Cycling the Cordillera Blanca

Time for cycling has been running out. After spending two weeks in Cuzco, including excursions to Tambopata and Machu Picchu, we were ready to get back in the saddle but where to go? A must-see in Perú is the Cordillera Blanca but it is too far from Cuzco for us to ride there with only a few weeks left, so, we took a bus. Two buses, in fact. The first, a 21-hour ride to Lima. Once there, we spent the six-hour layover wandering around Miraflores, eating and drinking. Our bus from Lima to Huaraz was a 9-hour overnight run.

We arrived in Huaraz at 7 AM feeling a little groggy but otherwise okay. The bicycles had survived being tossed into the cargo departments of two buses and were unscathed. We rode to our hotel and spent most of the morning in its top-floor restaurant enjoying breakfast and the gorgeous mountain views. Not much else was accomplished that day, other than the usual search for a place to eat.

View from Cafe Andina in Huaraz.
View from Cafe Andina in Huaraz.

We spent the next morning getting organized for our ride into the Cordillera Blanca. In the afternoon we wandered into the hills behind Huaraz to the small town of El Pinar for something to do and to shake the cobwebs out after the marathon bus ride.

Election sign in El Pinar.
Election sign in El Pinar.
Men at work in El Pinar.
Men at work in El Pinar.
Women returning home from the fields in El Pinar.
Women returning home from the fields in El Pinar.

We were itching to hit the road, so we decided to leave Huaraz a day early, on our 11th wedding anniversary. We had a nice downhill run to Carhuaz but then the climbing began. By the end of the afternoon, with daylight waning, we had climbed for 20 KM and found a lovely camp spot between two hairpins in the road with a great view of the Huascarán Sur, the higher of the two summits at 6,768 metres. Huascarán Norte is 6,654. The two peaks are separated by a saddle called Garganta.

Jan hiking her bicycle down off the road to a camp spot.
Jan hiking her bicycle down off the road to a camp spot.

We made camp and celebrated our anniversary with a candlelight dinner. There could hardly be a better place for that occasion. We savoured the view as night fell and the stars came out of this imposing peak. It is one of 16 over 6,000 metres in the Cordillera Blanca and there are another 17 mountains over 5,500 metres, making this the second highest mountain range in the world, next to the Himalayas.

Candle light dinner for our anniversary.
Candle light dinner for our anniversary.
Camped below the stars and Huascar‡nán (6,768m)
Camped below the stars and Huascar‡nán (6,768m)

We left early the next morning and climbed and climbed and climbed until, by late afternoon, we were at 4,743 metres at the Punta Olimpica Tunnel. The old road continues a little higher over the actual pass but the weather was a bit unstable and we felt we had climbed enough, so, we took the tunnel.

The view from below: Paul riding towards the ladder of switchbacks up to Punta Olimpica Pass in the Cordillera Blanca.
The view from below: Paul riding towards the ladder of switchbacks up to Punta Olimpica Pass in the Cordillera Blanca, an 800-metre climb.
The view from above: Jan climbing the switchbacks up to Punta Olimpica Pass.
The view from above: Jan climbing 800 metres up the  switchbacks to Punta Olimpica Pass.
Google view of the switchback ladder climbing up to Punta Olimpica Pass.
Google view of the switchback ladder climbing up to Punta Olimpica Pass.

Nineteen hairpins later and 900 metres lower we followed a track down off the road to a small river where we made camp. It had been a hard day with a lot of climbing and some amazing mountain scenery. While we were making a cup of tea a man and his five dogs wandered by and asked for money. He had been tending his cows further up the valley and was probably on his way home. We gave him a few Soles, hoping he would keep moving and leave us and our stuff alone. He did.

Laguna BelaϜnde in Punta Olimpica Pass.
Laguna BelaϜnde in Punta Olimpica Pass.

We were tired after two days cycling 100 KM and climbing 2,500 metres, so, it was an early night for us. Unfortunately, the weather turned during the night and we awoke to the pitter-patter of rain on the tent. It stopped eventually and we got up to make breakfast. Partway through making coffee, the rain began again. We fled for the shelter of the tent and finished cooking breakfast under cover. Afterwards, we just laid in the tent waiting for the rain to stop.

The road down to Chacas from Punta Olimpica Pass.
The road down to Chacas from Punta Olimpica Pass.

When it did, we quickly packed up and road 15 KM further downhill to Chacas where the rain caught us again only a couple of kilometres from town. We found a hostel on the main square and called it a day. No point riding in crappy weather when you don’t have to. Besides, we would not see any of the gorgeous scenery which was kind of the point of coming here.

Mule and donkey train returning from the mountains in Chacas.
Mule and donkey train returning from the mountains in Chacas.

Our luck changed as the next day dawned bathed in glorious sunshine. We cooked breakfast in our room, bought some supplies and water and carried on in a northeasterly direction into the valley to the east of Huascarán.

Valley running northwest from San Luis.
Valley running northwest from San Luis.

Not far from Chacas the beautiful asphalt ended and the road turned to shit. It was lumpy and bumpy and slowed us down. Even going downhill our speed was only 10-15 KPH. When we hit the bridge at a small town where our road turned west to Yanama, we were at the low point on our circuit and at the beginning of another climb.

Our road was sometimes precarious.
Our road was sometimes precarious.

