GRINGOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!

In Peru we’re gringos. It’s hard for us to forget; we get reminded of it pretty much every encounter we have in the countryside, and often when we’re in towns too. When the dog barks go up as we approach a village, the kids’ shouts soon follow: ‘GRINGOS GRINGOS!’ Campesinos ploughing their fields, or digging tatties, look up and utter ‘gringo‘ as though they’ve just read it on our foreheads. We normally grin, and they normally grin back. Sometimes we reply with an ‘hola Peruano’, which normally elicits a chuckle.

GRINGO:  often disparaging; a foreigner in Spain or Latin America especially when of English or American origin; broadly:  a non-Hispanic person.
Origin: Spanish, alteration of griego Greek, stranger, from Latin Graecus Greek.
First Known Use: 1849.

Despite the dictionary definition, here in Peru it’s rarely used as a derogatory term. It’s simply what we are; and you have to be something. Fat people are called ‘gordito‘ (fatty); skinny folk are ‘flaquitos‘; people with vaguely slanted eyes are ‘chinos‘ (Chinamen). Those who are fairer than your average Peruvian are, like us, also gringos.

 

In late February we cycled a circuit of the Cordillera Blanca. The peaks didn’t reveal themselves too often, but it was a fascinating cultural ride, through deep and verdant valleys. Occasionally, when we endeared ourselves to one of the locals, we were rewarded by being called an affectionate ‘gringuito‘. We liked that.

The Lanzon, Chavin de Huantar

From the giant mine at Antamina to Chavin, and something completely different. The ruins here are the most important in the area, and date back to 1200BC, when ceremonies used to involve getting smashed on drugs in these underground chambers.

Cycling in Conchucos

Leaving Chavin we ride the quiet route to Huari. Plenty of fields around, but no traffic.

Cycling to Huantar, in Conchucos

Occasionally the sun comes out, but the peaks seldom do.

Rosa, cycling in Mallas

In a muddy Mallas we meet Rosa, one of a rare breed: the Peruvian cyclist.

With Rosa in Mallas

Climbing to Huachucocha

We spend a day in Huari, spring-cleaning our bikes (and cycling to a waterfall, which to our surprise has been ‘turned off’) before heading off on the long climb to Abra Huachucocha…

Descending to San Luis

… which is followed by the equally long descent to San Luis. Though there aren’t any really high passes on this circuit, the rollercoaster road still features a lot of vertical metres.

A lovely old lady in San Luis

While Haz searches for accommodation in San Luis, Pike gossips for an hour with this charismatic 75 year old abuelita. (She told us her brilliant name, but sadly we weren’t able to remember it.) Despite the fact her five children are all lawyers and teachers, she still spends her time travelling to remote villages to hawk cheap clothing.

Church roof in Pomallucay

From San Luis we continue north, towards Pomabamba. A short detour from our route is the pilgrimage village of Pomallucay, whose church is adorned with beautiful wood decoration. There are many expert local woodcarvers in the area, thanks to the work of the Don Bosco association. Another consequence of the missionaries’ presence here is the fact that more people beg for money here than anywhere else in the Cordillera Blanca.

Descending to Puente Llacma in the Callejon de Conchucos

From Pomallucay it’s a quick zoom down to Puente Llacma, the lowest point of the road in Conchucos.

Climbing to Lucma

Soon we’re zigzagging up again, and taking the tranquil road to Lucma.

Adobe and tiles, near Lucma

Most of the village architecture in this area is still traditional. Bricks and reinforced concrete haven’t made many inroads yet.

Wooden door, Masqui - in the Callejon de Conchucos Fields near Lucma

Monday morning meeting, Lucma

Early the next day we arrive in Lucma, and gatecrash the town’s Monday morning meeting. Team morale was low, if the pitiful singing of the National Anthem was anything to go by. Or maybe they’d just used all their energy in the hearty round of applause we received as we cruised in and interrupted proceedings…

A gent in a good hat, Lucma

In attendance was this gent, in a good hat.

Would you trust this man? Dr Azana, Pomabamba

From Lucma it’s only a short ride to Pomabamba, where we once again come face to face with the murky world of Peruvian politics. Here’s Dr. Azaña, running for mayor, under the slogan ‘Azaña won’t cheat you.’ Given what we’ve seen of politicians here, he probably will.

