La Paz, Bolivia to Salta, Argentina via the Salar

The city of La Paz was almost the shape of a bowl, the side wall was about 350 meters in height and was packed with houses. The cable car that runs up and down was the quickest way of getting to the top part called El Alto. Unfortunately bikes can’t be transported in the cable car. So, I chose a steep road, about 3 kilometres, to do this climb to avoid the 15 Km’s busy highway. The gradients were more than 25% in some sections where I expected to push my bike. It took more than 75 minutes to do this climb. I had to stop almost every 50m since the altitude made me gasp for air. I was not embarrassed to ask for some help from people on the side of the road to help push my bike up. It was a mean task. In retrospect it was silly to try push a loaded trailer on this vertical road especially at these altitudes – The worst climb I have ever done.

Altiplano was as dry as a bone

Altiplano was as dry as a bone

clear blue skies comes packaged with some strong UV

Clear blue skies that come packaged with some strong UV

Once I was at the top at El Alto, the road was flat for the rest of the day. I rode for 96 kms to end the day at a small town called Patacamaya. As long as the sun was out and the wind was calm Bolivian altiplano can be navigated with relative ease. I decided to do some long distances the following two days. It was 126 Km’s to Oruro and the highway had two lanes (two on either side!) and even a shoulder lane. All the exits and entries to the highway were signposted too. This section of the highway would pass the international standards. But there were no cars, absolutely none whatsoever, on the day I rode. I realised later, in Bolivia, roads and shops shut during election day even if it’s provincial elections. I had the entire highway to myself and it was a great ride. After Oruro the highway returned to local standards. Luckily the traffic was very minimal and so the next 120 Km’s ride to Challapata went smooth too. The rhyming names of some of the towns along the way provided for brief entertainment, Sica Sica, Ayo Ayo, Cala Cala, Vila Vila and the best one was Poopo.

At the school in Challapata called 'Educativa Republica Argentina"

At the school called ‘Educativa Republica Argentina’ in Challapata, Bolivia

Downtown Colchani at 7am - note my tent on the right

Downtown Colchani at 7am – note my tent on the right

In Challapata I met a local cyclist who gave me the news that I didn’t like to hear – some 20 Km’s after Challapata the road to Uyuni was dirt. The alternative was a long loop around Potosi which would mean staying at higher altitudes for some more days. The sun at this altitude was vicious and burnt the skin badly including the skin over my cheek bones on my face and nose. I realised why people wear hats in these areas. Also, I was getting tired of staying in cold places and that too with no hot showers. I decided to take the train from Challapata to Colchani about 180 Km’s. I had to wait two days for my next train since there were only two trains per week. Challapata had nothing to offer for tourists, just a dusty town in the altiplano. But of course there are always schools! I found a school for my motivational talk which went very well. The children’s desire for economic development was obvious when I showed them photos of my trip from USA and Canada. They were amazed by some of the pictures of Vancouver and Seattle, the big cities with skyscrapers.

Bolivia-Argentina border

Bolivia-Argentina border

At the Bolivia-Argentina border, only 5000 plus Km's to go...

At the Bolivia-Argentina border, only 5000 plus Km’s to go…

The train had a special box for cargo where my bike was thrown into. The ‘popular class’ was the only option for people who board the train at small towns. Indeed it was cheaper but was packed like a cattle truck. I arrived in Colchani at 1.30am after a four hour sleepless journey. I was hoping for a hospedaje (cheaper accommodation) in this town because this town was right at the edge of the Salar – the largest salt plains in the world. I went around this town for an hour looking for the only hospedaje that was not sign posted. It was freezing cold and dogs were barking mad. I gave up after a while and decided to pitch my tent on the side of the road. I tried to kill the next few hours trying to sleep but was not successful. The sun went right through my tent at 6.30am – some warmth at least. I packed up my tent and started riding towards the infamous Salar. The salt plains in Bolivia was world famous and one of the main attractions for touring cyclists in Bolivia. It was in front of me, the vast reserves of salt, the expansive view with the salt meeting the blue sky at the horizon. Internet has lots of photos of people doing all sorts of acrobatics and photoshoot in Salar. Even a random click with a camera phone resulted in some fantastic photos of my bike here. I rode for about 26 km’s over the salt which was just sufficient to experience riding over the salt. From the Salar I rode to Uyuni from where I had to take another train to Villazon, the town at the Bolivia-Argentina border. This overnight train journey went fine and I arrived at the border around 7 am. The border formality took much longer because of a long queue.

The derailleur that committed suicide

The derailleur that committed suicide

Finally, into some green valleys

Finally, into some green valleys

Crossing Tropic of Capricorn

Crossing Tropic of Capricorn

At the Salar

At the Salar

Around 9 am, I crossed the border and started riding in Argentina. The altiplano continued for another 80 Km’s or so. I was excited to be riding in Argentina since I was going to be at much lower altitudes soon and the warm weather that goes with it. After about 8 Km’s I stopped to take a small break. There was nothing to lean my bike against so I had use my kick stand instead. The wind crashed my bike and when I started riding again the chain was not flowing smooth. I changed my gears to diagnose the problem. The derailleur hanger snapped and the derailleur got trapped within the spokes and the bike came to a halt. Even the chain got bent irreversibly.  I had to walk back to the border town to catch a bus to Humahuaca where I found an excellent mechanic to get things sorted. Luckily I had a spare derailleur, the hanger for the same and even a spare chain.

The ride from Humahuaca to Jujuy was mostly downhill from 3000m to about 1200m and about 129 Km’s. The altiplano gave way to valleys with some greenery. It was a welcome change to see some trees and tree-lined streets. Jujuy to Salta was an excellent ride via some curvy narrow roads in the mountains along some lakes. The weather in Salta where I am at the time of this writing is fantastic. I walk around with shorts and sandals even in the night time!

The route: La Paz – Patacamaya (96) – Oruro (127) – Challapata (120) – Colchani (180Km’s by train) – Uyuni (60 including a 26Km short loop around Salar) – Villazon (by train) – La Quiaca in Argentina (15 until the bike broke) – Humahuaca (by bus) – Jujuy (127) – Salta (97)

 

 

 

The French couple from Toulouse who sold their house and business and have been on their bikes for the last four years - very inspirational

The French couple from Toulouse, whom I met on the road before Salta, who sold their house and business and have been on their bikes for the last four years – very inspirational

On the route Jujuy to Salta

On the route Jujuy to Salta

Lunch stop

Lunch stop

Cusco to La Paz: Bienvenidos A Bolivia

Tourist life for two weeks in Cusco went well and it was time to get going. Dan and Gina ( https://fatcycling.wordpress.com/2015/08/18/snow-to-sweating-bikepacking-the-salkantay-pass) whom I met in Cusco were interested to visit the salinas in the sacred valley. We quickly made a plan to do a short loop around Cusco. I had visited the sacred valley on a bus but on a bike it was more rewarding especially the views of the snow covered mountains. On the first day we had to climb over a pass and drop down to the town Urubamba where we stayed two nights. Salinas de Maras was just a short ride from the town Urubamba followed by a 25 minutes walk up to the actual site. It was totally strange – hidden in the valley away from the main road, on the slopes of the mountains, were these white patches of glaring, salt pools. The water from the mountain was diverted to these pools where the salt crystallised with the help of the sun, organic some might say. We wondered around the salt ‘farm’ for more than an hour and got back to Urubamba to make some curry.

Salinas de Maras

Salinas de Maras

Dan and Gina contemplating...

Dan and Gina contemplating…

Fatbikers in the Sacred valley

Fatbikers in the Sacred valley

The third day we cycled via Pisac to the town called Oropesa about 71 Km’s away. The traffic in the sacred valley was heavy but after Pisac it was quieter and was a lovely ride. Dan and Gina were on Fatbikes which were more for trails and rough terrain. My road bike was the opposite. The noise of the Fatbike on the asphalt was like a A380 ready to take off. I understood why Fatbiker’s don’t like asphalt! It was a great three days of ‘leisurely’ ride and I had great time with both Dan and Gina. On the fourth day we split. They went back to Cusco while I continued south.

