Cold. Tired. Uninspired. Bored?
The last week of riding was my toughest mentally and physically yet. For three days I felt like I was on the world’s largest yo-yo – ascending huge climbs, only to drop a long way down again. I had one particularly amazing day that renewed my spirits, but the three after that, I 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.
It’s been 5.5 months since I left Revelstoke and started my trip. It’s the longest I’ve travelled for and I feel like I’ve come up against the wall lately, 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?
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 physically and my mind 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. And 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 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 miserable 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.
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 I had bought that morning, 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. Fortunately the rain stayed away and 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.
I paid for it with a bad night’s 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. Up and up I went along a dirt road that fortunately 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 tailings ponds and various mining debris. Eventually I got out of the storm cloud and rolled through 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 urging me on. I was crushed when I saw the hot springs were closed, but there was another one across the street that was open. And they community ran a small hospedaje that was built right over the thermals. I enjoyed a relaxing soak, then a warm sleep while my clothes dried out in the naturally heated room.
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 one 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 down 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 meal at the local restaurant and had another poor night’s sleep.
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. As I set off in the shade of the mountains, 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.
First I needed to get to Huayllay, the biggest city around here, so I could get online. When I was last in civilization, I was in the middle of scheduling a job interview and needed to firm things up. I had also heard about a 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 days of my trip. I rode upwards into a beautiful sunny valley. 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 lamas 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. It 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.
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. 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 routs laid out, but the signage is terrible, so instead I found myself wandering freely amongst the rocks, passing from one formation to the next, while herds of sheep, cows and alpaca grazed in the fields. It was overcast, but it didn’t rain and after a few hours, I made my way back to the entrance and returned to Huayallay.
That night I ate at the Parwa Café and had one of the best small-town meals of this trip. I also scheduled my job interview for the following Tuesday and plotted out a route that would take me to a small 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.
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 instead of enjoying the views.
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 I found myself in a cold room at the hotel in Marca that night.
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 ride out of Marca was riding alongside a reservoir filled with flamingos and other birds. But mostly I felt really, really tired. I stopped twice, both times 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, which was 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 and hit the highway to Tarma – an easy 30 kilometre climb followed by a 25 kilometre descent down to a balmy 3,000 metres.
Tarma is a popular tourist spot for Limanese – 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.