On June 7, I finally got back on my bike and left Lima heading straight up the Andes. My plan was to cross several mountain ranges and follow a section of the Peru Great Divide in order to arrive in Cusco about 3 weeks later. But first, I had to cross the entire city of Lima eastwards. After only 10 km, I passed some suburbs where you would not wish to get lost or stop for a long time. It’s the other face of Lima. The crazy, chaotic and disorganised suburbs inhabited by underprivileged families and those who moved from rural Peru to Lima to try their luck.
I had to navigate with my GPS but rarely left it mounted on my handlebar. I don’t want to misjudge people but in such frenzied and dicey places, you better take precautions. So every 5-10 min I took my phone out of my pocket to check whether I was still on track. The last thing I wanted was to make unnecessary detours. Well, due to construction there were a few inevitable ones though. I followed the flow of the main traffic which was all headed towards the Carretera Central – the central highway that works itself up the Sierra like a snake.
After about an hour of city traffic, I just had to follow that highway to reach Chosica, a mid-sized town only 45 km from Lima but about 1000 m above sea level.
Since I hadn’t biked for almost 6 weeks, I wanted to start out slow and pick up pace gradually so as not face any major soreness on the next day. It felt good to be back on the road even though traffic really was a pain on this Carretera Central. There is no shoulder and many buses and trucks use this major artery into the Andean mountains. Not to mention the fact that I had to endure the dirt and dust along that stretch. But once you have gone beyond a certain elevation, the usual fog disappears and you get to see an amazing mountain desert. I don’t know how many vehicles passed that day, but it ended with my head throbbing from the constant checking of traffic.
On the following day, the environment turned a bit greener and was less humid. Don’t think deserts are always dry. Similar to the Gulf Region in the Middle East, the coastal desert of Peru feels extremely humid, which makes biking a really sweaty experience. Eventually, I arrived in Matucana, a nice little town at an elevation of approx. 2,300 m. Immediately, I found a cozy guest house and indulged in the local speciality called Trucha Frita, which is actually fried trout with rice and potatoes.
As I was having dinner, reflecting on that day’s ride, I came up with an interesting conclusion. Peruvian dogs hate cyclists. I got chased and barked at by more than 20 dogs of the nastiest breeds you can imagine. Some got as close as 20 cm to my calf. so I really had to stay focused on traffic. It would be a nightmare if you crashed into one of those deep concrete ditches right next to the road just because of them damn dogs.
I became more and more excited to get off the Carretera Central. My third day since Lima was a short one. I only biked 20 km to San Mateo and called it a day to relax, eat, browse the web, and to get used to the altitude.
Not only for safety reasons but also for a bit of comfort, I sleep in small guest houses whenever I find any. With darkness kicking in at around 6pm, it’s no fun to spend 12 hours in your tent getting overwhelmed with solitude and draining your batteries for lighting and gadgets.
On the next day, I finally hit the dirt right after sunrise. It started with gravel roads but often turned into steep dirt tracks sprinkled with large cobbles. I was facing a really tough ride but was rewarded with virtually no traffic and amazingly beautiful scenery.
Above 4,000 m, biking really gets rough though, especially when the ground is either soft or full of rocks. You don’t have the ultimate power anymore to keep up momentum passing a tricky passage. You can only manage to keep your balance to not fall off your bike since your speed often goes down to 4-5 km/h. Hyperventilation to get as much oxygen in as possible does help. Besides that, you simply have to find your personal pace. Luckily, I had no issue with those typical symptoms of altitude sickness, such as headache, dizziness, etc. The only explanation I have is the solid acclimatisation I went through in Mexico where I spent almost 4 months at above 2,000 m.
On June 10, I climbed up to my first pass, Punta Ushuayca (4,930 m). The last section turned out to be really steep and made my heart pump at its max. But once the trail levelled, I knew that I was about to enjoy an epic downhill. This was in fact the first time that I was able to roll without pedalling since I had left Lima. The first time after 160 km. You cannot imagine the sheer joy I was experiencing! 🙂
Originally, I had planned to make it to a small town called Tanta. However, since this ride took me much longer than expected, when I passed a decent camp spot next to a creek at about 4,000 m elevation, I decided to call it a day. I neither had the time nor the energy to cross the next pass at 4,700 m.
I barely managed to set up my tent and eat some muesli, before the temperature dropped down to freezing. A local shepherd passed by to check who the hell was camping up there. It was a nice chat, and he told me that a German couple on bikes was camping nearby as well. I hadn’t spotted anybody, but I did run into them at a later point.
By 7pm, I had completely sunk into my sleeping bag. I had 11 hrs before it would make any sense to get up again. It didn’t take long until I passed out. The night was freaking cold but since I was wearing pretty much everything that could add an extra degree of warmth, it was a relaxing rest.
In the morning, however, I thought I would die. It took me 10 min to convince myself to leave my warm sleeping bag and pack things up. It was like taking an ice cold shower without water. Just 30 min later, I was on the bike riding up to Abra Suijo (4,706 m), the pass I wasn’t able to cross the previous night. I quickly generated so much heat that I took off the first layers only 15 minutes later.
I passed through the spotlessly clean town of Tanta, and enjoyed some fantastic trails following a river valley. My bike and I were shaken like crazy. At some point, I noticed that one of my panniers was rattling. Due to the massive vibration, I had lost a screw. Luckily, I was carrying a spare and extra Loctite.
Soon, I was approaching the town of Huancaya, a small tourist destination well known for its many beautiful cascading lagoons. I was so looking forward to a room with lights, a shower warmer than room temperature, and a hot meal. Altogether, that made my day more than complete. Despite all the hard work to climb up the passes, I had moments of real happiness. This area is close to what you would call the Shangri-la of mountain cycling and bikepacking.
After a fairly easy day, Laraos, another small town, was my next stop. When I rolled into town, I noticed two waving persons in the distance. I turned around and finally met Franzi and Jona, the two German bikers, after locals had been telling me about them for 2 days. But the happy encounter was quickly overshadowed by a disastrous observation. My front wheel showed significant play. Immediately, I noticed that my axle was loose and that the counter bolt was missing. A 1000 thoughts ran through my head. I couldn’t continue like this. And getting a replacement in this remote mountain village or even in another bigger city would be extremely difficult. I tried to search the ground of the last 500 m I biked, but who knows where I had lost the bolt. Maybe, already several km earlier. Soon, I realized that this is like searching for a needle in the hay stack.
Well, things happen as they happen. I accepted my destiny and tried to look at the bright side. I had 3 amazing days in these wild mountains. And I am grateful this incident didn’t happen up there. I would have been in deep shit.
I contacted my trusted bike dealer in Germany and asked for help. Less than 24 hours later, the required parts were on their way with UPS to Cusco. I put my bike on the roof of a local minivan, and started an odyssey of more than 900 km transferring buses and vans four times. In this region there are not that many direct buses to Cusco. But what made everything more complicated was a so-called manifestación (a serious protest with road blocks and determined locals to enforce the latter) in a town called Andahuaylas. My co-passengers and I were lucky. We entered that area at 2am and transferred from one minivan to another in some dark alley within 15 minutes. With only one night in a hostel, I safely arrived in Cusco after I had spent a total of 32 hours on public transport. Due the very mountainous roads combined with very wild driving styles in Peru, it is an illusion if you think that there’s a chance to catch some sleep on such a journey.
While I waited for my UPS delivery, I had plenty of time to relax and do some sightseeing in and around Cusco including Machu Picchu. All of that will be covered in my next post soon.