22 September 2014

Chicla to Huancavelica: riding Perú´s great divide (part 2)

After we completed the first section of this magnificent route by the Pikes on Bikes, we knew only 350 km separeted us from the beautiful colonial town of Huancavelica, We´ve ridden distances like these in less than 24 hours many times as part of audax events in the UK...But again, km in the Peruvian cordillera doesn´t mean much. You are better off looking at the profile...

Profile of the part 2, as  taken from the Pikes´blog
350 km and 7 passes over 4500 m was a much more accurate picture of what we had ahead. Then, Pete, the australian cyclist we had met a couple days earlier going North, had assured us that the scenery was nothing but incredible...and that he had also endured snow every day. With all that in mind, and a few chocolate bars in our frame bags (no cheese was to be found in the carretera central, unfortunately) we set off from Chicla...in the pissing rain. Below is our account of some of the best riding we´ve done in our cycling days. Indeed, Pete was so right...

We left the busy carretera central and took on the trails back up to our working altitude of above 4000 m. Initially we were faced with some steep sections, that then got slightly easier as we approached the abandoned town of Yuracmayo...

...where we were astonished to see a large group of mountain bikers come up to the laguna near this town... It turned out there were limeños who had driven all the way from sea level to 3700 m, then ridden up to Yuracmayo at 4300 m (some having real difficulties with the altitude, obviously!). Most were sporting shorts and summer clothes, so when rain and snow hit the area, they sought refuge in the only opened building in town: the security guards who looked after the represa (dam) gave all of us a dry place to shelter for a while.

With snow hitting Yuracmayo hard at 2 pm, we thought it was best not to climb any higher, wait out the storm and continue the following day. Security guards William and Gerardo offered us to sleep in their hut, but most interestingly, kept us entertained with really fulfilling conversations about the present and past of Perú. We believe that speaking to locals is the best way of getting to know a country...we are as interested in the social issues of Perú, as we are in its incredible scenery

In the morning, we set off towards the first pass Punta Ushuayca (4950 m) with a fresh layer of snow covering the mountains...

The last few km to the top to the top of the pass were especially hard, but with such scenery, it did not matter that much....

...then a muddy and rocky descent followed, before a sharp turn delivered us back to another steep section of bad, rocky surface up to Abra Suijo pass.

And as we struggle with the climb, we saw Felix, a German tourists who was riding the same route as us in reverse. It appears the great divide of Perú is becoming more and more popular to travel from Huaraz to Ayacucho, as an alternative to the 3S (the Panamericana of the mountains)
The climb to Abra Suijo saw Alberto feeling weak, and after many water stops to admire the views...
...we set up camp to continue the following the day with the remaining 400 m climb to the top. 

First thing in the morning we make our breakfast of oats, milk, and fruits. At 4400 m, the morning sun makes such a difference that we take our time...
...before continuing back up, where we see these amazing rock formations...

...then, at 4700 m and near the pass, we cycled past two beautiful lagunas, the second one with more nevados for background

The following descent to the town of Tanta was quite rolling...
...passed some more lagunas (with their obligatory trout farms)...
...until we reached the red-roofed town of Tanta, where we had our lunch. The whole area is the Nor Yauyos Cochas reserve, free to access and with a few information offices scattered around - one such office is in Tanta.
Going round the big lake near Tanta, we prepared ourselves for what comes next: the bike and hike!
After a few gentle kms, we struggle to push the bikes through some steep sections of singletrack. This bike and hike avoids two big passes and saves about 35km on the way to Vilca, but it is not to be taken lightly...

...as it obviously takes much longer than expected...and so we camped at another idyllic location, near the river Cañete.

Luckily, we are able to cycle some parts of the bike and hike, like this one, which remind Alberto of his good old mountain biking days

The town of Vilca, at the end of the bike and hike, and its colonial "Centenario Bridge" is a welcome sight...

