as the food got though – it was on the whole easily some of the worst in the whole country, with the regional specialties being drastically overcooked pasta served in lukewarm broth, and – of course – fried chicken. Lovely.
Route map and altitude profile
After safely reaching the valley floor, we turned west towards the famous Inca ruins and modern tourist town of Ollantaytambo. Before we arrived, we transpired to pass the Sacred Valley brewery, and, well, we really couldn’t say no to a tasting flight and a burger now could we?
While about 95% of this road is wonderful, smooth asphalt, the other 5% leaves a lot to be desired. Here’s some of the many water/waterfall crossings we had to navigate along the way to the top of the pass
The next day was – unbeknown to us at the time – our last riding in the jungle. We were both feeling pretty under the weather, but couldn’t refuse a local family’s offer to cook us lunch. Head chef Daniel cooked a mean dish of chicken, yucca and rice, whilst his wife practiced her English on us. Amazingly (this is completely true) the only two words she knew were “love” and “sugar”. She’s only one word away from Peru’s unofficial national mantra. We also met possibly the entire primary school population in the local village, who all wanted a go on the bikes!