Peru: Up in the Gods

Posted by James Anderton on May 12th, 2013


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Peru has a lot to answer for. My very first cycle holiday proper was to Peru. After a couple of London to Brighton cycle rides I thought it would be fun to fly off to South America and cycle the High Andes. Talk about in at the deep end. I soon realised how unprepared I was for the endless climbs that were to be my everyday for the next few weeks. Half way up the first climb on the first day my legs began to wobble. 20 minutes later I was muttering into my handlebars. A few minutes later I was pushing my bicycle up the mountain. A few hours later I made it up to the pass. I lay in my tent that night thinking what have I done. I had no Plan B. I was facing more of the same day in day out. I'd come on holiday by mistake. The second day wasn't much better. Neither was the third but by the end of the first week I'd stopped hating it. By the end of the second week I'd started to enjoy it and by the end of the third I was in love with cycling uphill. Now I spend half my life cycling up mountains and the other half dreaming about it. Peru broke me in. I owe it a lot.

Hairpin bends all dat everyday in Peru and on the road to Huancavelica

The road to Huancavelica

So it was with much excitement that I approached Peru on my South American journey from Patagonia to Colombia. This time I was prepared. After years in the saddle I was battle hardened. Well accustomed to the trials and tribulations of cycle touring and most importantly I had my legs. You need your legs in Peru. Crossing the Andes from the South to the North it is never ending ups and thrilling downs. Often you would start in the lush, green valleys below 3,000m before climbing up endless hairpin bends to snowy passes often above 5,000m. There are few places in the world that can match Peru for high altitude, remote cycling. It has a near monopoly on the high passes in the Andes. There is no easy way through the Peruvian Andes – this is a huge country, and the vertical terrain makes for slow going. It took me over 2 months to cross from South to North but you could happily spend 4/5 months exploring.

On the great Peruvian divide in the Andes

Out on Peru's Great Divide.

It is difficult to pick out particular roads and routes through the Andes as it is all amazing. I arrived on the shores of Lake Titicaca and enjoyed a couple of days of flat cycling. I would barely see flat land again in Peru. The climbing begins near Cusco, once capital of the Inca Empire, and gateway to Machu Pichu. From there the hairpin bends begin, up, down, all day, every day to the charming mountain town of Hauncavelica. Here I joined a dirt road, Peru's version of the Great Divide, which would take me all the way to the Cordillera Blanca. It follows a section of the Andes mountains where water falling a centimetre to the left or right could have its fate in the Pacific or Atlantic Oceans. It's an incredible high altitude route on quiet unpaved roads with dramatic mountain scenery. There is no traffic. When there is no wind the silence is absolute. The nights were so quiet you could hear the snow fall. Finding true silence is so rare in this world. It has a quality and a dimension all its own. The route was tough. I rarely had to push but it was slow going. The roads were rocky. The wind would howl. There were hailstorms everyday. Climbing dirt roads at high altitude can leave you gasping for air but cycling through such wild and beautiful mountains should never be easy. It would be no fun if it was. I did the route just as Peru was moving from the dry to the wet season. The few days of rain made it tough as the dirt turned to mud. I would definitely advise trying to do this route in the dry season (May to September) if you can.

beautiful hairpin bends on the Cordillera Blanca in Peru going down towards Huaraz

Hairpin heaven in the Cordillera Blanca

It was nice to see tarmac again as I explored the Cordillera Blanca. Another highlight of cycling in Peru. The Cordillera Blanca is a compact range in the middle of Peru. It contains Peru's highest mountains and some of it's best cycling. As the name ‘white range’ indicates, most of the mountains are covered in ice and snow. Most tropical glaciers on this planet are located here. Although due to global warming the ice has already retreated rapidly, over 15 percent during the last 40 years. The water flowing down on the eastern side is feeding the Maranon River, which is one of source rivers of the Amazon. Often I would stop, put my bike out of sight and go for a wander. It is one of the best trekking destinations in the world. The cycling is incredible too and you could spend a happy couple of weeks criss crossing the range before ending up at Huaraz. From Huaraz I finally descended out of the high mountains down the Canon del Pato (Duck canyon) on narrow dirt roads that snake through dark tunnels above a raging river.