On top of the pass after Sicuani, 4338m

On top of the pass after Sicuani, 4338m

Puno

Puno

Some straight roads in the altiplano

Some straight roads in the altiplano

The ride to Sicuani from Oropesa about 117 Km’s away was a bit slower than expected, blame the headwinds. In Sicuani where I stayed, there were at least 10 chicken shops all next to each other selling the same thing. If you hail from a world where choice is part of the fabric of the society Peru will make you think twice. After Sicuani it was a 32 Km climb, a very gradual climb, gaining 700metres altitude, to the top of the pass at 4330m followed by a downhill into the altiplano (translated plains at altitude). I was hoping for some lovely road riding on the altiplano but headwinds won the day. Wind chill factor was not just a concept anymore, it was learnt through experience here. Some of the roads in the altiplano were straight as a ruler which was amazing considering the altitude. The towns and village in this terrain were like mirage except that they were true – they were much further than they appeared. After a total of 109 Km’s I arrived at Allaviri, a dusty town in the middle of nowhere. Here I stayed in a bomberos (fire station) who let me sleep in the stretcher in their ambulance! This town was at 4000m altitude and was freezing cold. For instance the water bottle I left outside during the night had ice in the morning. Thankfully they did not needed the ambulance for the night and I had a warm night. Also, it was a total surprise to find a nice vegetarian restaurant in this town.

Peru-Bolivia border near Copacabana

Peru-Bolivia border near Copacabana

Copacabana

Copacabana

Juliaca was another dusty and dirty big city at the northern end of lake Titicaca about 90 Km’s away from Allaviri but in the absence of wind, riding in the altiplano was a treat. The following day was a short ride to the town of Puno, a nice city on the shores of lake Titicaca. Here I stayed for two nights with a lovely Warmshowers host, Ricardo. I was ecstatic when I spotted a coffee shop that offered full english breakfast. During my two days stay in Puno I returned to that coffee place at least three times – Make hay while the sun shines.

Lago Titicaca

Lago Titicaca

After Puno it was about four days of riding to La Paz, three of which were along the lake Titicaca which was almost like a ocean on its own. Riding along the lake might sound romantic and it was, only when the wind god was not angry. Puno to Juli was just another day of riding, about 81 Km’s away. From Juli, it was 60 Km’s of riding to Copacabana involving a border crossing. On my previous visit to Bolivia about 10 years ago, I was detained at La Paz airport for interrogation by a higher officer. At that time I was living in South Africa. An Indian passport holder living in South Africa, visiting Bolivia via Argentina rang the alarm bells I guess. But this time, with British passport, I had no questions. To the contrary I was asked how many days I would like to stay in Bolivia. Does the passport change the identify of a person?

Strait of Tiquina

Strait of Tiquina

Copacabana was a famous beach town, overrun with tourists both local and foreign. I saw a new car being blessed in this beach by a local shaman/priest/guru/whatever. It was funny to watch five bottles of beer being sprayed all around the car and over the tyres. The rest day here was not well timed, it rained and it was freezing cold. The ride out of Copacabana was fantastic, there was a steep climb about 12 Km’s followed by some undulating roads where riding on a narrow strip of land in the lake offered stunning views on both sides. At the end of this was the strait of Tiquina which I crossed it on a rickety boat. Since the lake separates Peru and Bolivia there were some immigration cops here to catch illegal immigrants. I was double checked and then let go. The only thing that was missing was signs of ‘refugees welcome’ or ‘rescue boats’. Nevertheless everything went fine and the last day of ride to La Paz was just plain annoying. Bolivians drivers were worse than their brothers in Peru.

La Paz

La Paz

Copacabana on a rainy day

Copacabana on a rainy day

I don’t seem to recognise La Paz much from my previous visit, except for the President’s house and the lovely coffee shop ‘Alexander Cafe’.

Cusco to La paz route (784 Km’s): Cusco – Urubamba (70) – Oropesa (71) – Sicuani (117) – Allaviri (109) – Juliaca (90) – Puno (42) – Juli (81) – Copacabana (60) – Huarini (77) – La Paz (67). The roads were paved all the way. The traffic gets lot better about 50 Km’s after Oropesa and gets worse again before La Paz. The road numbered 2 from Huarina to La Paz was paved and was being expanded when I rode it. Because of the road works there were short sections of dirt road which due to the previous day rain was a mud bath. The spectators on the side of the road were not hesitant to laugh at me battling through these sections – elsewhere this would be considered rude.

Huancayo to Cusco: A visit to Machu Picchu

View from the terraces where I spent an hour chilling

View from the terraces of Machu Picchu where I spent an hour chilling

There were several 4000 metres passes between Huancayo and Cusco. The first day was a 17 Km’s climb to the top at 3900m after which it was downhill and some flat roads to the village called Quichas where I camped out in a school. The next day was an excellent ride along the river for 90 Km’s to the village called Mayocc. The route profile looked flat on the map but the small undulations added to a net ascent of 2000 metres! The road was a single lane road through some remote mountains, thoroughly enjoyable. There was a short climb on the third day about 700 metres altitude gain after which it was downhill to the city of Ayacucho where I decided to have a rest day. My rear wheel was a bit wobbly and needed truing. I found a mechanic in Ayacucho who probably was not having a good day. He tightened all the spokes directing all his anger towards the spokes, whilst all it needed was balancing the tension. It was too late by the time I realised his expertise or the lack of it. Meanwhile, his conversation with me began with the question ‘the people where you come from all have dark skin?’ You can imagine how the rest of the conversation went.

The climb-up from Huancayo

The climb-up from Huancayo

with some road workers on top of the pass at 4300 m, after Ayacucho

With some road workers on top of the pass at 4300 m, after Ayacucho

The centro area of Ayacucho was quite nice with stoned paved streets and buildings from colonial era well preserved. The fourth day ride had another climb, about 37 Km’s long, from 2700m to 4300m, a fantastic climb out of Ayacucho. The road was well paved and double lane (one on either side) too. After reaching the top of the pass the road was mostly flat with some undulations and then downhill to the village called Chumbes, a total of 106 Km’s for the day. The village at the bottom was visible from the top and the road that wound its way down the mountain was like mangled spaghetti. The quintessential hair-pin bends on the Peruvian mountains were superb. Perhaps because of this enticing downhill rides, the climbs were not intimidating anymore and in fact I was looking forward to these. During this downhill I felt my rear wheel was rubbing against the frame and on inspection the worst came true. One of the spokes pulled through the broken rim and the rim had cracks at five other places too. My worst nightmare had come true that too at a desolate section- courtesy of the mechanic at the Ayacucho shop who overtightened the spokes. Fortunately, the next twenty Km’s to the village Chumbes was all downhill and I managed to roll down safely. Cyclists need to note that for about 100 Km’s after Ayacucho there were no shops, nothing, not even a place to buy water.

Mountains as far as I could see

Mountains as far as I could see

The downhill from the pass where the wheel woes began

The downhill from the pass where the wheel woes began

Cusco town centre

Cusco town centre

image

Terraces at Pisac ruins

Camping at a hostel in Cusco

Apu Wasi hostel in Cusco – highly recomended

Chumbes had no bike shop so I had to take a bus to the next town Andahuaylas to find another mechanic who was lot better than the previous guy. He trued my wheel but advised not to ride with a broken rim. It was not possible to replace a rim since road bikes were not common in Peru especially my wheel size, 700c, was uncommon. In addition I had sore throat and runny nose. With both me and my bike in poor health I decided to take a bus to Cusco. Taking the bicycle on the bus was another nightmare. Boarding a bus was airport style, you will have to check in your luggage and they

Ollantaytambo ruins

Ollantaytambo ruins

will load it on to the bus. The baggage handling is also airport style i.e they will just shove it in wherever with no regard. I had to explain to them that my bicycle had delicate parts and throwing a 20 kgs bag on top of my bicycle will be the end of it. Sometimes this went into deaf ears. To make sure my bike is loaded with some care I had to do some sweet talking with the baggage handlers although they struggled to understand my paranoia.

