Up against the divide: Cajatambo to Tarma


Cold. Tired. Uninspired.

Bored?

The last week of riding was my toughest yet mentally and physically. For three days I felt like I was on the world’s largest yo-yo – slogging up huge climbs, only to be greeted by rain and snow and a long drop back down. I had one particularly amazing day that renewed my spirits, but the three after that felt like I was just counting down the kilometres to my next destination instead of enjoying the ride through the central Peruvian Andes along a route known as the Peru Divide.

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At the least the views were good.

It’s been 5.5 months since I left Revelstoke and started my trip. It’s the longest I’ve travelled and I feel like I’ve come up against the wall lately. I feel like I’m moving slower and have less energy, and I’m taking more and more breaks. I’m unsure about whether or not I’ll reach my goal of finishing my trip in Cusco. Of course, when I started out I thought I would reach the salt flats of Bolivia. Then I scaled that ambition back to La Paz. For the last while, Cusco has been in my mind. What better way to finish a great adventure than to visit Macchu Pichu and the ancient Incan capital?

But now, as I sit in my hotel room in Tarma, I’m contemplating heading to the coast, enjoying a few days on the beach, and flying home from Lima in a couple of weeks. There’s part of me that sees no shame in that. It means I would have experienced six months of amazing adventures and memories that will last a lifetime. And why not enjoy some sun and sand before heading back to snowy Revelstoke?

Views like this don’t inspire.

At the same time, I hate to give up on a goal. I want to see Cusco and Macchu Pichu – and Huancavelica and Ayacucho and the mountain landscapes along the way. They’re destinations that have been in my mind since I started researching this trip while I was bored and tired at work many months ago. When I started this trip I had a one way ticket and 200 days of travel insurance and my plan was to see how far I could get in that time and fly home from wherever that was. But now, with a month to go and an end in sight, I do have a target in mind, and it’s hard to turn back on it. Still, I know there’s no sense pushing on if it’s a huge struggle mentally and physically and my heart isn’t in it. My goal for this trip was to have an adventure, and in that regard I’ve succeeded. I know in a few days, after I leave Tarma and ride back into the mountains and along the Rio Canete (which looks incredible in pictures), I’ll come to a fork in the road where one way will take me downhill to the coast and the other will take me back into the mountains. That’s when I’ll decide what to do.

The last seven days of riding were definitely a struggle. When I finished my last post, I was off to Lima from Cajatambo to get a new rear wheel. It took two long, terrifying bus rides along a narrow canyon road and three days in the city to resolve everything. I made the most of it by eating lots of ceviche and I met some good people and even went out and got drunk and hit up a club one night. But it also interrupted my flow and the high I was on after hike-a-biking part of the Huayhuash circuit.

I left Cajatambo (elevation 3,400 metres) the day after returning from Lima. It was a long climb up to Paso Pacomayo (4,540 metres) where it started snowing and my waterproof gloves failed and so I enjoyed a cold descent into the next valley. It was a miserably cold few kilometres as I sped downhill through rain and snow, getting stopped at one point for 30 minutes behind road construction. I also ran out of water, but I was too cold to stop and filter some more and was hoping to find a place to hunker down before I did so.

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Looking down on Cajatambo,.

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As Corb Lund once sang: “The truck got stuck…” and I had to edge around it on a very steep sidehill.

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A roaring creek I would have to take my shoes off to get across.

Thankfully, I passed a tiny little store before the start of the next climb and the owner let me sit down and wait out the rain. I filtered some more water, ate some tamales, bought a couple of chocolate bars, squeezed out my gloves, and, after all that, it stopped raining. A little warmer, I left the hut and began the next climb – a 500 metre affair to Punta Chanca at 4,850 metres above sea level. The climb took me through a large mine and past a small lake, where I reached the pass and began the 1,300 metre descent to Oyon. I warmed up on the climb and the rain stayed away, so it was a far more comfortable descent than the last one. I reached Oyon, where I checked into the only hotel marked on my GPS app. It was cheap – 15 soles ($6 CDN) – but possibly one of the worst accommodations I slept in. The mattress was terrible and still covered in plastic and the hot water didn’t work. I should have looked around more, but I was tired and hungry and couldn’t be bothered.

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Looking down through the mine I rode through.

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The lake at the top of the pass.

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Looking towards the Huayhuash on the way down to Oyon.

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My dusty hotel room in Oyon.

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The stacks of dusty Pepsi bottles should have been a sign to go somewhere else.

I paid for it with a bad night sleep – not ideal when you have to climb to almost 5,000 metres the next day. I was off a little later than planned after scrambling to buy some last minute supplies for the next few days of riding. Up and up I went along a dirt road that was never too steep but also never ending. I reach the top – 4,961 metres – later than expected and, of course, in a thick cloud that blocked all views. I cut through the pass and into another mine – this one even uglier than the one I rode through the previous day. It started hailing and ice pellets pelted me in the face as I cruised past tailing ponds and various mining debris. Eventually I got out of the mine and emerged from the storm cloud into the village of Rapaz, where I got a flat tire that took longer than expected to fix. It was getting dark so I continued down as fast as possible – the temptation of a dip in some hot springs luring me on. I was crushed when the first hot springs I saw were closed, but there was another across the street that was open. As well, the community of Picoy ran a small hospedaje that was warmed by thermals springs. I enjoyed a relaxing soak, a simple meal and a warm sleep while my clothes dried out in the naturally heated room.

