Peru part 5: The Greater Divide: Off-roading it (mostly) to Huaraz (10-28 Oct 2016)

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What we did

  • Days taken: 1(including 2 rest days)
  • Distance cycled: 1,051km
  • Total elevation gain: 21,602m
  • Max daily distance: 121km
  • Max daily elevation gain: 2,188m
  • Max altitude reached: 4,980(highest point on bikes)
  • Max altitude slept at: 4,625m
  • Nights spend under a roof (in a tent): 13 (6)

Blog post

It’s not often you board a bus and then get off, 4 hours later, 3,000 metres higher up. And I’m pretty sure it’s not very sensible – what with that whole altitude sickness thing. But that’s just what we did when we found ourselves swiftly out of the jungle (see last post) and back in the highlands, in the historic village of Quinua. It’s historic primarily as the site of the battle of Ayacucho, which was the defining one in Peru’s war of independence, and a huge white obelisk at the north of town marks the occasion.  But as usual we spurned the chance to be conventional tourists and visit the thing,  instead deciding it would be a more ‘cultural’ experience to buy two rounds of deep fried pork and doughnuts in the local sports field whilst listening to more of that Chicha music. And who could blame us, as the day we arrived turned out to be Quinua’s birthday!

It was a Sunday night and so, predictably, the music went on until dawn. But despite the resulting lack of sleep, it was time to head towards Huancavelica and the start of the ‘great divide’ route. And it was a beautiful ride – that is, until about 30 minutes in, when all of a sudden my right pedal came loose and promptly fell out of its now-broken crank arm. Long story short, we were (very) lucky enough to be able to roll down to the next town where there was a waiting shared taxi going to the city of Ayacucho, where I bought a new (technical term alert) crankset for twelve quid. If this had happened in the middle of the Bolivian salt plains rather than near a city, you might be reading my obituary rather than my blog right now!

Ayacucho turned out to be a lovely city, and I think we both wished we could have stayed longer than our impromptu afternoon. But alas we set off the next day for a second time towards Huancavelica, this time on the newly-paved route 26B, that would take us up more than 2,000m, down more than 1,000m, back up another 1,000m, and finally down 700m to Huancavelica. Those are quite big numbers to cyclists, by the way! The road was mostly quiet and in excellent nick, although close to Huancavelica it was still being paved, meaning hundreds of workmen wolf-whistling at us and shouting ‘a donde van?’ (‘where are you going?’) or ‘de donde viaje?’ (‘where are you travelling from?’) every few minutes. Or, for a reason I couldn’t quite fathom, literally mimicking our pedalling action as we went past.

After a day’s rest and carb/protein-loading in Huancavelica we were going to start the ‘great divide’ route proper – a mega-popular route following a series of steep dirt roads that originated on the website that everyone seems to religiously follow. But a last minute u-turn meant that we instead decided to follow a different road towards the central highlands metropolis of Huancayo, where the locals are affectionately known as ‘Wankas’. Whilst our decision to follow the tarmac rather than the gravel would likely be frowned upon by the purists that make up most cycle tourists, the road was very beautiful and mercifully didn’t leave us with that oh-so-familiar saddle sore.

After Huancayo, we carried on up through a beautiful valley to the town of La Oroya and past the Carretera central highway, traditionally half way through the great divide route, but which had taken us a whole two-and-a-half days, thanks to a combination of tarmac and our super-strong legs. Here we did, after all, join the dirt roads, and it felt good to be back in the wilderness as we pedalled past a series of beautiful lakes. But this is Peruvian mining country, and before long we were being overtaken by dozens of lorries on awful dirt roads, and it wasn’t much fun. So we decided to leave the route already, and cycle away from the trucks down a different valley. This decision was largely driven by me clicking on our next destination on the ‘’ app, and seeing it suggest a different route, with a lower overall distance. The descent that followed was stunning, but also worryingly steep, and by the time we reached the end, we’d managed to drop to a whopping 1,000m below our intended destination, which itself was almost 1,000m below the next mountain pass. Needless to say Charlie wasn’t too happy!

