“El Silencio” – what Peruvians call the high altitude regions of the country where few venture and only the hardiest make a living. It’s a land of towering mountains, grassy valleys, azure lakes, hardscrabble herders and their flocks, and, unfortunately, massive mines that scar an otherwise beautiful landscape.
I had seen pictures of these landscapes while planning my trip and I was excited to finally reach this part of Peru, where I’d leave everyone behind and be almost on my own. Just to be safe, I sent my brother a GPS of my route for the next few days as a safety precaution, knowing I was about to enter a remote area with few people around in case things go wrong.
I was up early to set off from Huamachuco towards “El Silencio.” After a hearty soup for breakfast (and a cup of some unknown local gloop I decided to try for the first and last time), I pedaled off on the highway out of town. I could follow it to the Cordillera Blanca, or I could go the long way.
After 10 kilometres of highway riding, where I got my first look of one of the big mountain-top mines that dot Peru, I turned off onto a dirt road and gradually began to rise above the farms, into the beyond. I stopped to eat lunch at a beautiful lake, where locals had a trout farm. Once past that settlement, I truly felt on my own. For the rest of the day, I passed one group of road workers and that was it.
The road wound through a valley, then into another speckled with dark blue lakes that were dominated by dark mountains. The road snaked through the lakes, then crested another ridge, before it eased its way ever upwards, towards a height of some 4,400 metres and staying there.
As nighttime approached, the rode was a ribbon blasted along a steep mountainside, and I wondered about finding a place to camp. The clouds moved in, darkening the sky even further. Through the fog, I could barely make out the landscape around me. I spotted a lone house below, but didn’t stop. As I began to lose hope, I spotted a pond through the midst, with enough of a flat spot next to it to pitch my tent. A light rain fell and the wind howled as I scrambled to get my tent set up before it got soaked. Tent secure, I huddled inside and changed into my warm clothes. I got ready to cook dinner, only to find neither of my lighters working. After moments of frustration, I finally got a whiff of flame from one of them – just enough to light up my alcohol stove. I cooked up a simple dish of rice, veggies and tuna – a bicycle touring special. When I emerged to wash my dishes, the sky had cleared up and I was dazzled by a brilliant starry sky.
The next morning was overcast, but thankfully it wasn’t raining. My lights wouldn’t spark, so I forewent my usual breakfast of oatmeal and instead delved into my snack supply. I made a mental note to get to a town tonight and buy matches and more lighters. I packed up and hit the road, an ever-winding ribbon of dirt and rocks staying above 4,000 metres elevation. Dark green, brown, yellow and grey scenes unfolded before me and as I rounded a corner, I ran into a herd of alpaca. They were everywhere, their humanoid faces eyeing me with curiosity. Some kept grazing, others ran off, and all were wonderful to watch in their natural habitat. The herd was vast and stretched through the puna, and made for a slow ride as I kept stopping to take pictures.
Saying goodbye to my four-legged friends, I turned onto a southbound road, crested another high point, and followed the road down to a river crossing, where a few hardy farmers were sawing up some wood. From there began a 500 metre climb above a startlingly green river valley with almost no signs of human encroachment except for a few livestock and two women walking down from the hills. I gazed across at bright green lake that sat below a jagged cliff face as I neared the final pass of the day.
When I reached the pass, the blue skies I enjoyed earlier had turned an increasingly darker grey. A drizzle turned into rain, which turned into a downpour, which turned into a snowstorm as I started my descent. Not wanting to stop and put on my warm jacket, I experienced a frigid downhill to Laguna Pelagatos some 600 metres below. My rain jacket and t-shirt were no match for the biting wind and near-freezing temperatures and by the time I reached the lake, I was shivering. I saw a sign saying “cocina” and ran in the open door, where I was greeted by a friendly local, who asked me where I had come from and said two other cyclists had passed through that way before, but none for a few years. She warmed up some rice, potatoes and a bit of meat and boiled up some tea. I placed my soaking wet socks and gloves on here wood stove and attempted to dry out my shoes – my rain covers having been completely chewed up and near useless by this point.
