Friday, 29 November 2013

The Cordillera Blanca – Huaraz via Chacas and Punta Olympica

I wasn’t planning a proper stopover until I made it to the city of Huaraz. To go directly on the main road from Caraz to Huaraz is 70 km and could easily be done in a days cycling but I was planning a detour which involved heading up into the stunning snow capped Cordillera Blanca mountain range and crossing two high passes in the process. Punta Olympica, the second pass, at 4,900 metres above sea level was likely going to be the highest point that I would reach on the bike of my entire trip so I was excited and slightly apprehensive as to how my body was going to react cycling up to that altitude. Thankfully I’d obviously had a good bit of practice after the previous few weeks endeavors.

It was a short spin along the paved road before I reached my turn off at Yungay to head up into the mountains on a gravel road. It was a hot morning so I was pleasantly surprised to find a cold soft drink at the petrol station. It had been a few weeks since I had last seen a refrigerated drink so I certainly enjoyed it, knowing that it would likely be another week before I saw another one! I camped that evening in the last village shortly before the entrance to Huascaran National Park.

The following day was one of the tougher days I’ve had on the bike as I slowly climbed my way into the Cordillera Blanca heading for the first pass at about 4,600 m. I had hoped to hit the pass by 3pm in order to give myself a few hours to descend a few hundred metres on the far side so as not to be camping too high up. As the day wore on progress slowed with the deterioration of the path and I seemed to become more and more out of breath. As things got tougher I started by setting myself goals of cycling 5 km before stopping for a break, that quickly reduced to 2,500 m of progress between breaks and I think it was eventually 500m goals between stops for a breather which I didn’t even manage. It wasn’t that the altitude was that bad but the loose gravel surface often made it difficult to get going again if I did stop due to the weight of the bike.  Pushing the bike seemed to be even more tiring. The 3pm goal of hitting the pass had long since gone out the window and at this stage I was just hoping to make it to the pass with enough time before nightfall so I could manage some descending on the far side. Shortly after five o’clock in the afternoon I made it to the pass. It had been raining on and off though out the day and with more storm clouds gathering I didn’t hang around for too many photos. I did however make sure to layer up with a lot more clothes than usual and then proceeded to belt it down as fast as the bumpy gravel road conditions would allow. Normally I would take it relatively slowly descending on this type of road surface for fear that I’d break a spoke with the weight of the bike but I didn’t want to have to spend the night too high up with the weather deteriorating. It was a memorable experience flying down a dirt road at dusk glancing up now and then to catch glimpses of the incredible mountains that surrounded me all the time hoping and praying that the spokes held up. Thankfully they did and I managed to get about 12 km done before it was time to set up camp in a stunning location.

I took my time packing up the following morning taking in the views but unfortunately the tiny bitting bugs were out in force and helped to send me packing.
A day later I had made it to the small town of Chacas. Upon arriving into the main square I was surprised at how ornate some of the stone and woodwork on many of the buildings was. It felt more like a medieval village that you might see in Spain or Italy. Asking first at the local police station if they might have somewhere to camp they directed me around the corner to a local Italian community who might be able to help. I was surprised to hear about Italians living in this random little Peruvian town but off I went to check.

Church in Chacas
Ornate woodwork on church door in Chacas
Main square in Chacas

Statue on main square in Chacas
Two Italian women welcomed me in and after checking with the Italian priest they said it was fine to stay and they showed me to my very own room! Despite the small entrance the place turned out to be huge. That evening over dinner with about 80 people Padre Lorenzo explained to me all about Operation Mato Groso (OMG!). They were a kind of voluntary catholic charity organisation that work in Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Brazil. Chacas was one of their largest communities which also served as a base for many of the smaller surrounding villages where other volunteers were based helping those local communities. In Chacas alone OMG ran a carpentry school, an artesan co-operative, a technological institute, a hospital and prepared meals for very many of the local poor community. Some of the volunteers had been in Peru for years and some were bringing up their families in Chacas. Everybody working there was doing so on an entirely voluntary basis relying on various fundraising initiative of their colleagues back in Italy. It was very inspiring to see all the impressive work they were doing to help the community and to see how much things had grown from very modest beginings when Italian priest Padre Hugo moved to Chacas as the parish priest in 1976. OMG are now helping local communities in more than 35 rural villages in Peru.

Chat after dinner with the Operation Mato Groso folks in Chacas

One of the yards by the woodwork school in Chacas
The charity work wasn’t the only impressive thing about OMG in Chacas, they made a delicious pasta for dinner and despite preparing for around 80 people they still seemed to manage to do a better job than me cooking for one on my campstove. Having a proper Italian coffee for breakfast the next morning was quite the treat, they also had hot chocolate so needless to say I had both. I didn’t have to think twice when they said that I was welcome to stay a second night if wanted a day off. I took the opportunity to wash some clothes, have a look around the beautiful mountain town and to explore the wood work and glass work schools where local young people were learning some important trades. Upon completion of their training each person was given a full set of tools for free so that they could earn a living with their skills.

