What we did
- Days taken: 19 (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: 4,980m (highest point on bikes)
- Max altitude slept at: 4,625m
- Nights spend under a roof (in a tent): 13 (6)
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 andesbybike.com 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 ‘maps.me’ 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