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  • Toby Elliott

Tres Cordilleras


Dotted across South America are places that cyclists seem to gravitate towards, from Casa De Ciclistas to famous stretches of road. Hospedaje Estrellita in Cusco, Peru is one such place. At any given time of the year you'll likely find a healthy contingent of cyclists posted up in the courtyard of the hostel. I spent two weeks recovering from sickness and hanging out in the fantastic company that was continually passing through. Soon though - as per usual - the mountains were calling me. I hit the road again, only this time strangely heading South. My aim was to cycle a portion of the Tres Cordilleras route that I’d missed due to illness.

A long and winding climb on gravel took me up towards the glaciers and clouds. The first day cycling I found physically tough, being out of shape from illness and inactivity. I camped early in some bushes next to a river, the mild night air making my decision to bivvy out under the stars easy.

The ascent continued. I was thoroughly enjoying every second of it. Smiling faces of local farmers, awe inspiring glaciers and herds of confused looking alpacas. Late in the day I crossed the first large pass, tipping the scales at 5070M it was a lofty vantage point. I sat at the top of the rocky and wild feeling valley breathing in the views and stiff mountain breeze. Layers on and it was time to descend.

As the downhill began to plateau out I noticed a rear puncture that my sealant had failed to plug. The timing couldn’t have been worse. A large storm blew in and hail pelted down. At 4850M with frozen fingers I did battle with the tyre and rim, eventually prying it loose. Before long I had a spare tube in the tyre and rushed to my evenings camp spot. Lying in my tent as the storm intensified I felt small and exposed. Sleep eluded me for hours, but finally I must have drifted off, only to wake up later on the cold ground due to my punctured sleeping pad.

The sun warmed my tent bright and early, I peeked out to see blue skies. A short Peruvian hauling a giant sack on his back wandered by. He told me this was his land, I apologised for camping there, but he laughed explaining it was fine. My day continued perfectly and was honestly one of my favourite days cycling in a long while. Easy rolling gravel tracks that wound around shimmering glacial lakes, shepherds huts and glaciers made for one smiley Toby.

A lengthy climb began, twisting up a glaciated valley. Near the top of the 5000M pass I pushed a few sections, but it was largely rideable. A exhilarating downhill lay ahead. An idiotic grin spread across my face and uncontrollable whoops of joy echoed down the valley. That evening I sheltered from the cold in a shabby little hospedaje in the village of Aymana.

I awoke with a start at 5:30am due to a huge speaker on the hillside above the village, an announcer shouted excitedly, waking up the village and blasting out awful Cumbia music. A surreal way to begin the day, but I was up and on the road in record time thanks to my rude awakening - only in South America!

The day was spent cycling toward the town of Macusani. I pedalled along an enchanting canyon in the still morning air. In the village of Corani I was the centre of attention as I stopped to resupply. A police checkpoint demanded my passport and then insisted on searching my bags, he told me the area was dangerous with robberies and even murders. I was puzzled as all the evidence suggested the opposite, I’d only come across smiling faces, waving shepherds and warm hospitality.

Cycling on I hit a good rhythm on a drawn out climb, my legs feeling fresh and strong. Occasionally a car or over laden motorcycle would pass honking and waving encouragement. Rounding a bend on one especially precarious section of road I stumbled across a heated argument between two drivers. A truck had knocked the mirror off a car and nearly run him off the cliff edge. I sneaked by, not wanting to get involved and grateful to have been a few minutes behind the incident. Up and down I continued. Around lunchtime I topped out a pass and found myself on a smoothly paved road, I flew along. Passing a truck stop I pulled over and ordered a dish of fried trout - it was fresh and delicious, often truck stops have some of the tastiest food. It was still early and not far to Macusani, so I cruised along at a relaxed pace and stopped to snooze in the shade.

In Macusani ladies in traditional dress loitered around the plaza and colourful motor-taxis plied the streets. I found a cheap hotel and after dinner promptly fell asleep. Following a breakfast of oats and chocolates I hopped on my bike. A relaxed gravel road took me across wide grassy altiplano landscapes. One small pass led to a drawn out downhill for the remainder of the day. Easy rolling roads, breeze in my hair, dust kicked up by my tyres and startled alpacas fleeing before me. I passed through the grotty mining town of Antuana, dirty and charmless; I didn’t hang around.