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Rice terraces rise above the town of Oyon.

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Climbing out of Oyon.

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The climb was long, but never too steep.

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Eventually I reached the pass at 4,961 metres above sea level – the highest I’ve been on my bike.

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I entered the mine on the other side of the pass in a thick fog.

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The mine is definitely a scar on the landscape, but I do find some beauty in its brutality.

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The views on the descent.

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I chased these donkeys down the road for about 500 metres until they finally decided it was best to get out of my way.

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The Termales Picoy.

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And on the other side of the road – the Termales Huancahuasi, brought to you by the Government of Canada.

The next day was my hardest of the trip – a 25 kilometre climb that gained 1,800 metres of vertical. It was steep and the surface was loose, meaning I pushed a lot. Once again, it was nice and sunny most of the way up, but the clouds were moving in at the same pace I was climbing and when I reached the top, I once again found myself staring into a thick fog and descending in rain. It was another cold descent and, while I intended to camp, I found myself shivering cold so I rode slightly off-route to the town of Vichaycocha in the hopes of finding a hotel with hot water. I was let into the community hotel, but the electric water heater wasn’t working, so I changed into my warm clothes, got a mediocre chicken friend rice (chaufa) at the local restaurant and had another poor night’s sleep.

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Political advertising in the village of Picoy.

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Picoy’s very cute cemetery.

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After a short descent,the 1,800 metre climb begins through lush farmland.

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The village of Parquin, which has seen better days.

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Parquin’s church is a little worn down, unlike in most small towns, where the church is always well kept.

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The climb out of Parquin was of a steepness that is in no way encapsulated by this photo.

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The climb out of Parquin took all day, starting in a green valley and ending near rocky mountaintops.

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The clouds moved in as I reached the top.

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When I reached the pass, there were no views to be had.

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On the way down I experienced a first – an alpaca jam.

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The clouds lifted a little on the way down to Vichaycocha.

I left Vichaycocha in poor spirits the next day. I was tired, facing another long climb, and fully expecting it would rain when I reached the top, as usual. I don’t mind the long climbs, if there’s a reward at the top. Spending all day grinding my way up mountains, only to be greeted by rain and cold was as much a mental struggle as physical and was definitely wearing on me. As I set off in the shade of the mountains, the clear blue sky above providing a glimmer of hope, I started thinking about a plan B. Maybe it was time to call an end to the trip? This section of the route would deposit me on the Carretera Central, which leads directly to Lima.

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Early morning in Vichaycocha.

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Sun on the mountains provided a glimmer of hope as I left town for a 1,250 metre climb.

First I needed to get to Huayllay, the biggest town around here, so I could get online. When I was last in civilization, I was in the middle of scheduling a job interview and I still needed to firm things up. I had also heard about a nearby spot called the Bosque de Piedras, which is listed as one of Peru’s Seven Natural Wonders, and given how stunning the country is, I figured that was worth a visit.

An amazing thing happened that day – it ended up being one of the best of my trip. I rode into a beautiful sunny valley surrounded by vivid green farmland. The road was the perfect grade and the pedaling was easy. I cycled below green and gray mountains and as I neared Abra Antijirca at 4,780 metres, I was treated to views of multi-coloured peaks rising above azure lakes, with llamas grazing in the fields below. It was one of the rides where you stop to take pictures every few hundred metres because every bend reveals another stunning view. On the other side of the pass, the road snaked between two big lakes filled with birds – including flamingos, which I did not expect to see up here. I passed through one more mine, then flowed down to Huallay, where I found a decent hotel in the main plaza and ate barbecue chicken for dinner.

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Once again, the climbing began through a verdant valley.

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This cow was confused as I stopped to take off my shoes before crossing the creek. He waited until I got across before making his own way through.

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Most rural buildings in these areas are made of mud, stone and straw, so this wood one definitely stood out.

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That red mountain in the distance was a marker for a long time.

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Which mine do I chose? (I went left).

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The views kept getting better as I neared the top.

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Finally, after a morning of cycling, that red peak was within striking distance.

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Perfectly space vegetation…

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… and bright blue lakes awaited near the top.

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The views were incredible, making for slow progress.

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Pink and red rocks shone in the sun, and were a sign of why mining is so big around here.

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A truck driver and his wife stopped to talk to me and took this picture while they were at it.

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Finally – Abra Antijirca, my fourth high pass in four days.

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The hamlet of Santa Rosario.

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Flamingos in the lagoon.

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A woman herds here sheep across the road.

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Storm clouds loomed for most of the afternoon, but fortunately it only rained for the last few minutes of the descent to Oyon.

