Peru Great Divide route, days 1-5


As detailed in my last post I arrived in Huaraz frazzled by the ride from Cajamarca. Specifically I had struggled with feeling completely alien among the local campesinos, with being honked at constantly, and with handling my heavy bike on medieval unpaved mountain roads.

I recovered my equilibrium in Huaraz, eating nice food such as quinoa curry and banana bread with Earl Grey icecream, spending an afternoon drinking craft beer with a nice Anglo-German cycling couple, hiking to Laguna 69, sending a box of non-essentials ahead to Ayacucho and obtaining mountain bike tyres for the unpaved Peru Great Divide route ahead of me.

As a sort of practice-run for the PGD I rode a seven-day loop around the Huascaran National Park involving three passes over 4,000m, one of which was unpaved and gave me a chance to feel how much difference the new tyres and reduced weight make. The snow-capped scenery of the National Park is like nothing I had ever seen before and the riding was mostly enjoyably quiet. A highlight was camping below the Punta Olimpica switchbacks that lead up to the highest road tunnel in the Andes, amid lupins, morning frost and curious cows.

Peru Great Divide route

This route, using only remote, high, unpaved roads, was devised by a British couple called The Pikes and posted online in about 2013. Since then lots of cyclists have followed their detailed route notes and have described the experience as a highlight of their panamerican journeys though requiring considerable stamina and self-sufficiency on account of the sparse facilities.

At dusk on 22 May I turned off the asphalt at Conococha (south of Huaraz) and pitched up for the night ready to begin the PGD in the morning. My silent camping spot overlooking Laguna Conococha and the last of the Cordillera Blanca gave me a taste of the scenery and exquisite solitude to come.

Day 1

For the first couple of days the track is uneven, loose and often steep, so I need to use my mountain biking skills to handle the bike. The scenery - of isolated ranches, small-scale farming on steep hillsides and the distant Huayhuash range - is quite mesmerising and seeing less than one vehicle an hour makes for gorgeous riding.

At lunchtime I realise I have a slow puncture - probably a pinch flat from having let a bit too much air out of my rear tyre. I fix it, but notice an old repair to the inner tube which looks like it may be failing. After buying bread rolls - five for 25p - and a few other bits at a village store the woman comes out to the square to offer me a big bowl of really nice soup, for nothing! Later an old man on a horse stops for a pleasant chat and asks my name instead of whether I'm alone or have children.

In the late afternoon I notice I have loads of energy and wonder if I was previously expending a vast proportion of it raging at the honking and appalling driving. Nevertheless the complete solitude provides a blank sheet against which to notice my rollercoaster moods, including joy at the scenery and peace, some anxiety about what lies ahead*, and difficult thoughts about some other stuff.

*Having sent a box of stuff ahead to Ayacucho I have just 30 days to get there, including the seven I spent in the National Park. This means I need to average 60km per day, which is really a lot considering the climbs - of up to 2,000m - I will need to do most days, always on dirt.

At dusk I stop to filter water in a squalid hamlet and an old lady (like most people) asks me if I'm not scared. I fail to find an inconspicuous camping spot on a steep hillside, but since there is no traffic I'm not too concerned about camping on the side of the 'road' and fall asleep at 8pm. For some reason, however, I wake at midnight and am awake for 2-3 hours worrying that a donkey I can hear in the bushes is going to trip over my guy-ropes, amongst other things. At 2am the only vehicle in 15 hours passes, and - of course - honks at my tent.

Day 2

As the sun rises above the mountains across the valley I feel tired and as I prepare for a long day of riding I hear the dreaded sound of my tyre deflating - ffsssss. Sure enough it is the weak spot I noticed yesterday, which turns out to be no ordinary puncture but a big hole in the innertube. To my horror I discover that my original rear wheel rim cannot take the Schraeder spare I have with me. How I've had this bike for ten years and not realised this I'm not sure. I repatch the hole twice before setting off and it holds for a couple of hours before air starts to force its way through or round the patches. I manage only 30km today - though as the condor flies I travel only about 5, such is the topography! I'm surrounded by wild flowers of many colours, and hummingbirds. On the way down the very steep valley-side to Llipa I have to remove everything from the bike and repatch the rear inner two or three more times, repairs which hold for progressively shorter times but eventually get me down to the village.

