Paved road or gravel road?? Traffic or loneliness? I’m glad now I decided for the latter. From Huancavelica to Huaraz I rode over Peru’s Great Divide, a series of gravel roads high up in the Andes. (A detailed description you can find on www.andesbybike.com).
More than 800 kilometer and over 20,000 meters elevation gain, heaps of passes up to 5000m and deep valleys with steeps climbs afterwards. In short: a lot of climbing. Other cyclists always made clear, that it is essential to go lightweight. Something what you definitely can’t say about my bike. So I was a bit nervous and had doubts if my choice was so smart. Going over the main paved route would have been much easier, but I guess also less exciting. I was keen to experience the loneliness and remoteness, having great camp spots every night, breathtaking views and of course I was also looking forward to the challenge of climbing that much.
Those stone circles are everywhere. Original built as a fences for Lamas and Alpacas I used them quite often as camp spot.
The first pass wasn’t that bad, even though I had to climb a 1000 meters up the highpoint at 4700. With this motivation push I rolled down to a village at 3600, but just to start climbing the next pass immediately again. And that is, what I did in those three weeks on the Great Divide: Climb, descend, climb, descend, eat, sleep…
Surprisingly I got used to this kind of riding quickly. The gravel wasn’t that bad as expected, as well as the gradients. The climbing was mainly a mental game. My head just had to keep telling my legs to pedal on, so I would eventually reach the top of a pass, where I usually got rewarded with a great view.
After the second pass I got to the village of Acombabilla, where I had to get food for three days and to top up my petrol bottle for my stove. Sounds easy, but turned out to be a little bit complicated. The village seemed to be kind of abandoned. No open shops, no people, it was more like a ghost town. Finally I bumped into a boy, who was playing football on the street. I asked for shop and he showed me a random house door, where I had to knock. Indeed, an old lady opened a door to typical little village shop. Those kinds of shops usually don’t have a wide range, but enough to survive. Lots of biscuits, pasta, rice, some canned stuff and if I was luckily some fresh fruits, vegetables and bread. The food problem was solved, but to get petrol was more complicated. The woman told me, that almost all people went to another village for a festival and probably there wouldn’t be anybody, who could sell me petrol. Damn, it was Sunday and I had already figured out, that there are festivals on every weekend in Peru. I decided the rest of the petrol I had would last me, I had to be careful not using too much for hot drinks though. Even though water starts boiling at a lower temperature in high altitude, you still need much more petrol for cooking, as everything needs longer to get done.
Of course it followed another pass after Acombabilla and this time I struggled more at the steeps parts. Probably because of the extra weight of water and food. I made it still almost until the high point, where a stone circle offered a perfect campground with a great view on a lagoon. It was direct next to the road, but as I haven’t seen any car at all the whole car, it didn’t bother me. Shortly after I pitched my tent though, a truck stopped a few meters from me, which dropped a man including a bunch of rice bags and drove on. I was a bit confused. There wasn’t literally anything around me, not a hint of a village or some houses. What’s the guy doing here with all those bag, which he would never be able to carry alone. He walked towards me and was most likely equally wondering about this gringo and his bike. After a short conversation it turned out that he’s living behind the next hill. Crazy that there are living people in such remote and high places.
The next morning I woke up and got surprised by an almost totally white landscape. Even my ten was covered in snow for the first time on this trip. Like the man on the day before a woman appeared out of the nothing. She could hardly believe that I survived the cold night and was just amused about my tent. A few minutes later a truck picked her up. Again it was the only car I saw that day.
First time snow on my tent
After a series of passes I had to climb over the Punta Pumacocha. With 4930 meters it’s one of the highest of the Divide. Past beautiful lagoons I slowly climbed up, but two kilometers before the top the bad road forced me to push quite a bit. Large rocks on the loose gravel made impossible to ride. When I reached super exhausted the top I got an impressive and rewarding view over the surrounding mountains. Especially the view down the other side was crazy. The road went down the extremely steep slope in plenty of switchback, unbelievable that there exists a road at all. Probably just because of the mine I passed the day before. Punta Pumacocha was definitely my favorite pass on the Divide.
Last stop before the pass
What a road! Wasn’t an easy downhill though.
Just before Punta Pumacocha
Afterwards a long downhill waited for me and at night I camped below 3000 meters in a deep valley, before it went uphill straightaway again. It was a really pretty road along a series of lagoons, which were all connected through waterfalls.
It followed the stretch I was worrying about most. In the village of Vilca the road ends, but there’s a hiking trail for 7 kilometers until the roads starts again. As my bike isn’t built and loaded for this kind of riding I expected lots of pushing and carrying of my bike and gear. Despite a couple of hours of hard work it wasn’t that bad in the end. I probably had to push 60 percent of the 7 kilometers and only at two points I had to take off all my gear, as it was too rocky and narrow. At the beginning of the road I got welcomed by construction workers, who were extending the road. Apparently in a couple of months there are going to finish closing the gap, so it will be much easier for cyclists.
