“Why aren’t you smiling? Why aren’t you happy?”
I had just collapsed after cresting a 4,750 metre high pass in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca following an afternoon and morning of pushing my bike up through sopping wet meadows, fast-flowing creeks, steep rocky slopes, rain and snow. There was Iohan, already at the top, already eager to start the descent, with his camera out, taking my picture.
Iohan, a Bulgarian-Canadian is one of those people in dirt road touring circles whose legend precedes him. Four years ago, he started riding his bike from the Canadian Arctic and he’s been slowly making his way south through the Americas ever since, with detours to Morocco and Oman along the way. Along the way, he’s self-produced videos of his adventurers, which have taken him down paths even some of the most adventurous bikepackers haven’t attempted.
I’d read his blog, Bike Wanderer, but I hadn’t watched his videos – at an hour each, I just never took the time. When I was in Cuenca, Ecuador, in mid-December, I emailed him after reading one of his posts about a route from Cajamarca. I asked for a GPS track of the route and he said he would send it to me when he reached Huaraz. I didn’t hear back from him before I got to Huaraz, and after looking at his photos, I decided I’d stick to the road slightly more traveled out of Cajamarca.
So I was surprised to show up in Caraz to find a reply in my inbox, and that he’d been hanging out there for the past 10 days or so. We met up and made plans to ride through the Cordillera Blanca together, just as soon as his friend Sylvain arrived from Quebec in two days.
I spent those two days taking it easy and enjoying Caraz’s many bakeries, which all sold the same things – including my favorite borrachitos. Sylvain showed up on Jan. 14 and we set out the next morning on a day ride to Laguna Paron – a beautiful alpine lake surrounded by huge glacier-capped mountains. For Sylvain, the ride was to get acclimatized as quickly as possible (he want from sea level to 4,200 metres in a little more than a day), while for Iohan it was to get his legs back. For me, I was just along for the views, and to get to know some new riding partners.
The ride to the lake started off fairly typical – rolling farms and small villages – until the road entered a canyon that it followed to the lake. Along the way the weather turned from warm and sunny to cold and rainy. It was also a much slower ride than anticipated, where I – only two days removed from my last ride – led the way while Iohan and Sylvain alternated between pushing and riding. I thought we’d be up and down by four at the latest, but it was almost five when we all reached the top. The rain was pelting down at this point and it was cold. The mountains were covered in a thick cloud and the views were almost non-existent. When the caretaker of the refugio offered us each a bed, food and fire for only 15 soles each, we quickly agreed and huddled inside.
After a fitful sleep, we awoke the next morning to a mostly-clear sky and the cirque of peaks surrounding the lakes revealed themselves. Naturally, I ran outside with my camera and stood in awe of the scene as I clicked away. I hiked up to a viewpoint and sat on a rock, admiring the steep face of Mount Caraz and its reflection in the lake while waiting for the sun to climb above the peaks behind me. We lingered until a tour group showed up and, realizing we didn’t have much food (I had none), we made the decision to head back to town for lunch.
The next day we set off across the Cordillera Blanca via the Portachuelo Llanganuco, aka the Dirt Pass. We rode up through more farmland, getting our first glimpses of Nevado Huascaran, Peru’s highest mountain, along the way. A glimpse is the best we would as once again the rains set in by the time we reached the national park. We were charged the Gringo rate (65 soles/$25 CDN) to enter, which was made up for slightly by the fact we were allowed to camp under a nice shelter, which kept our gear dry in the while it rained most of the night.
The next morning we enjoyed a flattish ride alongside the Lagunas Llanganuco before beginning the climb to the 4,750-metre high Portachuelo Llanganuco. Traffic was minimal but the road was muddy, making for a tough ride. Iohan and Sylvain seemed content in pushing most of the way, but I pedaled as much as I could, only getting off for a couple of the muddiest switchbacks. It was the highest I’d ever been on a bicycle, but generally I felt pretty good on the way up, other than the general discomfort of riding with soaking wet feet most of the day.
The views on the way up were amazing. The surrounding glaciers made an occasional appearance, while we had consistent views of the blue and green valley below. On the other side of the pass the road snaked around several small lakes before disappearing into a distant valley. We rocketed down – Iohan leading the way on his fat bike – all the way to Yanama, where we debated keeping going, but chose not to when we found a cheap place to sleep.