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Another mine.

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The end of the mine.

I decided to take the next day off to visit the Bosque des Piedras (Stone Forest). After a lazy morning I got in a shared taxi to the site, which was a short ride downhill of town. I could have easily biked the seven kilometres there, but I have a rule about staying off the bike on rest days, and I stuck to it. The Bosque is an amazing set of rock formations formed by volcanic eruptions and it’s definitely worth a detour if you find yourself in this part of Peru. There’s a map with a few routes laid out but the signage is terrible so instead I found myself wandering freely through the stone formations, passing from one to the next while herds of sheep, cows and alpaca grazed in the fields in between. It was overcast but it didn’t rain and after a few hours looking for faces and various shapes in the rocks I made my way back to the entrance and returned to Huayllay.

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That night I enjoyed a delicious meal at the Parwa Café and I also scheduled my job interview for the following Tuesday. I plotted a route that would take me to a small, touristy city called Tarma, where I hoped to find decent internet; it came recommended by a mine worker that stopped and chatted with me a few days earlier.

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Huayllay was gearing up for the market when I left Saturday morning.

If there was a downside to my Huayllay detour it’s that I still didn’t sleep well. I left the town feeling sluggish and made the relatively short 350 metre climb to the turnoff that would take me south and back onto the Peru Divide route. Compared to the previous four days, this was a relatively easy day that was comparatively flat compared to the massive ascents and descents of earlier in the week. Still, the riding was a slog and I found myself counting the kilometres.

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And another truck gets stuck. Corb Lund would be proud.

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Reddish mountains dotted the landscape.

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The real big moutains were a little further off.

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A restaurant in the middle of nowhere.

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Sheered llamas (or alpacas, I always forget which is which).

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A well placed rock made for a good tripod for a self-portrait,

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And another middle-of-nowhere restaurant that wasn’t quite a success.

It was almost five when I reached the village of Yantac, which sits at more than 4,600 metres and must be one of the highest settlements in Peru, if not the world. I asked around about a place to sleep or camp, but no one could find the woman with the key to the community hospedaje, and when I asked about camping at the school, it was more of the same. Instead, I pushed on to Marcapomacocha 15 kilometres away. By this point a thick fog had moved in and a biting wind was blowing off the many lakes in the area. I kept an eye out for a sheltered place to camp, which never materialized, so instead I found myself in a cold room at the hotel in Marca that night.

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The road to Marcapomacocha followed a series or marshes and lakes.

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There’s lots of reservoirs up here, along with a series of water channels bringing water to Lima several hundred kilometres away.

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Locals enjoy a game of volleyball in Yantac’s main square.

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The clouds and wind moved in as I moved on from Yantac.

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I reached Marcapomacocha right after sunset.

The upside to my push that day was that the next two days to Tarma were fairly easy, though I was still feeling lethargic and sluggish and completely uninspired. The highlight of the road out of Marca was riding alongside a reservoir filled with flamingos and other birds. Mostly, I felt really, really tired. I stopped twice – both times I was tempted to nap, and both times my break was interrupted by wind and light rain. Eventually I made it to the highway-side town of Paccha where I checked into the local hospedaje, one the cleanest and most comfortable I’ve stayed at. The woman who ran it was friendly, though she wasn’t too happy the next morning when my lethargy meant I left an hour later than planned. She moaned about my tardiness and I tried to explain that I was tired from biking every day and slept later than planned. She kept going on about how I said I would leave at eight, and now it was almost nine, and I’m not sure what else because my Spanish still isn’t that great. I got away quickly after that and hit the highway to Tarma – an easy 30 kilometre climb followed by a 25 kilometre descent down to a balmy 3,000 metres.

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The road out of Marca.. was pretty flat for Peru.

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The town of Corpacancha was hosting a regional soccer tournament when I passed by.

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The Mantaro River.

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Flamingos in the Mantaro River.

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This section of the ride was the highlight of the stretch from Huayllay to Tarma.

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The Mantaro River is dammed.

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A typical roadside settlement on the way to Tarma.

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How could a restaurant fail with a name like that?

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Looking down on Tarma.

Tarma is a popular tourist spot for Limenos – a relatively easy six hour bus ride from the capital. It’s nicknamed the Pearl of the Andes and the Flower Capital of Peru, but I haven’t seen much to justify either claim. The main street is lined with restaurants, bakeries, ice cream vendors, shops and hotels; there’s a bustling market that takes up several blocks, and I haven’t seen any other Gringos. There’s lots of operators offering day tours to the surrounding area, but I have no desire to go on any of them.  I checked into a hotel that promised reliable Internet, but proved less so. Fortunately, it did hold up through my job interview, until it got to my turn to ask questions and it cut off.

I’m going to take another rest day, then take a bus back to the Carretera Central to avoid an 1,100 metre climb. From there, I plan on rejoining the Peru Divide and then I’ll have to see if I still have it in me to keep going, or if it’s time to go home.

Click here for a GPS track of this route.

Categories: bicycle touring, South America tour, UncategorizedTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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