Let's be clear... I cannot go on. Having obtained a room in the municipal hospedaje (£2.50/night, no curtains and water not working), which I guess is mainly used by road workers etc because there are certainly no tourists here except cyclists doing the PGD route, I ask the chap if there is some way I can get to the coastal cities - perhaps Lima - on public transport, in order to hunt for Presta inner tubes. I'm not hopeful, as even the fancy, gringo-oriented bike shop in Huaraz did not have any. It's Friday evening and he tells me there is no minibus to the coast until Monday, though there are a couple of possibilities involving being taken to another town by motorbike at 3am to connect with some kind of supply truck. There is just one other possibility, but it's risky...

I approach a random man in the square and ask if anyone in the village might have a drill. I'm not thrilled about the thought of taking a drill to my valuable, Rohloff-equipped rear wheel rim, but if the hole for the inner tube valve could be enlarged by a milimetre or two I could use the spare inner that I have and not lose time making a possibly futile journey to the coast. He goes off on his motorbike and comes back minutes later with a Black and Decker! My problem is solved and I could almost cry with relief and gratitude. I say I'd like to buy the two chaps a beer to say thank you, but they opt for Inca Cola instead. The old lady who runs the store is roused and I buy Inca Cola for them, beer for me, and various other bits. These little village stores - often unmarked so you have to ask around - sell most things I might need from day to day, though certainly not bicycle inner tubes!

Day 3

Still feeling extraordinarily grateful and lucky I get up at 5am in order to try to make up some of the distance I lost yesterday. Riding 30km downhill into the arid, cactus-filled canyon I see noone. I reach a junction just as a small, knackered-looking truck struggles uphill with at least four men in the cab. I have a continuous climb of 5okm to do today if I am to get back on track, so I ask if they could take me a bit of the way. In seconds my bike has been hoiked into the back, complete with all its panniers, where it stands upright on a pile of sand. I join three men, a child and a queasy-looking dog sitting on the sand while the truck grinds 10km up the canyon. They make this journey up from the coast every day, apparently, to a job building a swimming pool!

The remaining 4okm climb is gradual, smooth and the scenery extraordinary, with the arid canyon dropping away in one direction, snow-capped peaks in the other and green fields in between. I have time to use my Sharpie to modify a few TOQUE KLAXON signs to read NO TOQUE KLAXON A CICLISTAS. An elderly chap asks me if I saw any cows further down as five of his have escaped. Two separate woman ask me if I have seen the (daily) bus, as it is two hours late. I wish I could be more help.

In Cajatambo some kind of terrifyingly shouty evangelical convention is happening in the main square, everyone bundled up in typical Andean attire against the bitter cold. I awkwardly share a table in a small restaurant with a monosyllabic chap who accepts the can of beer I offer him, much to everyone's amusement. When I go to pay the woman assumes we are together and charges me for two plates of food. I can't be bothered to explain, so it's a good night for him.

Just before 3am I wake to find the unusually tall - four- or five-storey - hotel swaying to the rhythm of a Richter 8 earthquake whose epicentre is a few hundred kilometres away to the northeast. The hotel seems quite full with mining engineers, but only four of us amble outside and there is noone else in the street. Maybe locals in their one-storey buildings didn't feel it as much. Unlike in Mexico there are no alarms, there's no sign of the hotel management and after a few minutes we all go back to bed.

Day 4

I haven't had a rest day since Huaraz but the wifi in Cajatambo is not fast enough to back up my photos etc so Day 4 will consist of another huge climb and an equally huge descent to the biggest town along the PGD route, Oyon. I don't start til 9, and climb steadily up to around 4,000m above sea level - the height at which I have to stop and get my breath back during steeper sections of track. It is so quiet I can listen to Anna Karenina on speakerphone! About halfway through the climb a small truck stops - this time unbidden - and Willy Flowers offers me a lift. Since I really want to reach Oyon today I accept. Willy Flowers takes quite some time figuring out how to balance the bike on top of his load of empty gas canisters, and it does get a bit scratched despite his efforts.