The sign told us it was 22 KM to Yanama. The climb was slow: 4-7 KPH. We didn’t make it to Yanama. But we did make it to a small pueblo where there was a very basic hospedaje which we gratefully occupied. The mattresses and bedding were all new and still wrapped in plastic. The husband, wife and son quickly readied the room and helped us bring our bags upstairs. We cooked pasta with tomato sauce in the room and crashed. We were completely beat.

But not as precarious at this impossible road.
But not as precarious at this impossible road.

We cycled the remaining few kilometres to Yanama where we bought some food and water and checked out one of the most unique churches we have yet seen. It was Sunday and the place was packed so we couldn’t go in but it’s really the outside of this church that is the attraction.

Yanama Church.
Yanama Church.

As the church service ended and we got ready to continue, we were the subject of many unbelieving looks from the congregation, but we are used to that by now, and we happily went on our way ever higher into the mountains in our circumnavigation of Huascarán.

Taking a break to drink in the view west of Yanama in the Cordillera Blanca.
Taking a break to drink in the view west of Yanama in the Cordillera Blanca.

The road continued to be very bad and the cycling was very slow. It was hot but the views of the mountains, constantly changing, was stunning. The nature of the road is such that it constantly twists and turns as it snakes its way higher up the valley and the views of the surrounding peaks just got better and better as we climbed.

Paul getting water.
Paul getting water.

Eventually, exhausted, sore and frustrated by the bumpy road and the time it took to climb, we called it quits about 300 metres from the Portachuelo Pass (4,715m). We found a nice camp spot off the track near a small lake. The only good thing about this crappy road, besides the magnificent views, is the complete lack of vehicle traffic. We only encountered about 10 cars a day on this route.

Sunset at 4,400 metres.
Sunset at 4,400 metres.

We made dinner while the sun bathed the glacier-clad peaks in an unreal orange glow. Behind us was Yanaru (5,954). Chopicalqui (6,354) in front, and peeking over the pass the two summits of Huascarán (6,768m. It was possibly one of the most beautiful spots we’ve ever camped. Even though we were at 4,400 metres, the peaks around ascended another 2,000 metres higher into the azure sky. Quite an unbelievable sight making us feel so small.

Star trails over Chopicalqui in the Cordillera Blanca.
Star trails over Chopicalqui in the Cordillera Blanca.

The temperature dropped rapidly so there was not much lingering after dinner, although I did stay out to make some night photographs as the moon illuminated the mountains beautifully but eventually my will to stay out in the cold night melted away. Besides, I needed 10 hours of sack time to recover from the day’s efforts.

Chopicalqui reflection.
Chopicalqui reflection.

The morning was amazing as the sun slowly crept into the valley, illuminating first the high peaks and eventually our frosty camp. Chopacalqui was beautifully reflected in the small lake near our camp and we lingered in the sun over breakfast, again soaking up the amazing view all around us.

The final hairpins up to Puerto Chuelo Pass.
The final hairpins up to Puerto Chuelo Pass.

 

We bumped the final 300 metres higher along the road into Puerto Chuelo Pass. The road goes through a narrow cleft in the mountain, barely wide enough for a truck. It was like a portal into another world with a panoramic view of Huascarán’s imposing summits on our left and Alpamayo (5,947m) on our right. Alpamayo has been called the “most beautiful mountain in the world,” and I understand why.Panorama looking west from Puerto Chuelo Pass.

Alpomayo.
Alpomayo.

The wind was blasting across the ridge in the pass but we couldn’t tear ourselves away from the view. Below us, the road slithered through 33 hairpin turns down to two emerald lakes in the valley below. We sat and stared, took photographs and shot some video. Truly one of the finest views in the Cordillera Blanca.

Starting to descend the 33 hairpins of Puerto Chuelo Pass. Huascará‡n Sur and Norte on the right; Chopicalqui on the left.
Starting to descend the 33 hairpins of Puerto Chuelo Pass. Huascará‡n Sur and Norte on the right; Chopicalqui on the left.

The run down was a little faster than the one coming up but the road remained a bumpy mess so we were never able to go faster than about 15 km/hr, at most. We also stopped many times to make photographs as the vistas in each hairpin changed, begging to be photographed. But eventually we made our way down into the valley beside Orconcocha and Chinancochah Lakes at 3,850m, nearly a thousand-metre drop from the pass.

Cruising through one of the hairpins below Puerto Chuelo Pass with Alpomayo in the background.
Cruising through one of the hairpins below Puerto Chuelo Pass with Alpomayo in the background.

We looked at camping but decided to go lower into the valley, eventually finding a spot on an old stretch of road just past the entrance to Huascarán National Park. Alpamayo glowed orange in the sky behind us while brooding across the valley the Cordillera Negra  awaited us.

Sunset over Alpomayo.
Sunset over Alpomayo.
Sunrise over the Cordillera Negra.
Sunrise over the Cordillera Negra.

We finished our downhill run the next morning by riding into Yungay, a small town about 50 KM down the road from Huaraz. Our loop through the Cordillera Blanca was almost five times that long at 240 KM. It was a difficult ride but well worth the pain and effort.

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5 thoughts on “Cycling the Cordillera Blanca

  1. I hiked over a pass on the shoulder of Huascaran. Alone for 2 days – amazing. At the top of the pass I saw my first ever humming bird. Do you have a close-up – or name – of those intrilguing blue flowers?

    C

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