On day six I leave Oyon relatively early for me (8am - plenty of tourers start at dawn!) to begin the long climb up to Mina Rapaz, one of several huge, ugly but strangely fascinating mines along this route. This climb is not said to be especially difficult, but I find it hard: steep, loose and endless. I chew coca leaves, which I suspect help a bit but aren’t particularly pleasant to chew (nicer as tea). All day my mood fluctuates between “I can’t actually do this” and “Maybe I can do this, at 5kmph”. I don’t reach the pass until 4pm, which means a very cold descent in shadow on a rough road into another canyon, making it to some thermal baths just in the nick of time before it is too dark to see all the rocks I need to avoid. Belting round a corner near the village of Rapaz I encounter two women in traditional attire leading two equally gussied-up llamas and accompanied by some ‘gringo’-shouting kids.
I’m at the ticket office for the baths at 6am, but by the time I depart at 8 there is still no sign of anyone to take my money. Fortunately there is a deliciously hot outdoor pool that is free to use, which I have to myself as the sun rises. For some reason I cannot pinpoint, I start to cry while sitting in the hot water. I suspect I’m just a bit overwhelmed by it all.
The short ride up to Parquin is again not said to be especially hard but I find it frustratingly slow-going: any grade over 5% is really tough on such a heavy bike at these altitudes. I spend much of the day thinking that Andes-by-Bike’s advice to ‘go light’ is of limited use to a soloist who has single handedly to carry camping gear, stove, fuel, food, water filter, ample layers and so on.
In Parquin the community comedor (dining room) is preparing cau-cau (tripe) for lunch, but as this is just about the only thing in the world I cannot eat I am grateful they are willing to fry me an egg to go with my soup and rice (75p).
Compared with Ecuador, roads in Peru tend to make greater use of switchbacks thus gradients are typically kinder to cyclists, but the road up through Parquin village is a lung-busting exception: pushing my bike I have to stop every few steps for oxygen. Little do I know this is just a prelude to the EIGHT HOURS it will take me to travel 18km (1.3 vertical km) to the top of the pass, pushing for at least the first and last thirds of this. Pushing a loaded touring bike up the side of a mountain is not my idea of fun and only lack of oxygen limits the flow of expletives.
Part way up I stop and go through my panniers for the umpteenth time, trying to find a way to reduce the weight of the bike. I pour away some bike oil and some insect repellent, but otherwise fail miserably.
A little further up I stop again and for the umpteenth time stare at my diary, replanning, trying to figure out how on earth I’m going to make it to Ayacucho in time to collect my stuff, and resenting the route notes’ assertion that this section takes just eight days. There is literally no vehicular traffic on this grass-and-rubble ‘road’ (so cheating is not an option!) but I do enjoy a chat with a nice Dutch couple coming the other way on much lighter bikes. I tell them I’ve come to a realisation I can only do what I can do; that I must try to enjoy this experience without constantly fretting about a deadline. They tell me Lucy and Jan are just a day ahead of me.
By dusk I’ve ascended only halfway to the pass, and am relieved to find a flat camping spot near a small stream. I’ve never had a water filter before, but here I’m using my new MSR Miniworks EX every day to drink from streams, lakes and taps.
At dawn one side of the tent has frost on it so I wait for the sun to rise above the mountains before packing up. There are no trees or vegetation at this elevation so - for the first time - I have to shit in the open! Not the most glamorous part of the job but rest assured I *always* pack out my TP!
By the way, Peruvians are seemingly terrified of silence, but I find such extreme solitude immensely calming.
During the final 8km of the climb I watch a woman skilfully herding a couple of hundred sheep, while in the same valley a man herds llamas. A friendly sheepdog leads me to the top of the pass - which I finally reach around lunchtime - looking back from time to time as if to ask ‘Why so slow?’ The (extraordinary variety of) scenery is what makes all of this worthwhile, and the views on the way down from Punta Chucopampa are perhaps the most spectacular so far. I am almost too worried to enjoy this descent, but remind myself to stop, notice, and take photographs and videos of the near-vertical mountains, hilarious alpacas, and ancient-looking estancias (herders’ dry-stone huts and pens). I think often of my dad, who claims our surname means keeper of the animal pen.
I decide on a small diversion to a village called Vichaycocha in the hope of finding Wi-Fi at a hospedaje and researching the strictness of the 30-day rule. In reality it’s as much as the ghostly village can do to sell me biscuits and a much-needed beer, so I push on. About an hour before dusk I am extremely lucky to be passed by a mine company truck and beg a lift about 15km (900m) uphill to Chungar. I have no qualms whatsoever about “cheating“ like this, in order to make up some time. (This climb would otherwise have taken me most of the following morning.) The rather serious, bespectacled driver of the mine truck is clearly concerned about my intention to camp alone in the middle of nowhere and goes slightly out of his way to drop me near a house; I often think people imagine it is my first night camping, as if the little lady has just parachuted in from London Town, bike and all!
I camp on the shore of the lake right in front of the house, which seems lived-in but only a cat is at home.
At about 7am the first vehicle passes, honks, and stops. I suspect it is last night’s driver offering me another lift (he said he’d be going that way) but I am still in my sleeping bag so I stay put and he drives on. (Have I seen a woman driving in Peru? Possibly in one of the cities; not otherwise.)