7km single trail and twice I had to carry my bike over rocks like here.
With all the pushing it was easier to carry the backpack on my back..
At night I pitched my tent just in time. Once I crawled into my tent a massive hail and thunderstorm past my camp spot. My tent was shaking as hell despite my half sheltered spot behind a house sized boulder and within a few minutes everything was covered with 15 centimeters of ice. I had to get out again to free my tent from that heavy load and save it from collapsing.
Two passes later I descended to the Carretera Central. That’s the main road leading from Lima through the Andes to the eastern part of the country. It’s one of the most important roads in Peru and so was traffic. Just terrifying, it was basically one line of vehicles, mostly big trucks, which were creeping up the windy narrow road. After being on virtually traffic free road for weeks I was kind of shocked of it. 20 kilometers I finally could turn off from this damn road and had my beloved gravel under my tires again.
Last pass before getting to Carretera Central
Switchbacks! I would love to know how many there were on the Great Divide.
A storm is coming. Not that nice, if you can’t find a good place to camp.
And the morning after the storm.
Impressive sunset on 4700m.
Not a bad place for a breakfast.
It went on with lots of passes and because the climbing felt easier with each pass I got more and more mesmerized by this route. But not just the amazing landscape will stay in my memory. In Rapaz, a tiny village, was a festival going on when I rode through. On the plaza a crowd of villagers and a music band welcomed me. Straightaway I got invited to drink Chicha de Jora with them. It’s a traditional drink in the Andes of Peru and Bolivia and made out of fermented corn and fruits with a very low alcoholic amount. While the first sip was close to be disgusting over the day I got used to it and even liked it at the end.
On the search for bread I bumped into a group of some young guys. They said they had bread in their house. Expecting to get leaded to a shop I followed them. It wasn’t a shop though, instead I was welcomed by the whole family in their house and just few minutes later I was handed a big plate with lunch – rice and chicken. They were all really excited to have a gringo there, while the festival was going on and tried to convince me to stay longer to see some of the dancing later that day. At the end I could even stay overnight. A perfect opportunity to learn a bit about Peruvian village life and culture. Besides of drinking lots of Chicha and beer, a few music band were wandering from house to house playing the traditional music of Huayno , while people would wear their traditional festival clothes and dancing all day long. Of course a long ceremony in the church can’t miss, too. What a great day it was, I’m so thankful for the Ninez Flores family to have taken me in that day. Thanks again! I think that are the experiences I’m traveling for.
My amazing host family in Rapaz. Muchas Gracias otra vez!
Drinking Chicha de Jora above the village.
Villagers from Rapaz in their traditional festival clothes.
With a day delay I continued climbing Abra Rapaz, another almost 5000m Pass. The whole area is full of mines, what’s the reason for the quite good roads, but impact of the mining on the environment is obvious. Some place looks like a massive construction site and whole lagoon are dried out.
Peruvian hospitality. I just wanted to camp in a stone circle near the house. Instead I got offered a bed in their house.
The way to cook in the Peruvian Andes.
Two days later I eventually reached the last high pass, even though the longest climb was still ahead of me. After Paso Pacomayo it went down from 4500m to 1300m, a 80km long downhill. It would have been even more fun if I hadn’t known about following climb up to 4200m again. Still it was great to make this big altitude difference in half a day. In the canyon at the valley floor it was super-hot compared to the temperatures in the higher altitudes. Also the landscape was completely different. Dry and very little vegetation, mostly cactus.
A long downhill. But the uphill looked the same.
In the canyon.
I camped at the river and the next morning I started climbing. I found it mentally pretty tough if you know there are more than 2500m climbing on the next 50km ahead of you, but there was no way around and during the last days I got very keen to get eventually to Huaraz, as my head and legs were craving for a break from cycling. So I managed to make 2000m up in one day over countless switchbacks until I ended in a small village. I was so tired and it was already dark, that I just pitched my tent in the middle of the plaza. Of course it didn’t long for whole crowd of local watching me curiously cooking. The next morning I even got invited for breakfast.
From there it took me just 1.5 days to get to Conococha, where I hit the main road to Huaraz and finally the paved road started. I was so relieved to have finished the Great Divide. It was such a challenging road, but like always, as more challenging it gets as more rewarding it is.
The last long uphill before finishing the Great Divide. Such a different scenery down in the valley.
Those guys were cleaning the road. A month earlier a Minivan got from the road and crashed a few hundred meter down into the river. It seemed because of that accident they started improving the road.
Camping on a Plaza. Not a problem in the villages.
La Cordillera Huayhuash, where just I hiked around, but that’s the topic of the blog.