...leaving Vilcas, on one of the most scenic roads of our time in Perú, we are treated to some impressive vistas of the río Cañete´s lagunas
Late in the afternoon we pulled into Huancaya (not Huancayo!), a touristy town for Peruvians that is empty during the week. The municipality runs a budget hospedaje and a tiny museum with about a dozen mummies, so we called it a day and enjoyed a hot shower. They also supply Lima with tons of trout, we guessed that´s why the trout statue in the main plaza?

...then the following morning we are treated to some paving! We love dirt, but a freshly paved quiet road is always a welcome sight, which gave us the sense of speed that we had long forgotten after so many days on the divide!

Continuing on the paved road, we quickly gained altitude to Laraos, which is surrounded by impressive pre-inca terraces. In Laraos, after a yummy S/.5 almuerzo just off the main road, it was time to stock up for 2-3 days without any facilities. 

With heavier bikes, we pedalled on climbing away from Laraos...

...until the freezing afternoon rain caught up with us at 4300 m. Just before the storm, we had the perfect afternoon light. The following day we would be going into what looks like mordor here (to the right of the lit up mountain!)
After the storm came the morning sun - it was time to dry all our kit
At the turnoff with the Laguna Pomacocha, we diverted from the Pikes routesheet and went right, avoiding a potentially muddy climb and cutting the distance to Huancavelica short by 20 km. Although we have cycled the better part of 8 months without a routesheet, it still felt a bit nervewracking to leave behind the Pikes´notes! 
The climb was gentle at the beginning, but got incredibly steep in the last km, requiring both of us to push up more than 20% inclines...but check out those colors!

The descent on the other side was typically peruvian, with tight switchbacks
Another climb followed, this time with another range of nevados for company...
...and of course, some alpacas and llamas...
...each with their own unique style

...in fact, it was just like in the UK, as they were all queueing to get over the pass!
After we left the queue of llamas behind, we enjoyed some ups and downs at 4500 m - we love altiplano riding!
At 5 pm we set up camp by a laguna, just minutes before an electric storm spitted rain/hail/snow on us...not fun times as we strained to remember our lightning safety information from when we were kids.
In the morning we climbed the gentle gradients of Abra Turpo, before dropping down to a lowly 3500 m...

...early afternoon in Acobambilla, our first resuply after some days of riding, where we got hit but heavy rain storm. We sought shelter in the municipalidad, where we were allowed to sleep in the office of  the "Juntos" program. It gives support to the poorest people of rural Peru.
Acobambilla suffered a devastating flooding in 2007, so most of the town is now built above the bridge and has few facilities. However, in the main plaza, there was Lea´s shop, selling the usual Peruvian grub, plus basic ingredients. She also cooks food upon request, and while waiting for it, we saw life go by: from kids selling freshly caught trucha, to a woman in excruciating pain asking Lea for advice on medicines, to an old man buying a month´s worth of flour and rice.
As has become our custom, the following morning saw us on another climb. We passed villages where kids were eager to talk to us...The usual "where you came from, how far you ride, how many punctures" was followed by the eldest boy asking if he could buy Alberto´s bike and how much we wanted for it...
As we kept climbing, we realised there was no way we could make it to last pass of the route and on to Huancavelica before dark, so found an ideal spot to camp, above the road and with a view of the entire valley.

Then, as per usual, kept on climbing after breakfast and finally made it to the top of the last pass of this part of the Great Divide, Abra Llamaorgo (4700 m)

The final descent into Huancavelica was of the fast and good surface type, an ideal way of finishing off what had been an amazing week of dirt riding.

We hit Huancavelica (3700 m) on a Sunday, which meant feria day...

...and we couldn´t resist to try the local dish of lechón con chuño (pulled roasted pork with dehydrated potatoes - at the bottom)...

...and a river fish ceviche and chicharrón (fried fish, or pescaito frito if you´ve been to the South of Spain), with chicha morada (a drink made of purple corn)
And that was the end of the Great Divide of Perú riding for us. The Pikes have another 700 km of route from Huancavelica to Santa Rosa (see here and here), but we did not have the time to ride them on this part of the trip. 

