Prior to Peru we’d been on a number of high roads, but hadn’t actively sought out the highest passes, instead concentrating on what we thought would be interesting and quiet routes through the Andes. In Peru however we decided to try and cross all the highest passes we could find, and with this in mind took an incredibly circuitous route, which, glancing at map, you’d be forgiven for thinking had been planned by a kid with a Spirograph.
After rounding the quiet east shore of Lake Titicaca and cycling a few days on the old road from Puno to Arequipa we climbed to nearly 4,900m before descending into the Colca Canyon. From there we cycled to Espinar, then for the next month were mostly on small, empty roads which we’d found on Google Earth and not on any of our maps. So far our experience is that Peruvian map makers are a lazy sort, and doing any kind of research on smaller roads appears to be beyond them.
Initially our idea was to cycle the length of Peru finding passes, but with the rainy season fast approaching we soon curtailed our plans, and with each lightning and hail storm that hit us in the mountains revised southwards how far north we would go. Cowering under a tarpaulin on an all-too-flat plain near Imata being battered by large hailstones and hoping the lightning would give us a wide berth we decided Ecuador was too far, and that maybe turning round at Cajamarca would be more sensible; a day waiting it out in a restaurant in Chalhuanca as the snow fell and the lightning crashed outside made us think that maybe the Cordillera Blanca would be far enough; pacing it down from the Abra Patapampa (probably the highest paved pass in the Americas) as a storm fast approached made us think we’d be quite happy with only getting as far as Lima. A few days later as we were caught in the open at 4,600m and sat shitting ourselves in our tent for two hours as a huge lightning storm passed over we decided to turn around at Abancay. That was plenty north enough.
After this spell of bad weather we had a 10 day rest, and spent the time in Cuzco and the sacred valley with Neil’s parents. Their visit coincided with our old friend Lorenzo Rojo also being in town, so we were able to see him again and hear about his adventures in the four months since we’d cycled together. Refreshed, we returned to our bikes in the small village of Caylloma and spent the next few weeks cycling the best routes of our whole trip.
Conventional wisdom has it that the highest road passes in the Americas are either the Abra Huayraccasa (4,985m) in central Peru, or the Abra del Acay (4,966m) in northern Argentina, depending on what you count as a road. However this ignores the huge network of minor roads that snake through remote areas of the Peruvian mountains. As we cycled from Caylloma to Quiñota via Arcata and then Abancay to Cotahuasi via Antabamba we went over seven 5,000m passes, with the highest being the 5,130m Abra Azuca. A couple of these passes were on bad roads, but most of them were on good, unpaved surfaces which felt like ‘proper’ roads to us, and were definitely better than the road over the Abra del Acay which we’d crossed months before.
Both these routes took us through the tiny village of Culipampa. The first time we were there the locals were surprised to see us as few if any cyclists had passed that way before. The second time they were even more surprised to see us again, though at least it gave them an answer to the question (which we always find odd at the time, though now we write it it doesn’t seem that strange at all) we are always asked as we pass through Peruvian villages ‘When are you going to come back?’
From the deep valley at Cotahuasi we climbed one further high pass on the flanks of the beautifully massive hulk of Nudo Coropuna (at 6,425m Peru’s fourth highest mountain) before descending over 4,700m in a day to make it back to the paving at Aplao. Having no time to take an interesting route south to Chile (being in a hurry to get to the Puna de Atacama in the good climbing season), and no desire to cycle any section of the Pan American Highway, we jumped on a bus to Arequipa. We thought about stopping a day in Peru’s second city, but, having been tear-gassed during riots there in 2002 we thought we were unlikely to have as much fun second time round, so continued on buses straight to Tacna, then Arica and San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.
In answer to all those Peruvian campesinos, I think we’ll be back in Peru very soon. The fantastic people, the seemingly unlimited opportunity for exploring small high-altitude roads, the fabulous scenery, the colourful traditional clothing, the Chinese restaurants, the wobbly tables in every Chinese restaurant, the chicha morada (maize Ribena)…we’ll soon be missing it all. Apart from the vicious dogs and the lightning and hail, of course.
Days getting from Achacachi to Aplao – 58
Distance – 2,104km
Time cycling – 198hrs
Average speed – 10.6kph
Cycle days – 34
Rainy cycle days – 8
Storms – Lightning – 8, Hail – 4, Snow – 2
Maximum speeds – 60.5kph (H), 57.6kph (N)
Unpaved roads – 1,707km
Longest day – 133.79km
100+km days – 2
Punctures – 4H(14), 1N(9)
Total amount climbed – 32,683m
Maximum altitude reached – 5,130m
Most climbed in one day – 2,025m
Most descended in one day – 4,733m – Near Abra Viraco (4,940m) to Aplao (625m)
1000m+ climb days – 15
4,000m passes crossed – 25 (7 > 5,000m)
Steepest climb – 22% (near the top of Abra Huacullo)
Accommodation – 43 beds, 0 camps, 15 wild camps
Hottest temperature cycled in: 34C
Coldest temperature cycled in: -6C (through the snow near Chalhuanca)
Peruvian beers drunk – Quara, Arequipeña, Pilsen Callao, Cusqueña Rubia and Negra, Cristal, Club. I can recommend none of them.