Peru: criss-crossing the Cordillera Blanca

We have been dreaming about cycling in the Cordillera Blanca – the world’s highest tropical mountain range, for years.  The classic ride is a loop that crosses the range from the Callejón de Huaylas valley in the west, to the Conchucos valley in the east, before heading north and crossing back over the range.  After the previous week of clear sunny weather our planned departure from Carhuaz was greeted with overcast and gloomy conditions.  Delaying a day didn’t help, so in the end we decided we’d just have to suck it up weather-wise and headed off.

Leaving Carhuaz & straight into the first traffic jam …

Passing through the little village of Shilla, in the foothills of the Cordillera Blanca

… where even the church has it’s own piglet

Watching the rhythms of rural life

As we ascended we entered Huascarán National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, which encompasses most of the range, including several 6000m+ mountains, some 660 glaciers and 300 glacial lakes.  Theoretically the Park boundaries largely exclude communities, but areas are still used for livestock.  This was painfully obvious with cow turds being a major camp hazard and vegetation damage from overgrazing, especially in the pampas of the Quebrada Alta.

Climbing into the pampa 

Lunch break

Eye-catching papery red bark of the Andean quenual tree (Polilepis werberaueri)

The impressive 5875m summit triangle of Ulta

Camping at  4000m, with mountain peaks soaring above us

Our first day was a short one, and we set up camp early at the base of the 30+ switchbacks leading up to the Punta Olimpica tunnel – at 4735m this is the highest road tunnel in the world.  Peruvians are fairly keen on football and this mountain route commemorates the Peruvian football team’s big win against Austria in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.  We couldn’t care less about football but it was an awesome ride.

Many, many photo stops on the ride up to Punta Olimpica

An outrageous series of switchbacks!

Dwarfed by the immense landscape

Climbing with a a backdrop of creaking glaciers

It’s not just the altitude that takes your breath away …

Bypassing the tunnel we take the old road up a final few switchbacks to the pass

Ride a little …

And then it’s off and pushing to navigate the rocks and boulders that have made the old road impassable to vehicles

A sprinkle of snowflakes, some snow drifts & we’re there

A pause to contemplate the road ahead …

Sending us skittering down a series of rough switchbacks

To rejoin the road by a turquoise lake – the receding glacier hanging above

A swooping descent brings us to the little town of Chacas, with a lush green square …

And beautifully carved wooden balconies, doors and window shutters – courtesy of Italian Salesian missionaries, the Don Busco

We spend the next day dodging the rain as we make our way past a series of muddy little villages, through a peaceful valley and over a minor pass.  

A village religious celebration, complete with the usual brass band

And we’re soon into the ascent to Pupash pass (4070m)

After a high camp in pine forest & a muddy descent to Yanama we spend the day cleaning up & sheltering from the rain

The next morning we’re off early & climbing past little villages …

… before getting stuck into the main ascent

The rain holds off but the road is just wet enough so that it feels like riding through stony treacle

The road loops upwards past a series of lakes …

… getting more spectacular as we climb ever closer to the pass

Sombre reminders of those who didn’t make it back home

A cleft in the rock takes us through the 4750m Paseo de Portachuelo

And we’re confronted with the mindboggling switchback descent

… the traffic on this side of the pass means the road starts to get a little churned up …

… providing a challenge for the collectivo drivers 

Hard to keep your eyes on the road

Going down …

Must be interesting when the wet season starts

As we descend the road dries out & it’s back to rocks – I think I preferred the mud …

The Lagunas LLanganuco – peaceful in the early morning

And then we emerge in the valley at Yungay & soon find ourselves back in the colour & bustle of Carhuaz

 

Where life continues much as usual

And the market is again in full swing

 


Overnighting back in Carhuaz our stay coincided with the town’s annual La Virgen de La Merced festival.  As far as I could determine this mostly involved a lot of drunken dancing in the streets, with four competing brass bands and some cows festooned with rosettes and ribbons.  No sign of the namesake Virgen but we might have missed that part.