Route notes:

- As with the previous post, all the information you need can be found on the Andes by Bike website. Same as before, it is crucial to be well acclimmatised to tackle this route. Water was never a problem.
- The climb to Laguna Pomacocha and Mina Mario can be avoided by simply sticking to the "main" road, as described in the comments we made on Andes by Bike:

As an alternative to the Paso Punta Pumacocha and Paso Don Mario, we saved about 20 km by ignoring the instruction to turn L at 175.5 km 4300 m. It may be a good alternative if you are pressed for time like us, or if you want to be able to divert to the town of Atcas and carry less food. We don´t think you save that much climbing though (the first pass is slightly lower, also very steep, and the second a bit higher than the Pikes´ route). Here are our route notes if you do decide to take this alternative, from Pikes 175.5 km:

- Turn right instead of left signposted Mina San Valentín
- 4.4 km 4590 m go R signposted Heraldos Negros
- 9.7 km 4850 m High Point
- 17.3 km 4400 m Low Point, Cross bridge
- 18.6 km 4400 m go L/straight (R is for Atcas, a few km away slightly downhill and with at least a shop)
- 24.6 km 4820 m High Point
- 38.4 km 4620 m go L (signposted Puente Melliza). R would also return to the Pikes route via the main road, but will take longer and carries more traffic
- 40.3 km 4600 m sharp R, easy to miss
- 45.2 km 4460 m go R at the few houses rejoins Pikes´ route. There´s a water tap available.
- 46 km equals Pikes´ route 240 km

16 September 2014

Huaraz to Chicla: riding Perú´s great divide (part 1)

The Cordilleras Blanca and Negra were such an incredible place in which to spend a few days, and we will hopefully be back for more some day. Then came the family visit - time to put on weight, blend in with the masses of tourists that visit Machu Picchu every day, and get our fitness levels back to almost zero. Finally, after nearly a month off, it was time to get back on our bikes and carry on South...

With lighter bikes and lots of enthusiasm, we planned what would be one of the most challenging rides of our cycling days...thanks to the great Andes by Bike website. The route would take us from Conococha, 80 km south of Huaraz, to the lovely colonial town of Huancavelica. Only 800 km (over 770 km of it unpaved) and no less than 13 passes over 4500 m separated us. 

The Pikes´  website is like no other...full of useful information, unpretentious and when coupled with their blog made for a great guide to take on our route. The Great Divide name originates from the famous Great Divide mountain biking route of the US, which essentially separates the Western and Eastern watersheds (water drains to the Pacific in one side, to the Atlantic in the other). In Perú, that would be to the Pacific, and to the Amazon basin.

To our surprise, this incredible route not only would take us to wonderful places, but also allow us to interact with the most kind and friendly people of Perú to date. As it is still a relatively new route, most locals welcomed us into their villages, and told us stories about the previous passing cyclists, some of whom we´ve already met or heard of. 

Below the story of the first half of the route...

The profile looks intimidating. No flat bits anywhere, and look at those small numbers on the Y axis! (taken from the Pikes´ blog)

It´s election season in Perú - here with our lighter bikes (see the fancy frame bags and lack of front panniers!)

A quick bash South on the main road, the sometimes dodgy Callejón de Huaylas, and we leave the mighty Cordillera Blanca in the background...

Armed with the Pikes´audax-style routesheet, we felt at home. Except that this routesheet is for off-road riding that would take not hours, but days.
The laguna Conococha (4100 m) marks the official start of the route. If you travel through here, avoid the food at the town at all costs! For the first time in eight months in South America, we met a soup that we just could not bring ourselves to eat (think unwashed intestines and stomach chunks floating around delivering a horrible smell...)

