Changing Plans and Dodging Storms
Updated: Mar 23, 2020
Cusco marked a turning point in my journey. An extended break, being rooted in one place offered time to reflect and think about the future. For months I’d been looking forward to a visit from childhood friends Robert and George, one morning I woke up and the day had finally come. I waited eagerly at the airport, after a little catching up it was business as usual, like I’d seen them just yesterday. For three weeks I let the bike rest and we backpacked around some of Perus highlights. It was fantastic to be back with the guys, joking around, sharing beers and making memories. All too soon I was hugging them goodbye and heading back to Cusco.
I fell into a chilled out routine at La Estrellita. Familiar faces welcomed me back - it seemed I wasn’t the only one caught under the spell of the place - and a few new friends were there to be made. I made a significant decision about the future of my trip - I was flying home for Christmas. After much contemplation I felt this was the right decision. Embarking on my journey I was driven by goals, milestones, kilometres and checklists. I thought South America would take just over 6 months and that I could reach Alaska in one year more. It didn’t take long for priorities to shift. I realised the routes I chose, people I was meeting, places I was seeing and cultures I was learning about could easily take up a lifetime. Why rush?
My route meandered its way slowly North as I breathed in all I could of the extraordinary continent around me. I realised dreams, pushed physical and mental boundaries, saw places that had previously only existed as far flung names on maps and photos in Atlases. I’d found a community and made friends for life, friendships forged in the intensity of life on the road. The way to measure my trip was not in kilometres or pedal strokes, but in experiences gained, lessons learned and memories made. In these terms the journey exceeded my wildest imaginings when I took those first nervous cranks out of Ushuia 14 months ago. My flight was booked for mid December. That gave me three months to explore the North of Peru.
Itchy feet struck and a group of four of us were on the road again - Ben (who’d never cycled a day in his life before), Rosanna, Xavi and myself. Watching Ben procure a bike, necessary gear and set it up in just a few days was a true pleasure. It was proof you don’t need expensive gear or tons of planning. I’d first met Ben and his lovely girlfriend Lisa back in June in Sucre, Bolivia. They were travelling the continent on a burly BMW motorcycle. We crossed paths twice more; once in La Paz to climb Huayna Potosi and then again in Cusco. When Lisa flew home to Belgium the seeds of a mad idea sprouted in Bens mind. He would sell his motorcycle and cycle North for the remainder of his trip! What I’d thought was harmless bullshit over a few beers quickly materialised. For under 1000 Soles ($240) Ben procured all that was needed to take on the Andes - and that’s just what we set out to do.
Sadly the first morning cycling we lost a man! Xavi returned to Cusco to sort some logistical problems. The rest of us were spoiled with a magical wildcamping spot. After a long day grinding out tarmac kilometres under the sweltering sun a refreshing dip in a cool, deep river was welcome. This was followed by a hearty meal slow cooked on an open fire. The world was illuminated a pale white by the full moon, we slept out under a canopy of stars, the babbling river lulling us to sleep.
Subsequent days were plagued with mechanical problems. Rosanna had issues with her tubeless setup. Ben was continually riddled with punctures by malicious thorns. We cruised gravel and passed friendly campesinos. Ben was given a baptism of fire by his first proper Andean climb. A challenging series of switchbacks, twists and steep gradients taking us into a little village. Rosanna and myself waited in a tienda as rain hammered down (a stark reminder wet season was upon us), we worried for poor Ben still battling his way up the mountain. He soon showed up and we sheltered with friendly locals, eating dinner as darkness fell. We were told it would be fine for us to sleep under the church porch. Early in the morning as villagers trudged off to work fields or tend livestock we recieved our fair share of puzzled looks.
Waiting near the top of a mountain a car rounded the bend with Bens bike atop its roof. He’d got another puncture and was hitching a lift to the next village in hope of a new tube. Rosanna and myself rode on. The climb brought us back onto the altiplano and herds of shy vicunas fled before us over rolling hills and past puzzling rock formations. In the village Ben managed to buy a new tube. Riding hard for the remainder of the day, the route was littered with countless climbs, some brutally steep. Ben and me reached the next town first and waited for Rosanna. A crowd quickly formed and we found ourselves entertaining the local kids and fielding all manner of questions. A lovely family gifted us vegetables and let us camp in their garden. Come morning Anny and her mother fed us delicious breakfast, we lingered in their beautiful garden, trying to fix Rosannas now completely deflated tubeless setup. With no luck Rosanna opted to hitch to the nearest city - Ayacucho - and meet us further down the road. Maybe it was for the best, she missed a monster climb!
Fleeing a storm we rode some spectacular double track weaving across altiplano. Bombing into the village of Putongo we hung around outside the shop sinking a beer and wolfing down snacks with a hilarious group of old ladies. Whilst camping by another church lightning flashed abruptly and a storm unleashed hell. What we thought was shelter instead turned into a floodplain. In another showcase of humbling kindness a poor family ushered us inside their basic adobe house, clearing space in the back room, giving us warm tea and blankets. The father was shockingly drunk, we wondered how he was still conscious. He danced around gleefully to cumbia music blasting from his phone as his daughter and wife looked on helplessly. Thankfully he tired quickly and we were left in peace as the storm raged on outside. I awoke to chickens clambering over me and the family starting their day. We thanked them endlessly before pedalling up out of the village.
