Huaraz has been described by some as mecca for mountaineers; the cordillera blanca range offers a spectacular playfield for all from novice to experts. I stayed in a hostel called Jo’s Place a highly recommended place in Huaraz where I met Paul Griffiths, another cyclist from Bristol, UK who had completed his Alaska to Ushuaia cycling trip and was working on an inspiring project in Huaraz. Together wee hatched a plan to climb one of the mountains in the Ishinca valley called Urus Este (5450m).
The first day was the walk from the taxi drop off point, just outside the village of Pashpa, to the Ishinca base camp. There was a guy with a donkey who offered to carry our rucksacks for a small fees but Paul refused without even thinking and I had to match that. After an hour into the walk the man with his donkey walked past us and had spare capacity too. He renewed his offer. But, after having toiled for an hour, it did not seemed right to give up, in spite of feeling the weight badly. I refused once again. My Stevenson brothers might be proud that I carried all the gear on my own shoulders this time unlike my previous mountaineering trips. The walk ended up a bit more tiring than expected. Ishinca base camp (4350m) had a small refugio with some amenities, food, bed and even a heated dining hall! We mustered the courage to refuse this indulgence and instead camped out at the base camp and cooked our own food; it was only right to feed the English man his national dish, curry both the days. First day we cooked vegetable curry and rice and the second day was roti and potato curry. Paul felt as being in Nepal although I was not the porter.
Ishinca refugio served as base camp for few mountains including Ishinca, Tocillaraju Urus and some more, an array of snow covered peaks all around this valley. The second day we went for an acclimatisation walk towards the Tocillaraju high camp. We reached up to about 5000 metres and returned to the base camp. Tocillaraju looked like an awesome peak, a pyramid shaped mountain with lots of technical ice-climbing, something for the future. In the afternoon it rained a bit and we were a bit concerned about the weather which turned out to be just a blip. Urus Este was right behind the refugio and straight-up. It was steep all the way and quite a rough path with lots of stones which only increased in size as we climbed higher and higher. We left at 4am on the third day and within an hour or so we were lost. Luckily Paul caught hold of the trail again. I was glad to have the company of an English explorer. Although this climb did not require technical expertise some bouldering and glacier walk were involved. We arrived at the bottom of the glacier when the sun came out. Paul took out his fancy camera and was busy capturing the stunning scenery. I was ecstatic to be on the glacier and continued while Paul spent some good time with his camera. Some ropes would have been useful for the steeper sections of the glacier but neither of us knew how to use it. We just used some extra caution. After about 6 hours we reached the summit which was just a small ridge with a steep drop on the other side. Urus Este seemed to be right in the middle surrounded by several peaks. The highlight of this mountain was the view from the summit. We returned to the base camp and then to Huaraz on the same day. We were both chaffed to have made it to the top especially considering this was the first unguided climb for both of us.
Jo’s place in Huaraz was an excellent place to relax. I camped out in their lawn for a total of 16 days including the two nights spent on the mountain. There was a never ending stream of visitors most of them were either mountaineers or cyclists and it was good to chill out with some of them. The weather was also perfect, days were hot and nights were cold. I also met up with Jason and Daisy (www.thephiltrons.com) in Huaraz with whom I have been in contact with for a few months now via email. They also started cycling from Alaska but after Mexico they flew south to Chile and started pedalling up north. We exchanged a lot of route notes and had some great discussions.
After Huaraz it was a total of 8 days cycling to get to Huancayo including going over 4000 metres passes four times to cross the Cordillera Blanca over to its eastern side. The first day was a short ride to Catac about 36 Km’s away from Huaraz. From Catac there was a dirt road via Huascaran national park which was unrideable on a road bike. The alternative road was asphalt but involved a 90 Km’s detour and two passes. The first of the two was at 4350 metres and I ended the second day of riding at the bottom of this pass in a place called Pachapaqui at 4000 metres which was just a mining town. From here the third day involved 22 Km’s of climb, first thing in the morning, to the top of the pass at 4690 metres. The gradient was not bad but the thin air at this altitude made pedalling a wee bit harder. The dual lane road was surprisingly quiet and was a joy to ride. After about 15 Km’s from the top of the pass the road splits. The lovely road was going to a mining site while the national highway became a single lane road. I stayed in a hotel in the town called La Union on the third day. The fourth day was a bit of a roller coaster ride to the village Chavinillo which was not even on the google maps but had three hotels all very basic though. The fifth day was the climb back up to 4000 metres followed by a 60 Km’s downhill ride to Huanuco, a small city at an altitude of 1900 metres. The road was supposedly paved but for about 20 Km’s stretch of this downhill section it was just washboard and I was surprised that I hadn’t broken any of my spokes. The rattling was unbearable compounded by the annoying traffic. The reckless drivers were ignorant of the tsunami of dirt they unleash on these gravel sections. My eyes were red by the end of this ride. In hindsight it was a bit daft to have not used my glasses. I took a rest in Huanuco to make use of the warmer weather there.