After a short climb, we get the first views of the Cordillera Huayhuash, a place we would very much like to visit someday.
And as it often happens in Perú, there may be no facilities in towns but there will always be mobile signal. In the background, the Yerupaja (6635 m, and the second highest mountain of Perú) overlooks the valley

We then arrived in Ticllos and spot the beautiful church made by the Don Bosco association. Upon arrival, the major welcomed us, gave us a place to sleep in the municipality, and then Abraham (the treasurer) took us on a tour of the town. and a quick visit to the Dr so Alberto could get some antibiotics for his throat. Still don´t understand why some cyclists complain about the Peruvian hospitality...

Before we knew it, we were cycling in the high Andes.

It was a great feeling to finally be riding on the Great Divide.

Most days, we were more concerned with animals in the road than cars.

Then it was time to get low (1400m) one last time, down into a river valley. Llipa Viejo is the (abandoned) settlement that is pictured on the slope

After camping in the under-construction sports stadium in Llipa Nueva, we descended for 44km, losing  2300m of altitude in the process -- with many stops to let the rims cool off...

... watching the scenery change as we went.

After an annoying puncture for Alberto, we reached the bottom at the hottest part of the day, ready to start the 3100m climb that would take us two days to complete.

On our way up, a passing gringo on a motorbike stopped to chat - he had done plenty of cycle touring in India, China and Nepal, so was very keen to hear our story. Not having enough time to cycle tour in Perú, he had jumped on a rented motorbike in Cusco, and was moto touring the quiet roads of the Andes.

Halfway up the climb, the village of Yocchi had a really well-stocked shop (locally grown avocados) and even public (with a cold shower) restrooms we could use as we camped by the side of the road.

After four days of riding, we reach our first sizable town of the route, Cajatambo, where we enjoyed an afternoon off.

On the dirt roads, our new bike setup was really coming into its own. We dubbed it the "mullet setup" - business in the front, party in the back.

Then it was time for our first of many high passes, Paso Pacomayo at 4540m.

Under threatening skies, we set up camp at that day´s lowest point, 4300m.

But in the morning, sunny weather was restored and we enjoyed another high-altitude day´s riding to Oyon.

Climbing again through a pampa...

...we stopped in at the only facility in 2.5 days´riding, a small shop, and the owner´s son (whose name is Stalin, or so he said, we are not kidding) joined us for a few kilometers of towards the closed Mina Chanca.

The approach to the mine featured a cemetery, presumably for the mine workers who had died on duty.

Onwards we climbed towards Punta Chanca, passing beautiful lakes and colorful mountains as we went.

All of the people we met on the road to Oyon (which is to say, two cars and a man on horseback) were incredibly friendly and stopped to chat. This guy got a real kick out of seeing us and insisted on taking a picture. 

We topped out at 4850m and enjoyed an awesome descent into the mining town of Oyon....

...through a valley that looked like what you would see if you looked up the world 'valley' in the dictionary.
Oyon wasn´t exactly the charming town we were hoping for, but it did have everything we needed, including ferreteria, bike shop, and a filling Chifa restaurant, complete with drunk man falling asleep on his plate.
 All the affordable hotels were either full, too gross to contemplate, or required climbing narrow stairs that couldn´t fit our bikes. So we asked in the church, and were given the meeting room of the parroquia for the night.

From Oyon it was time to climb again (basically, every morning, it was time to climb again), past more mines -- looking at the colors of the mountains, it wasn´t hard to see why.

We reached 4870m before a slight descent...

...and then another short climb...

....before finally reaching Abra Rapaz at 4940m, a new record for us.

We descended into Rapaz, which was deserted as the entire village was watching a bullfight as part of the town´s fiestas.

Then kept descending to the thermal springs of Huancahuasi, where a dip in the warm waters was the closest thing to a shower we´d get for a long time. The owner allowed us  to camp in the field behind the hot springs, which seemed great until we learned the field was the late night hangout for about 20 curious donkeys and horses. Oh well!

