Day 12 (Part Two, Day 1)
Having stayed up late making the most of the slow wifi to back up photos I force myself to leave the comfy Las Magnolias by around 9. Stopping for some very tasty potato-filled rolls at a little kiosk in the town centre I find out what Peruvian bread tastes like when it isn’t stale, as it *always* is in the pueblitos. At the top end of town I wait by a speed bump to try and flag down a lift through the tunnels.
Two women stand on the central line at the speed bump selling drinks and snacks to drivers who slow down for it. This doesn’t stop some drivers from accelerating past them on the wrong side of the road. I ask if they aren’t scared and they say they’ve been doing this for years. I ask how many people die on this road every year and they say ‘oh loads’.
Several drivers of suitable pickups ignore me and it occurs to me they may think I’m a vendor too, in my orange vest. After only about 15 minutes a young guy u-turns and comes back for me. He is Walter from Iquitos (but living in Lima for more than a decade), who studied accounting but now sells chemicals to mines while studying chemical engineering in his free time. He carefully secures my bike in his pickup truck and kindly takes me 8km uphill to rejoin the PGD route. He gives me his card and we later become Facebook friends.
I’m in an excellent, rejuvenated mood as I climb slowly through the first quiet valley of part two. A lorry crawls downhill towards me full of scree, the driver’s mate walking in front removing rocks from the road (I could do with one of those). I ask him if all is well further up. Oh yes, he says, all quiet. He’s not wrong: for the next couple of hours all I meet is a woman riding a donkey who tells me there are no bad people round here, which is interesting as most people say the opposite!
Yuracmayo is a ghostly place which may have been established to house the constructors of the now long-finished dam. I’m looking at the lake and contemplating the remaining 14km (600m) to the high pass at 4,900m when a pickup stops. If you’re going to ask such tedious questions you may as well give me a lift to the pass, I think.
It’s a memorable ride. Though the driver is wearing an orange vest and a hard hat, he turns out be less mining engineer and more.. archaeologist, perhaps. I don’t understand exactly what the three of them are up to but my guess is it’s some kind of field trip and he’s clearly from the coast and has never driven on a bad, unpaved mountain road before. He’s reading it all so badly I reckon I could do a better job. I’m quite worried about the bike. Eventually, after he hits one bump so hard all our heads hit the ceiling, his colleague in the front tells him very politely that he needs to slow down for holes in the road. To be fair the driver is gracious - ‘teach me’ - as his colleague explains the value of first gear! Why the other guy doesn’t just drive I’m not sure! Meanwhile the driver keeps asking the bespectacled PhD student in the back with me (again a guess) what altitude we’re at.
At the top of the pass (4,900m) the sun is setting and I ask to be let out, partly to look at the view and partly because I’m genuinely concerned how this duffer will cope with downhill! It would be better to descend a bit to camp but I don’t have enough light and besides I’d like to see this view again in the morning, so I hurriedly pitch the tent right on the saddle of the pass. Not my smartest decision it turns out, as it’s an unusually windy night and bitterly cold.
For the whole of today the ‘road’ surface is appalling; not just loose but uneven too. Descending from Punta Ushuayca there are huge patches of black ice where streams run across the road. I encounter a truck attempting to come uphill, waiting while two guys hack at the ice with crowbars to render it passable. With permission I photograph them doing that, while the truck driver photographs me photographing them!
Stopping to filter water from a glacial stream something in my new filter goes phhht and it stops working. For the rest of part two I have to risk just boiling water from high sources. (Later in Huancaya I follow all the maintenance steps on YouTube but it still won’t work.)
The next pass, Abra Suijo, is like a mini Chucopampa (the 18km climb which took me eight hours of pushing on days 7 and 8); this one takes me four hours to push the bike uphill for 9km. Like Chucopampa the views are fabulous, but this doesn’t stop me wondering if I accidentally downloaded route instructions from andes-by-pushingyourbike.com instead of andes-by-bike.com! I’m in awe of those who apparently manage to cycle up such gradients.
I arrive in Tanta - the start of the famously stunning Rio Cañete section - at dusk and eat a fried trout from the lake in a tiny, freezing restaurant (doors are seldom closed - locals just wear LOTS of layers!) before camping under a sort of bandstand thing outside the gates of the village cemetery. Locals are pretty scared of spirits, but I have no reason to be and it makes a nice change not to wake up to frost on the tent.
