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Huaraz, Perú to Huancayo, Perú

posted Dec 15, 2010, 12:53 PM by Paul Gareau   [ updated Jan 7, 2011, 6:04 AM ]
Hi everybody! I'm writing this from Lima, Peru after spending nearly a month off my bike. After leaving Huaraz, I rode through the mountains of Huascarán National Park, down to "The best climate in the world" in Huánuco, then up to Cerro de Pasco, "The highest city in the world", then up even higher on virtually unused backroads and though some incredible landscape and horrible weather along the ridge of the Andes, then back "down" to about 10,000 feet to Jauja and Huancayo. In Huancayo, a traveler named Sigal talked me into spending the holidays there and volunteering, so we spent the week before Christmas teaching orphans, and a few days of the week after setting up some new computer equipment with some donations we received. We decided it would be nice to spend new year's in the jungle, so we flew down to Iquitos, "The largest city in the world that is unreachable by roads", which is in the Amazon Jungle, and near the head of the Amazon river. After that we flew back to Lima, where I've spent the last two days. Tomorrow I'll catch a bus back to Huancayo, where my bike is waiting for me, and hopefully the day after I'll be back on the road!

I'm pretty sure that was the longest introduction I've ever written. :) After leaving Huaraz and having to hide out from the rain for a few hours, I was thinking of how much I left out of my previous blog entry, but strangely, since then I've been on some of the most amazing roads of the trip, but I've been at a loss for what write about. So because of that, this will be more of a summary than I've done in the past, but it'll have to do...

I had heard about the road through Huascarán National park a while ago, and had seen some incredible pictures from Matt, who I had ridden with back in Central America. It was tempting to continue a little farther south and ride near the Cordillera Huayhuash, another incredibly beautiful mountain range, but after seeing the pictures of Huascarán the decision was made. Because of the rain, I only made it to the junction of the Carretera Pastoruri the first day, and camped for 5 Soles (~$1.66 US) in the yard of a small house and restaurant. (For cyclists, it is just before the bridge, and a short hill that climbs to the right). The next day was also a short day; I made it just beyond the famous Puya Raymondis inside the park. These huge flowers grow to 30 feet, and flower only once in their lives, sometimes after 100 years. Within a year after flowering, they die. While I was in the area where they are the most dense, I had to find some cover when the afternoon hail storm came through - hail seems to be the most common type of precipitation in the Andes for some reason. Shortly after I got back on my bike but didn't get much farther before the snow started. It didn't amount to much, but made the scenery absolutely incredible the next morning.

The next day the climbing got harder, and I reached the first big pass of the road. Not far from the top there was a detour to a glacier that I would have liked to see, but I didn't think I had enough food to make the side trip. Instead I went down the side road just a short distance, then backtracked to the main road and over the pass. There was a storm in the distance that I would have descended into, so I decided to camp at up around 15,000 feet where Alpacas and sheep were grazing. The "campesino" I met there told me there were over 200 alpacas around, and as I walked back to my tent, he got my attention and pointed to two other cyclists who were coming down the hill. They were Dea and Fatima, two Swiss girls who are riding to Buenos Aires from Quito. We camped together that night, and rode together all the way to Cerro de Pasco. 

The next day the scenery continued to get better, and like the day before, I once again broke my "highest altitude" record. We reached a height of 16,000 feet, with mind blowing views the whole way up, and more amazing scenery on the descent. At such high altitudes it becomes nearly impossible to exert yourself, and while I found myself dealing well enough with cycling (only by riding extremely slowly), other surprisingly small actions could quickly leave me out of breath. Other common experiences at these altitudes are waking up while sleeping, gasping for breath (about as much fun as it sounds), and finding that sealed food packaging brought from lower elevations have exploded in your bag from the loss of pressure. 

After leaving Huascarán, we continued down through increasingly green landscapes, passing through small towns and farmlands to the very comfortable Huánuco, which claims to have the best climate in the world. After a slow start, enjoying the warmth, we headed back out and began the climb up to Cerro de Pasco (highest city in the world....), which we reached two days later. 

While looking at my map in Pasco, I found an amazing route that follows the ridge of the Andes as closely as possible, and terminates near Ticlio, formerly the highest train pass in the world (lots of superlatives in this section). Instead of taking the more common (and boring!) route 3 to Jauja, I would patch together a series of dirt roads that pass snow covered mountains and a number of large lakes and ponds. I would also get to visit the "Bosque de Piedras" forest of rocks, which sounded only mildly appealing but totally exceeded my expectations. 

After a day off preparing for this section in Pasco, I headed out with Dea and Fatima, but quickly turned from their road into the mountains. I spent the first night camping in the forest of the rocks, and paid $.66 to camp. The next day I spent about 3 hours exploring, although I could have spent days hiking through the park. That afternoon I rode by some hot springs, which I wasn't inclined to bathe in, and through the maze of roads in the town of Huayllay. Shortly after leaving the town, the hail started. I wasn't in a good place to camp, but I found the best spot possible with the little time I had, and got my tent set up just before the hail turned marble-sized and threatened to tear through the fabric of my tent. There was a wicked thunder and lightening storm along with the hail, and for at least an hour, I laid on my thermarest (air matress) keeping as low as possible and hoping my tent poles wouldn't turn into lightening rods. 