The following day, a short day to Parquin was called for. We always approach Sundays in Peruvian towns with a bit of caution, as it usually means large groups of drunk men in otherwise  deserted towns. But the drunk men of Parquin were actually very friendly. Fernando (on the right) was a candidate for mayor (and not drunk) and invited us to his house for lunch, as there were no restaurants open on Sunday. 

After a night sleeping on the floor of Parquin´s health centre, we started what was described on our route sheet as a ´brutal climb´. It sure was steep at times, although we didn´t suffer as much as we expected to.

After a roadside camp we were up and over Abra Mio (4760m) in the morning...great views all around...
...then enjoyed another thrilling descent...
...before hitting what the Pikes´describe as "large and pretty" lake. Not only it feeds water to Lima, and generates some electricity for the Limeños, but also has a trout farm at the far end.
Going around the big lake pictured above, we met Alfredo, the trout farm owner who invited us in to his warm hut for a sorely needed hot drink. He and his son collect a mere 300-400 kg of truchas every Thursday that they then sell in Lima for S/.12 ($4.5) a kg!

We left Alfredo feeding his truchas while we tackled the last climb of the day, to Punto Punta Fierro Cruz (4820 m), an easy yet scenic one...
...then camped at a chilly 4600 m. This is how we spend time in the tent, before falling asleep usually before 8 pm!
The following morning we pedalled on towards the main Abra La Viuda-Huayllay road (which eventually goes to the famous Bosque de Piedras). As we were approaching the end of the dry season in Perú, and soon in Bolivia, we decided to carry on and skip the Bosque until we return to this wonderful part of the world...

...then were amazed at seeing solar panels and cable TV in this rural estancia...sometimes Perú surprises you!
After 2.5 days eating "camping" food, we were aware of this newly opened hut-restaurant (thanks Virgil and Marion!). Gimena arranged some trucha frita and rice for breakfast, a well needed real meal!
Passing a couple of mine diversions, we reached Abra Alpamarca (4710 m) and after some rolling km we get to Yantac, the highest settlement we´ve seen on this trip at 4680 m. The hat statue has become an icon amongst the Great Divide riders, but we only managed to get the bottom of it in the picture, making it look more like a pink frosted donut. Wrapping up for the descent!

Leaving Yantac via its nearby lake, we encountered yet more heavy traffic...
...then sped onwards on flat terrain towards Marcapomacocha (note our recent addition to the not-so-good-for-bumpy-terrain Ortlieb panniers, a cut-up bicycle inner tube that prevents them from flapping around!)
The scenery on this section was so reminiscent of Scotland, just at ten times the altitude
Marcapomacocha featured another big lake that feeds water to Lima, and a beautiful nevado in the background. Other than that, it wasn´t the village with mucho movimiento that we were promised... Here we spent the night with australian cycle tourist Pete, heading Northwards on the Great Divide.
The last pass before hitting the infamous Carretera Central was Abra Antacassa, where we dealt with more alpaca traffic, as has become usual on the route...

...and after a few more uphill km...

...we crested the pass and spotted this huge nevado in the distance...only 110 km out of Lima...where Alberto made good use of my camera´s zoom...

...to check out what the glacier looked like up close.

Finally, we reached the Carretera Central, marking the end of the first segment of the Great Divide route. Lots of traffic, but luckily  we were only on it for 16km downhill.

The stats for the trip, which took us twelve days (with four half days): 472 km, 51 hours and 43 min at an average of 9.1 km/h
Route notes:

- The Pikes´excellent Andes by Bike website has all the information you need to do this incredible route. Read the comments made by other cyclists for more up to date details.

- As the route is mostly on high to very high ground, a good acclimatization is essential. In terms of food, there´s basic stuff at most villages, just don´t expect very fresh produce. Water was never a problem, although with the amount of herd animals everywhere on the route, we would approach every source (even at very high altitudes) with caution and treat/filter as necessary.