Duck canyon Peru

Cycling down duck canyon north of Hauraz

I thought the best cycle was behind me after I dropped down for a few days rest at a Casa de Ciclista in the coastal city of Trujullo. Not a bit of it. I headed into a remote corner of the Andes not often talked about in the north east of the country. More hairpin heaven on the road from Cajamarca to Chachapoyas. Narrow roads that wind through the mountains offering spectacular views with barely a car in sight. Finally I made it to a little used border crossing where more fun and games awaited me in Ecuador.

beautiful narrow roads climbing Peru cycling

Narrow road on the climb to Chachapoyas

Cycling Peru was a constant challenge. Even on the paved roads the sheer volume of climbing will have your legs wobbling. I would lock myself into a low gear. Cycle myself into a nice slow rhythm and take it one hairpin at a time, with the views gradually growing more dramatic as i inched my way up into the gods. Coming from Bolivia is definitely an advantage. The whole time you are in Bolivia you are rarely below 3,000m. Weeks spent at high altitude your lungs become accustomed to the thin air. Your body adapts and becomes more efficient at transporting and using oxygen. Occasionally in Peru I would drop down to a low altitude and begin the long climb back up into the sky. All of a sudden the air is full of oxygen. After about half an hour into a climb I'd notice my breathing was as if I was sat in an armchair reading a book. I would subconsciously slip into a higher gear and find myself accelerating up the climb. For a short while I could kid myself that I'd finally got good at this cycling lark. It's how a Tour de France cyclist must feel. It's how cycling on drugs must feel. Then I would reach high altitude and normal service would resume. Nervously looking up to see how much further I had to go. I was never happier though. The combination of the exhaustion and the glory of where you are would often leave a strange distorted grin on my face as I approached the pass. Then you would reach the top and the past, the present and the future would all converge. The satisfaction of the climb negotiated, the incredible view all around you and the thrilling descent to come.

Cordillera Blanca Mountains

Lake I stumbled across going for a wander in the Cordillera Blanca

Roads:

As mentioned above there is a good variety. The main roads through the mountains are stunning and often paved. There will still be sections of dirt road though. You won't get through the entire country on tarmac. There are also excellent dirt roads through the mountains but be sure to cycle these in the dry season (May to September).

Wild camping:

Easy and stunning. I lost count of the picture perfect campspots I enjoyed in Peru. You will need warm clothing/sleeping bag for camping at altitude. You can get camping gas in Lima and maybe in the other major cities but elsewhere it would be difficult.

Visa/Border Crossings:

Most countries do not need a Visa to enter Peru. Normally you will be given 180 days on arrival which should be plenty of time. Border crossings were easy. I crossed at Desaguadero on Lake Titicaca coming from Bolivia and at the remote border crossing of La Balza entering Ecuador.

Bicycle Shops:

Breakaway bikes comes recommended in Lima. Cycling through the mountains you will do well to find any bicycle shops. The locals do not tend to ride bikes because of the terrain.

Costs:

Peru is very cheap. It is easy to find accommodation for less than $10 in all corners of the country. Often in the mountain towns I could find a room for $5. Very basic of course but a bed is a bed.

When to Go:

The winter (May – September) is the driest season and the best time of year to travel. The summer (December – March) is warmer of course, but is also the wettest season, with frequent heavy showers. I cycled during the rainy season and it wasn't too bad. The rain was remarkably consistent. Clear in the mornings, it would cloud over at midday and then about 4pm it would chuck it down for 12 hours. So fine for cycling but can make for some wet nights in your tent.

Tips:

700cc wheels are a rarity. If you are cycling in Peru with these, make sure you have all the inner tubes, spokes and spare tyres you think you might need. Take spare brake pads as well. The long downhills will soon wear through them.

Cash. Keep enough on you to last between cities. Small towns wont have an ATM machine.

There is a cool Casa de Ciclista in Trujillo. I took a detour from the mountains to get a few days rest. If you contact me I can give you the email of Lucho the guy who owns the place. He's hosted almost 1000 passing touring cyclists since the 80s. I met a great group of other cyclists there and spent a very interesting day helping out Lucho as a roadie. He puts on events in and around Trujillo.

Fellow cycle tourers at a casa de ciclista in Trujillo

Fellow cyclists at the casa d'ciclista in Trujillo

If you are cycling from Bolivia or Ecuador you will have no problems with acclimatisation. If you fly into Lima and head to the mountains you will have to take care to accilmatise properly.

There are a few mines dotted around the Andes in Peru. Be careful when filling up with water from a stream. Check it's not coming downstream from a mine.

Food:

Check out the Lomo saltado. It is a hearty serving of beef, onion, and tomato stir-fried in soy sauce and served atop a bed of piping hot French fries along with rice.

Safety:

Peru is a safe country. Your biggest challenge is keeping it upright on the wonderful descents, especially if it is raining. There is a dangerous section of the Pan American about 100km north of Trujillo. Apparently cycle tourers frequently get robbed there so maybe one to avoid.

Electricity:

Electrical voltage 220V; 60Hz. Standard outlets accept round prongs but some have dual-voltage outlets and will accept flat prongs.

Electricity:

Side of the road:

Right.

Big police presence at a protest in Cuzco

A happened upon a protest in Cusco. Seemed pretty peaceful to me but the police were prepared for otherwise