Though Willy Flowers only takes me about 25kms it seems a long time that I have to endure his firing uncomfortable questions at me, very loud and very fast. The period I spend with him is unfortunately extended by road works, which he is cross about because apparently they're not supposed to do works on Sundays or something. He is especially interested in whether I'm not afraid of being raped, and the sexual mores in my country. In retrospect I think his concern/ interest was genuine and he didn't do anything inappropriate, but I do wish it would occur to men that having just accepted a lift, rape is probably not the thing a woman would most like to discuss. In the end I tell him I feel uncomfortable and say let's talk about the weather or sport or politics instead. He drops me close to the top of the pass, exactly where I asked him to, and is reluctant to accept the small amount of money I give him for his troubles.

On my way downhill through a landscape that's like the Scottish glens on acid I cross ways with another cycling couple and we have quite a long chat. I don't catch their names but the first thing she says is 'We know all about you... from Willy Flowers'. Turns out they met him a few days ago and he's just passed them again and told them to expect me coming downhill. They're riding just one section of the PGD (I'm doing two), in the opposite direction, on tyres like the ones I just took off. They seem to be loving it, which encourages me. They tell me Lucy and Jan - the couple I met in Huaraz - are only a day or two ahead of me, which surprises me. Perhaps I will even catch them.

Oyon is a windy, slightly grim looking place at dusk.  The proprietress at the Hotel Minero (Miner) is a bit gruff at first, but later wants to know my exact route and gets very animated when she realises I'll be passing through her town in the Cañete Valley. In the 'mini market' I buy a packet of Choco Bums biscuits and other essentials, but proper coffee still eludes me. In Peru the daily set menu is often available in the evening as well, so I have a nice soup and stir-fried noodles with beef and vegetables and hot tea for £1.50.

Day 5

My first rest day since Huaraz. My body really needs it. The first task is to wash everything I own, but I'm delighted to discover a laundry around the corner!!

After much hunting and asking I find the one shop in town that might have had inner tubes (I now have no spare), but he tells me other PGDers have cleared him out. Gulp, this is bad news.

Next I do a circuit of the market where a very small child - probably only two - has been given one sol by her mum to go and buy some warm quail eggs. She forgets to hand over the sol and walks off, and the vendor and I share a laugh. Fortunately mum asks if she remembered to pay so the chap gets his sol after all. Then another from me. I love the stalls selling prepared vegetables by weight and ready-made sauces. I can't really buy the sauces but get a bag of mixed, chopped veg to go in my quinoa and lentil slop. I also spend one sol or 25p on a psychedelic 'ladies' slingshot to replace the $16 dollar one that was stolen. Who knew ladies' slingshots were even a thing... Another 25p gets me a plastic spoon to replace the Spork which recently snapped when my bike fell over.

I scour every clothes shop in town looking for a lightweight body-warmer type thing because the layers I have aren't quite enough at night at altitude. I settle on one that is the sleeveless sibling of the jacket I bought in Huaraz. Both are dark green and I look a bit like a member of the Young Farmers, but never mind.

Finally I chance upon a shop that makes custom signage. I commission an A4 size sticker that says 'SILENCIO' with a picture of a horn crossed out. More scouring finds me a lightweight orange road-vest, onto which I will attempt to stick and/or sew my SILENCIO sign! Who knows whether it will make any difference!

All in all (apart from the lack of inner tubes) it's been a productive rest-day in Oyon, which is slighly less grim-looking in the sunlight. I shall have a good night's sleep under my four blankets and aim for an early start tomorrow. I've still got 11 days of PGD riding to Huancavelica and another four to Ayacucho if I'm to make it in time to collect my box!

So far the PGD has been a bit nerve-wracking, but definitely the right decision in terms of the extraordinary scenery, peace, and memorable encounters.