It seems like most cyclists end up staying in Huaraz for more time than they originally plan.
There is a plethora of valleys and hikes to explore, the city has a certain ambiance if comfort with some great places to eat but not too touristy. We had made Huaraz a base for our short cycle tour that included Punta Olimpica and Laguna Llaganuco and also for our Huayhuash adventure. In the end we were delayed for a few more days for me to recover from the Giardia infection I had contracted. Finally we left the comfort of Amelita’s hostal and hit the road headed for the dirt road to Carpa through Huascaran National Park, still feeling a bit out of sorts from the Giardia.
Our Route: Huaraz > Carpa > La Union > Chavinillo > Huánuco > Huarica > Shelby > San Pedro de las Cajas > Tarma > Jauja > Huáncayo > Izcuchaca > Mayocc > Ayacucho
Duration: 947 km / 16 days (1 rest day)
After following the main highway south of Huaraz for about 35 km’s we turned off on the quiet dirt road, marking the entrance to Huascaran National Park where we would climb up to 4,600 m at the control center of Carpa. We found the perfect wild camp behind the hill not far from the park gate so we could pay our entrance ticket the following morning (we really are in support of national parks and at 5 soles each it’s not much to spare). There is a fantastic interpretive centre at Carpa detailing bilingually about the flora, fauna and geological make-up of the Cordillera Blanca.
Camping over 4,000 m means for cold nights, we woke up to frost making for a lovely but chilly sight in the morning. We are so glad we switched out our Therm-A-Rest Pro-lites for the Term-A-Rest NeoAir XTherm from Mountain Equipment Co-op. We’ve been sleeping on these pads for over a month now and we don’t get cold or sore from our sleep (review to follow shortly).
As the frost melted and we warmed ourselves in the sun, we were on our way to explore the area known for the Puya raimondii forests. This ancient relative of the pineapple (Bromeliad) that can live anywhere between 40-100 years and is one of the largest flowing plants in the world and is considered endangered.
The large inflorescence spike of the Puya is food and habitat for many bird species.
Mike cycling alongside the huge plants to give an idea of scale.
Even though it’s the shoulder season to the rains that plague summer here in the Andes we are rewarded with bright sunny days (fingers crossed we remain this lucky).
After two days of cycling through the park we ended up in La Union early enough to head up to Huánuco Viejo, the Incan ruins 3,700 m up in the pampas which over 2 km². Without a guide, there wasn’t much to see but thankfully an energetic guard accompanied us on our walk around the site explaining everything. He was an amazing host with a wealth of knowledge by which we gained a vast appreciation of the ruins we were exploring.
Further up the road, in the tiny little town of Chavinillo, we awake to hit the road again surprised to see another touring bike parked by ours. This is where we met Martin, and Austrian cyclist that started in Ushuia in April and is headed north. It was great to see another cyclist on the road even if we were headed separate ways. He was the first cyclist we had encountered in Peru in our time here.
After leaving Chavinillo at the top of the climb, Punta Union, there is a rock formation called the Inca’s Crown.. you can see why.
We typically try to find a nice quiet spot for lunch so the small plaza in San Rafael seemed like the perfect spot. Shade, trees, benches and a nice grassy area, however we arrived just as the children were getting out of school. Sure enough within moments we had a crowd of curious eyes surrounding us. There were questions about our bikes, our travels amongst others.
The boy to my left then asked me what the “himno nacional” (national anthem) of Canada was and for me to sing it… I said I’d sing it for them if they sang me the national anthem of Peru first. Sure enough they all pitched in and there we were in the square of this small village being serenaded with the National Anthem of Peru. True to my word, I sang Canada’s National anthem for them after. It was one of those moments that left me smiling the rest of that day.
Not long after we left from lunch and headed down the busy main road with our tunes blasting we ran into these two, Eric and Astrid from Holland headed the other direction. It’s a creed among cycle tourists always stop when passing by, say hello and exchange notes from the road. It was wonderful to meet another pair on the road and we wish them well and safe travels for their adventure ahead. They gave us a great tip for a place to stay for the night which was 10km further up the road near the town of Huarica and turned out to be perfect. It was little roadside/riverside hotel offering individual cabañas for a really fair price.
The next day turned out to be a bit of an epic as we headed toward Cerro de Pasco. With a late start because of rain and a massive climb back up over 4,000 m we ended up cycling down the highway in the dark and very cold. We missed our planned turn into the town we wanted to stay at and felt a bit worried as no other accommodations were visible and there certainly weren’t any places to wild camp amongst the mine pits, heavy machinery and desolate mining towns.
Cold and feeling a little defeated we stopped at a small gas station in the community of Shelby to see if they knew of any place to stay for the night. We were told by the family that there wasn’t a hospedaje for another 2 hours up the road by bike. Well after dark that wasn’t a possibility. We asked if we could camp there for the night. This wonderful family took us in, in a bedroom above the gas station where the father stays up all night pumping gas and the mom looks after her 7 childern. They offered us a bed, fed us warm anís tea, bread and the best Caldo Verde (a potato soup with fresh cheese and herbs – giving it the verde or green color) I have had. The kids were interested in our camera and we played with it all night taking random shots. The family did have a computer so we were able to give them copies of all the photos we had taken that evening.
These are the moments I love about cycle touring. We never expect hospitality from anyone but are truly humbled when we do receive it. It always seems like when you are in a bad situation that someone comes along and helps. These moments give me faith in humanity amidst all the atrocities you see on the news everyday and I hope that I can repay this kindness back one day.