Fr. Lorenzo and some of his Italian and Peruvian OMG friends

Well rested, full of carbs from all the tasty pasta and peped up on quality Italian coffee I hit the road heading in the direction of Punta Olympica. I wasn’t planning on getting to the top that day but I wanted to make inroads into the climb and set up camp in another lovely spot high in the Cordillera Blanca. During the night I could hear cracking and smashing of nearby glaciers falling down the cliff face nearby. 

The next morning off I headed for Punta Olympica, progress was much easier than the previous pass as the road was paved for most of the way. I was surprised at how quickly I was up at Olympica tunnel which is a recently completed tunnel through the mountain that claims to be the highest tunnel in the world. I wasn’t heading through the tunnel but off up a side road on what was the remainder of the old unpaved track up to the pass. Of course as soon as I was back on a dirt road progress slowed and it seemed to take me an age to crawl the remaining stretch to the top. Due to the new tunnel the old road was no longer maintained with plenty of fallen boulders sitting in the middle of the path and the road subsiding in places. It was no longer passable in a car but was okay on the bike but I wonder what will remain of this in a few years time. I was excited to finally make it to the top but again didn’t hang around for too long as it was cold and sleety.

Not much traffic on the road up to Punta Olympica 
Long and winding road
Punta Olimpica tunnel, highest tunnel in the world 
Punta Olimpica tunnel as seen from higher up, near the start of the old dirt road to Punta Olimpica Pass
I was half expecting to bump into Frodo and the lads on their way to Mordor

No longer really passable in a vehicle 
Finally made it to Punta Olimpica pass at 4,900 metres
Watch out for avalanches on the other side
I headed down this part pretty quickly due to all the signs and evidence of avalanches
...and back down we go

Bidding farewell to Huascaran National Park 
The few hundred metres of decending to make it back to the paved road was interesting as it was flagged as a high risk of avalanche zone, so again I didn’t hang around for too long. Once back on the paved road on the far side of the tunnel I enjoyed one of the best downhills of the trip, descending for the rest of the day. I had the choice of camping another night in the National Park or else heading for the small town of Shilla where I had been told there was a small OMG community. My hands were numb and despite the stunning beauty surrounding me the thoughts of a hot chocolate and maybe even my own bed to sleep in won out. I found my way to the parochial house just after sun set. Upon seeing who was at the door the two girls burst out laughing, did I look that ridiculous? They explained to me that the last touring cyclist who had passed had ended up spending nearly 6 months there. I assured them that I would only be there for a maximum of 5 months. As I ate another bowl of delicious pasta that evening I was very appreciative of the charity they showed me! I hit the road the following morning keen not to outstay my welcome but also because I knew I would be making it to Huaraz that evening. I thought it would be an easy ride as I was soon back onto a paved road but the amount of horn honking and crazy speeding on the long straight stretch really irritated me. By about 3 o’clock in the afternoon just as it was about to lash rain I made it to “Jo’s Place” hostel, a ten minute walk from the main square in Huaraz. I had made it. It had taken me twice as long as I had expected to get from Cajamarca to Huaraz but I was finally there with a few days to put the feet up.

Central square in Huaraz with Cordillera Blanca in background
Huaraz is the main base point for tourists planning hikes into the stunning Cordillera Blanca but with the arrival of the rain season I decided I would enjoy my time off the bike rather than taking a multiday hike in the rain. I did manage a day trip however up to a glacier at 5,000 m with four German friends from the hostel. The four of them were over working for a children’s charity before they started university. It was enjoyable being in a hostel and meeting a few fellow travellers after being off the beaten track on my own for the previous few weeks through northern Peru.

I was glad to see another cyclist when I got to the hostel. Martin, an Austrian cyclist, was heading north from Patagonia so we made sure to exchange plenty of route info. He was a very friendly guy who had travelled extensively in South America, not to mention a good cook so it was a shame we were cycling in opposite directions.
These unusual plants are unique to Peru and are only found at high altitudes  
Day trip to Pasto Ruri Glacier

My German friends from the hostel at the base of the glacier
I am doing my 27,000 km cycle from Alaska to Argentina in aid of Trocaire projects in Central America
Please sponsor me now at the below link:

Monday, 18 November 2013

Cajamarca to Carhuaz

Speed bump 
I was glad to leave Cajamarca because the hostel where I stayed the previous night was a complete fire trap. I like to have my bike in my room if I am on a day off. This involved having my bike pushed up against the door in my shoebox of a room. On my first night back on the bike I camped under the shelter of a bike and car repair garage beside a family home. They were a very friendly Evangelistic family. I’ve noticed that there is a vibrant evangelistic community in many of the small villages I passed in Peru. With the arrival of the wet season I had started to seek out more sheltered places to erect my tent.

