Huaraz -> Ayacucho (Route)
Let me explain: The Peru Divide is a route initiated by the Pikes on andescycling.com, attempting to cross the mountains of Central Peru only on small dirt roads, away from the hustle and bustle of the coastal region around the capital of Lima. Since 2013 the route has been refined by many riders to hit the most secluded and prestigious spots and has gained reputation as one of the most beautiful as well as hardest cycling routes in the world. Across roughly 1000km the Peru Divide rarely dips below 4000m altitude, climbing over 5000m peaks fifteen times. With very few exceptions, the road is only gravel at best, with surfaces ranging from fine sand to big slippy rocks. The active mining industry has developed a network of secluded routes through some of the most breathtaking mountain regions. These roads are rarely driven by anybody else and remain an absolute highlight for any keen cyclists who want to treat and torture themselves. Sounds right up our alley…
After enjoying the touristy treats of the trekking hub Huaraz, we began to climb the first 100km of the Divide. After a visit to a vegetarian Indian restaurant, followed by a pint or two of beer, and now carrying filled food panniers, we were happy with the tarmac road that eased us gently into what was about to come. We were excited and a bit nervous about the next weeks, having heard both praise and horror stories about this section of our journey through Peru. So far the road upstream seemed easy enough and it didn’t take long for us to gain altitude and for the temperatures to drop.
Fewer and fewer cars passed us when we finally took a left turn leaving the smooth road and civilisation behind to begin climbing further on a bumpy track towards snowy peaks. The sun dropped and we set up camp in a sheep pen that hadn’t seen any living thing in a while, and prepared for a frosty night. Wrapped in all clothes available and 3 pairs of socks, we couldn’t wait for the sun to melt away the thin sheets of ice on the tent that formed during the night. The panorama that we woke to the following morning was breathtaking and we took it all in, in the company of sheep, cows and a frog.
We had roughly divided the Divide into four subsections, giving us a week for each, with some time to rest in between. The first leg took us to the mining town of Oyon. We opted for a slightly more direct and less popular alternative route, dropping us into a deserty canyon, between the towns of Llipa and Cajatambo.
We quickly learned that we couldn’t trust our maps. Roads that were classified as main roads were rarely more than a rocky track and some marked villages were just a collection of ruins. We adapted fast and learned to stock extra food and take advantage of shopping, showers and camping opportunities whenever they appeared.
This meant sneaking into the municipal building of Llipa to take a quick shower, camping on the balcony of that building, and asking around for vegetables until an older lady sold us a few from her garden!
Away from villages, we would not see a soul or car for days, enjoying the company of cows, sheep, donkeys and llamas, many of whom wear stylish earrings.
Exhausted, we arrived in Oyon in the afternoon. We were ready for our rest day and went to the first hospedaje in sight. “No water!”, was what we were told. Not ideal when yearning for a shower. The next place seemed to be run by a fourteen-year-old boy, who made it clear using the universal teenage eye-roll that having us there as his only guests was a nuisance. A request for a second pillow was denied: “Sorry, we don’t have any.” It took 24 hours, but by the second day we were happily chatting about the town and our trip.
We visited the local fruit and veg market to refill our panniers, before starting the second leg. These markets were like Christmas as it was quite difficult to find fresh produce anywhere else and some stalls even stacked chocolate and cookies. They were also great to strike up conversation: with a Venezuelan guy who inspected our bikes, searching for a hidden motor; with an older woman who liked Jan’s eyes so much she said she wanted to take them out and put them on her face; and the many many people wondering where our children were. When we finally set off, we were immediately stopped by road workers. The road was closed and there was only one alternative.
Planned and actual route are often quite different. Too many uncertainties await along the way. Even if we end up more or less where we’d planned, landslides, road works and mining checkpoints often force detours. But isn’t that half the fun, especially as you can’t go wrong in a landscape like this.
Pleasant surprises certainly have more of an impact when you don’t expect them. While flying down a mountain into warmer regions, we sped past a handful of pools emitting a slight sulfur smell. Hot springs! We turned the bikes around and entered a small compound of a few houses and a row of steaming pools. 1 second later we were floating in the boiling hot water. Why not a spa treatment, after pedalling up a mountain all day? You only live once.
Little did we know that what followed was the longest, toughest climb of the route. Almost 2500m long and on steep loose gravel. We sweated, swore, cycled and pushed, whilst being overtaken by farmers with their cows. Needless to say, it took more than a day and we had to sleep in a lay-by to finish the fight in the morning.
The feeling cycling over the tip of the 5000m peaks is incredible. In a matter of a few seconds, the whole body posture changes. After hours and hours of tense pushing, the muscles in the legs relax. The cold winds, going unnoticed before, hit instantly and force a change of clothes as soon as the exercise stops. One or two jackets, a hat and thick gloves are necessary, because what follows is a downhill of between 1000m and 2000m in altitude. Depending on the road this might take an hour or more. Good luck not turning into an icicle.
