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
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