The next day we made a quick dash up the valley for Huaraz.  This small city is the main base for hikers and mountaineers in the region and certainly fulfilled all pizza and beer fantasies.  We’d planned a couple of days break but a quick look at the weather forecast suggested we’d best get our butts over the next high pass before the rain closed in again …

A couple of hours road-bashing up the valley & we turn off towards Pastoruri Glacier

Immediately we are alone, this landscape seems home to just a few seasonal shepherds

Drawn onwards by the mountains looming ahead

Once past the Huascaran NP entrance we begin to see Puya raimondii – also known as the ‘Queen of the Andes’

The huge Puya raimondii are the world’s largest bromeliad species, restricted to the high Andes of Peru and Bolivia at elevations of 3000 – 4800m.  The vegetative rosette alone can reach 3m in height with the stem and inflorescence extending a further 5 -7m.  Some 8000 – 20,000 flowers produce an impressive 6 million seeds – it takes around 40 years for the plants to mature and flower, after which they die. 

Forget the flower spike – I am dwarfed just by the base rosette

 

These dramatic plants match the grandeur of the landscape

Seed production on an impressive scale …

 

Another Peruvian road wiggle

 Extra roadside contemplation time is needed to appreciate both the large …

… and the small

Ed on a rock

One of our favourite lunch spots

Roads like these …

We didn’t get far in between photo stops

Just us and the road ahead

Peru is all about rock – from huge mountains to the fist-sized rocks that litter the dirt roads

Not an ‘up & down’ pass, with a 20k section of road at 4500m+

Not much grows up here & plant life tends to hug the ground

The rocks light up as the day draws to a close

Golden hour in the mountains as the clouds close in …

Chasing us down out of the mountains in fading light

Rolling out on to a paved road we plummet downwards.  Pulling up short of Huallanca we ask if we can camp in a sort of compound which includes a (closed) restaurant and an assortment of sheds and old buildings.  Our gringo activities are watched with interest before the family departs on a bus with a flurry of waves, leaving us to the attentions of three dogs, half a dozen chickens and an over-enthusiastic piglet.  

Farewelling our camp companions ..

And thus ended our travels in the Cordillera Blanca – now it’s onwards to Cusco & the Bolivian border …

 

Rubber side down,

Ed & Gaye

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 Comments

  1. Debbie Farner

    Wow wow wow ? is all I can say. Just amazing you guys.

    Reply
    1. Gaye Bourke

      Thanks Debbie! We’ve been offline a lot lately but next blog & video up soon …?

      Reply
  2. Bob H

    Fantastic video and photos! That is serious elevation you are biking through! Stay safe and looking forward to your next post??

    Reply
    1. Gaye Bourke

      Thanks Bob! We’re getting used to 4000m as our new ‘sea level’ now that we’ve reached the altiplano … we’ll be up here for the next month or so …

      Reply
  3. Ben

    It is awesome to see you riding all this breathtaking landscapes! We are really impressed! Thanks a lot for sharing all your experiences! Hope to see you again ! Best greets from Peñas in Bolivia (next to Cordilleras Real- which are by the way also impressive)
    Take care Guys
    Ben y Lena (Panama,David)

    Reply
    1. Gaye Bourke

      Hey there! Be great to catch up, we’ll be crossing into Bolivia north-east of the lake in a day or so … we’ll get in touch!

      Reply
  4. Mark Ridley

    Just bloody awesome! I keep putting the links aside to look at them later… well worth the wait!

    Hamba Kahle! (Zulu for “go well”)

    Reply
    1. Gaye Bourke

      Cheers Mark! Hope all goes well with the Canberra crew ???

      Reply
  5. Tanya

    Absolutely epic!

    Reply
    1. Gaye Bourke

      Epic is good – exhausting but good ?

      Reply

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