An hour later, with the rain stopped and myself a little warmer and drier, I left the comfy confines of the kitchen for the descent to Pampas, where I decided I’d find a cheap hotel for the night. I followed another road carved into the side of a canyon that passed through a half-forgotten mining town where a few people still lived among the rusty, abandoned buildings.
I arrived in Pampas a little warmer and after a few tries, found a cheap hotel that let me drag in my muddy bike and self. A hot shower and some food, and I was off to bed, eagerly anticipating my next adventure along a route I’d dreamed up while gazing at Google satellite images a few days earlier. The road would take me back to the alpine, along a series of roads and trails, over a 4,400 metre pass and past a chain of alpine lakes. The elevation profile showed some steep sections, but nothing that couldn’t be pushed. That would be followed by another lengthy stretch through the puna (Peru’s high Andes grasslands) to a town called Corongo. Then I would descend into the Canon del Pato – a section of Peru’s main Andean “highway” that runs through some 30+ tunnels blasted through a canyon wall – and follow that to Caraz, the northernmost city in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca.
The route started with a steep series of switchbacks out of Pampas, followed by a descent then a short climb into Cochongos, where I had probably the best piece of beef of my trip for lunch. My rule of going to the busiest restaurant paid off.
My route involved 20 kilometres of unknown terrain until I’d hit the road, where it would be 60 kilometres to the town of Corongo. I stocked up on food in Cochongos, thinking I could make it in two days, but preparing for three just in case. I hit the road south out of town, then taking a turn onto a pedestrian bridge over a creek, where I had to wait a few minutes for a shepherd to cross first. Right away, I realized my chosen route wouldn’t be as rideable as I hoped. The shepherd asked where I was going and when I told him, he scoffed and said the trail was very steep and hard. I replied that if it got too tough, I would turn back.
I started pushing, riding what few short sections I could. I garnered many surprised looks and a few more comments that I was nuts, but good luck. As I got closer to the puna, the trail got steeper and I was forced to take my panniers off my bike, carry them upwards, then return for my bike. I repeated this slow, tiring process multiple times until I found myself amidst the grassy fields of the puna, gazing out over huge mountains and far down into the valley I’d left hours earlier. I gazed at the ribbon of singletrack that cut its way through the mountains and looked very rideable.
I felt alone in the mountains, taking in the solitude of “El Silencio.” I was not expecting someone to come walking over the ridge to get cell reception. I chatted with this man briefly. He was younger than most rural farmers and his home was just beyond where I stopped to rest. He confirmed my route made sense, but said it was very rocky. I rode and pushed my bike towards his home when he came running up behind me, warning me of his dogs. As if on cue, four big dogs came bounding towards me, barking and snarling fiercely. The man attempted to call them away, but they were more interested in me. They chased, circling around my bike as I kept to my usual strategy of ignoring them until they get bored. When this didn’t seem to be working, I bent over and picked up a big rock. This got their attention and they backed off, finally heeding the calls of their owner.
At this point, it was nearing dark and I started looking for a place to sleep. I didn’t see many options, but up ahead I saw what looked like a stone and grass hut. I pushed through a herd of cows to a small bench where the remnants of a few stone structures stood. I peaked in the grass hut, but the ground was uneven, the roof had holes and it was too small to pitch my tent in, so I started looking for a decent flat spot that wasn’t covered in cow dung. And just as I found the spot, it started to rain, and I scrambled to set up my tent and hunker down for the night. It had taken me four hours to go six kilometres.
The next morning I woke up to find a lot of curious cattle wandering around my tent, curious about this strange intruder on their land. I pushed my bike to the top of a small ridge to pick up the trail again, then rode and pushed it through the alpine. A few cows grazed in the distance and I could see one home on a distant mountainside. Other than that, it was just me and the mountains.
