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