Peru Great Divide, days 16-20

Day 16

Having got my hopes up about a taxi it’s tough reconciling myself to the idea I’m going to have to do this enormous climb on the bike after all. However, though very long, it turns out not to be one of the worst climbs by any means, thanks to the consistently manageable gradient and good solid surface. There’s no traffic so - as with Chucopampa - no possibility of cheating once I've begun.

I’ve read about a pass called Pumacocha, which involves a loose section of track at a gradient of 24% at 4,990m. No thanks. Fortunately some previous riders have documented an alternative route, avoiding this horror-climb (though still including two 4,800m passes).

Taking the alternative route I’m pleased to find the gradient and surface remain consistently rideable over the first pass; I only have to push for the exceedingly steep (but not 24%!)  final kilometre to the summit.

Day 17

Camping just east of Atcas no traffic passes all evening/night until well after the sun is up. Then one single truck passes, going in the right direction, but I can’t seem to make him understand I’d rather like a lift to the top of the pass. It turns out to be a tough one and I kick myself for not trying harder/ resent him for being thick! I have just enough food for a small lunch but not enough for another night. I must reach Acobambilla today.

As the day rolls on it becomes more and more apparent I’m not going to make it to Acobambilla. Around 4pm with two hours of daylight and 30km still to go I find myself in tears of frustration, which I decide to capture on video. I will have to camp very high up with basically no dinner, which means I’ll be extra cold and probably won’t sleep well. Mercifully the first vehicle of the day passes me minutes later and I plead with the driver saying I have no food and am exhausted. Though short of passenger space they squeeze me in and the remainder of the journey to Acobambilla turns out to be even longer than I imagined.

I have dinner courtesy of my new friends, two very kind engineers from Arequipa. They work 20 days straight, away from their families, before having a break. If I understand correctly they work for a Mexican company and have travelled widely within Latin America. It makes a refreshing change to have a conversation with someone who makes a joke along the lines of ‘Don’t mention the (Falklands) war (in Argentina)!’, as opposed to asking me if I cycled here from London.

Day 18

Today starts with a rideable climb out of Acobambilla, at the summit of which I pause to listen to the final four minutes of Anna Karenina before descending. I enjoyed the novel somewhat, though its main themes of dishonest non-monogamy, jealousy and manipulation make it a slightly surprising recommendation for me to have been given!

Though I try three little stores I’m unable to get supernoodles today for my final night on the PGD, so instead cobble something together with lentils, tomatoes and boiled eggs!

Day 19

The surface up to the final pass - Abra Llamaorgo at 4,700m - is hideous and I have to push almost all the way. Loose stones on top of uneven rock mean the constant scrape of metal (cleats) on stone and the occasional exasperating slip. Only the knowledge this is the final climb prevents me screaming with frustration. The descent isn’t easy either but I’m almost beside myself at the prospect of proper food and no more pushing my bike up mountain passes, at least for a few weeks! A huge dog rushes out of a gate causing me to slam on my brakes and almost lose control. How I have not missed the relentless dog attacks and honking. The outskirts of Huancavelica are pretty unprepossessing but the centre is picturesque in parts, especially the main square. I settle in for two nights, feeling mainly relieved.

During the afternoon and evening, though quite disoriented, I manage to eat twice, drop off my laundry and book a bus ticket to Ayacucho for Wednesday night. At first I’m told I can’t take my bike, which is then modified to I can take it but only dismantled and in a bag. I buy some huge bags and start to dread the moment when - at 11:30pm on Wednesday - the bus arrives. It’s coming from Huancayo, so if it’s already quite full I may have a problem. A 17 kilo touring bike with front and rear racks does not exactly fold up small.

Day 20

Today is about backing up photos, writing two blogs and eating. The town is abuzz with some kind of event. In the distance I can see crowds of people balancing on a steep hillside in order to see into the top of the bullring without buying a ticket. Feeling irritable about the incessant honking in the town centre I head towards the bullring to see what’s going on. This turns out to be a good move for someone desiring to eat! By 11am I have eaten a fairly standard breakfast followed by a ‘four-in-one’ ceviche extravaganza, my first lúcuma (which, to my surprise, reminds me most of the flavour of dates) and a fresh melon juice. I also spend quite a while listening to a salesman introducing these mountain folk to a kind of weird coconut from the eastern (jungle) part of Peru, which - like me - they have never seen or heard of. People are very interested in the claimed stress-busting properties of this strange object and the salesman does a roaring trade. The juice tastes similar to regular coconut water but less sweet. I’m not sure I have enough of it to feel the benefits! Not while I have this uncertain bus journey ahead of me, anyway.

This marks the end of my day-by-day account of the Peru Great Divide (parts one and two). There are more parts, apparently. I shan’t be doing them.

Final distance cycled: 715 kilometres. Passes over 4,000m: About 15? Nights camped over 4,000m: 8.