My priority this morning was to find water. Fortunately, the trail eventually crossed a creek that spilled out of an alpine lake. Other than one wrong turn that lead to a dead end, the going wasn’t too bad for the first few hours. I reached the lake and stopped to fill up my water bottles and have a snack. Beyond the lake stood the 4,400 metre pass – only a few kilometres and 300 metres of climbing above me. I figured I would be at the top by noon, down the other side by one and on the next road by two. How foolish I was.
The next section was the most challenging so far. The rocks got bigger and some sections of trail were far too steep and rocky to push my fully loaded bike up. Once again, I found myself transporting my gear in stages – bike first, followed by panniers. At more than 4,000 metres, this was a slow process as I struggled to haul my bike up and over the huge rocks that made up the trail. I took me more than an hour to clear the first kilometre or so, at which point I stopped for lunch and cooked up some oatmeal. The views though were incredible as I looked down on a pair of alpine lakes and the dark green alpine landscapes beyond. A ridge of black rocky mountains towered to my right, a few patches of snow signs of last night’s rain. Was it worth the suffering? This was definitely type two fun.
I didn’t have far to go but the next stretch to the top of the pass proved to be the hardest. I took my panniers up first, breathing heavily as I found my way up the rocky trail, getting lost once or twice but eventually find my way to the top. There, I gazed down on the reason I chose this route – Las Lagunas Pusaccochas – a series of nine of alpine lakes stretching through a narrow valley. Dark clouds were moving in, making for an foreboding scene. Much to my chagrin, the trail down to the lakes was just as rocky as the one I’d come up. I don’t even know if I could ride it on a full-suspension mountain bike, let alone a loaded touring bike. Looks like I’ll be pushing some more.
I went back to get my bike and hoisted it onto my shoulders for the final stretch. It was one step at a time terrain, and I huffed and puffed to the top. My shoulders ached and I had to be careful on almost every step. When I finally reached the top and unloaded the bike, I panted heavily for several minutes to regain my breath, while admiring the incredible view. “Never again,” I lied to myself.
The push down was easier than going up, but much more frustrating. It had also started raining, and while most of my rain gear was holding up, my shoe covers were pretty much done and ceased to do their job. The trail was rough and rocky and filled with tight sections where I’d had to lift the bike up to get it through the rocks. At times the trail was essentially a creek and eventually I gave up on trying to keep my feet dry and just plowed on through. I reached the valley, where instead of the flat trail I hoped for, it rose up and down through the slopes above the lakes. I gazed in awe at the waterfall that plummeted from the highest lake to the next one in between curses of frustration at the impossible terrain I was dragging my bike through. Sadly, my troublesome camera started acting up again and most of the pictures I took are corrupted, but I did take a few with my cellphone that capture the beauty of the area.
By 4 p.m. I wasn’t so much physically tired as I was mentally exhausted. I knew I could keep my body moving to the end of the lakes, but inside the frustration was mountain. As I passed between two lakes, I saw a cave along the shore of one. I dropped my bike and hiked to it – an easy scramble without any gear. The cave was clearly used by locals. There were signs of fires, a bed of dry grass and a bit of garbage scattered about. Most importantly, it was dry. I went back for my gear and carried it over piece by piece. I settled down, watching the rain fall outside, and cooked myself a basic dinner of rice, onion, peppers and tuna – a bikepacker staple. I laid out my air mattress on the grass, crawled into my sleeping bag and read until I fell asleep. After a hard day, sleeping in the cave was serene.
The next morning I still had a kilometre of pushing before I reached the road. It was just as hard and I jumped for joy when I found out the road started sooner than I thought and I was able to bike the last stretch to the end of the last lake. After more than a 1.5 days of pushing, it felt so good to spin my legs again. I cruised into the valley beyond the lakes, then turned off onto the road to Corongo, where I passed some very surprised workers, who greeted with friendly cries of “Gringo!”