Fruit seller, Pomabamba

After selling us some pacay (giant bean-like pods that taste of ice-cream) this fruit-seller enraged some fellow customers by ignoring them, preferring to chat a while with us, and leaving them to miss their combi.

Mud on the climb to Palo Seco

Peruvian roads seem to hold up quite well to the rains. Well, the ‘afirmado’ ones like this do – we can cope with a few puddles. The smaller routes turn into mud baths wracked by landslides.

Descending to Andaymayo

From 3700m Palo Seco, we descended to Andaymayo.

After crossing a very muddy landslide

A recent landslide blocks the road to traffic, but we’re able to get through…just. The mud’s somewhat softer than Pike is expecting, and after ploughing forward with bike and sinking up to his knees, Haz has to come to the rescue and drag both out.

Our hostess in Andaymayo

We arrive in Andaymayo just as the rain becomes torrential. As the campesinos scamper from their fields, this lady welcomed our filthy selves and bikes into her hostel.

Descending into the cloud, after Abra Cahuacona

We climb the next day to Abra Cahuacona…

Into the cloud, on the descent to Tarica

…from where it’s a 3000m descent to the Rio Santa. At times visibility is low.

In a misty Yanac

So low that there’s little point continuing. We stop for the night in a misty Yanac.

In a misty Yanac. Yanac.

Texting, in a misty Yanac.

The texting continues, despite weather conditions. (Just to clarify, the young man in the photo is fully clothed, and is simply using his smart phone.)

Descending to Yuracmarca.

In the morning we realize the road is descending down the flanks of a steep valley. Improved visibility makes for a much more enjoyable remainder of this classic descent.

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Now that was a good section of road…

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You want us to build a road down a near-vertical hillside? Nae bother…

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…just try to make sure the road users don’t fall off.

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Small valleys slice through the hillsides where the Blanca and Negra meet…

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…and the daily rains make for some soggy river crossings. Our shoes were soaking wet for 95% of this circuit.

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Our arrival in Santa Rosa coincides with the scrap metal man’s visit. Haz has to be physically restrained from buying a couple of old MTBs. ‘But look at those steel frames! And they’re only S/.10 (£2.20)!’

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It’s tuna (prickly pear) season. They come in a kaleidoscope of colours.

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The descent eventually comes to an end below the Cañon del Pato. Then comes the climb, through the canyon’s fabled 36 tunnels, to Caraz.

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Riding with Dinosaurs

The Cordillera Blanca never ceases to impress. If it’s not impossibly spiky peaks, or alpine lakes, then it’s…dinosaur prints by the road.

Fields near Paso del Mojon

Our first route back in the area began near Conococha, from where it’s a short climb to Paso del Mojon. On the descent are these patchwork fields in villages near the Cordillera Huayhuash.

Fields near Paso del Mojon

We raced the Cruz del Sur bus down from the pass, and lost.

Pachapaqui, near the Cordillera Blanca

This is Pachapaqui, a typical Ancash mountain road-side village. We passed through on the climb to Yanashalla.

Dinosaur prints! On the road to Antamina

After Yanashalla comes the really cool stuff. We knew there were dinosaur prints by the road, but didn’t realize they’d be this big!

Ruta de los Dinosaurios

Further along are some more prints. About hand-sized we reckon…

Dreich February in the Cordillera Blanca

February isn’t the best time to be in the Peruvian mountains. Most afternoons the weather is kinda dreich…

Laguna Canrash

But there’s still a lake around every corner. This is Laguna Canrash. Lots of good rock climbing in these parts.

The road to Antamina

These lakes near Antamina would’ve made for good camping, had it not been chucking it down.

Workers at the Antamina mine

In the afternoon on the second day we made it to Antamina, Peru’s biggest mine. These are three of the many thousands of workers employed there.

Antamina - Peru's biggest mine

And this is just a small part of the excavation work – the scale of it has to be seen to be believed.

Giant trucks in Antamina!