Not the last hairy tarantula I would be seeing that day
Mary keeping an eye on things on the way into Cajabamba
Cajabamba, Cajamarca, Bambamarca... they all start sounding the same and then they start running out of names...
The dudes
The next evening being a Saturday there were several groups of people sharing a beer as I made my way into the town of Cajabamaba. Most of them signaled for me to join them and not wanting to seem antisocial I did join one or two of the groups for a cervecita. Despite later securing a place for my tent out the back of the local police station it was shaping up to be the worst place I had camped on the whole trip.
The place that the young police man pointed out for me to put up my tent was right beside two make shift wooden holding cells which were occupied. We also heard some scuttling up in the roof which he helpfully confirmed was likely a rat when I asked him. Nice. I took a shower, initially wondering to myself where the water went as there didn’t seem to be a drain. I soon found out that the water simply drains out onto the floor of the small room where I had left my clothes on the ground. Nice. As I walked back to my luxury camp spot I noticed a large hairy tarantula creeping towards my gear. Nice. An older police man dropped a large brick on him before I could get a photo of it crawling into my washbag. He told me that it is quite dangerous to get a bite from one and told me to move into a bedroom that they didn’t use with bunk beds. Considering where I thought I was going to have to stay this was like being upgraded to a suite in a five star hotel… no prisoners, rats OR tarantulas and my own bed. Nice!

So that's where the water goes, out onto the floor
Underneath the brick in the upper right of the photo lies the flattened remains of a large tarantula
Did somebody have an accident..?
Eh no, it's not a prison cell it's actually an upgrade.
Jose wasn't proud that he couldn't play an instrument
It's the Fiesta Sanjapompa in honor of San Judas, that can only mean one thing... PARTY TIME!
Pot full of Cuy, the local delicacy of Guinea pig
Who's the guinnea pig, they love it but I could take it or leave it. Very low in cholesterol apparently 
The boys love the annual festival
A few days after leaving Cajamarca I arrived into the town of Huamachuco. Initially asking at the local police station where there seemed to be a lot going on I was half relieved that they said no but directed me to "Lugar San Francisco" which was a little like a convalescent home and also a place where people could stay for a few days. It was run by Brother Daniel and Sister Coromoto members of the “Jesus es Senor” organistaion and both from Venezula. Thankfully I was made to feel very much at home, so much so infact that I ended up staying a few days! Muchas gracias Daniel y Coromoto! I was happy to take it easy there as I knew when I left that I had a few challenging weeks on the bike ahead of me.

Sr. Coromoto, Br. Daniel and some of the rest of the gang.
Dinner time
The challenge didn’t take long to start, 11km down the road from Huamachuco to be precise, when I turned off the main paved road for what I thought was a short cut. I struggled to even find the turn off. It wasn’t long before I was cycling along mud tracks, wheeling my bike across a rickety wooden pedestrian bridge because there wasn’t a traffic bridge as they were rebuilding it. On the other side of the river I found myself cycling through fields, avoiding the marshy bits attempting to make my way to the road that I could see up in the distance.  It wasn’t the usual kind of route that I take but I quite enjoyed being off the beaten track and especially enjoyed being away from the insane horn honking that had already managed to annoy me on the cycle out of Huamachuco.

Pedestrian bridge
Rocky road and not the kind I dream about
Don't use google maps in Peru 
The bog down in the valley oh..

The following day I managed to travel 14km in the space of the day. I use the word travel as I spent as much time pushing the bike as I did actually cycling it. I was kind of lost as the gps and maps on my phone were leading me all over the place except in the right direction. Guessing my way down a dirt track it eventually came to an end and lead into a field. I continued into the field. I wasn’t overly worried as I knew that there was a dirt track somewhere nearby and was enjoying the off roading. I slowly cycled and pushed my bike through the fields gradually making my way up to a ridge where I was greeted by a spectacular Middle Earth panorama. I propped the bike against one of the many boulders, sat down on the damp grass and took it all in. I was lost, miles from anywhere, not having seen anyone in hours, overlooking one of the most spectacular views of my life and I couldn’t have been happier. I think another reason for only managing 14 km all day was due to lots of stopping to take it all in as well as the bike pushing.

It was well worth pushing my bike through the fields to the top of the hill to be greeted with this view

Camping in an abandoned stone house
The next few days were some of the most memorable of the trip to date as I made my way through some incredible landscape on gravel tracks, the only drawback being that I was running low on food and water as I hadn’t realised that it was going to be as isolated and slow going.
One of the days, having only passed two cars all day I had set up camp under a large plastic cover which was beside a half finished house. I reckoned it was fine as there didn't seem to be anybody around. Half an hour later as I was taking a few photos of the sunset along arrives some security guard with a riffle. Great, the only person I see face to face all day is holding a large gun and I'm literally in the middle of nowhere with nobody else around. Thankfully he didn't mind me camping there and had come down from the hill above to check out what I was up to. He was working as security for a near by mining company. He also gave me directions for the following day which was helpful. 