The road to Corongo descended down to 3,900 metres, over a creek and then back up to a plateau at 4,400 metres. The weather mostl held off for the morning, but as I reached the plateau, the rain moved in, followed by snow. A herd of vicuna ran across the road in front of me and galloped away before I could get a decent picture (which didn’t come out because of the aforementioned camera problems). I pedaled along the plateau, which was intersected by a maze of old roads and small alpine lakes. The only sign of civilization was the big power lines that ran through it and two small walls that stood lonely in the silence, seemingly not ever part of a complete structure, their existence a mystery.
It was a cold, wet, and miserable ride. My feet were soaked, the road was muddy and it was slow going. But at least I was able to pedal and there were no real climbs to be had. A herd of cattle scampered through a field below me, but there was no signs of their owners. Were they wild?
Eventually I found my way to the road down to Corongo. It would be a 20-kilometre, 12,000 metre descent down a seldom-used road that was filled with massive rutes – some running parallel and others perpendicular. I picked my was down the mountain, using my best mountain biking skills to choose the easiest way down. It was a blast, if not a little hairy at times. I gradually entered civilization again, first passing herds of sheep, then seeing another person for the first time in hours, then reaching a beautiful green valley and a small village, which I bombed through quickly, either to reach Corongo and have a warm shower.
Corongo, as expected, was a quiet village with not much going on. I chatted to a few men in the plaza, asking about a place to stay. I said all I really cared about was a hot shower. One of them took me to the small hospedaje he ran. At 15 soles ($6 CDN), the price was right. I hung up my clothes and tent to dry and then went to eat at the local restaurant. When that didn’t satisfy me, I ate some street food, then bought a few chocolate bars.
And I let my brother know I was safe and sound and he didn’t need to send out a search party.
My ride wasn’t over. After five tough days in a row out of Huamachuco, I was ready for a day off, but Corongo wasn’t the place for it. There was nothing to do and no Wifi, so the next morning, after enjoying a great sandwich (it was so good I bought a second to go) and delicious juice for breakfast, I started the descent out of farming country and into the desert lowlands of the Peruvian Andes. Down and down I went, first on a dirt road, then on a one-laned paved road – the 3N that connects Peru’s mountain towns from north to south. The winds increased the lower I got and on the final, lengthy series of switchbacks to the valley bottom, I had to take care not to be blown off the roadside.
My descent ended at about 900 metres elevation – some 3,600 metres below where I was a day earlier. I then began the climb into the Canon del Pato (Duck Canyon) to the Cordillera Blanca, stopping to camp 40 kilometres shy of Caraz, just outside the village of Huallanca. It was hot in the canyon and I was able to strap my wet soaks and gloves to the back of my bike to dry out. Eventually, my shoes dried out as well. I generally don’t enjoy cycling in the heat, but after the last few days, I was grateful for the sun and to not having soaking wet feet all day.
The next morning I struggled to get moving on the final 40 kilometres to Caraz – about 40 kilometres above me. My route went through the numerous of tunnels of the Canon Del Pato that highway engineers blasted into the sides of the canyon walls because there really wasn’t anywhere else to put the road. Exhausted, it was a slow slog to Caraz, but eventually I made it and found myself a room for 15 soles at the Hostal San Marco. The room was basic, but the wifi worked and the shower was reasonably warm. The main plaza was surrounded by bakeries selling borrachitos, these delicious chocolate balls that they should sell everywhere but don’t. I also had an email from Iohan, aka the Bike Wanderer, who I’d been in touch with a month prior and who I unexpectedly happened to have caught up with in Caraz.
We agreed to rest up and then ride through the Cordillera Blanca together along with his friend Sylvain, who was due to arrive from Quebec in two days.
After riding seven days in a row and 15 of 18 since Boxing Day, that worked for me.