Sweet little Angelica, the youngest of the family.
With just a small back track to the town of Viccos, where we had missed the turn the night before in the pitch black. We stopped for breakfast where we filled up on spaghetti, bread, coffee and tea. Shortly after, we were back on track to taking the back road (western side) of Lago Junin locally known as Chinchaycocha.
We sought the road that followed the western bank of the lake but that quickly died out and we ended up having to hike our bikes across farmer fields and huck them over barbed-wire fences to find the ‘main road’…
… but the detour was well worth is as we came across fields of alpacas and a lake full of flamingos!
This road was full of stunning views and the rolling landscape was easy to ride and enjoyable, we were able to stop along the way to checkout all the different bird species in the lake while searching for the elusive Junin Grebe (only endemic to this area), but weren’t lucky enough to see it.
Our lunch stop arrived at this strange sight at over 4,000 m we wondered who’s brilliant idea it was to have an outdoor swimming pool at this elevation (over 4,000 m) where there was no apparent heat source and with temperature plummeting below zero at night we doubted the day temperatures would be able to warm the water enough to make this even remotely enjoyable. It made for a nice lunch spot though, poolside.
After a short stretch on the main highway we ended up on another backroad to San Pedro de Cajas, which like many Peruvian roads was in the process of being prepared to be paved. It’s another climb from Junin and then a wicked decent into town. This tiny village is known for their tapestry work and has a arts college where there are beautiful murals surrounding the gates.
After a nights’ rest we were back on the road heading towards Tarma excited to have a short day to stop at the Cueva de Huagapo, the largest subterranean cave system in South America.
Mike at the mouth of the cave, to date it has only been explored about 2,800 m deep, after which some of the funnels leading further into the cave get too narrow for modern scuba gear and another expedition to explore the cave further has yet to be organized.
Mike and I were lucky to be lead into the cave by one of the local guides who took us as far as you can go without the need of specialized equipment, this was already well beyond where natural light penetrates.
We rewarded ourselves afterwards with a fresh trout lunch (really fresh) for 22 soles we both had heaping plates of food accompanied with choclo y queso (corn and cheese) and a drink. One of the best dishes we have had in Peru!
After our long decent and an evening camping at a Hacienda outside of Tarma we started to climb right away, out of the lush valleys where there were crops of every kind to the desolate but stunning Altoplano.
Where in the distance we saw wild vicuñas.
And the road stops climbing and gently rolls until we headed back down the other side to Juaja where we spent another night. In Juaja we found some wicked traditional rock oven made bread which set the bar up really high for further bread forays.
We had an easy pedal to Huancayo the next day which is known as one of the central highlands biggest cities. This was day 12 of straight riding and we were looking forward to a day off or two there. We quickly realized it was just another big city and one day off was enough to get us moving again. The next few days of riding were some of our favorite and we found some great places to stay for the night.
Izcuchaca was the town we spent our first night after Huancayo at a great hostal for 35 soles which is one of the cleanest and friendliest we have been in for a while.
Also where they raised cuy (guinea pig) … for food, a common plate here high in protein and low in fat. Wonder when they will catch on with the rest of the world?
The next morning we push our bikes along the rail road, the only access into last nights’ hostal and hit the road early for what will be to date one of our longest rides, 120 km’s in Peru with a combination of decents and climbs and newly paved it ended up being one of our most favorite and memorable rides in Peru to date screaming down the switchbacks of the Rio Mantaro valley. The sun was shinning, there was only limited roadworks on the section up to Mayocc that we plowed through the km’s barely stopping to take pictures and just enjoying the ride.
Some of the few pics we did take along the way.
The lush surroundings that we saw near Tarma had turned into dry barren lands of dry river beds and cacti.
There looked to be numerous wild camp spots that would have made for a magical evening in the desert along with the cacti and the fading sun reflecting throughout the surrounding valley but we pushed on to the town of Mayocc where we chose Hostal Willy one of the two we saw in town, run by a lovely lady.
For 15 soles we had a shabby little room but the place was warm with hospitality, the sleep wasn’t great and we ended up having to jerry rig the window with string and a pop bottle to keep the breeze coming in to cool us but to stop it from banging around in the strong winds. Without much sleep we woke early the next morning to reach Ayacucho where we had planned to take some much needed days off the bike, the re-coup and rest before the last push to Cusco.
The road from Mayocc to Huanta, the larger town about 35 km’s before Ayacucho, is still gravel however there was extensive roadworks on this section. After one of the most enjoyable days, we faced one of our most hated days. On this section we were bombarded by traffic and constructions trucks driving at an insane clip and showering us in dust. Thankfully we were able to pass with our bikes while the lines of traffic waited only to scream forward, pass us, covering us again with dust and driving erratically before they were stopped and had to wait at the next one. In a ‘tortoise and the hare’ fashion we plugged on arriving in Ayacucho well before the blockades of traffic who seemed to have no common sense when it came time for their turn on the road.
Plaza de Armas in Ayacucho
We thankfully reach Ayacucho unscathed and took some time to chill.
Mike decided to get cleaned up after complaining continuously that he kept eating his beard and food kept getting stuck in it.
And we spent our time gorging ourselves on yummy food, fresh fruit, veg and good bread! Yum.
Bikes cleaned, bellies full and rested up…we’re ready to hit the road again pushing to try to beat the rainy season (fingers crossed).