Lone gunman getting in the way of my sunset photo
..that's better.
Sheep giraffe

"What are you looking at?"

So much for a short cut
Off we go

As I made it back to civilization the first village I hit was celebrating it’s annual festival. The second annual village festival in just over a week… that’s lucky or else they have these festivals on a more regular basis then they were letting on!

Second annual festival that I stumbled on. I preferred  Fiesta Sanjapompa because they gave me a free plate of food!
I made it back on to what was supposed to be a main road at Mollebamba but it was still just a bumpy unpaved road. Mollebamba was also a lot smaller than I expected meaning that there was no police or fire station for me to try and stay at. The first person I asked was a PE teacher at the local school and he was kind enough to let me stay on the floor of his small one room dwelling.  
Upon leaving Mollebamba I experienced what I think will be the most extreme example of dropping all the way down a mountain side on some impressive switch backs to the river at the bottom of the valley only to climb right back up on the far side.  I descended 1000m in the first 20 km on a windy dirt road but thankfully the climb back up on the far side was paved and not the other way round. It’s obviously a lot slower trying to climb up an unpaved gravel road as I had been finding out over the previous week or so.

Switch backs

Was chatting to these two ladies for a few minutes
Picturesque mountain village of Llapo
Scary statue in the middle of Llapo
The friendly Policia in Bambas
Slowly does it

Some impressive woodwork on display in Tauca
Even though I was supposedly back on a national route the next few days cycling was almost all on gravel with some steep climbs at stages and epic scenery as I crawled my way from one valley over some gargantuan mountains into the next valley and so on. Thankfully there was very little traffic which was probably because of the terrain and the fact that it’s not a very populated part of Peru with small villages being separated by huge valleys connected by poor quality dirt roads. Obviously cycling on your own you normally go through a range of emotions in one day but I had long since resigned myself to the fact that I would not be going anywhere fast on this stretch of the trip.  That certainly helped me to really appreciate where I was and to just take each day at a time, not to be worried about trying to do a certain mileage each day and to focus on the incredible mountain landscape I found myself in. That’s not to say that I won’t remember these few weeks of my cycling journey for both the beauty but mainly because it’s probably been the most physically demanding thing that I’ve ever done. I remember one hot afternoon I had to hop off my bike, prop it against the cliff wall beside me and sit down on the rocky ground for 10 mins so as not to freak out and also to try and get my breath back. I had been climbing uphill on dusty gravel for hours and the village I had spotted on the other side of the valley didn’t seem to be getting any closer! There was a lot of dust on these roads and I needed to clean my chain on a daily basis, sometimes twice a day with some interesting squeaks coming from it by midafternoon.

These two bikers just stood and stared and stared as I took a breather in the shade

These kind folk put me up in their spare room one night

Juan from Peru, Maria from Grenada (Spain) and Marina from Galicia (Spain) kindly put me up
for a night in the village of "La Pampa"

Back to school.
An unnecessary sign considering most drivers
keep one hand on the wheel and the other on the horn

One of the nights I stayed in a class room in the town of Huallanca which was almost entirely wiped out by a large earthquake in May 1970. The following day I must have passed through at least 30 tunnels as I made my way through Canyon del Pato which is a narrow canyon that separates the Cordillera Negra and the Cordillera Blanca mountain ranges. Thankfully there wasn’t much traffic as they were all one lane wide unpaved tunnels so a lot of dust kicked up whenever a vehicle passed. Not long after I passed through the last tunnel the road became paved. I felt like getting down and kissing the surface. Less than an hour’s cycling on the paved road and I had my closest call yet with a four wheel drive speeding around a corner leaving what felt like an inch or two between us (maybe it was 3 inchs). It gave me a fright and was a reality check after my initial excitement to be cycling on a smooth road.

Canyon del Pato 
A series of more than 30 tunnels are carved into the cliff
By mid afternoon I made it to the town of Carhuaz where I spoted a fire staion on my way into the centre. It was the first fire station that I had seen in Peru so I didn’t waste any time in seeing if they would be able to put me up. They kindly agreed. Being in town a bit earlier than usual I visited the ATM, I had made it to Carhuaz with 2 Sol (EUR 0.50) to my name, treated myself to a coffee and sticky bun and got some supplies for the next few days. Even though I had made it back onto paved roads that day I knew that I was going to be returning to the dirt roads the following day as I headed into the Cordilla Blanca.

Drying my cycling jersey at the fire station in Carhuaz