From Huanuco (1900m) the road climbed back up to 4350 metres over 110 kilometres. But not all of this was possible in one day. I rode 91 Km’s and stayed in a place called La Quinoa at 3500 metres and continued the climb the second day. At the top was the city called Cerro de Pasco which apparently has a big pit right in the middle of it. After reading the previous reviews about this city I decided to skip this place and go direct to Junin about a total of 90 kilometres riding for the day. During this the road descended from 4350 to 4100 metres and stayed flat until Junin. From Junin,on the last day, I decided to leg it to Huancayo since it was mostly downhill from 4100 metres to 3200 metres over 167 Km’s. I had some fantastic road biking on this day about 9 hours ride though.
In those eight days of riding, except for Huanuco, I stayed in hotels in smaller villages for the rest of the days and all of them were at an altitude of at least 3000 metres or higher. Most of them lacked basic facilities. Hot water for shower seemed a luxury. The food was also just basic, rice with some form of meat either chicken, beef or pork and some potatoes. Most of the time I got frowned upon for seeking vegetarian food. If staring was in Olympics, Peruvians will win it hands down or should I stay heads down. Most of the people in these remote places had no issue with staring at new people and some of them went further and just giggled/laughed. In some parts of the world this would be considered rude.
Gringo calling and menacing dogs were some of the common features of cyclists experiences in this part of the world. But I had some special treatment in addition to this. I got shouted ‘hey negro’, ‘hey moreno’ several times and was thrown orange peels from a passing car once. I would summarise some of these as a bit uncivilised. For instance, when I arrived at the junction in the village Tingo Chico, an older lady approached me and asked where I am from. I answered La Union the place where I started my ride that day. She was not happy and wanted to know where I was born. After receiving my answer, she said ‘entonces moreno’ meaning ‘that’s why you are dark’. I was a bit annoyed by her condescending attitude towards my skin colour. I suggested Peruvians seem morenos too. Then I went to the shop across the road to get a drink. Meanwhile she found another lady and both were laughing at me from across the road. The second lady pointed her forearms and said ‘es no moreno’. Yes, she was a bit less tanned but wasn’t looking like the mother of Keira Knightley either. I found this bullying unnecessary and I had to raise my voice to shut them up. I would have got them arrested for racial abuse if it was England. Coca-Cola and Western music penetrate to these remote areas but some good attributes of western culture such as non-discrimination and respecting individuals does not seem to.
I think many of the business here can do with some help on professional practices. The advertisement often does not match the reality. In many places hot water was advertised but the heater was ‘broken’. In some places like Bagua Grande running water was missing. The extreme case was in a hotel in La Union when I had to wait one hour in dark to get my light bulb replaced. I never received apologies for any of these since these were considered as normal.
The above experiences, I think, are symptoms of lack of education and economic development. People seemed to be living in Middle Ages with very basic facilities. In this stretch of riding i saw mining industries in Pachapaqui, Chicrin, Cerro de Pasco and La Oruya. These provide some infrastructure like roads and some much needed job opportunities. The environmental damage by these are a concern for some touring cyclists but I think it will be hypocritical to demonise this industry. I believe human ingenuity has the capacity to tackle both development and environmental issues at the same time.
Some of the experiences, I noted above, may not speak high of Peruvians but i am not good in sugar coating. I felt strongly for those young faces that I encountered every single day on my route who seemed to be in desperate need for opportunities and hence I highlighted the above mainly to state the need for education and economic development. I had a lot of good experiences too, like the guest house in Huancayo who treated me as their family; the innocent boy in Junin who asked if I would like to sell my bike; the security guy in Chavinillo who was keen to know more about India; the family at La Quinoa who boiled 2 litres of water for me to have a wash. I got asked several times a day, everyday, about where I am from. I appreciated their genuine curiosity and their directness. Most of these people seemed innocent and once they knew a little bit about me, the respect went over the roof. By the way I am only half through this country…
The route (678 Km’s)): Huaraz – Catac (36) – Pachapaqui (85) – La Union (70) – Chavinillo (68) – Huanuco (70) – La Quinoa (91) – Junin (90) – Huancayo (168). The road was paved all the way. After Huaraz the road was dual lane (one lane on either side) all the way up to just before Huallanca from where the road became single lane until Huanuco. There were some sections near the village Tingo Chico and again during the downhill to Huanuco where the pavement was not there , guess washed away by the rain, and the road was in pretty bad state, each for about 10kms long. However, the road was quiet and hardly any traffic for up to about 50 kms to Huanuco from where the traffic picks up. After Huanuco the road was double lane with good quality pavement all the way to Huancayo.