As you may have guessed, I survived the night, and headed out the next day through some light snow, farther into the mountains. My gloves, which worked fine earlier on the trip, don't seem to help much when there is cold rain, or other conditions where they become wet in cold air temperatures. They claim to be "weatherproof" and do fine if it's cold, or wet, but not cold and wet. Needless to say I was pretty uncomfortable until the weather improved later in the day.

I had some absolutely incredible campgrounds the next few nights, and more bad weather almost every day. Most days I packed up camp late after waiting for everything to dry, and after riding a few slow hours, set up camp very early in the afternoon. Once camp was set up, I was done riding for the day, but when the precipitation let up I would go out hiking, sometimes for up to a few hours, or just walking around where I was camped taking pictures. The worst of the weather was when I had 4 inches of heavy snow that caused my tent to collapse on top of me.

I reached an altitude of just below 5000 meters (16,404 feet) on the last road before joining up with a main highway that parallels the Lima-Huancayo train. The climb to Ticlio was tougher than I thought, and because of fog and cold rain, I had to emergency camp near the side of the road, just before the pass. From there it was almost all downhill all the way to Huancayo. I camped for one night after the descent, then stayed in Juajua the next night after more rain forced me to stop early. One more short day of riding got me to Huancayo, where I met up with Naomi, who I had been talking to online for months, but had never met. She's riding the west coast of the US, and through South America as well. 

I had been thinking about where to spend the holidays, and when a guest at the hostel named Sigal recommended staying in Huancayo to volunteer with her, I decided to stay. We didn't start volunteering until Christmas week, so I had a pretty lazy week before then. I did a little hiking, we made a trip with another guest at the hostel to a convent in a nearby town, and on Saturday, we went to a market town in the valley and up to some ruins where food used to be stored. 

Nothing really went right with our volunteer job. We only knew that we'd be working at an orphanage, and maybe teaching English. They decided that we should teach computers instead, which in Spanish, wasn't too easy. Combined with holiday events, the fact that the only woman with the key to the computer lab was always late, and that she'd do things like have "TV hour" in the small computer room during our lessons, we were frustrated to the point that we left early on two of the days. We decided that because the teaching wasn't going as well as we hoped, we'd try to raise some money to buy a printer and some other equipment for the computer room, but that we wouldn't teach the next week. Amazingly, we managed to raise a total of $570 in only a few days, and on the following Monday we were able to buy a new computer with monitor, printer, network switch and cables. We also connected all the computers to the Internet, which is something the kids (and staff too, surprisingly) were very excited about. 

Since we had nothing to do for the rest of the week, and we were in Peru, why not head into the Jungle for New Year's Eve?! We decided to go to Iquitos, the largest city in the world that is unreachable by roads, and from there to a jungle lodge named Cumaceba where we would see monkeys, jungle villages and pink dolphins as well as dance with natives and fish for piranhas. We spent new year's eve hanging out with some Peruvian travelers, telling riddles and listening to one of the guys play the guitar. After the three day trip, we went to a butterfly sanctuary near Iquitos that has evolved more into a zoo, and then to a popular lake, which for some reason, also has a zoo along the beach. 

We flew back to Lima two days ago, and I've spent yesterday and today exploring the city and buying some things I haven't been able to find in South America. One is a new bike seat to replace the one I've been using since Costa Rica, but have never really liked, and the other was two new pairs of gloves, since the ones I have have been the "weak link" in my cold weather gear. I got one thin pair with fingers that I can wear while cooking, setting up or breaking camp, and waterproof, two layer mittens that are rated to -29C, which I'm really hoping will be good enough. 

Since I'm on the topic of cold weather clothing, my outfit of choice in the mountains has been a long sleeve quarter zip shirt, a short sleeve quarter zip shirt over it, a wind stopper fleece, and a goretex jacket for wind and rain. For paints I've been wearing fleece lined leg warmers under either rain paints or convertible cycling pants (with legs attached). A couple pairs of socks, shoes and shoe covers have been enough to keep my feet warm. I wear a lightweight "Buff" hat which fits under my helmet, and in the worst weather or cold, I wear another "Polar Buff" around my neck, which I can pull up over my nose if necessary. Since in the mountains there can be huge swings in the temperature in a matter of minutes as clouds expose or block the sun, wearing layers with as many zippers as possible lets me stay reasonable comfortable without having to stop and change several times per day. 

Tomorrow I'll catch a bus back to Huancayo, which will take 7-9 hours, and hopefully the day after I'll be back on my bike! I still haven't decided yet if I'll take the mountain route to Ayacucho, or the valley which would have a day-long downhill. Either way, between Ayacucho and Abancay, the road is pretty evil. There are two 7000 foot climbs back to back, another of about 4500 feet, and a series of other "small" hills before Abancay. After Abancay, the next stop is Cusco, and Machu Picchu! That's my next scheduled place for a few days off, and while I'm planning to see the ruins, I won't be hiking to them like many other people do. Hopefully I'll get my pics from Huancayo, Iquitos and Lima posted soon, so stay tuned for those.