The rain eventually ceased and a gigantic downhill brought us to an arid canyon floor. Mosquitos attacked mercilessly and Bens tyre was victim to countless punctures, we tried in vain to patch the holes, more simply revealed themselves, we ran out of patches. It was almost dark and a 12km climb lay ahead to Pongococha. We decided I’d ride hard to the village and see if anyone could come back down and help ferry Ben up. I attacked the climb, riding aggressively against the fierce gradients and impending darkness - I didn’t make it to the village before dark - finding myself utterly spent rolling into the plaza by the light of my headtorch.
Understandably nobody wanted to drive down the bad road at night, so I found a place to stay before leaving my bike and heading back down the mountain to find Ben. After shouting his name into darkness for what felt like an eternity I finally saw a light making its way up the road. Ben appeared wide eyed and half mad pushing his bike. The tyre was a real state. I pushed his bike whilst he shouldered weight in a backpack. At the arranged accommodation we promptly passed out.
A storm pounded us the following day. The kind of storm all waterproofs are powerless against, that turns Peruvian roads into raging rivers, reduces drivechains to clunking messes, shrivels fingers and toes, and sucks morale like a vampire, it was a tough day. Reaching a town we found cheap beds, changing into dry clothes and tucking under blankets to warm up.
Thankfully the morning saw sunshine, we laid out everything to dry in the plaza, attracting significant attention in the process. Rosanna suddenly rocked up! She’d had her own misadventures in the storm. Finally we left town, a quiet tarmac road ferried us past sleepy farmsteads. That evening we had another stellar campsite - and a bbq to compliment it.
We rested in Ayacucho for a couple of days, contemplating the route North and problems the rainy season had caused. Rosanna opted for a bus South towards drier climes. Ben and myself took another bus, but heading North to try and renew Visas in Huancayo and then connect onto the Peru Divide route we’d been following. We hugged Rosanna goodbye, wishing luck for the rest of her trip.
Huancayo proved a disappointment. Just a big, filthy city coupled with immigration refusing to renew our visas, saying they didn’t have the capacity and that we had to go to Lima. Pleading and reasoning fell on deaf ears. Once Ben bought some stronger tyres we fled the city. A big climb protracted over two days joined back onto the Peru Divide. We seemed to be constantly dodging storms - lightning illuminating the night skies as we camped and rain showers teasing us during the day.
We meandered across rugged highland. Dense clouds built all afternoon, collecting in a threatening mass, blanketing the sky. Fortunately I spied a cave high up a cliff side. It offered both first class shelter and views. We cooked an early dinner, revitalising tired bodies. With the setting sun the storm amassed over some distant peaks and unloaded apocalyptic quantities of rain. Watching from our perch it was a true showcase of nature’s awesome power. There was something distinctly primal about spending the night in a cave. Later as the flickering flames of our campfire cast shadows across the cave wall I caught a satisfied grin on my face.
Paso Pumcocha was an epic monster. I’d dreamt about it for a while. Back in the UK pouring through maps, routes and blogs, I’d seen photos of this pass somewhere in Peru and something about it visually struck me - I just had to ride it! Sweeping switchbacks were ruthlessly etched out of the steep beige scree slope. They wound their way down into the valley far below. The top of the pass was crowned by jagged and menacing black peaks. The pass had clearly been battered by brutal mountain weather in years past, but still here it defiantly stood for those who wished to traverse its steep roads. And that we did. After a lengthy and oxygen deprived climb to 5000M we saw the crest of the pass tantalisingly close. Reaching the other side I stopped, taking time to absorb the view.
It was a wild and intimidating place, making you feel small and insignificant. Wind lashed through the small mouth of the pass. We layered up and rolled on. As we started to descend and enjoy the fruits of our labour - a 2000M downhill - the sun broke through the clouds. Tyres crunching gravel, cassette buzzing, wind whistling, we whooped and let off the brakes.
The spellbinding Reserva Nor Yauyos-Cochas; its empty roads, spectacular waterfalls and crystal clear rivers providing a special environment to explore by bicycle. Ancient Incan terraces lined the impossibly steep canyon walls - again I marvelled that such feats of engineering were achieved hundreds of years ago. We made steady progress along the winding gravel.
One night we sheltered from rain in an abandoned building, Ben was filling bottles in the nearby river and I was brewing coffee, a face appeared at the crack in the boarded up window “Hey you, get out!”. It startled me, but I took a moment to register it was someone I knew - Jen - her and Brad had tracked us down using my GPS beacon. This was the fourth time I’d crossed paths with these two. They treated us to a wonderful evening of fresh food, beer and their great company around a campfire. Brad even whipped us all up a gourmet breakfast come morning using their vans kitchen.
We were caught by another horrendous storm at the top of a 5000M pass. Hail pelted down, the sky a moody grey, we threw on layers before descending the road which was now a river. At lower altitudes we found ourselves riding through a thick cloud, it was a cold and damp afternoon. The slippery fast rolling road demanded full concentration.
We recovered in the grubby town of San Mateo. Over dinner we pondered the upcoming route. We were both keen to reach Huaraz and the Cordillera Blanca before the rainy season intensified and the next part of the route didn’t particularly excite us. We chose to skip forward via bus to Huaraz and hope for a weather window to get some hiking in.