 

Selfie with Llama at Machu Picchu

Selfie with Llama at Machu Picchu

View from Machu Picchu

View from Machu Picchu

On arrival in Cusco I found an excellent bike shop where the mechanic guy was super friendly and understood what I was going through. Peru was full of surprises, you never know who has the professional skills. I replaced the rim along with the hub and it costed 40 GBP. For once I was not happy with the low cost since I did not trust the quality of the rim. I preferred spending a bit more to get a better quality but it was not available. The next few weeks will reveal the quality of this product.

My sore throat got worse and it took about a week to recover but Cusco was a good place to rest. I wanted to recover the weight that I lost. In Cusco all luxury items were available in plenty including Ferrero Rocher chocolate, Walkers short bread (scottish) etc. The latter although being one of my favourite was a bit pricey so I settled for some Peruvian

Some more of Machu Picchu

Some more of Machu Picchu

chocolates, after all fattening up should not cost too much. Cusco received a lot of tourist, the main square was like the Westend in London. I heard plenty of languages and there were also lots of cultural things to do (museums, churches). This place almost felt like the Las Vegas of the Inkas.

Sacred valley with Machu Picchu at the end of it, is an area where the ruins were in abundance. Indeed most visitors arrive here for that one infamous site and I was one of them. Getting to Machu Picchu appeared complex and the tour agencies took advantage of this. There were plenty of options and I took the cheapest option! A seven hour bus ride to a place called Hidroelectrica followed by a two hour walk along the rail track to Aguas Calientes. Machu Picchu was directly above this on top of a steep mountain. The number of visitors were restricted to 2500 although this number was breached everyday I was told. The gate at the bottom of the mountain opened at 5am and I was one of the few hundreds of people who braved the hike via a series of steep steps, about 45 minutes of strenuous climb, to the top entrance. Me and the two Italian guys who were in my group were in the front of the queue. Having been able to step into this magical site first we were able to take photos with no one on the site a good price for all the efforts that went in I guess.

No, this is not Calais, Eurostar does not run here and these are not migrants. These are people who choose the cheaper option to visit Machu Picchu. Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes walk along the rail road

No, this is not Calais, Eurostar does not run here and these are not migrants. These are people who choose the cheaper option to visit Machu Picchu. Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes walk along the rail road

Bright and early at Machu Picchu by all means

Bright and early at Machu Picchu by all means

Most of the 2500 or so visitors to Machu Picchu went through Cusco at some point. It was amazing to see such a large turn around of visitors which had its plus and minus as expected. One of them is encountering or getting poked by that wonderful twenty first century invention called ‘selfie sticks’. This just seem like a must item to travel with these days. This gay passion to take selfies at every single turn does not appeal to everyone though and I was one of them. Although I have my moments it appears. I could not resist taking a selfie with a Llama at Machu Picchu ruins. This Llama had no problem with selfies. It was happy to stand still for several of us. In addition it didn’t ask for any compensation in return unlike some of the local people in the main square in Cusco who came well dressed-up, as if they had just stepped out of one of the museums, to pose for the tourist cameras for a small change.

Temple of the Sun - Machu Picchu

Temple of the Sun – Machu Picchu

Some of the ruins at Machu Picchu

Some of the ruins at Machu Picchu

‘Touristophobics’ may have some issues with visiting Machu Picchu and Cusco but the excellent facilities that come with this flooding of tourist has some advantages. Some good quality food and coffee can be had here unlike some remote parts of Peru. In spite of the shear number of tourists visiting Machu Picchu was a fabulous once in a life time visit. It’s unbeatable location, on top of a mountain with steep drops on all sides and surrounded by lush green mountains was a great site to look at. I spent an hour on one of the terraces admiring the view and soaking the sun. Even touristophobics might find it worth a visit, I think.

In Cusco, I visited Colegio Salesiano one of the top schools in Cusco where the discipline and behaviour were some of the best, as expected. I also went to the speak to some of the students at Universidad Andina who were studying tourism. Both these talk were well received.

With grade 4 students at Colegio Salesiano Cusco

With grade 4 students at Colegio Salesiano Cusco

Options for visiting Machu Picchu from Cusco: By whatever means one has to reach Aguas Calientes first, the town at the bottom of Machu Picchu mountain. (Prices as of August 2015)

with tourism students at Universidad Andina, Cusco

with tourism students at Universidad Andina, Cusco

1. The costliest and cozy option is to take a train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes about 3 hours journey. The train station in Cusco is about 13 Km’s away in a place called Poroy. The rail fares were expensive (starting from 77 USD one way) even for someone who was used to the rip off fares in southern England. However the scenery might be worth it if you had that spare cash.
2. Take a bus to Ollantaytambo and then catch the train. The train fare from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes starts from 51 USD – not cheap still.
3. Take a bus from Cusco to Santa Maria and then change to another bus to Hidroelectrica. This whole journey will take approximately 7 hours and will cost 30 soles. From Hidroelectrica it’s a two hour walk to Aguas Calientes along the rail tracks. This route is equally popular like the train routes and all inclusive package can be found for 90 or 100 USD (including entry ticket to Machu Picchu, buses to and back to Cusco, one night accommodation in Aguas Calientes and three meals). Most tour agencies in Cusco sell this package.

From Aguas Calientes its about 60 – 90 minutes walk up a steep mountain to the actual site of Machu Picchu. There is also an option to take a bus from Aguas Calientes to the top of the mountain which will set you back by 12 USD one way and 24 USD return.

The road from Cusco to Santa Maria is all paved and double lane. After Santa Maria the road towards Hidroelectria is unpaved, gravel/dirt road. Cyclists will be able to cycle up to Hidroelectrica but I did not see any hostels there. However there is a town called Santa Teresa before Hidroelectrica which has plenty of options for accommodation.

The route (376 Km’s by bike + 409 Km’s by bus): Huancayo – Quichuas (106) – Mayocc (90) – Ayacucho (70) – Chumbes (110) – Cusco (409 by bus). The road from Huancayo was double lane up to the Huancavelica turn off after which it became single lane, although all of it was paved all the way to Ayacucho. Google Earth showed dirt road near Mayocc but it was paved, recent change I guess. After Ayacucho it double lane fantastic road all the way up to Cusco.

Huaraz to Huancayo: some mountaineering and more riding

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).

Sunset at Ishinca valley, 4350m

Sunset at Ishinca valley, 4350m

Paul and i during the acclimatisation walk, Tocillaraju on the background

With Paul during the acclimatisation walk, Tocillaraju on the background

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.

Paul making his way to the summit

Paul making his way to the summit

On the glacier- Photo by Paul Friffiths

On the glacier- Photo by Paul Griffiths

At the Ishinca base camp - Photo by Paul Griffiths

At the Ishinca base camp – Photo by Paul Griffiths

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.

Catching my breadth back on top of Urus-Photo by Paul Griffiths

Catching my breadth back on top of Urus-Photo by Paul Griffiths

On top of Urus Este

On top of Urus Este

On top of the first pass at 4350m, before Pachapaqui

On top of the first pass at 4350m, before Pachapaqui

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.

Pachapaqui

Pachapaqui

On top of the second pass at 4690m

On top of the second pass at 4690m

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.

Corona del Inca

Corona del Inca

The downhill to Huanuco from 4000m

The downhill to Huanuco from 4000m

The mining town, La Oroya

The mining town, La Oroya

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.

Cajamarca to Huaraz: Tunnelling my way through some desert canyon to the snow-capped mountain range

About nine months ago, on google maps, I spotted some spectacular climbs in Peru with 20 or more hairpin bends on one single slope. Also, the infamous Canon del Pato was not far from this. The excitement and anticipation to ride this section was building up ever since.

On my way out of Cajamarca

On my way out of Cajamarca

Towards Huamachuco

Towards Huamachuco

The shortening of the three day ride to Huamachuco into two days based on the route profile turned out to be an over estimation. The first day ride from Cajamarca to Aguas Calientes was mostly downhill and went fine. The hot water at this thermal spring was just a swimming pool with luke warm water, not really a great attraction. The second day ride to Huamachuco was thoroughly enjoyable but went a bit too long and was tougher than expected. The whole section was paved, albeit single lane, with very little traffic if any. The day that was saved up was spent resting in Huamachuco.