The Rio Cañete starts up here among the nevados and empties into the Pacific south of Lima. This stretch (see image) - until recently not easily accessible by road but apparently now growing in popularity among domestic tourists - reminds me of the Plitvice national park in Croatia, which I visited by bike in 2011. It’s truly incredible to have such beautiful places entirely to oneself for hours on end.
Having encountered very little wind during part one, part two is quite windy. Sometimes the wind is with me, sometimes not. Either way it means extra dust in my eyes, nose and - presumably - lungs. The bike and panniers - and my clothes - are permanently filthy.
I ask a friendly woman why her donkeys’ front legs are tied together. ‘So they can’t run off.’ Ask a silly question… Still, it’s sad to see so many donkeys and horses hobbling along like this.
It’s evident the villages along the valley are trying to get into tourism, but they don’t seem to have much of a clue. One has a new ‘camping area’ with picnic tables and spots for barbecuing, but - according to those English chaps I met - no water. There’s a lot of cute rustic signage to points of interest. But villagers are still addressing foreigners with the hated ‘gringo/gringa’ and the sleeping and eating options are seriously underwhelming. At the municipal hospedaje in Huancaya my room has (as is often the case) two beds in it and I’m explicitly told not to use both of them as someone apparently once did, shock horror!!
From Huancaya I message Lucy to say I’m weighing up whether to bail out via the nearest city, Huancayo. They are still at Las Magnolias having been a bit poorly. She’s dismayed to hear about the difficulty of the first two passes in part two.
Some kind of scrapey building work goes on in the street outside my window til after 10pm, and first thing in the morning the hideously feedback-y municipal tannoy starts bellowing non-consensual announcements across the rooftops every five minutes. This sort of thing does not happen in Tunbridge Wells, I feel sure.
It is striking how often it’s as much as people can do to provide you with something they sell which you ask for, let alone making any attempt at charm or upselling. I’m not saying I’d appreciate obsequiousness or pushiness, just that people are so poor it’s baffling they don’t think to make a bit more of the cycle tourists who trickle through *asking to spend money on things*. For example in Vitis I try to acquire some breakfast, hoping some eggs and rice could perhaps be rustled up. The first place responds with ‘un cafecito?’ (coffee?) and the second with ‘galletas?’ (crackers?). The third offers me ‘trout or tea?’ but when asked deigns to fry me some eggs and microwave some of yesterday’s rice - initiative I reward by buying 24 hours’ worth of biscuits and chocolate from them as well.
Continuing down the valley I see extraordinary Inca terraces still in active agricultural use. As the valley becomes more of a canyon I come across a broken-down taxi and its very forlorn driver. We try to push the car over a lip so he can roll downhill but we aren’t quite strong enough. Fortunately a carful of Limeños turns up and helps. I don’t see him again further down, so I guess he gets the engine going.
Next comes a short section of asphalt (what a treat!) where I happen to run into Sebastian from Romania, on his way north to Colombia having started in Patagonia. It’s nice that he’s utterly effusive about my ultimate destination while I am utterly effusive about his! He even makes the bold claim that Patagonian beer is the best in the world!
During the climb to Laraos two things happen. First I realise that - under 4,000m - I can still ride my bike quite normally, even uphill! This is a relief. Second, I decide to charter a taxi in Laraos to take me up and over the enormous upcoming climb.
In Laraos the village gate-keeper tells me the village taxi-driver will be back at 4pm. I stock up in a little mom-and-pop store for the next 100km stretch, which has no shops. 4pm comes and goes, no sign of the taxi driver. The gate-keeper goes home for the day, apparently washing her hands of helping me find him. At 5pm I decide I’d better camp here in the village before it gets dark/cold. Near the square most of the community is engaged in a long, serious, outdoor meeting about something or other. I happen upon another taxi driver who quotes me a ridiculous 150 soles (nearly £40) for the 30km trip, at which point I start to resign myself to cycling it after all. He doesn't even bother to haggle!
While most of the village’s adults are otherwise engaged I obtain the approval of a JCB driver and a couple of teenagers to camp underneath the enormous fedora in the square, whereupon some rather earnest boys of about six ask me ‘Don’t you have a home? Don’t you have any shoes?’