Well, the next bit is history, and we did that 2,000m climb in around a day’s riding – rejoining the great divide route in the process – followed by a descent, followed by another 2,000m climb – to the highest point on our trip at 4,980m (if only it could have been 20 metres higher!), followed by another huge descent, ending in some rare civilisation in the town of Oyon three and a half days later, exhausted once again and now just a few days from our long-time target of Huaraz.

After a well-earned rest day (where I think we may actually have stayed in bed all day), we took a look at the altiutude profile for the last stretch and decided we didn’t much like the look of one particular 3,000m climb coming up. So instead, we devised another route with a little less climbing, and this time it was definitely the right decision, as we got up-close and personal with the Cordillera Huayhuash mountains near the high-altitude Raura mine. I know the numbers must be getting boring, but another 1,500 descent followed to the highway town of La Union where the tarmac began once more. Our final leg was another 1,500m climb on the pavement to the start of the Pastouri highway, a desolate dirt road that crosses the Cordillera Blanca range, and where we saw just two other vehicles in 24 hours. After sitting out a heavy and very cold hailstorm at 4,800m altitude, on October 28th we rolled down the final 1,500m hill to Huaraz, gateway to the Cordillera Blanca and the town which would be our home for the next couple of weeks. In 18 days since we left Ayacucho, we’d done more than 20,000m of climbing over a distance of around 1,000km – equivalent of doing most of a Tour de France. And all with steel bikes, fat tyres and fully loaded panniers.Impressive, eh?!

The route in all was a wonderful mix of asphalt and dirt, with some incredible climbs and descent all surrounded by views of snowy peaks and beautiful mountain lakes, and (best of all) quite a few hot springs along the way. The climbing was at times super hard, and we both got a bit ill on more than one occasion. But we’d also chosen to pedal quite hard (partly due to the impending bad weather), meaning we completed this route quite a bit quicker than most other cyclists. The eight passes above 4,400m all came complete with spectacular views, and were all well worth the effort, although it was often quite demoralising to reverse a day or more’s worth of climbing in just a couple of hours of descent, only to have to start all over again that same day!

Route map and altitude profile

5. The Greater Divide.png

Here’s the usual map of our route. Cycling in red, and our bus to Ayacucho (if you can even see it) in green.

Great Divide.png

And the altitude profile



The calm before the storm: A few moments after taking this snap from the Quinua – Huancavelica road my pedal fell off and we had to board a collectivo to Ayacucho


View from the 26B road – our home for the next two and a half days – outside Ayacucho


On the 2,000m climb to the main pass, aka Huarac Huachay


Charlie was struggling a bit near the top!


But we made it, to more stunning views over Peru’s central highlands


And a great descent down the other side. This could be straight out of a ‘world’s greatest roads’ coffee table book. Thankfully we were about to go down those switchbacks!


Our surroundings became progressively more lush towards the bottom of the valley


Before we knew it, we were heading back up again, this time towards the first of four passes before the town of Huancavelica


The view from the top of our second 2,000m climb before Huancavelica. Definitely worth all the effort!


View from the climb out of Huancavelica. Below is the road we would have taken if my damn pedal hadn’t fallen off!


Wonderful view over the (X) valley


We dropped back down to the 3S highway – the very first road we took in Peru – after the town of Izuchaca. And it was as beautiful as ever


Another huge climb followed. Though shortly after this photo was taken, the heavens opened and we were forced to stop for the night in the small town of Acostambo


We arrived in the metropolis of Huancayo the next morning. Our first stop was the city’s produce market


After a long ride out of the city, the road got progressively quieter as we wound up through a narrow valley to the Carretera central – the main highway towards Lima. My GoPro was playing up this day so I only managed to take the one photo, but it was another photogenic ride


We left the asphalt and the lorries behind after the highway town of La Oroya, meaning we had views like this all to ourselves


Unfortunately, in Peru dirt roads usually come hand-in-hand with huge climbs! This one was actually one of the hardest of our whole trip