My hosts at Mollepata

My hosts at Mollepata

Camping at the Plaza de Armas in Mollepata

Camping at the Plaza de Armas in Mollepata

The next few days were the ones that I have been looking forward to for a long time. With the help of several blogs and more importantly Google Satellite app, I knew which sections were paved. However, the big help came from Jason Coles with whom I had cycled on and off for few days since Colombia. Jason who knew my bicycle warned me to skip the section between Huamachuco to Mollepata and again Chuquicara to Huallanca. Both of these were dirt roads covered by lots of gravel. I was prepared to ride roads if it were compact dir but coming into Huamachuco, the previous day, I had few Km’s of road where the road was gravel where I had to resort to pushing my bike which was not pleasant. Based on this, it was indeed the best decision to get a bus/motor vehicle for the sections Jason recommended.

Downhill to the river from Mollepata

Downhill to the river from Mollepata

The road to Pallasca. - about 22 hair pin bends

The road to Pallasca. – about 22 hair pin bends

Some of these places were so remote that getting a public transport was more adventurous than riding it. From Huamachuco there was only one transit van per day to Cachicadan scheduled at 3am in the morning (a distance of 47 Km’s). There was no other choice so I had to get to the terminal at 3am only to find out that the transit van on that particular day lacked a roof top carrier to take my bicycle. The driver left without me. It was not the best place to be stranded that too at 4 am and in the cold. But luck was on my side. A pickup truck was going to a nearby town and offered to take me at a cost. Well something is better than nothing. The direct route was not paved and it was dangerous even for motor vehicles so he had to drive around via another town. He left me at Santiago de Chuco at 8 am from where I decided to take a bus to my destination, Mollepata. It took me two full hours to confirm the only bus that goes to Mollepata from Santiago de Chuco since no body seemed to knew the exact times neither the bus stop. It just seemed like people never travelled outside their villages. After about four hours wait the bus arrived and I was on my way. The dirt road was narrow and the corners were too small for the bus to turn where he had to reverse and do lot of back and forth motion to get through. It took about full 6 hours for this 63 Km’s and we eventually arrived in Mollepata around 7pm. It was an exhausting day about 16 hours to reach Mollepata which was only about 107 Km’s away in total from Huamachuco. No wonder why people in these areas don’t travel much.

Plaza de Armas at Pallasca

Plaza de Armas at Pallasca

The descent from Pallasca

The descent from Pallasca

The desert canyon on my way to Chuquicara

The desert canyon on my way to Chuquicara

Gringo calling is very common in Peru but the kids in Mollepata knew not to use this word. Some kids who boarded the bus in the previous village knew that I am a cyclist. I was surprised since they haven’t even seen my bicycle yet. Apparently, the only foreigners who travelled through this area were only cyclists. These kids knew a lot about cycling and camping gear. They showed me the spot where cyclists usually camped out and helped me to put my tent up for the night. They were asking to see my stove and all the camping gear. Their knowledge of the touring gear was fantastic. Thanks to all the previous cyclists these kids have great respect for cyclists and were very welcoming. I felt very safe. This was a very small village on the top of a cliff. The clear skies revealed the full moon and the stars. The weather was nice and cooler, neither cold nor hot. The views from my tent were stunning. After an adventurous day this was a happy ending a very happy ending indeed.

Within a kilometre of descent from Mollepata the view that I was looking forward to was laying in front of my eyes, the quintessential Peruvian road with lots of hair pin bends, 22 as counted by other cyclists, all the way to Pallasca about 40 kilometres away, which was a village on the top of mountain on the other side of the canyon. The first ten kilometres was downhill to the river from where the road ascends, about 1500 metres climb, via these 22 hair pin bends. The entire section was paved. After about four and half hours later I arrived in Pallasca at an altitude of 3000 metres. From Pallasaca it was downhill and then flat roads to Chuquicara which was 79 Km’s away. I was hoping for a relatively easy day although the reality had something else in store. About five kilometres of road right after Pallasca had been washed away and the landslides left the road covered in gravel. In spite of being downhill, I couldn’t sit on my saddle. It was too bumpy and my bike was slipping and I had to resort to walking. At the end of the downhill was the desert canyon a landscape that I have never seen before. Although the road in this canyon was a gentle descent from 1100 metres to 500 metres altitude over a 50 Km’s distance the headwind slowed me down a bit, nevertheless it was a great experience to cycle through this area. The road was paved and very little traffic once again. During my 6 hour ride I encountered not more than 10 vehicles!

Huallanca

Huallanca

Canon del Pato

Canon del Pato

Canon del Pato

Canon del Pato

On arrival in Chuquicara around 2 pm, I decided to take a bus on the same day instead of spending a night there. This place was hot, dry and very dusty. Once again there was only one bus per day to the next village, Huallanca which left at 11am. It took me about two hours, and with the help of the local police at the check point, to find a vehicle to hitch a ride. As mentioned by Jason this section from Chuquicara to Huallanca was really bad dirt roads. The ride was bumpy even on a four wheel drive.

Coming out of one of the tunnels

Coming out of one of the tunnels

Huallanca was a nice little town surrounded by tall barren mountains and the hydroelectric station here seemed the important economic activity in this village. The second important highlight of this section of my route was the Canon del Pato, a series of 35 tunnels over a 10 kilometres distance in the mountains. This landscape will be a perfect setting for some Indiana Jones Arabian adventure movie. From Huallanca the road was paved again. Although a climb, the ride through the tunnel was an unforgettable experience and highly recommended. However most of the tunnels were shorter except for two long ones around some corners and the lack of illumination heightens the adventure. After the tunnels the single lane road becomes double lane road to Caraz which was 40 Km’s away from Huallanca.

After Caraz and for about 70 Km’s the road goes next to the Cordillera Blanca. The towering snow capped peaks on the side of the road were remarkably different to the canyon landscape I had over the previous two days. At the end of this road was the city Huaraz, very famous destination for mountaineers and this popularity brought some unwelcome traffic indeed.

Some more tunnels

Some more tunnels

Some of the routes in this section of the ride were key parts of the big objective of this trip. The joy and immense happiness on achieving this was felt several times over the last two weeks especially at Mollepata when I felt one with the One. It is the lessons from these experiences that I believe inspire the pupils when I share with them.

The route (408 Km’s riding): Cajamarca – Agua Calientes (90) – Huamachuco (88) – Mollepata (110 – by a bus) – Pallasca (40) – Chuquicara (79) – Huallanca (67 by a pickup truck) – Caraz (40) – Huaraz (71).

Route notes: Except for the sections where I took the bus (Huamachuco – Mollepata and Chuquicara to Huallance) the rest of the roads were paved. However, there were several sections where the road had been washed out where I could not roll by bike from the saddle but these were relatively short and I walked most of them. The single lane roads were a delight to ride, traffic was almost nil. There were not much shops in between the towns so it is better to stock up in the towns. In Aguas Calientes and Mollepata I camped out. There were hotels (hospedaje) which were just basic at Huallanca and Pallasca.

Jaen to Cajamarca: Riding in the canyon, visiting ruins, waterfalls and museum, all things touristy

In Jaen I was staying right next to a school, Parroquial Señor de Huamantanga, Jaen, Peru. The English teacher there was happy for me to talk to her grade 3 and grade 4 students (age group 13-15). The students wore uniform which was in perfect order and also their behaviour outside the classroom indicated that this must be a good school. As expected, they seemed to have high ambitions matched to those in the private schools. I felt the management of this school and its religious beliefs had a great role in making this a good school which apparently was the number one school in the whole city. The students were hyper excited and after the talk they took to Facebook to declare their motivation in life.

Parroquial Senor de Huamantanga, Jaen, Peru

At the school, Parroquial Senor de Huamantanga, Jaen, Peru

Some flat roads to Bagua Grande

Some flat roads to Bagua Grande

View of Gocta falls from Gocta lodge where I had a coffee

View of Gocta falls from Gocta lodge where I had a coffee

The road from Jaen to Cajamarca via Leimabamba was all paved and the route went through several tourist sites. In this section, apart from the pavement, what the Peruvian mountains had in store was something out of this world. The road climbed up gradually alongside a river, so gradual that my legs hardly noticed the climb; about 2000 metres altitude gain over four days. The weather on the first day from Jaen to Bagua Grande was quite tropical where I could quench my thirst with juices from pineapple, sugarcane and watermelon. The second, third and fourth day were largely through a fantastic canyon whose walls have been carved to create road space at several sections. Traffic was very low which was a bonus and the only noise was that of the echo of noisy river from the walls of the canyon.