Dusk arrived as soon as we hit the bottom. We set up camp in another cow pen, happy to avoid a freezing night at altitude. The place was idyllic, next to a river and it got even better when we were joined by Dutch cyclists Floor and Douwe. Tent by tent, we retreated for a peaceful night. Little did we know what would await us the next morning.
During the night the field slowly flooded. We woke up with wet sleeping bags, clothes and pretty much everything we owned. Bonding over the best way to dry out all of our inventory, we enjoyed a great morning with our new neighbours.
Fresh air, warm sun and the view of deep blue lakes and beautiful colourful mountains powered us through the next couple of days. Always by our side were herds of llamas.
The wholesome experience was only interrupted once. We set camp at a wonderful lake and started preparing dinner when it knocked on our (tent) door. A wild-eyed guy with a bottle of homemade schnaps seemed to have blurry dollar signs in his eyes when he spotted us. He aggressively asked for money for the privilege to camp at “his” lake. Due to his state, any friendly conversation broke down and after we refused his extortion attempts, he threatened to return with his gun. Even if it was drunken jabber, it doesn’t make for the most peaceful night, having an angry drunken guy out and about. So we packed up to return to the previous village (with him backtracking and asking us to stay and rest as we did so!). We asked for a place to sleep in the local shop and everyone in the village got involved, with the policeman insisting that we return to the lake and camp as it would be absolutely fine! After a lot of back and forth, one woman, in a voice that can only be described as a Monty Python caricature, screeched “but there’s a hotel!”, finding us the keys to a locked building with some rooms. After carrying our bikes up some stairs, we fell into bed and slept like logs.
The second leg was over and we decided to hunker down in San Mateo, a small town at the Carretera Central. This big road, which must be crossed, connects Lima with the mines in the mountains, all the way to the Amazonas. Naturally a constant stream of big mining trucks, along with commuter and tourist traffic, plaster this narrow road which drops from 4500m all the way down to the coast, mostly in a narrow canyon. This might be the most dangerous road in Peru: very busy, with no shoulder and many unlit tunnels along the way. As much as we enjoyed the smooth downhill, in the tunnels it was hard to distinguish if the bright light signalled the end of the tunnel or our end.
The break was a bit longer than intended. Jan got ill after cuddling the street dogs a bit too much (again). It wasn’t a problem though. The hotel was a dream, our new friend and solo cyclist Hannah we had met in Huaraz dropped in and we went for a couple of nice meals. Eventually, Jan got better and we were off once more. Lorry driver Alfredo gave us a lift back up the horror road and we sat back down in the saddle. There was a lot of mountains left to see.
The third leg has the reputation to be one of prettiest parts of the route as it crosses the Huancaya region, famous for its rich green canyons and cascadas. The cycling is hard and the views are stunning.
We left the valley of the waterfalls for the mountains once again. Flora and fauna changed rapidly as we climbed back to 4900m and lush green made room for wide cold plains, dotted with icy lakes and flamingos!
By this point, the bumpy roads had taken their toll on our bikes. Spiky rocks and vegetation made us patch our inner tubes on an almost daily basis, the hard downhills were eating up our brake pads, and dust and grime constantly ground down the teeth of chainrings and cassettes whilst working its way into the hubs. Spokes were breaking, forcing some emergency operations to keep the wobbling wheel in place. As much as we tried to hold everything together with duct tape and cable ties, at some point we needed help from a proper mechanic.
In the beautiful town of Huancavelica, we found our man. Looking at his shop, Einstein’s “Order is for idiots, geniuses can handle chaos” certainly rang true.
Huancavelica was a gorgeous little town, having something going on every day and night, including the local university presenting student projects, workers demonstrating for better conditions, and tiny children playing sports.
After fixing up our bikes and catching up with Mike, a fellow cyclist from Cornwall we had met a few days earlier, it was time for the final push to Ayacucho and the end of the Peru Divide. Gliding on the new tarmac road through colourful villages and chatting to farmers, these last days felt similar to the gentle introduction many weeks earlier. Like two bookends it perfectly bracketed all the incredible memories we had made on the way.
Even though we were generally in incredibly desolate and remote locations, we met some incredibly friendly and interesting people on the way, who often made our day. Not only our fellow cyclists, but many people living in, working in or visiting this incredible region.
There was Napoleon, who with his 75 years is currently building his own house, just outside the village of Laraos. He invited us to stay, as he enjoys the company of foreigners and likes to hear how they live.
Andres, who three times a week drives from Lima into the mountains to deliver trout to mining workers. He also likes to help out cyclists on the way, giving them a lift up the mountain.
Melissa and her little sister, who came out in the morning to help us pack our tent after visiting the evening before to sing some songs and listen to some “ingles musica electronica”.
Papa and Mama Geraldo, whose five children live and work in Lima and were happy to offer a bed in their garage. His neighbour also came around to try the ukulele.
And many more, who stopped to say hello.
These past weeks were a truly rough and wonderful experience.