Saturday, September 24, 2011

Gringa! Why are you so Dirty? Peru Central Highlands: Caraz – Cusco (25th Aug – 24th Sept '11)

One thing Peru does very well is mountains. After arriving in Caraz and glimpsing the snow-capped peaks of the Cordillera Blanca up behind the town, we started getting up close and personal with a bunch of mountains.

After we spent a few days of rest, bike maintenance and food consumption in Caraz we gave the bikes a rest and our feet a workout – a 4 day hike up into the mountains. We did the popular Santa Cruz trek, wandering past some of the famous mountains of Peru. It was nice to work out some other muscles, other than our riding muscles; though by the time we arrived back at Caraz we were missing the girls and ready to jump back on the bikes and head further up the valley to Huaraz.
This section of riding was very social – we met Diana and Zilvinas from Lithuania, we met up again with Jurgen for pizza and beer in Huaraz and then a few days later, we ran into Melissa and Justin, from the States and had a fun couple of days riding with them.
When we left Huaraz we decided to take the “shortcut” through Huarascan National Park – a rough road that climbed up high through the national park but was absolutely spectacular – one of our favourite sections of the whole trip. We had awesome mountain views, beautiful secluded campsites and a lovely couple of days spent poodling up in the high mountains. We were also lucky enough to see the Puja de Raymondii with some old flower stalks on them. These plants have the world's largest inflorescence and they only flower once in their lifetime (and they live between 40 -100 years!). We passed by a number that had old inflorescence on them and the nerdy biologist got disproportionately excited..
The ride up through the national park topped out around 4800 metres, with spectacular views, but an absolutely freezing wind! Once more a serendipitous meeting was a highlight. As we struggled up over the top of one of the passes a motorhome passed us with a German couple, Michelle and Marion inside. They invited us in for coffee and baked goods and shelter from the wind.
We camped up in the park at around 4800 metres, our highest camp so far, and with one of the best views. When we woke in the morning we peeked outside our tent and it was like a winter wonderland – the whole world had turned white! We thought it had snowed in the night, but on closer inspection it could have been a thick layer of ice on everything. We're still not sure what had occurred- we're Australian we don't have much experience in strange white stuff that appears in the middle of the night – but either way everything, tent, bikes was white, and we were pretty excited (tho' Jules was less excited when she realised her morning coffee would be delayed as all our water was frozen solid).
Climbing up that high also meant a great downhill run when we left the national park but as is the case in Peru – going down means going up again. After a couple of days with some great downhills we climbed all the way back up to the altiplano, a plateau of grasslands over 4000m, where we had some nice flat riding and spent time spotting herds of llamas and alpacas, and their wild relatives; the vicunas. We also managed to ride through two hailstorms in this section (and hail damn hurts when you are riding through it on a bike).
Through this section we were generally making our way south, in the direction of Cusco. We didn't have heaps of time to get to Cusco, as we had to meet my Mum and her best friend, Lacey, who were coming out to visit. And during this time we had to cycle 1700 kms, cross eight passes over 4000m and cycle through the infamous “Peruvian rollercoaster” a section of gravel road that goes up and down from low to high altitude like a heart monitor chart.
We rested up in Ayacucho, a very pretty colonial town with a great selection of markets and street-food, before the final push to Cusco.
The road from Ayacucho was supposedly the worst stretch of the road but it was not actually as bad as we expected. They are currently doing the road up, which meant some bad stretches of roadworks but also meant that there were sections that had been improved, providing us with random stretches of asphalt allowing us to zoom down some of the 50km+ downhills. It was some really interesting riding, camping up above 4000m in the freezing cold, but beautiful, high-altitude grasslands and then going all the way down to under 2000m where it was hot, the sandflys attacked us but where we hit areas of delicious tropical fruits and could stuff ourselves with mangoes.
We passed through lots of friendly little villages where the little old lady shop-proprietors hugged you before you were allowed to conduct any business dealings, and we camped amongst lots of friendly, and fascinated locals. The cry of 'gringo' followed us everywhere, though it was always friendly – except perhaps one shocked little old lady who was horrified about the layer of dirt and dust covering me, and called out “Gringo – why are you so dirty?”
The last few days of cycling before Cusco was again very social. Since the west coast of the US we have not met many other cycle tourists, so its nice to start meeting cyclists travelling South America. We cycled and camped with a number of other couples and on our last night before Cusco there were 7 of us that found a dry, warm floor in the government buildings of a small town. A cyclists sleepover. Even more exciting was arriving in Cusco and meeting old cycling friends, the Dutch boys - Michiel and Joost, Siska, the Lithuanians and the French couple were all there.
There was also our Australian motorcycling friends, some overlanders and the cyclists we met over the last few days. Most of us ended up at the cyclist friendly hostel, La Estrellita, and all of us ended up at the pub. This resulted in a few large gatherings , and of course, being cyclists, lots of eating. One night we had 20 cyclists and 4 overlanders that did some serious damage on an Indian buffet and then (for some of us) some serious damage on the dancefloors of Cusco.
We are now putting the bikes away for a few weeks – leaving them in Cusco while we go to meet mum and Lacey for some bikeless tourist-time.
Notes for Cyclists
We took the fairly standard mountain route from Huaraz (as evidenced by the number of cyclists we met). Info on the route is available here:
We did take the shortcut through Huascaran National Park after Huaraz – about 42km south of Huaraz turn off onto an unsigned dirt road at the deserted town (a few houses) of Pachacoto (there is a board with a map of the national park a little way up the road). At the border post of Carpa you enter the park (we used our 'Adventure Ticket' that we had bought when we did the Santa Cruz trek so we didnt' have to pay the entrance again).
We also took the 'canyon' route from Izcuchaca to Ayacucho, instead of the 'mountain' route through Huancavelica. It was mainly gravel (except for about 50kms before Ayacucho) and it was hot and full of horrible sandflys! But we still enjoyed it – lots of great, friendly little villages. It took us about 3 days.
The road between Ayacuho and Abancay they are starting to make into asphalt, so there are suprising stretches of pavement along the way – but also some tough sections through roadworks!! It will all be asphalt in a few years. Still nice and quiet with not too much traffic for now tho!

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