The second day i rode from Bagua Grande to a small village called Cocachimba which was 5 kms off the main highway. This 5 kms dirt road involving a climb of 400 metres was going to be a test at the end of which I realised I can’t ride on gravel roads. Never mind riding, even walking it was a pain, it took about 90 minutes to reach the village. Most tourists visit this village on their way to the Gocta falls and hardly any body stayed there. The view from this village, a massive wall of mountains with waterfalls breaking out from several points was a spectacle. The people in the village seemed mostly indigenous and the family with whom I stayed made food that included some vegetables. This was a big

The valley that leads to Pedro Ruiz

The valley that leads to Pedro Ruiz

change from the usual food that I ate on the road which was nothing but chicken and rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For some one whose taste buds were hypersensitive due to consumption of condiments over several years, the monotonous and unflavoured food killed my appetite at lest in the rural areas. Some good quality food and variety was the most important thing I looked forward to whenever I reached big cities.

Go ta falls

Gocta falls

The canyon walls that gave way for road space

The canyon walls that gave way for road space

The two hour hike/walk through some rainforest to the Gocta waterfalls was a bit of a change for my leg muscles. Some claimed this was the third largest waterfalls but this has been disputed ever since. On top of this there were several mystical stories around this falls. Apparently it was only discovered in 2005. It was hard to believe that in 21st century we did not know about this waterfalls. I hope someone will put an end to all these stories at some point. Nevertheless the hike was worth it. The water dropped from so high that it became just mist by the time it reached the bottom.

Some single lane roads towards Leimebamba

Some single lane roads towards Leimebamba

Typical round house at the Kuelap ruins

Typical round house at the Kuelap ruins

The road from Cocachimba to Tingo was a single lane road after the turn off to Chachapoyas. It was only a few metres wide like the country lanes in Cornwall. I camped out at a restaurant in Tingo for two nights in order to visit the Kuelap ruins. These ruins were located on top of the mountain with 360 degrees views. The Inkas must have been a fan of great views. At that time, it was believed, there were about 500 round house within this fortress arranged in two layers. The top circuit was reserved for the shamans and the elites!

Mummies at the Leimebamba museum

Mummies of human bodies from Inka times at the Leimebamba museum

The climb up from LA Balzas

The climb up from LA Balzas

About 2000 metres below the green patch is LA Balzas

About 2000 metres below the green patch is LA Balzas

Climb down to La Balzas

Climb down to La Balzas

Tingo to Leimebamba was another lovely ride along some quiet roads. Since the road was quite narrow no big vehicles passed through these roads, perfect for touring cyclists. In Leimebamba there was a museum that housed the mummies from Inca times. The museum did not interest me apart from these mummies perhaps because the information was all presented in Spanish. The next three days revealed the true nature of Peruvian mountains. From Leimebamba to Le Balzas, it was a 30 Km’s climb from 2200 to 3600 metres first thing followed by a 60 Km’s descent to La Balzas which was at an altitude of 800 metres. This downhill was something I was looking forward to. It rained during the climb and on top of the pass I realised that my fingers were almost frozen. This I presume was due to the windchill. I needed my fingers to be flexible to use the brakes for the descent. From the top I could see the sun below and was keen to get down quickly. After about 15 kms from the top, which I managed with great pain, I spotted a house. I was not ashamed to ask for some hot drinks. The woman felt sorry that I could not even hold the coffee on my shivering hands and took me to her kitchen to warm up where she was cooking pork on a wood-fired stove. After 20 minutes I was ready for the road again. I felt the kindness from the poor had to be reciprocated so I left them with some money. The downhill was indeed lot more pleasurable when I was not shaking due to the cold.

La Balzas was a small village nothing more than a street with few houses dotted along. The village in the canyon was so warm that mango trees thrive here happily, yet no houses had a fan, such was the wealth in this area. The place where I ate was a family owned restaurant which was also very basic. I spoke to few kids who hung out there. There was a 14 year old boy from the neighbouring village who lived here on his own, away from his family, because there were no roads for him to commute. He studied there in a school in La Balzas and worked part-time too. It seemed these kids were far behind compared to those in remote locations in the northern hemisphere. I read from BBC that there were 2.3 million children in poverty in the UK in 2015. I think the children from La Balzas would happily swap places with some of them. It would be a long essay to summarise my thinking on this issue based on my experiences and observations. Perhaps this is best left for another time. It is suffice to say, I was more concerned with the lack of opportunities rather than the poverty itself.

The relentless 42 Km’s climb that was in store after La Balzas, on my way to Celendin, was always at the back of my mind for the previous few days. I was as prepared as I could. The assault began at 6am and it took 8 full hours to reach the summit at 3100 metres. To my surprise I enjoyed the climb probably because the road was not too steep, the Peruvian roads were kind to cyclists the gradients were generally around 5%. However, the views from the road, overlooking the canyon with La Balzas at its bottom, does not change much throughout this climb. Once again the narrow roads were quite enjoyable.

The final day was from Celendin to Cajamarca about 103 Km’s away. There was another climb from Celendin which was at 2700 metres to the top at 3700 metres over 50 kilometres. However, compared to the previous days climbs this one felt like a storm in the tea cup. At the top it was cold but no rain and the rest was mostly downhill to Cajamarca where I am at the time of this writing. This is a big city where I could find some good coffee too!

The route (510 Km’s): Jaen – Bagua Grande (62) – Cocachimba (96) – Tingo (52) – Leimebamba (50) – La Balzas (90) – Celendin (57) – Cajamarca (103)

Some route notes for future cyclists: The entire section from Jaen to Cajamarca via Leimebamba was paved. There was an unnecessary short climb of 5 Km’s about 20 kilometres before Pedro Ruiz that could be avoided. This could be spotted on google maps too. The new highway goes over a small pass but there was also an old road which was right next to the river, avoiding the climb and descent, and some locals confirmed this road. The trick is to stay just right next to the river, don’t stray away from the river. Chachapoyas was a bit of climb and it was not necessary for touring cyclists. Most tourists and backpackers go there to use it as a base to visit the Gocta falls and Kuelap ruins. Touring cyclists instead could get to these sites directly since these were just off the highway. Kuelap can be visited by hiking 12 Km’s or taking the 37 Km’s dirt road up the mountain from Tingo. There were two hospedajes in Tingo and it was not necessary to go to Nuevo Tingo which was up the hill. Leimebamba museum is about 5 Km’s from the town on the highway. Don’t believe the sign in the town which says 2.5 Km’s! The road from Leimebamba to Celendin was a narrow single lane but only small vehicles use this road and most drivers will warn you by honking.

Cuenca to Jaen: Into Peru

It was time to hit the road after two days break at Cuenca. Some dirt roads were ahead and I neither knew how long nor the conditions of the road; compact dirt or gravel. The first section was a three day ride from Cuenca to Loja totally paved. On each of those three days, there was at least one 3000 metres pass and the first day was in fact 3500 metres. But because of the late start I had to stop around 70 Km’s in a village called La Paz at 3200 metres. There was a problem. This village had no hotels. I was reluctant to camp next to the police station because it was freezing cold. It was time to make a deal with the local school; a presentation for some of their students in exchange for a night’s sleep in one of the classrooms. The director agreed. This school was one of the poorest I have visited so far. However, the hot shower facility at the school was a surprise and a big bonus indeed. I was able to wash my sweat off before presenting myself in front of the students.

The first thing on the second day was an excellent downhill ride for about 20 Km’s, down to about 1850 metres followed by a climb back up to 3000 metres followed by another downhill to 2200 metres and yet another climb back up to Saraguro at 2500 metres – Andes in Ecuador at its finest I guess. From Saraguro it was another 75 Km’s to Loja a big town where I took a day off to recover. Two out of the last three days it rained and especially the whole 6 hours ride to Loja. It was one of the worst days in my trip so far.