The Andean morning light is gorgeous and this particular morning my mood is joyful, especially as the manageable climb (I can actually ride the bike!) is punctuated with flyovers by two or three Andean condors - my first. One of these is chased right above my head by a much smaller caracara, so close I can hear its enormous wings. I enjoy imagining my brother’s reaction to this news.
Today and tomorrow I will stay above 4000m, with much smaller ascents and descents than the previous few days. There are many lakes and birds but hardly any people. I have mixed feelings about miles and miles of extraordinary concrete water channels which crisscross the landscape to provide ‘more drinking water for Lima’ according to billboards.
My brother has suggested I eat more cheese and other fat. In Yantac I attempt to buy some cheese but discover one cannot really buy ‘cheese’ in these parts, only ‘a cheese’. I haven’t the heart to reject the locally-made cheese I am shown, and so find myself the proud owner of an enormous fresh cheese weighing in at surely 1kg if not more! Fortunately I find it goes quite nicely with supernoodles!
Overlooking another lake and a snow-capped peak I spend my highest and coldest night yet. I sleep badly, fretting about my slow progress towards Huancavelica and the fact I have run out of fuel, wondering if I have some kind of sleep apnoea or it’s just the altitude, and worrying that horses/llamas/dogs might try to get into my tent to eat my cheese. Do llamas like cheese? In the middle of the night it seems certain that they do.
Awaking to find the tent frozen on all sides, inside and out (even my piss pot has frozen solid!) I remind myself “this too shall pass” and indeed up comes the sun and makes everything better.
In the next village, Marcapomacocha, I am sent to the health centre in search of 96 percent alcohol, but they only have 70 percent. This confirms my plan to divert slightly from the PGD route to a town called San Mateo where there are pharmacies and hardware stores. Leaving Marcopomacocha I meet two exuberant Englishmen with ‘bike-packing’ setups far better suited to this route than my heavy Thorn. I am struck what nice people I have met doing this route and how unusually pleased I am to stop and chat with them!
A delicious tailwind accelerates me up to Abra Antacassa, from where I descend to the dreaded Carretera Central (an example of what I call a ‘death-road’ if ever I saw one). I have resolved to wait as long as it takes to get a lift 25km down this hideous highway to San Mateo. In fact my roadside praying/begging histrionics prove amazingly effective: the very first vehicle I perform for stops and I’m away! These open-backed trucks really are the perfect size for one touring bicycle and its careful lady owner! (Btw, if someone gives me a lift who seems poor - like Willy Flowers who delivers gas canisters seven days a week in his clapped-out truck - I give him a bit of money, but the uniformed mining engineers etc I don’t, and I doubt they’d accept it if I did.)
There is something surreal about this terrifying, heavily-populated road, laden with huge lorries and other traffic, snaking as it does down a deep canyon through this otherwise barely inhabited landscape. I see the most lethal overtaking moves I’ve seen since - yes you guessed it - Indonesia. No shoulders, only deep concrete drains. I tell the two chaps who kindly picked me up that, thanks to them, I will not die today.
My first impressions of San Mateo aren’t great. Despite the incredible canyon setting I guess it’s hard to be charming when you have a death-road running through you. I buy a litre of alcohol from a pharmacy and locate the surprisingly swish (but not expensive) Hotel Magnolias recommended by a previous PGDer where I am delighted to discover I have indeed caught up with Lucy and Jan, who are enjoying an extended rest after finding Part I as challenging as I have. We breathlessly compare notes before deciding to go for dinner just as soon as I have washed several days’ worth of Peruvian dust off myself in a lovely hot shower. Dinner - for all three of us - consists of STEAK with egg, fried plantain, rice and chips, at a place called Chez Victor which looks like a truck stop but according to Lucy has 900 reviews online - and deservedly so! I don’t remember the last time I saw so much (perfectly executed) protein on a single plate!
Having had a broadly similar experience of the PGD so far (without the cheating) Lucy and Jan not only cycled down the Carretera Central but claim they actually enjoyed it! Well, apart from the bit when a huge truck overtook them IN A TUNNEL. Christ. Not having sent a parcel ahead they aren’t in such a rush, so will spend another night or two here in hot-shower-heaven before tackling Part II.
A rest day, so of course I wake up at 5am and have my laundry on the line before the sun is up!
Which brings me onto the bad news, the good news and the ambiguous news. The bad news is the fuel I bought at the pharmacy won’t ignite, which could potentially mean living on bread and cheese and cold water for the next week. The good news is I find a ferretería that sells me enough proper ‘alcohol industrial’ to supply all three of us with hot food and drinks til we reach civilisation again. The other good news is the same ferretería has tons of inner tubes, so I can stop worrying about my lack of a spare, finally!
The ambiguous news is I have no definitive answer about what will happen if (or when) I show up late to collect my box of stuff. Some cyclists had their stuff sent back, others didn’t, and some just had to pay a surcharge. I shall push on tomorrow and do my best to reach Huancavelica (pronounced Wanker-veh-LEAK-r) with a couple of days to spare and hope for a bus to Ayacucho that can take my bike. Boi am I looking forward to returning to the 21st century in Ayacucho and Cusco!
Onwards and - veeery slowly - upwards!