But we were rewarded with a cycle alongside a beautiful lake, with only ourselves for company


Shortly after, we joined the ‘great divide’ route. This is Charlie preparing for a night’s camping outside the village of Yantac


And just as shortly after, we left it. After encountering a few too many mining lorries, we turned off onto this minor dirt road which according to our mapping app, would save us 10k of riding


It began with a beautiful and rather innocuous downhill


Followed by more beautiful downhill


We soon reached the pretty village of Banos


Which is named after its natural thermal baths. A private one in the main complex cost about 50p – we couldn’t really say no


Now nice and clean, we carried on descending, much more than we’d originally expected


Eventually, we reached the valley floor. We’d ended up coming down more than 2000m in half a day, and in Peru, what goes down must come back up. Suffice to say, Charlie wasn’t hugely happy with the decision to drop so far down! This picture was taken just before the ascent began


After an impromptu night of wild camping by the side of the road, we started a big day of climbing


And soon enough, it was all smiles again as we rose through another pretty, and pretty steep, valley


At times our first off-road 2000m climb seemed never-ending


The road/path flattened out near the top, amidst wild camping opportunities galore


Eventually we reached the top, and once again, a huge downhill awaited us


Near the bottom, in the village of Parquin, we were subjected to the tuneless melodies of yet another brass band


After stopping at another thermal bathing house in Huancahuasi, you guessed it, we began another 2000m climb


The approach to Rapaz, half way up to the next pass, where the owner of the local albergue (fancy hotel) tried to charge us 100 soles (almost 25 quid) for a room. We managed to negotiate it down to a more reasonable 30


Looking back towards Rapaz the following morning


Just before the pass we entered another mining area. This one had something of a haunting beauty to it


Finally, we reached the top – and at 4980m above sea level, this would be the highest point we would reach on the bikes. The view back from where we came was pretty special


But not as much as the one ahead of us. That’s the Cordillera Huayhuash mountain range in the distance, where we would be trekking in a couple of weeks’ time


Charlie tackling the final descent before Oyon, around three-quarters of the way through the ‘great divide’ route


Leaving Oyon, we decided to part once more – this time for good – from the ‘great divide’ route, and head instead towards the Cordillera Huayhuash mountains. As you can see, it was a promising start…


As we rode towards a couple of pretty spectacular snowy mountain peaks


The view looking back from just below the pass


It’s a mountain!


Over the other side of the pass, the weather quickly worsened. After this photo was taken, it started to rain quite heavily


Luckily, it subsided long enough for us to set up camp by the side of the road


The next morning, the clear blue skies were back


Just in time for one of the most beautiful stretches of the route. We passed a number of lakes, reflecting the peaks of the Huayhuash range in the background


The descent continued through yet another picture-perfect valley


The road really wasn’t designed for bikes!


Yet another climb, as we approached the highway town of La Union


The drop down was pretty spectacular


And finally, we reached the tarmac! Just one more big climb to go now…


Halfway up, we stopped for the night in the town of Huayllanca. And, just as we were getting a bit homesick, imagine our excitement as we found a games machine with Goldeneye on it! But alas, the controllers didn’t bloody work


After a final 1,500m climb, we reached the ominous-looking entrance to the Pastouri highway, the southernmost road crossing the Cordillera Blanca range


Some of this one really wasn’t designed for bikes!


The road was completely desolate, with just two vehicles passing us in a 24 hour stretch


After surviving an hour-long hailstorm, we managed to find a spot to camp. Somehow, at this campsite, we were kept awake for a while by a dog barking


The next morning, we were back to blue skies


Well, for a while anyway. This was the road leading up to the Pastouri glacier, and our highest point before the long downhill to Huaraz


It’s a long way down!


3 thoughts on “Peru part 5: The Greater Divide: Off-roading it (mostly) to Huaraz (10-28 Oct 2016)

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

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

  3. Pingback: Peru part 6: Walking in the Wilderness: Trekking the Huayhuash circuit (31 Oct – 08 Nov 2016) | Long way up

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