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Near Vilcabamba

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The first day out of Cuenca

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Entering Vilcabamba

The next section was Loja to Ecuador-Peru border. The first day out of Loja was yet again wet and cold. I had enough of it ; I stopped about 20 Km’s before the planned destination. Everything happens for a reason. The town Vilcabamba where I stopped was a gem, a spectacular location in the middle of the Andes. English seemed the main language and the quality of life seemed to have been dragged up by those who have settled here from the USA. I certainly enjoyed the coffee and good quality food here; way better than what I was used to at other places of the same sizes in Ecuador.

I had a late start on the next day since the coffee shop opened only at 1030 am on Sundays. It was worth waiting. The first climb of the day went fine and after about 2 Km’s into the second climb a pick-up truck reversed to say hello and I recognised the face. It was Matheu (from UK) and Stacey (from USA) whom I knew from the ferry ride between Panama and Colombia (they were traveling in a camper van from Oregon to Ecuador) about 4 months ago. They lived in Vilcabamba and were returning from a day trip to Palanda, a nearby town. I was reluctantly happy (!) to hear from them that the road ahead was not ridable on a road bike in some sections and I couldn’t resist getting back to Vilcabamba in their pick-up truck. Perhaps metaphysics was at work behind this chance meeting. Whatever the reason, it was great meeting up with them again. I enjoyed my stay at their house which seemed almost in the middle of a jungle; the home made chocolate was delicious, thanks to Stacey.

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Zumba

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With Matheu, Stacey, Rafael and Gabriel

I decided to take a bus for the next 120 Km’s since the first half had unrideable sections and the second half of this section was dirt road which the rain made it worse. My sleek road bike tyres would cut through the wet mud like a knife through cheese. Right after the Ecuador-Peru border at La Balza, the roads were paved, well done Peru. I decided to take this border mainly because the other two border crossings led to roads in Peru that were notorious for thieves and criminals waiting for cyclists. Crossing the border along the mountains was the safest option.

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The Peruvian immigration office – muy tranquilo aqui

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Rancheros that look like a safari vehicle. These were commonly used for public transport in these areas

The first day in Peru saw me riding from Namballe to San Ignacio, a 42 Km’s ride with a climb up to 1500 metres. There were several landslides which although cleared had left some thick slippery mud on the road. My worn out tyres had no grip and I capitulated at one point that too in front of a group of teenagers whom just laughed and stood there watching me hurting. However, my faith in humanity was restored quickly. Just around the corner I asked an old lady for some water. She showed the tap and emptied a bucket for me to use. She returned to her house and came back with two bananas. I accepted only one of them graciously since her house looked very poor and probably does not have much for herself. The second day in Peru was a great ride, a 110 Km’s ride mostly on some flat roads to the city called Jaen. I have been looking forward for this for some time since my route in Ecuador had almost no flat roads and it’s been almost 6 weeks since Cali in Colombia that I had any flat roads at all.

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I am glad I was smiling. It was an eye-sore to watch the the road bike covered in mud

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First day ride in Peru

Some route details: The road from Loja to Palanda was paved. However between Yangana and Palanada, because of rain, there were several landslides and some sections of road were washed out. After about 20 Km’s from Palanda the dirt road begins which continues all the way to the border at La Balza.

Cuenca (533 Km’s): La Paz (71) – Saraguro (67) – Loja (75) – Vilcabamba (42) – La Balza (120 Km’s in a bus; Ecuador-Peru border) – Namballe (6) – San Ignacio (42) – Jean (110)

Quito to Cuenca: A year on the road

On the first sight of a snow capped mountain, on the way to Quito, I stopped for a picture and my optical nerves also stimulated that part of my brain cells which contain memories of past mountaineering. My days in Quito were going to be busy planning an expedition.

some cultural festival

Some cultural festival

Quito

Quito

with the 5th graders at Colegio Menor, Quito

With the 5th graders at Colegio Menor, Quito

First thing first. In Quito, Keith, whom I knew through a Facebook group, a maths and science teacher at Colegio Menor helped me to organise a talk at his school. Tim, the lower school principal and I planned three sessions over few email exchanges. The level of planning and organising was a good sign of what was to come. After the session, I felt the 5th graders were very aspirational, respectful and avid learners. Those intrigued young minds bombarded me with questions from left and right and before I knew my time was up with them – I missed being in a classroom. This was an amazing bunch, so young, but high in spirits. I also had an opportunity to observe a 4th graders lesson where they were doing mock presentations for a forthcoming event. The constructive criticisms by the rest of the class for each group made me want to stay with them for longer but every lesson was only 45 minutes long! I was also given a tour of the school when I saw the exceptional art work and music work by their students, professional and outstanding indeed. Overall, I felt Colegio Menor is one of those schools where every teacher would wish to submit their CV.

This one was sweet

This one was sweet

At 4800m, dogs dont feel the altitude?

At 4800m, dogs don’t feel the altitude?

Cotopaxi 5897metres: The tour agencies in Quito sell a two day package to climb this mountain for 240 USD a nice marketing strategy to attract every adrenalin junky. First day is a drive up to 4500 metres and a 45 minutes walk up to the refugio at 4800metres and the very evening around 10pm leave for the summit. From my past experience, I was not comfortable with this plan. For a mountain of this size I felt two days was too quick. I found another agency whom offered a 4 day trip. I signed up for this just over a telephone call since the group was leaving the next morning. This agency took their clients on the south face of the mountain.

The first day we walked from 3200metres to the refugio at 4000metres. It was a nice 3 hours walk when a dog from the village followed us all the way up. The next day was acclimatisation walk to 4800 metres and back to the refugio. The dog was happily running around with us the whole time once again. The weather was not great though, cloudy and rain for most part. The third day we left at 2pm and reached the high camp at 4800 metres which was just a few metres away from the glacier around 5pm. It was one of those awful walks, rain the whole time and with no views, just plodding along to the destination. I had to hire the gear including a backpack. On arrival at the high camp which was nothing but a shelter, that too a leaky one, my clothes and my boots were totally soaked. With no spare clothes or shoes the chances of leaving for the summit looked low. Sometimes desperation takes over the logical side of human brain. I was hoping for my shoes and clothes to dry out over the next few hours. How silly. When the time arrived, 10pm, everything was still wet, I had to call off my summit attempt with great pain. The rain had not stopped either and we had to spend the night there. In a sleeping bag designed for beach weather my cold feet kept me awake the whole night. The morning came eventually, the wet socks from previous day was crispy from the water that froze and I had ice on the gloves. Besides the gear weather was another factor. The tail end of the rainy season perhaps was not the best to climb a mountain. We never saw the top of Cotopaxi the whole four days. I felt a great disappointment for not being able to summit but some valuable lessons were learnt.

With the grade 9 pupils at The American School of Quito

With the grade 9 pupils at The American School at Quito

This was the best view of Cotopaxi I had

This was the best view of Cotopaxi I had

Some volcano near Riobambo

Some volcano near Riobamba

The American School at Quito invited me for a talk which I happily obliged even though I had left Quito. It was a three hour bus ride to Quito from Riobamba and it was worth it. I spoke to grade 10 and grade 9 pupils there. From what I have heard during my talks previously at several schools the aim/dream of young people vary from wanting to become a doctor, engineer, architect, scientist, footballer, to travel the world, or even win a Nobel price. But one of the grade 9 pupil in this school said something that got me very excited. His dream was to play football in the Moon. I felt ideas such as these are important if humanity is to continue its progress. I hope his dream becomes reality in my lifetime!

Between Quito and Cuenca I reached 3500 metres altitude three times, although the altitude never dropped below 2000metres. This entire section was just up and down, up and down the whole time and with this comes the rewarding views of deep valleys, cliffs and sheer drops. The road from Quito to Riobamba was a busy 3 lane highway for the most part. On the first day of my ride from Quito I was pleased to get a brief view of Cotopaxi in between the gaps through the clouds.

