Peru part 4: The Mighty Jungle: Cycling from Cusco to Ayacucho, the unconventional way (30 Sep – 09 Oct 2016)

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What we did

Blog Post

Route Map and Altitude Profile


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)

Blog post

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, 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 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


Here’s the route we took on a Google Map – cycling in red, pickup truck in green


And the altitude profile-bigger version here. Eagle-eyed readers will notice we stopped at Quinua rather than Ayacucho – more on that in the next blog post



We decided to take an unpaved road between Cusco and Ollantaytambo – base of the Abra Malaga – which turned into little more than a mountain bike track outside the village of (X). I’m not sure it’s wise to go on these things with a full set of panniers!


We were heading over there somewhere


First to get through the surreal salt mines of Maras. We had no idea how or why these exist, but they looked very extra-terrestrial

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?

Thankfully not too hungover, we began the very winding ascent of the Abra Malaga. This street sign has got it about right

Just a few hours later, the view back down the valley was superb


Reaching the Abra Malaga after around five hours of solid climbing. But that wasn’t the most momentous moment of the morning. Around 20 minutes before, after 65 consecutive days of cycling with no rain, the heavens opened. Big time.


It was a descent of two halves. The first being horrendous as we cycled right through a freezing rainstorm. The second, after that had disappeared just as quickly as it had started, was beautiful – and absolutely crazy, with the low point at Quillabamba more than 3,000 metres below the Abra Malaga


It was much more lush at the lower altitudes


After eventually reaching Quillabamba after dark, we set about finding the best cakes the town had to offer the next morning. And boy, it had a lot to offer!


After we’d prised ourselves away from the cremoladas, we realised it was Sunday, meaning Sunday lunch day! Around 30km down the road we stumbled across this sprawling countryside restaurant serving fried fish with yucca, alongside bottles of Cusquena beer. Result!


Later that evening, in the small mining town of Palma Real, Charlie had sobered up enough to teach the kids a bit of English


The road was eerily quiet the next day


Though we managed to find a cafe with a view


A very nice view, in fact!


The road we were taking was so new that the mapping on Openstreetmap and Google is pretty inaccurate. Our app told us to take at least two ‘shortcuts’ that would almost certainly have seen us drown. But some of them were slightly less dangerous


We stopped in Kiteni, a major town on the route, and gateway to the fabled rapids of the Pongo de Mainique, made famous by a combination of Michael Palin (Full Circle) and Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo). The following morning we hopped in minivan towards the docks, but unfortunately the weather had different ideas. Following a night of torrential rain, after an hour we abruptly stopped as a section of the road had washed away and was now part of a raging river. The fellow in the poncho was one of the group of locals who tried to ‘rebuild’ it by lobbing boulders at the river to see what stuck. Needless to say, we didn’t make it!


After the Pongo debacle, we carried on cycling, passing another small mining village called Kepashiato. This was the last civilisation for at least 90km and this, believe it or not, was the nicest place to stay in town


Between Kepashiato and the next settlement, Chirumpiari, there was the small matter of a 1,500 metre pass involving over 2,000 metres of total ascent. It was a long and sweaty struggle to the top that made us both quite ill – but the view over the valley below wasn’t half bad

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 descent towards the Apurimac river – last seen on the Choquiquerao trek – was pretty spectacular

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!

Next: The greater divide: Off-roading it (mostly) to Huaraz


3 thoughts on “Peru part 4: The Mighty Jungle: Cycling from Cusco to Ayacucho, the unconventional way (30 Sep – 09 Oct 2016)

  1. Pingback: Peru part 3: Awesome Ausangate: Trekking around (probably) Peru’s most beautiful mountain (26-28 Sep 2016) | Long way up

  2. Pingback: Peru (03 Sep – 05 Dec 2016) | Long way up

  3. Pingback: Peru part 5: The Greater Divide: Off-roading it (mostly) to Huaraz (10-28 Oct 2016) | Long way up

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