Don’t look up: crossing the Andes by bike

Route: Nasca – Puqio – Chalhuanc – Abancay

After a few well deserved rest days in Nasca, mostly due to a tummy bug we picked up along the way, we set off on the first leg of our journey to Cusco – Nasca – Abancay (463km). We knew the first two days were going to be tough, but it bordered on the ridiculous at times. Around sixty miles (86km) of continuous climbing was difficult enough, but when you factored in the searing heat – around 35c at its height – staying hydrated was almost as difficult as the climbing. Almost.

On our first day we managed to complete 29 miles, just shy of our 30 mile target. We were lucky enough to encounter some very friendly truck drivers along the way. One driver had stopped to inspect his vehicle when he looked up and saw us approaching. He waved and shouted something to me as we passed. I replied “Cusco!”, thinking he had asked where we were headed only for Olivia to say “I think he just asked us if we would like some water”. We quickly turned around and were rewarded with two ice cold bottles of water, just what the doctor ordered. We put one in the thermos to keep it cold for later and quickly consumed the other, thanking the driver for his kind gesture as we continued our assent.

The second time we were given water was a bit more unexpected. The tight curves in the road from all the switchbacks can be difficult for trucks to navigate. We just so happened to be in one of those spots as two trucks approached in different directions, just missing us – don’t worry it wasn’t that close – and bringing both their journeys to a standstill. As we cycled off we could hear a heated debate going on behind us and I looked over to Olivia and said, “Did we do that?””Probably,” she replied. After about ten minutes one of the trucks pulled in front of us and stopped. I thought he was going to tell us to be careful or give us an earful, but he did neither of these things. Instead, he pulled out a two litre bottle of water, handed it to us and said it was a very hot day to be cycling. A very friendly bunch of truckers they have here in Peru.

We got to a small restaurant at KM 44 and bought some supplies. The owner was kind enough to suggest we pitch our tent for the night on a flat, cement slab behind the restaurant. We happily accepted. However, a noisy dog that barked constantly, another that peed on our tent (twice) and an over-enthusiastic cockerel that woke us up at 5am ensured my opinion had changed by morning. It was one of the worst nights sleep we have had on our trip thus far and to cap it off we were overcharged for water by the owners husband. I gave him ten soles for 2.5 litres of water and asked for changed, to which he replied “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah”, the conversation didn’t progress much farther than that and we decided to cut our losses and hit the road at 7.30am.

The weather on our second day of climbing was much cooler and the incline wasn’t quite as steep – around 3%. We knocked out 20 miles by lunchtime and were feeling rather pleased with ourselves, so we decided to take a couple of hours off and relax over lunch. We average around six or seven hours in the saddle each day and try to be conscious not to burn ourselves out. It must have been too late, though, because we were ready to stop at 28 miles.

We were extremely grateful that we did stop, because we just came upon a large camping/lodging complex. We searched the whole area for someone who worked there, but it was completely deserted. Just when we decided to pitch our tent anyway, a group of locals turned up. One of them was holding a shotgun — yikes. Olivia explained the situation with her limited Spanish, and the leader (who admittedly looked like a park ranger) told us we could camp there for free and even unlocked the dining hall (complete with running water and flush toilet) for us.

Our third day of cycling was the best so far of this section of our trip to Cusco, mostly because we knew that there was some serious downhills coming our way. We set off early at 7.45am and after an hour of cycling we reached the summit, a cool 4166 meters, and began a breathtaking 15 mile descent that encompassed some of the most beautiful views we had seen so far. Needless to say, we were in rather good spirits by the time we started to climb again. We climbed for about 20 km before we had a steep descent into Puquio and arrived there just after lunch. We quickly checked into a hostel and set about re-stocking our depleted supplies. The local market was filled with an array of delightful fruit and veg, not to mention friendly people, and we quickly agreed that it was one of the nicest towns we had visited in Peru.

After a good nights sleep, we set off up the mountain again, knowing that we would have to climb around 1600 meters to reach the summit (4500m, ~15,000ft) of our next mountain. However, the weather quickly got in the way. After 15 miles of steady progress the heavens opened. We felt prepared for rain from our Devon cycle, but rain at this altitude is much more frigid. It wasn’t long before, under an improvised shelter using tarp, we decided to find a place to pitch our tent for the night. This proved to be a very good decision, not only was it super toasty warm in our sleeping bags, but the rain persisted for 2.5 hours until 4pm.

After some hot food and a good nights sleep we hit the road again and made good progress with the improved weather conditions. We stopped off in a small resturant for some fried eggs and coffee before climbing to the summit. At the top, the mountain plateaued. We were happy to see some flat roads again and were completely blown away by the scenery. We cycled another 15 miles (32 in total for the day) with lots of lovely downhill and grabbed some food from a local restaurant “Trucha Frita Sudado”, which is a whole fish fried with chips and rice. Afterward, we set up camp just off the road before the inevitable and now somewhat predictable downpour of rain in the evening.

In order to stay warm, we stayed in our sleeping bags most of the evening, even to cook. We woke up to a frozen tent and ice covered bikes at our now usual time of 5.30am. We knew from another blog that we would have a little bit of work to do on the uphills, but that a huge downhill of over 150km was on the horizon. Route 26 is truly breathtaking. The mountains, rivers, waterfalls, ice, sun and animals are as amazing as they are varied. It makes it all the more easy to appreciate when you are cruising downhill at 20mph.

We finished our fifth straight day of cycling with a nice round figure of 62miles (over 100km) and stealth camped, or so we thought, just off the road outside a large town called Chalhuanca. We had a great nights sleep and arouse to renewed optimism that we could reach Abancay, the largest town on this section of our trip, that day. Only 100km of downhill and roughly 20km of uphill, easy! …or so we thought. We didn’t account for the horrible headwind in the afternoon that made even going downhill slower than a snails pace.

We made camp after a very respectable 67miles close to a river bed. I saw my first live Tarantula of this trip as we brought our gear down the small bank. “You don’t want to come around this corner”, I said to Olivia as I saw it creep past. “What is it?”, she replied. “Just a massive spider about the size of my hand!”. To her credit, she said to get the camera and that she wanted to see it but it quickly moved off of its own accord. We made extra sure to keep the zips of our tent closed from creepy crawlies that night.

We had been building up the steep incline to Abancay for some time. After all, we had a lot of time on our hands to chat on downhill leading up to it, but it wasn’t as bad as we expected. 600 meters of climbing – 1800 meters to 2400 meters elevation, which is around 13 miles – took us only an hour and a half thanks to a local cyclist (Hector) joining us and being our pacemaker. We chatted merrily in our broken spanish to him and he generously offered to show us to a hotel and invited us to eat lunch with his family in his restaurant. The start of a very enjoyable couple of days in Abancay I feel. Then, we’ll be off for our final stretch to Cusco 🙂

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