Quinoa plant

Quinoa plants

On the other side of Alausi

On the other side of Alausi

Alausi

Alausi

In Riobamba I stayed with another brilliant Warmshowers hosts, Borja and Nathalie. It was one of those places where I become part of the family within few minutes of my arrival. I was quite spoilt by Natalie’s parents, they even packed some snacks for my trip – my mother would be pleased to hear this.

After Riobamba the road passed through lot of fields where they grew quinoa. I have seen these grains but this was the first time I saw the actual plant that produces them. There were so many colours within the same plant and it made me wonder about the science behind this. There were agriculture fields on the mountains as far high up the mountains as they could be. The colourful clothing and hats of those who were working in the fields rivalled the top hats of the aristocrats of the shires of southern England.

The fog that descends in the afternoons

The fog that descends in the afternoons

view of Chunchi from the other side

View of Chunchi from the other side of the valley

Riobamba to Cuenca was a four day ride and the pattern was same each day, clear skies in the morning and heavy fog in the afternoon. This section was another classical Andes mountain range that most cyclists would not want to miss. Alausi was my first stop after Riobamba. This town was surrounded by grand mountains on all sides. There was a long drop to get into this town and consequently a steep climb back up to leave this valley. After the 7 Km’s steep climb to the top of the valley, the other side was equally stunning. The road went down again and climbed back up on the other side of the another valley. However, the fog reached the other side of the valley before I got there. The visibility was poor (see the video) but I had to continue and I reach the town Chunchi eventually.

view of Canar from the top

View of Canar from the top

The next morning the clear skies revealed what I missed coming into Chunchi the previous day. This town was perched on top of a cliff with a big drop on the side. The first 20 Km’s leaving Chunchi was a good climb which I managed well – having good views helps. As I was getting closer to El Tambo I was shrouded by the fog once again and this time it was quite heavy. As my body produces more heat due to the work out the fog condensed all over and my shoes got wet a good heat transfer experiment. As long as I don’t stop pedalling cold feet was not a major issue. Once again, I missed seeing the surrounding mountains near El Tambo. I just had to wait until the next morning. In El Tambo I stayed at the Bomberos (fire station) whom were very popular among touring cyclists. The sun was out in full form the next morning. The 17 Km’s climb from El Tambo to an altitude of 3550 metres felt lot better in the sun. What followed was a well deserved long downhill and some riding on flat roads to Cuenca.

I like dogs when they don’t bark at me like the one that followed us in Cotopaxi for two days. In the past, many cyclists complained about the menacing dogs between Riobamba and Cuenca. I can guarantee this is still the case. I had dogs rushing from the mountain side to get a bite off my calves. It’s certainly was not pleasant to see those canine teeth so close to my heel. I tried shouting at them. They backed off for a second and returned with vengeance. I wish they could understand the grimace on my face. I can’t hide my hatred for my barking dogs anymore.

It has been a year since I left London i.e 1st June 2014 and I have pedalled approximately 14,750 Km’s so far through 11 different countries. I find it hard to describe my experiences in a few lines. To keep it short life on the road has been fantastic, exceeding my expectations by several fold.

The route (466 Km’s) : Quito – Latacunga (96) – Mocha (69) – Riobamba (36) – Alausi (95)  – Chunchi (38) – El Tambo (60) – Cuenca (72)

Cali, Colombia to Quito, Ecuador: Crossing that imaginary line

Rolling hills became rolling mountains. The steep lines up and down in the elevation profile for this section describes the challenge involved; needless to mention the rewards of downhill riding and the awesome views. After all no pain no gain.

Towards Popayan

Towards Popayan

Popayan town centre

Popayan town centre

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Near El Bordo

During my short stay at Cali I visited Universidad ICESI for a motivational talk. Carlos whom I met through my friend Maria was an excellent host. He introduced me to several of his staff members and I also had the pleasure of cooking a big curry for some of his friends which gave an excellent opportunity to learn about the history, politics and education system in Colombia. My sincere thanks to Carlos who was also in regular touch with me via phone for the following few days after I left Cali since this part of Colombia was a bit desolate and in the past had some safety issues. My experience of this section was different though: numerous ascents and descents, hot weather and things were getting cheaper. Even the sections that look flat on the elevation profile had numerous short climbs and I must admit it was quite tough on my calves. I will let the pictures describe the landscape.

Cali to Pasto elevation profile

Cali to Pasto elevation profile

Pasto to ipiales elevation profile

Pasto to Ipiales elevation profile

Colombia-Ecuador border to Quito elevation profile

Colombia-Ecuador border to Quito elevation profile

After Cali the next biggest town was Popayan, dubbed as white city, was two days ride away. From Cali, after an exhausting ride in the hot sun, punctuated with trailer wheel puncture issues I arrived in a town called Pescador which did not have any hotels. I camped in the front yard of one of the locals which unfortunately was next to a discotheque. For a little village that does not even have a hotel, the party scene was unusual considering it was A Sunday night. The loud music went on until 4 am. Fortunately the next day was a just a short ride to one of the touristic towns in Colombia, Popayan. As the nick name implies the buildings in the historical town centre were all painted white which, I learnt, it’s in fact a legal requirement by the local government.

One of the several rivers that were crossed

One of the several rivers that were crossed

The descent from Popayan

The descent from Popayan

Sun set at El Tablon

Sun set at El Tablon

Popayan to Pasto was a four day ride with very little traffic. Early start is one way to tackle the heat. Also 6 am start meant I arrived around mid-day at my destination and had plenty of time to explore. Pasto was at 2500 metres altitude, 45 kms of climbing startingat 800 metres. There was a small hurdle in between; another 1600 metres mountain to climb over.

The first day ride from Popayan to El Bordo had some rolling hills in the beginning but more downhill towards the end. The second day, El Bordo to El Tablon was a long day as expected especially the last 10 kilometres ascent in the hot sun. Fellow cyclists should note that this section is quite desolate and it’s probably better to stock up on supplies (water, food). El Tablon was just a truck stop village, nothing much there but the hotel where I stayed was just 500 metres before the village and it was located at a stunning spot. The views from this place was spectacular and the hotel costs just 5 USD. I wish I could have stayed here for another day. In Europe, accommodation in a spot like this would make a big dent in the wallet.

On the third day from El Tablon there was a 5 Kms ascent to the top at 1600 metres followed by a 13 Kms descent which no cyclist would want to miss. The view that opens up on the top exposes the long downhill. The road seem to just cling to the side of the mountain and the view of this road that leads up to a short tunnel had to be caught on a camera. Have fun while it lasts because the mountain will claw back all the descent. From the lowest point at 800 metres its 45 Kms of climb to Pasto. Not all of this could be done in one day so I stopped in a place called Club de Policia, in the town Chachagui. Cyclists wanting to stop here should ask around for this place since it had no signs. Again, for a 5USD this place was a good bargain and it included a swimming pool.

The descent after El tablon with the tunnel at the end

The descent after El Tablon with the tunnel at the end

Volcan Galeras near Pasto

Volcan Galeras near Pasto

Farming at some difficult terrain

Farming at some difficult terrain

Chachagui to Pasto was only 29 Kms but it ascends from 1900 to 2900 metres altitude before descending to Pasto. There was an active volcano called Volcan Galeras that could be seen before entering Pasto. I hope the houses that were built below this volcano were lava proof!

Pasto to Ipiales, the border town was 86 Kms away. After leaving Pasto, there was a non-stop 13 kilometres ascent to an altitude of 3200metres followed by an unforgettable 27 kms downhill to the small town called El Pedregal at 1700metres altitude. Almost most of the altitude that was lost had to be regained since Ipiales was at 2950 metres – some hard work ahead. There was a spectacular waterfalls, cascada Humeadora, around 15 kms from El Pedregal. This was not a tourist spot so no buses or cars stopped here. The water drops from a neck breaking high altitude and into three sections, top middle and bottom. It was hard to capture this on one single shot so I took a short video posted here. I needed some recovery time after all the climbing a rest day in Ipiales was inevitable. It ended up a bit more than a rest day, lots of walking to visit one of the most famous churches in Colombia built in a canyon. The architecture of this place was mind blowing.