The machinery is pretty big too. Disappointingly we didn’t see any of these bad boys…

Climbing to Abra Antamina

But we did get more mine views on the short sharp climb to the 4500m pass before San Marcos. From the pass came a muddy 1500m descent down to town in the rain, which ate up all our brake pads…

Dear Decaying Argentina

Derelict buildings. Grand designs: overambitious and never completed. Old bangers, 50 years old but still lovingly kept in roadworthy condition. Disused railway lines. Crumbling tarmac. Disintegrating pavements. Abandoned industry. Closed internet cafes (replaced by free WiFi; which doesn’t work). Flimsy door handles and constantly-breaking bathroom fittings. Aah, dear decaying Argentina.

We love this country, (in no small part because of the warmth and love you get from the people) which is why we’ve spent more time travelling here than anywhere else. But for a place so rich in natural resources it saddens us to see how political mismanagement can so adversely affect a nation’s fate.

It’s been interesting comparing the fortunes of the various Andean nations between our 2010 and 2013 trips. Peru is the most noticeably changed – it’s going places. Many Bolivians’ standards of living are clearly improving. Argentina is going backwards*. In the two months between us entering and leaving the country, the Argie Peso lost over 30% against the dollar – the economy is surely heading for another of its periodic crashes. Talk to most locals about the situation though and the usual response is either a heads-in-sand ‘people have been saying the economy will crash for years‘, or just a shake of the head and a resigned ‘that’s our corrupt politicians for you‘. What can the little man do?

Ironically as we headed west over Paso Agua Negra to Chile we were passing through roadworks. The first investment in infrastructure we’d seen in two months. A tunnel is due to built under this pass, though we won’t be surprised if the cash runs out (or is diverted to pockets) when there’s only 10m of rock to drill through to reach the Chile border…

*Maybe this is just because we choose to spend most of our time in Catamarca and La Rioja, two of the country’s poorest provinces, though we don’t think so.

The tarmac en route to Paso Agua Negra

Much of the Argentine side of Paso Agua Negra is paved. But it’s old paving, with lots of patches.

En route to Paso Agua Negra

Mobile phone signal reception in this area, apparently.

Colourful hills near Paso Agua Negra

Our second camp on the route is at 4300m. At dusk the sun turns the hills these fabulous colours.

Colourful hills near Paso Agua Negra

…which makes it all very reminiscent of the equally dramatic Pircas Negras road.

The road to Paso Agua Negra

The ribbon of ripio winds its way up valley…

Climbing to Paso Agua Negra

…and we’re made to feel small by the towering hillsides.

Climbing to Paso Agua Negra

6200m Olivares is to the south of the pass. We somehow manage not to see it…

Sculpture on Paso Agua Negra

The 4770m pass is marked by numerous signs and plaques. And also this excellent sculpture.

Descending to Vicuna, from Paso Agua Negra

Then comes the descent, one of the longest in the world. It’s just as colourful as the climb.

Colourful hills on the Chilean side of Paso Agua Negra

Perhaps even more so.

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As we freewheel down, we meet Wilson. Aged 72 he’d cycled over Paso Agua Negra from Argentina to the sea in Chile, had his long hair cut there, then cycled back. Now, aged 75, he’s doing it on a 50 year old Italian motorbike he’s restored. Legend. It and he were both struggling.

La Laguna near Paso Agua Negra

A tunnel is due to be built under the pass, so there are roadworks on both sides. It doesn’t affect the quality of the surface in Argentina, but in Chile, near this lake, there are a few rough kilometres on loose gravel.

La Laguna, near Paso Agua Negra

This is La Laguna, above the Chilean customs post. Not sure what genius came up with the name.

Drying grapes near Vicuna

The first village in Chile is Huanta, at a lowly 1200m. Here the vineyards appear. These are rows of grapes, drying in the sun.

Drying grapes near Vicuna

This being Chile though, they’re behind a barbed wire fence. They can’t get enough of their fences in this country.

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Guess who’s been cycling in the Andes? That small ring beginning to look a bit worn…

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After the customs post, the paving begins. We’d hoped to cycle all the way to La Serena and the sea, but by the time we reach Vicuña the road is already far too busy for our liking, so we jump on a bus to La Serena. This is just the start of a 3400km, 6 bus, 83 hour epic journey back to Huaraz. (Note to cyclists: the Panamerican Highway between La Serena and Lima is possibly the dullest road you could ever dream of riding. Lots of dangerous traffic on some sections too. Avoid! Avoid!)

