The Final Days: Savouring the Moment
Updated: Apr 24, 2020
It was funny. Now that my trip had an end date time flew by at an alarming rate. Days merged together and the 11th of December seemed to always be creeping closer. Ben and me had reached Huaraz, a city nestled in the foothills of Perus mighty Cordillera Blanca. The mountains in this region of Peru are legendary and we dearly wanted to explore them. However, the weather had other ideas. Rain season was truly upon us and, like clockwork, each afternoon the skies would open.
Huaraz was our basecamp from which to embark on smaller hikes and rides in the Cordillera when weather permitted. After exploring some local single track on unloaded bikes we wanted to do some hiking. A rickety collectivo bumped our way into the mountains. Over two days we walked the famous Santa Cruz trek. It was a great change of pace and beautiful trek. As we camped the fog drifted over and rain fell for most of the night. The air was still heavy with drizzle come morning as we packed away sodden tents. Clouds obscured the towering glaciated peaks that we had seen the previous day.
The Santa Cruz is a popular trek, and we passed a couple of large guided groups. I can only imagine how many people must walk the route during high season. It did however conjure up questions and thoughts about how this kind of tourism was managed here. Trash was abundantly obvious in some areas, overladen donkeys trudged their way painstakingly along, some even carrying hikers who were no longer able to walk due to the altitude. Obviously, such an incredible place will draw people, but it felt mismanaged, we’d also heard tell of poorly paid employees and money not making its way to the local communities who need it most. It was a confusing and problematic state of affairs. As the rain persisted we walked the rest of the trek at a fast pace, completing the four day trek in half the recommended time. It felt a shame to rush through what we knew was a special place as occasionally a glacier or summit would teases us from behind its thick veil.
Ahead lay the scariest bus journey of my life. The collectivo diver drove like a man possessed by the devil himself. No corner was worth slowing for, he flew over bumps, paying no heed to the several hundred meter drop off the sheer cliffs immediately to our right. I couldn't watch. We held on for dear life. He overtook all other traffic on the road, travelling easily three times their speed, no breaking, only honking. Ben looked at me and said only half jokingly “It’s been nice knowing you mate”.
In Caraz we made the rounds dropping off passengers, then confusingly he returned to the first stop. The same man he’d left there was waiting with a nearly severed thumb and blood gushing everywhere. He piled into the van with his mother, wife and daughter. Apparently he’d been injured the whole journey, which went some way to perhaps explaining the lunatics driving. We didn’t understand the whole situation. Through our broken Spanish things became clear - an accident with a machete. We made Huaraz in record time and they dropped us off before speeding toward the hospital. We were both glad to be alive!
After some rest back in Huaraz I wanted to explore more of the Cordillera, this time by bicycle. Ben wasn’t as keen, so I cruised out of town alone early one sunny morning. I planned to ride a 268km loop around Huascaran (6768m) the highest mountain in Peru, the route involved crossing the spine of the Andes twice via lofty passes. 35km of gradually downhill tarmac took me to the foot of a monster climb. I worked my way steadily along. The sun shone and Huascaran unveiled itself from behind the clouds dwarfing everything in sight. Whilst cycling I had the knowledge that my days cycling in South America were numbered, therefore I always tried my upmost to be totally present, savouring every moment and enjoying the experience. In high spirits I enjoyed warm rays of sun and a gentle climb. Winding higher the settlements disappeared, replaced by glaciers and sheer granite cliffs.
Late in the day after hours of climbing you could feel the weather turning. The air tense with anticipation, heavy clouds amassed in the valley below and obscured the glaciers around me. I pedalled harder, digging deep, I was exhausted but had to get up and over the pass before the storm struck. Lightning flashed and thunder echoed through the mountains. Hail, wind, rain all at once. Above lay a string of forgotten switchbacks, the 5000M pass abandoned in favour of a new tunnel. It was a nerve wracking place to be in a storm. I didn’t linger, the landslides and intensifying storm demanded full concentration. Riding when possible or dragging my bike over piles of rubble I made steady progress, finding myself at the crest of the pass.