A storm hit, I layered up and hit the pedals hard, racing the grey coulds and lashing rain. Another night and another hospedaje. My punctured sleeping pad and the frigid altiplano nights meant that I was now planning my days cycling around being able to take refuge indoors at night. I found a cheap bed and headed out for food, slurping down steaming potato soup and chicken with rice. My next day was going to be a huge one, I set my alarm early and started cycling in the icy morning.

Rising up away from the town, I could see my breath in the cold air, soon I was warming up and stashed some layers away. I didn’t see a soul as the pass wove between lagunas and rocky outcrops. Enjoying riding hard I didn’t stop at the summit and instead plunged down the backside of the pass. A fun downhill brought me to Carhuapata, locals were harvesting potatoes, piling huge sacks of them high at the roadside. I started climbing again. Close to the top of the pass I met some excited truck drivers who insisted on some photos together. Waving goodbye I stuck in headphones and listened to a podcast as I headed for the summit.

The sky was looking angry and threatening, but I pushed on. A stretch of forgotten double track spat me out on a vast grassy plain, I filled water bottles in a babbling stream before embarking on an off trail traverse of the plains. There were several walls and fences to lift my bike over, I was glad for my lightened setup. I rejoined the road for a while before turning sharply to the south and a section of flowy singletrack that carried me away from the impending storm. It was late in the day and I was feeling tired from the climbing and ceaseless riding.

Nonetheless I cranked the pedals round. A final steep climb stood between me and a 20km descent to Patambuco. Atop the pass was freezing and shrouded in dense cloud, in the dwindling light I wanted to get down fast. I sped through a few little villages before reaching the town, I asked around for dinner and a bed, soon finding myself happily sat infront of a warm meal and a dubbed Spanish version of Men In Black. It had been a tough 120km day with a hefty chunk of climbing.

Scoffing breakfast, packing my bicycle and I was soon onto the next pass. Being lower in elevation it was a warm morning and sweat glistened on my brow. The pass kicked up a gear and the road deteriorated in quality as I’d been warned. I walked the last few hundred meters. In the warm sun I lounged around on the rocks for some time like a walrus, enjoying the view from the ridge-top. A boulder strewn descent demanded some attention, however the road soon improved and I glided down to the town of Cuyo cuyo. It was a sleepy little settlement and only midday. After finding a bed and eating lunch I pedalled off to the thermal springs for a bath. Feeling suitably refreshed and somewhat cleaner I relaxed for the remainder of the day.

One more early start and I found myself hikeabiking up a steep old Inca trail. I removed my backpack from the rack, shouldering some weight and making the bike more manageable. It was a struggle but I enjoyed the push and relished my surroundings and the history that lay in these old stones. Cresting the last step I startled a shepherd with his alpacas, he screamed in disbelief at my appearance, I laughed and shook his hand. After a little chat I rode on, entering a mine. The landscape was scared and battered, deep pits, pools of rusty water and loud machines.

I got lost but a miner pointed the correct road away from the mine. The devastation of the landscape was upsetting to me. In our modern societies rampant consumerism this was the side that we never see and choose to ignore. A once beautiful and wild landscape pillaged and commodified. I passed through the destruction all afternoon. Arriving in the mining settlement of Ananea I decided not to cycle through this mining zone anymore, it wasn’t enjoyable to me. So I asked around for a bus to Juliaca, but none of them had racks or space for my bike. Seeing my predicament two miners - Juan and his colleague Fede - offered me a ride. Bike thrown in the flatbed and we charged along. We had a good time conversing and joking around.

Quite suddenly as we passed a wild feeling frontier town with Bolivia the car made an awful grinding noise. We stopped and after consulting with some rather amateur mechanics it turned out that there was an issue with the axle. We ended up waiting for 5 hours for a friend to go and buy the spare part and drive up to the mountains. In the meantime we hung around in a small restaurant trying to stay warm. At midnight we finally rolled into the centre of Juliaca, Juan endlessly apologetic for the turn of events, I was still grateful to him and his good intentions. After swapping details and bidding him farewell I found a place to stay, the epically named - “Hotel California” - and was soon dozing off in a comfy bed.

The sun rose and I set off for the bus terminal, booking a ride to Cusco. In just a few hours I arrived in the city and pedalled straight back to La Estrellita, it felt like coming home.

​© 2019 Toby Elliott

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