I had two deadlines to meet, one of them was self-imposed though. The first one was to leave Colombia by 4th of May and the second one was to reach Quito in Ecuador by 6th May to watch the UK election results live on the 7th of May. I realised the silly mistake that I had made when I arrived at the border. The immigration office included both the day of arrival and exit for their calculation but I didn’t. According to them May 4th was the 91st day since I entered Cartagena in Colombia on a 90 days visa. Even though I arrived at 7am on the 91st day the immigration officer refused to stamp me out because his computer said I had overstayed my visa. He passed me to his higher office who made me wait 4 hours before pardoning me for my mistake who asked me twice to pay a fine of 150 USD which I thought was a bit steep considering I had not overstayed my visa by more than a few hours. Thanks to internet, I read during the waiting period that the officer has some discretion to waive this fees. My patience and persistence paid off.

The church at las Lejas, Ipiales

The church at las Lejas, Ipiales

Entering a new country

Entering a new country

Cascada

Cascada Humeadora

I crossed into Ecuador around mid-day. I only had three days to get to Quito which was only 250 Kms away although the theme of ups and downs continued. I had to climb up to 3000 metres twice in these three days. Having lost lot of time in the immigration office, the first day was a short ride to San Gabriel and the second day was 110 Kms and 96 Kms on the last day; some tough riding on the mountains. For the second night in Ecuador I stopped in an interesting town called Otavalo, a pretty historical town with lots of colonial architecture and stone paved streets.

I crossed that imaginary line called Equator somewhere before Quito and I am now officially in the southern hemisphere. Perhaps I underestimated the intensity of sun close to the equator. I should not have used a sleeveless top. However while watching the election results on the 7th of May, I felt the sun burn, the aches and pains endured over the last few days were justified.

The route, Cali to Quito – total 742 Km’s (distances in Km’s and the total ascent involved each day in brackets in metres): Cali – Pescador 98 (1400m) – Popayan 51 (1100m) – El Bordo 83 (1800m) – El Tablon 98 (2100m) – Chachagui 40 (2200m) – Pasto 29 (1500m) – Ipiales 86 (2700m) – San Gabriel 50 (945m) – Otavalo 110 (2070m) – Quito 97 (2280m)

 

 

 

 

 

Bogota to Cali: In search of a good coffee

There were plenty of reasons to take a break from cycling in Bogota and the five weeks was well spent visiting local sites, schools for talks and riding in the Ciclovia every Sunday. About 121 Kms of the roads were closed on the Sunday mornings in Bogota for people to ride, skate, roller blade, run and do all sorts of acrobatics on the road. It was great to see lots of people out on the road and business was brisk too: fresh fruit juice stalls, local food, bike mechanics, second hand book sellers and just about any thing people can sell; a good opportunity for independent and small businesses. Also, I visited the fantastic gold museum and the church on the top of the Cerro de Monsserate in Bogota.

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The kindness that shocked me

The kindness that shocked me

At the gold museum in Bogota

At the gold museum in Bogota

Train to Cerro de Monserrate

Train to Cerro de Monserrate

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the school’s I visited, Colegio IED Miguel Antonio Caro, Bogota, asked me to visit again to talk to more students in their school and I happily obliged. Although, the subject of my talk was the same, I found it interesting in spite of repeating it several times since it was always pupil led in the form of Q and A. Pupils surprise me with some difficult questions for example, “what is the one thing that is most important in your life; do you believe in God”. Something remarkable happened at the end of one of the sessions. A boy approximately 11 years old came up to me and gave some money. I was shocked and did not know whether to accept or reject. I spoke to him for few minutes and decided to accept it in the end. I believe he was very touched by my story. Although this sort of kindness from strangers had happened in the past I was absolutely shocked this time especially considering his age and poor neighbourhood where the school was located. I was beyond words and almost had tears in my eyes and all I could do was to capture the moment in a photograph. My time in Bogota was well spent, getting my bicycle serviced and restoring my energy. I ate homemade curry almost everyday and that too with basmati rice – I was happy.

I felt the itch to get back on my back within few weeks and when the day arrived, I had severe flu the night before so I had to delay my departure by about a week. Meanwhile I was looking forward to one of the climbs called La Linea which was the near perfect equilateral triangle you see in the route profile photo here. This climb is well known among road cyclists in colombia, the second toughest in the country. Climbing to an altitude of 3280 metres the last few 10 kms were greater than 10% gradient.

Bogota to Cali route profile

Bogota to Cali route profile

Ciclovia in Bogota

Ciclovia in Bogota

Much needed space on the road during the downhill ride

Dual carriageway: Much needed space on the road during the downhill ride

The road from Bogota to Girardot had a lovely shoulder lane which makes the downhill ride (about 2700 to 300 metres) more fun and the fantastic lush green mountains was a feast for the eyes. I did this stretch of 140 Kms over two days. The ascent that followed, to the top of La Linea had to be tackled over three days. From Girardot to Ibague was a gentle climb, approximately 700 metres altitude gain. In Ibague my Warmshowers host Logan met me in a panaderia and we stayed at his sister’s place. Logan was preparing for a bike ride around South America which he plans to start in June this year. He was excited to receive me and he had all the same questions that I had before my start. Having been in same situation before i started this trip, I could feel his excitement. As a training exercise he wanted to ride with me to Armenia and back, basically the triangle part of the route profile from both sides as if it was not challenging enough to do it from just one side. From Ibague we rode together to Cajamarca about 32 Kms away gaining an altitude of 700 metres with some big undulations. The town of Cajamarca was just a small patch of flat land flanked by big mountains. Every street in Cajamarca led to a mountain. Logan and I stayed at his parents place in Cajamarca and the day to tackle La Linea arrived with rain. Logan’s mom did not wanted us to leave, she was sweet but we knew weather can’t stop us. A distance of 24 Kms to the top was done with lots of huffing and puffing; One of the toughest climbs I have done so far. The rain kept us cooler the whole way. As if by magic, once on the top of the climb, all the suffering was forgotten in an instant. At the end of the downhill on the other side we split. Logan went to Aremenia to stay with his friend while I went to Calarca to stay with my next Warmshowers host. After such a tough day Logan was going to climb the mountain the next day from the other side to be back at Cajamarca; respect!

Downhill ride from Bogota

Downhill ride from Bogota

Cajamarca

Cajamarca

Climbing La Linea in the rain

Climbing La Linea in the rain

View from the top of La Linea

View from the top of La Linea

Logan on top of La Linea

Logan on top of La Linea

Calarca and Armenia from the top

Calarca and Armenia from the top

From Calarca it was almost flat until Cali. From Calarca to Buga was about 112 Kms. Buga to Cali saw me ride at 25 kmph and I was pleased to be on my road bike for some brilliant countryside riding. The climax was not good though. Just about a km away from the hostel where I was going to stay in Cali I had a puncture on my trailer wheel. I was not happy to discover the big nail in my trailer wheel and about 6 holes in the tube. With no more patches left, I had to push my bike for the last kilometre.

Coffee. Armenia in Colombia is part of the coffee region and this was a good reason to visit this place. I enjoyed colombian coffee in London for several years. I was expecting to enjoy good coffee here in its homeland. But logical reasons does not work always perhaps. After having been in Colombia for two months, 7 out of 10 times my coffee experience was below satisfactory and coffee connoisseurs know bad coffee is worse than no coffee. I tried coffee in all sorts of places. The local coffee called tinto was prepared using a local made machine which looked the same everywhere. However, the quality of the coffee that comes out was not consistent, dilute and sometimes cold. Coffee con leche was even worse. Nevertheless I kept trying at every possible opportunity; perhaps I am addicted to coffee. I figured out how to request for a good coffee (in Spanish) in the last few days, although people frown upon my request often and will oblige hesitantly. Perhaps good coffee is produced but not made here in Colombia!

My time in Colombia is coming to an end. I have just over 10 days before my 90 days visa runs out and also I wish to move on to Ecuador too. I have another 3000 metres mountain to climb over. With the clock ticking this climb is promising to be interesting.

The route (468 Kms): Bogota – Fusagasuga (68) – Girardot (80) – Ibague (54) – Cajamara (32) – Calarca (51) – Buga (112) – Cali (71)