I f****d this one up to be honest. Riding hard from Huaraz wanting to make it over the pass in a day, the climb took longer than expected, now it was getting dark and the storm had caught me. I stopped only to chuck on warm waterproof layers. Rockfall periodically cascaded off the mountainside. I had to get down quickly, but the road was rough, I couldn’t rush - an accident here would be fatal. Beginning the descent I traversed more piles of debris, then rounding a switchback I was greeted by a horrific sight. The road was totally gone! A landslide had wiped it away, only a chasm remained. Trying to stay calm and calculated I climbed back up one switchback, then carefully manoeuvred my bike down the rocky slope to the complete road the other side.
Thick mist, bitter cold, the sun disappeared and out came my head torch. Long after nightfall I pulled into little pueblo Chacas, drenched to the bone and knackered, yet comforted by the thought of a hot shower, filling meal and warm bed. As I pedalled out of town early, the rain ceased. At lower elevations and on the quieter Eastern side of the cordillera traditional farming communities peppered the landscape. Friendly shepherds waved and familiar shouts of “Holaaa Gringo!” went up. The usual afternoon showers soaked me, but I dried quickly. Close to the next pass the sky looked more threatening. Feeling cautious after my experience the previous day I hesitated. It was still a long climb to the top and if I pushed it would almost certainly mean a repeat of events. Instead I stayed in a small hospedaje. Being the only guest I had dinner with the lovely Madelena and her husband - surprising myself at how well I was able to converse with them.
Awaking to blue skies I felt truly grateful for where I was. I clattered my way up the rocky pass. Just the chirping of birds soundtracked the morning, greenery flanked the road and a deer burst forth from the undergrowth, skipping gracefully away and then somehow climbing a near vertical cliff. The road curved around icy ponds and once more I was up amongst the glaciers. A colectivo passed down the road, the passengers gawping at me as the driver honked and shouted encouragement.
The other side of the pass offered up a face on view of Huascaran. I sat chugging water and surveying the scene. Below me lay quite possibly the most epic chain of switchbacks I’d ever seen. I couldn’t wait to ride them. But this was a spot to truly savour the moment. Sure enough they didn’t disappoint - a 2000M downhill rarely does. In the town of Yungay I joined tarmac again for the grind back to Huaraz where I caught back up with Ben. Some well earned rest, good home cooking and a few beers saw out the end of our time together. Ben headed off for his flight to Columbia.
I decided to ride back South. Nathan and Xavi had been cycling North on the Peru Divide and I wanted to see them before leaving the continent. The first day out of Huaraz I enjoyed cycling fast, revelling in the joy of my body in motion and good progress up across the altiplano. Atop of the climb, a road clung desperately to a steep and eroded cliffside. Camping on an old terrace I ate dinner in perfect tranquility, even being lucky enough for the clouds to part and reveal the majestic Huayhuash mountain range. The tall peaks begged for a return visit to this region of Peru.
Every local I met in this part of Peru was shockingly friendly, displaying genuine curiosity about my journey and wanting to help if they could. Whilst resupplying in a tienda I proved great entertainment for the two young children living there, the little girl had the most infectious smile and laugh I’d seen in some time. To reach Nathan and Xavi meant dropping to the bottom of a deep canyon. It was one of the most beautiful and unique descents in South America, as I dropped the temperature rocketed, the landscape became desertlike, condors cruised overhead, cacti lined the road and the canyon walls loomed over me in intimidating fashion. As if trying to swallow me up.
Down the chasm plunged, winding along next to a river which must have flowed for eons to create a canyon this deep. At points the road was undercut with steep drops below where rocks had collapsed, sometimes the canyon wall would hang right over the road, with loose rocks threatening to drop onto my head. At the very bottom of the canyon I made a startling discovery - one of my water bottles was empty! A small tear in the plastic meant it had lost all fluid. I only had 1L for a +2000M climb out of a sweltering canyon, I needed to ration water and hope to find a source. The climb began, I hit a good stride, the road was often shaded by the walls towering above and this coupled with a relaxed gradient made for a fantastic ride.
