Start of the Passes

12 10 2007

Woe is me. I just opened my collection of photo CDs to find then all cracked in some way. This is distressing because it means I have lost more photos (the set from Huancayo to Ayacucho I made two copies of – both cracked). But it is also indicative of the roads I have been traveling the last few days. To call them bad is an understatement. According to the map, the road I am following is one of the “Carreteras Principales Del Peru”. Main roads. Huh! Yesterday, while going up, I tried an experiment. On the side of the road, which was reasonably smooth, but nothing like asphalt, I could get up to 9 kph in the short section available. On the road, I was averaging 6. It’s a game of hang on, even with front suspension (which is rapidly dying).

The last five days we have managed a total of 255km. We’ve also climbed almost 5000m. (Oh, and yesterday I reached my 50th kilometer of altitude gain – a good reason for pizza tonight!). It feels like a fair bit longer however. This is a tough section of road. And we’ve only crossed two of the 5 passes on route to Cusco! Luckily the last two are on asphalt road, so they wont be quite as taxing.

The first night out of Ayacucho we made it to near a small town called Acocro. There is pretty much nothing there, and that includes hostels. With a storm bearing down on us, we asked a passing local what we could do, and he suggested sleeping in his shed (along with the sheep skins, potatoes, piles of junk and god knows what else). It was a fair offer, with the wind howling, and rain incipient. As we were moving the bikes, he had a better idea: how about in his restaurant! Errr, ok. So we had soup, Rahel and Joerg set up their tent in the restaurant and I slept on a bench. It kept the rain off, and we were warm. The only problem was the owner decided to watch TV at volume (everything is done at volume here) at some ungodly hour in the morning, possibly as an attempt to wake us up.

The next day we climbed up. And up. Took most of the day to climb about 40km and 1000m. Sounds like slow going, I guess it was. This was the top of the first pass. Then we got to go down. I didn’t measure it, but the descent was roughly 20km, and took us the best part of 2.5 hours. Yes, thats right, down hill 20km took over two hours. This was the worst road so far, constantly riding the brakes, and times traveling less then 5kph. Thats me, the crazy one in the group; Rahel and Joerg were even slower. Maybe I’m going on about this, but the road is horrible. I have visions that the Carretera Australis wil be like this also. I hope not.

The road continued in this vein the next day, although slightly faster, until we couldn’t descend any further and we hit the river (which is quite obvious on Google Earth, see the map page if you’re interested). That was at 2050m (we had come down from 4090m). The only benefit was the temperature climbed as we descended. Although it didn’t stop at a reasonable value, and we were suddenly roasting in 42°C heat in the valley.

Once you hit the bottom, you go… Up. Of course the road was hardly better, despite the promise that it would be. On top of the road condition, the afternoon storm returned with a vengeance. Part way up the hill, we donned coats. Shortly after Rahel was literally blown backwards while walking and pushing her bike. I was stopped short and had to use all my strength (ok, no jokes about how weak I am) to go forward. Even with the wind howling, light rain being driven into us, and elevation above 2500m, the bugs were still biting (they stop biting when… not sure, but on the top they don’t seem to be there). On that note, I’m constantly itchy at the moment, and have a few nice holes in my legs. We finally found shelter in Chincheros, and had the ice cream that we promised ourselves in the river valley (despite the fact that it was now drizzling and we were wearing jackets against the nights chill).

I reminded Rahel and Joerg that we had all quit our jobs, and sold out things to come here and cycle up this, in this. It wasn’t appreciated. I maintain it is still better than work (and to be honest was still having a good time – I know, masochist you might say, and Joerg often has) 🙂

Continuing up the mountain the next day, started steep and continued. The road was also so bad that Rahel managed to push her bike more than ride it. It was slow going.

If you’ve slogged through this whole piece, with no photos, until now, then you’re getting to the point of it. I’m not just whinging at how hard this is.

At the first intersection, really just a place to sit for a while, we had lunch. Sitting on the grass, some animals wandered over. Some pigs and a horse started chomping their way through something (grass I guess). A piglet came over to see what the gringos ate for lunch (and managed to get some off us). Sitting there in the sunshine, blue sky, with the animals and mountains around us… it was a pretty good place for lunch.

But the climbing hadn’t been completed, so we set off again, for 20km to the top of Abra Soracocha. At least the road wasn’t quite so bad. From the top (and from quite a few places along the way), and down the other side, the view was absolutely amazing. One might call it breathtaking. In fact one will: It was breathtaking – possibly helped by being at 4270m ;). It is a little hard to describe, but it was like being on top if the world (again). Looking out I could see mountains in all directions, with deep river valleys causing the irregular bumps of mountains, and giving some sense of scale to an infinite view (although the scale was hard to adjust to, those valleys are 2000m deep!). To make it better, it was late afternoon, the sky was blue (there were a few clouds), it was cool, but the sun was warm. I wish I were a more accomplished wordsmith to describe the scene. Four days of adventure (aka struggle) to get here? Was it worth it? Hell yes! The one view may have been enough, but I have failed to mention some of the other good things that have made it worthwhile (the friendly guy who let us sleep in his restaurant, the group of kids we talked to in the river valley, the views everywhere). Taking a bus would never allow you to enjoy the view as much. Even if it stopped at the top to let you out, the feeling, breathlessness and scale isn’t the same.
But it was late afternoon, and we still had a way to go to camp (I’m not keen on sleeping above 4000m!), so we descended rapidly (on much improved road) to the tiny pueblo of Chicmo. We had sunset while we descended. Apart from the obvious (it got dark), it was a great thing. The few clouds lit up, the hills mountains looked they were coated with gold, and the road looked smooth! It still felt bumpy though  maybe I just could no longer see 🙂 We rolled into Chicmo with the head torches on (it took a bit longer than I expected as we had a flat to deal with).

The locals gathered around (a normal occurrence), and stared (normal). The police I asked for help to the nearest hostel was most unfriendly, as was his gun (not so normal). No one wanted to help, insisting that the only place to sleep was 20km further down the hill (possibly fun if I had my bike lights and we hadn’t already ridden a full day over a pass – certainly not an option at that point). So we had dinner (pasta, potato and rice – mysterious absence of chicken, but carbs? All at once?). Rahel looked around, and found an ally in the centro del salud (local health center / community hospital). It was a small room, with only two beds (and a cot) – luckily they had no patients.

Today we completed the descent from the second pass and got stopped by the prospect of pizza in Andahuaylas. Which I am late for now.

Only 120km until the asphalt that will take us all the way to Cusco (and further almost to the southern border of Peru). Yippee!



2 responses

13 10 2007

I’m exhausted just reading this, but the descriptions were worth it. Which I guess is my infinitely lazier flatlander version of your opinion that amazing views and experiences are worth the punishment of grinding up and down heinous dirt passes at high altitude without even the promise of a bed or protein at the bottom. How are you going to be able to return to normal life after experiencing all these extremes?

14 10 2007

I’m glad the blog can still be read by ohers. I tend to be a little long winded sometimes, but there was so much going on!

Beds are overrated (normal state of mind for me). I don’t want to think about normal life just yet. Ushuia is still a long way off.

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