When I first started planning this trip, my focus was very much on the first month of the journey in Ecuador. Whenever my mind wandered further south towards Peru, images of Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca popped up in my head, but I never really thought about what else this huge country had to offer. Once I realised that my route was going to take me through the Cordillera Blanca and its magnificent 6000m snow-covered peaks, I just could not wait to get there.
After a day’s rest in Yungay, at the end of which I met up once again with Sarah and Raphaël for dinner, I left my hostal bright and early, impatient to get into the National Park. After a steep start the dirt road zigzagged gently upward, making for some enjoyable and relaxed cycling. Shortly before the village of Huashao the view opened up, revealing the first imposing views of the round Huascaran Peaks to my right and the pointy Huandoy to my left. Even though I knew I was going to get closer and better views, I couldn’t stop taking short breaks from the saddle in order to snap pictures of those incredible summits.
At the entrance of the park the road got flatter, entering an impressive valley with steep vertical walls on either side of the track obstructing the mountain vistas. After passing the turquoise waters of the Chinan and Orkon Lakes I reached the flat and grassy Cebolla Pampa campsite at the head of the Laguna 69 Trail just past midday. My plan had been to leave my bike and my gear with the park ranger and hike up to Lake 69, but the entrance booth was closed upon my arrival and there was no-one in sight other that a couple a napping vendors. Weighting my options, I decided to hide everything I wasn’t going to take with me in some bushes further up the clearing, packed the rest in my backpack and headed off up the trail. I cycled the first kilometre and a half, the trail being rather flat at the beginning and hid the bike behind low trees when it got to steep and rocky to continue. At this point all the day-hikers were heading back from the lake towards their buses, and many must have wondered why I was starting the hike so lake. My legs felt good and I was making fast progress. After about an hour a Peruvian man told me that he was the last person going down and that I was going to have the lake all to myself. Worried that I might not find any transport back to the Yungay, I reassured him by explaining that I was going to camp at the trailhead that night. I reached the Laguna 69 by shortly before 5PM and spent half an hour by its shores, taking in the silence and feeling lucky to be alone. The lake, which sits at 4500m above sea level at the foot of the Chacraraju (6108m) and Pisco (5765m) mountains, is one of the most popular day-tours for tourists visiting the Huaraz region. It got its name when the Huascarán National Park was created in 1975, the local authorities having to give number-based names to all the still nameless lakes of the region. The downside of the being there at so late was that the sun had disappeared behind the Mount Pisco, leaving the lake and the southern face of Chacraraju in the shade.
On my way down, however, I witnessed incredible scenes. As dusk fell, the last rays of sunshine hit Mount Huascarán horizontally, casting beautiful colours on the highest mountain in Peru. The snow and clouds went from bright white, to different shades of yellow, before turning orange and red, like a volcano erupting. The stark contrast between the dark valley and the bright and sharp edges of this great mountain made the whole scene look utterly unreal, as if I was looking at a painting…. By the time I got back down and located my bike it was pitch black, forcing me to ride back to the campsite with the help of my headlamp. I setup camp, cooked and ate pasta-tuna-tomato sauce dinner in deafening silence, looking up at the stars and the very prominent milky way above me.
Another early start the next morning meant I had cycled up the 35 switchbacks to the 4767m Llanganuco Pass by lunchtime. Chuffed by my quick ascent, I thought I might even reach Chacas by the end of the day. Little did I know that the track on the other side of the pass was the worst that I would encounter in the whole of Peru. Huge rocks, massive potholes, loose gravel meant that I averaged a miserable 10 km/h for what felt an eternity. I just could not find the right tire-pressure. Either I was too low and hitting the rim over bigger rocks, or it felt like I was riding a road bike. By the time I arrived in Yanama I felt battered and exhausted and decided to spend the night in the village, in the only open guesthouse I could find. The room was grubby and the bathroom filthy, but the view pointy Chacraraju and the valley below from the outside terrace made up for it.
A nice dirt road via Sapcha then led me to Route 107, the main road crossing the Cordillera Blanca, between Carhuaz and San Luis and crossing the Punta Olímpica tunnel. I reached Chacas by lunchtime and had a delicious lunch in a small bakery off the main square. The town was buzzing with excitement and local tourists, since it was celebrating la Fiesta de la Virgen de la Asunción. Eager to reach Huaraz and get some well-deserved rest, I decided not to hang about and continued along the asphalt road in the afternoon. I felt pretty tired and my legs didn’t have much power left, but I really wanted to camp near some white summits, so I pushed forward and up until I reached a clearing near a small lake right at the beginning of the switchbacks leading to the entrance of the tunnel. As I started prepping dinner in my tent, the entrance facing the tall southern face of Mount Contrahierbas (6036m), I started hearing some grunting behind me. I popped my head over the tent just in time to see a young bull charging at full speed towards my sleeping quarters. Luckily seeing my scruffy face scared him off, and he kept his distance after that.
After an incredibly clear (and freezing) night, during which I braved the cold in order to photograph the milky way, I spent some time in the morning recording several videos congratulating my friends Varinia and Terris on getting married back in Germany. I felt quite emotional and sad for missing this highlight of the year, Terris being one of my best friends. Once I had a satisfactory take, I packed up my stuff, bid farewell to my bovine companions and climbed the remaining seven kilometres to Laguna Belaunde and its nearby view point. After a short hike to the view point and some nice panoramic photos, I hopped back on the bike, leaving the main road for the old pass track, thus avoiding the tunnel but also getting amazing views of the beautiful turquoise Lake Cancaracá. Unfortunately, halfway up the old pass track I was forced to turn around, a big chunk of the track having been swept away by a landslide. Disappointed not to be able to reach Punta Olímpica (5015m), I cycled through the dark and bitterly cold tunnel, and was rewarded with stunning views of the eastern face of Contrahierbas and both Huascarán peaks on the other side.
The downhill on the excellent tarmac road was fast and exhilarating, until I reached a flatter part of the route along the Quebrada Ulta river with strong head winds. In one of the villages along the way, I pass a small kid who shows me the middle fingers. Rather annoyed, I slam the breaks on and let out a loud “hey”! Visibly shocked that I stopped so quickly, the kid legs it and disappears inside a house… Powering on, helped by a delicious fried trout from a small road-side restaurant, I rolled down to the town of Carhuaz, not before glancing back one last time at the Nevado Huascarán. Imagine leaving in one of the nearby villages and seeing these mighty mountains every morning when you wake up and look outside your window. I covered the last 40 km to Huaraz in the afternoon heat, nervously doing my best to avoid several crazy Peruvian driver along the busiest stretch of road since leaving Quito!
To be continued…
More photos of Peru can be found here!