The next day started with a steep push out of town, followed by a uneventful climb back up to 4,000 metres. At the top, we were greeted with the view of a dazzling green valley interspersed with small creeks, farm houses, and tiny villages. It rained on and off all morning, but fortunately the skies cleared when we stopped in Sapcha for lunch. The weather continued to hold for the most part until we arrived in Chacas, at the start of the climb back over the Cordillera Blanca.
It was only 4 p.m. when we reached Chacas and I was keen to keep riding until we found a place to camp. My companions felt otherwise, and no sooner did we walk into a hotel to find out the price, a torrential downpour began. Rooms were 30 soles, so we took it easy and had an early end to the day.
That night I had serious doubts about the next stage of our journey. Our plan was to ride up and over the Portachuelo Honda – a route over a 4,700 metre pass that’s described as 90 per cent rideable on Bikepacking.com. Considering my last hike-a-bike experience, I wasn’t all that keen to push my bike. Not to mention, after several days of riding in the mud, rain and snow, I was seriously tempted to take the easy way and ride the paved highway over Punta Olimpica. It would still mean a 4,900 metre pass, but it would be way easier than the Honda route.
While those thoughts did cross my mind, I knew all along I’d be going for the sufferfest. Day four of our trip began with about 10 kilometres of easy highway riding, where we turned off onto the road into the Juytush valley. After a few switchbacks, the valley revealed itself, and right away I knew I made the right choice. Huge mountains towered on either side and a massive glacier hung high over it at the far end. We followed a gentle dirt road through pastures divided by stone walls until we reached a lock gate. We climbed over the gate and rode on a barely-used road that was at times covered in grass, and at other spots rough and rocky. As we neared the end of the valley, the road switchbacked twice, then ended.
And that’s where the fun ended too. And the rain began.
The trail from this point was a mixed bag, ranging from rocky to marshy to flooded. On a mountain bike it would have been fun, but with a loaded touring bike, it meant it was time to start pushing. Iohan led the way while I, with my classic touring set up, took up the rear. We crossed creeks and pushed our bikes through sections where rainfall flooded down the trail. Clouds hid the tops of the mountains, while waterfalls tumbled down all around us.
It was around 4:30 and we’d reached 4,400 metres when we spotted a promising place to camp that wasn’t too wet. I knew I had to get to Huaraz the next day so I could have time to deal with boring stuff like laundry before meeting my parents in Lima, and I was a little concerned about leaving too much to go. Once again I was outvoted. The rain let up for about 10 minutes and in that time we were able to pitch our tents before the next downpour began. We each huddled inside our respective tents, cooking with the fly zipped up, until the rain finally stopped and we could emerge and get a good look at our surroundings. They were pretty incredible.
Day five began with more pushing, and some route finding. The GPS track we were following went straight up, while the trail zig-zagged up the mountain. Iohan and Sylvain followed the track, while I followed the trail – it just looked so much gentler. At this elevation, my pace was sluggish and I set a goal of 30 steps at a time. Iohan, meanwhile, scrambled up his route like the mountain goat he is, while Sylvain struggled behind him. We reconvened where the two paths converged and confirmed I took the easier way.
Iohan led the way to the pass, reaching it well ahead of Sylvain and myself. I kept moving slowly, counting my steps, while Sylvain followed closely behind. Finally, I could see the top and one last push later, I was there. I laid my bike against the rocks and found a place to sit and rest. There was about five centimetres of snow on the ground where we were and more was coming down.
We didn’t linger too long before starting down. The trail was covered in snow at the top and was a mix of slick rocks and brush lower down. Iohan rode as much as he could, while Sylvain and I were content to walk our bikes down into the Quebrada Honda valley some 700 metres below. It wasn’t too bad of a push, especially compared to my last one, but I did manage to mangle my rain pants on my crank on the way down. Fortunately, it stopped raining and the sun came out as we reached the valley. Once again, the views were incredible as we were surrounded by more huge glacier-capped mountains. The only scar was the rumble of trucks from an illegal yet sizeable mine located in the national park.
I reached the valley floor just before one and pulled up the route to Huaraz. I had five hours to go 50ish kilometres. Iohan and Sylvain had no deadline, so they went to the far end of the valley to find a place to camp, while I bombed down the road back to civilization. It was a beautiful ride through colourful farmland back to the highway and I made it to Huaraz with time to spare. I got myself a private room at the Casa Blanca Backpackers Hostel and spent the next day doing laundry and drying out my camping gear. And then it was off to Lima to meet my parents for an extended break from the ride.