¿Ella tambien?

In everyday Andean cycling life, when buying groceries or checking into a guest house, say, we have the same conversations over and over again.

Where are you from? Where have you come from? How are your tyres? (This comes up surprisingly often.)

But the frequency of the question ‘even her?’ in response to our saying we’ve cycled over so and so a pass is slowly starting to irritate me. What the hell do they think I’ve been doing with this bike? Getting lifts as Pike negotiates these MAN passes alone? It makes me so glad to have been brought up being told I could do anything my brothers could do, and taking part in a different sport every night of the week.

Although you do meet some Latinas trekking in the mountains, and very occasionally cycling, they are in a huge minority. What’s also surprising is that Chile and Argentina, supposedly the more ‘developed’ nations, appear to me to be a much worse place to be a female athlete than Peru or Bolivia where you regularly see women playing volleyball and football. Come on Latina ladies! Get out into the hills! Don’t let the chicos have all the fun!

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Great excuse to trawl out these classic old photos from our Europe tour in 2008! Hard.

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Not hard.

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The hardest of them all. Rosa is the only cycling chica we’ve seen in all our time in Peru. We met her in a muddy Mallas, and she joined us for an hour to show us the way to Huari. The mud didn’t seem to put her off much!

Homes away from home

On our travels it’s been rare to come across somewhere that feels like home. In Asia we’ve visited many wonderful places, like Karimabad, or Leh or Munsyari, say. But we’d not want to live there – we’d always be outsiders.

The Andes, for language and cultural reasons, are different, and we’ve had the good fortune to encounter a few places we’ve given thought to settling in.

Huaraz is one, and by far the most serious relocation contender. We think it has the most beautiful setting of any town we’ve ever seen. Imagine being able to just pop out from work and be in the Blanca, riding or trekking, within half an hour of leaving your front door.

La Paz is another – we could get used to the vibrancy of Bolivia’s administrative capital and the easy access to the Cordillera Real.

In Argentina we have Fiambala. Not much happens there, but that’s its main attraction. Here are a few shots of town.

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Campo Base hostel in Fiambala. Run by Jonson Reynoso’s daughter Ruth, this is the place we, and most mountaineers hang out in in Fiambala.

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‘Poopy’, the latest addition to the Reynoso’s brood of dogs. Each time we visit there’s a new batch of puppies.

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Campo Base is on the road to the Fiambala hot springs – the biggest attraction in the area. Unusually for hyped thermals, they’re actually really good.

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The street into the centre of town is generally traffic free…

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…and like many things in Argentina, the road signs are ancient.

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There are often more bikes than cars in Fiambala’s plaza…

A typical Argentinian banger

…but there are still plenty of new 4x4s around. Lots of old Argentinian bangers like this one, too.

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Every now and then this old favourite of ours cruises through town.

Another common sight in this part of Argentina

Soon no doubt it’ll become one of Catamarca’s army of abandoned, rusting chasis. This one sits near the town centre, on a disused plot.

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Kind of cool these old things.

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Sunflowers abound at this time of year.

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As do grapes. By late January they were ready to be picked.

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This is the vineyard on the way to the internet cafe – 2 blocks from the main plaza.

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By the time we left town in early February 2014 many of the shops had stopped bothering putting price tags on their goods – inflation is so rampant that prices were changing weekly.

Fiambala street scene

This place on the main street has the best empanadas in town. Inside it’s like something out of a 1950s middle-of-nowhere American diner.

Fiambala street scene

Like the cars, many of the bikes are older than their owners. Lovingly maintained, it’s possible to keep them in working condition, perfect for a gentle cruise through town.

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This old building slowly crumbles in the hot Andean sun.

A once grand buildling in Fiambala

Here’s its once-grand tiled floor.

Felix, of Felix Tortillas fame, Fiambala

This is Felix, of Felix Tortillas fame. One of Fiambala’s friendliest residents, and biggest characters.

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And this is the legend that is Don Jonson Reynoso. He’s the guy to go to if you’re heading to the mountains on the Puna.

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Our last night in Fiambala we do as the locals do: hang out in the main square till the early hours, sipping cold beer…