My water worries were forgotten upon finding a waterfall delivering fresh water from thousands of meters higher, I even took a quick shower under its cool flow. The climb steepened and I worked hard to get up it in the heat. Eventually I rolled into the village of Cajatambo - where I’d arranged to meet the guys. They showed up the next day, followed closely by a storm. It was incredible to see them and we caught up in the plaza, animatedly trading stories and comparing notes from our journeys. We decided to stay one more night and hope for better weather come morning.
That was just what we got. Pedalling out of town and back towards Huaraz I knew exactly what was in store, but that didn’t bother me, it was a great ride and I was in the company of two good friends. Morale was high as we bombed the lengthy downhill to the canyon bed. It was fun to be riding with the guys, it conjured up fond memories of the adventures Nathan and me had shared further South down the continent.
At the bridge singnaling the start of the climb proper a group of roadworkers stopped to us. They were great fun, insisting we take lemonade and lunch, fuelling us for the climb ahead, one old man even wanted to introduce us to his young and eligible daughters in the next village! They offered us a lift in the back of their truck up the first couple of hundred meters of the climb, we looked at each other and without much consideration agreed.
Having avoided the hottest part of the climb we spent the remainder of the afternoon steadily gaining a few hundred meters more. Five condors surveyed us keenly, buzzing right by our heads. We rolled into Nuevo Llipa and scoffed down food outside the only open shop. The owner was an angel and gifted us fresh fuits whilst refiling water bottles. That night we camped under the awning of the village football stands.
We provided a nighttime feast for an army of bugs. Nathan by far fared the worse. It was early morning but already hot and we had a savage 12km of climbing to the next village. Usually switchbacks are either long and gradual or short and steep - these ones were long and steep! It was tough climbing gaining altitude quickly. We climbed all day. It didn’t feel like a chore though and I was enjoying the more relaxed pace of cycling; we stopped for breaks to chat and lunched in the shade, even savouring evening beers in a plaza.
Looking for a sheltered place to sleep we stumbled upon a deserted public toilet in pristine condition, it might sound disgusting, but in true dirtbag style it felt like we’d struck gold. Just as we’d set up our bedding and started cooking dinner there was an aggressive pounding on the locked door. Startled we looked worriedly at each other, then the face of a local mechanic appeared at the window. He glared at Xavi and me, a stare that could kill, he wasn’t happy. After talking he realised we weren’t a threat and upon seeing the bikes and our calm demeanours I think he was put at ease. He was just puzzled by our presence and was justifiably confused as to why we’d want to sleep in a toilet!
It was just one more day riding to Huaraz. A little more climbing back onto the altiplano, blue sky views of the Cordillera Huayhuash, some perfect rolling gravel across a plateau. Cheap almuerzo in a roadside restaurant and then the tarmac cruise down to Huaraz. And aside from wheelie Wednesday practice on the streets of Huaraz that was the last of my riding in South America. It was awesome to be ale to close out my riding with two brothers of the road. Beer, pizza and showers were the key priorities back in Huaraz, and in that order too!
The remainder of my days in South America wound down in relaxed fashion. Mealtimes were always a pleasure and something we looked forward to each day. Months of eating basic camp food has a way of making you really appreciate proper nutritious and flavourful meals. It was a time of mixed feelings for me, I was full of excitement to see family and friends I hadn’t seen for over a year, but also experiencing some trepidation about what lay ahead in my future and how the adjustment back to Western life would go. Before long I was hugging Nathan and Xavi goodbye, a few days in the capital Lima passed in a flash. It was a mini culture shock to be in a modern metropolis after months in Perus more traditional mountain culture. Suddenly I was in the airport waiting to board my flight. End of one chapter, start of another.