Tuesday, 23 June 2009


We left Ayacucho at 6am for the long slow climb to Abra Tocto. From to 2700 to over 4200m it took most of the day to reach the pass. Not a bad gradient but plenty of dust from passing traffic. Another personal best from Jude 1500m climb on a dirt road in one day! Not bad for a pint-sized 55 year lady! She often gets shouts of encouragement from the local women in the campo, with cries of "Vaya mamacita" echoing over the sierra ....or "Go, little old lady".

At Abra Tocto we left the main road for a detour to Vilcashuaman, the site of a major Incan city high on the pampa. It was well worth it although it turned out to be more than a short detour, but a real high-blown adventure of Tin-Tin proportions-
of a bridge too far, wild river crossings and roads to nowhere. More of that later...

On the way I visited a small ceremonial Incan site called Intihuatana. Jude waited with the bikes at the turn-off while I walked up the hill to find some intricate stone-walling, a sundial and water sluices. This is El Baño del Inca, or the Inca´s bath.

A night in Vischongo at a great little hospedaje called 29 de Julio, then at the sparrow´s fart we headed to Vilcashuaman over a picturesque road climbing onto the pampa. The hills were alive with wheat harvesting and threshing is done here with horses yoked and stomping on the wheat in tight circles urged on by shouts and whips from the men.

Vilcashuaman is a small friendly town with remants of the temple of the sun and moon facing the plaza. A church has been built on top of the Incan structure and people just sit around and chat on the ancient stone walls.

The ushnu at sunset, behind the plaza, a ceremonial building with the Inca´s seat sitting high on a flat-topped pyramid. Spectacular views of the valleys and mountains beyond.

Jude in la silla del Inca, or Inca´s seat.

The portal and stairway to the ushnu

We didn´t want to return the way we had come so we looked for a more direct and interesting route south. We tried to garner some information about ther road ahead. Some people said there was a road to Rio Pampas with a bridge under construction, beside an old Incan bridge Incachaka , while others said the workers had left without finishing the bridge. We decided to try our luck and left for Saurama early the next day (6am).

At a small village en route Jude was mobbed by schoolchildren curious about the strange gringos on bicycles.

At Saurama village the road ran through the football field.

In Saurama we were told by the shopkeeper that it was impossible to cross the river as there was no bridge and the water was too high. They told us to come back in August. Then I was introduced to the alcade, or town mayor. It was 11 am and he was so drunk he could barely lift his head from the table in the cantina, let alone welcome me to his illustrious domain. We left the locals staggering on their feet and shaking their heads at the mad foreigners on their bicycles.

Well, we ventured along blindly and then came upon Rio Pampas 1500m below us. It looked very daunting, very steep drop and no bridge in sight.

The road dropped dramatically off the pampa at 3600m and down into the chasm with the river far below us at 2100m. At 2800m we came across a road crew and the foreman, Roger (pronounced `Roya´ in Spanish) invited us to stay at their camp. He was very defeatist about our intentions to cross the river with bicycles and warned us about the depth and fast current.

Needless to say, the next morning we continued on our mad quest. As it was a day off, Roger kindly accompanied us. In fact I think he was worried we would drown in the torrent, so he walked down to the river, helping us out with our bikes at the messy landslides.

Inca Chaka, the remains of an Inca bridge, spanning the Rio Pampas. A very rare sight as there are only 2 or 3 left in existence. But we were about 500 years too late and this ancient bridge was not going to help us get across the river.

Roger came prepared with thick rope to escort us across. We both went into the water, Roger with a long pole and myself with my bike over my shoulder. It seemed possible at first but when we hit the deeper water the current almost knocked us off our feet. It was a struggle to stay upright in the fast water and rolling stones and I feared losing the bike, so we abandoned the effort after two vain attempts. Jude was on the bank biting her nails and in the excitement forgot to take photos.

Demoralised and sweating in the hot sun we marched our bikes back up to the camp. Riding was impossible because of the loose gravel and rocks, landslides and steep gradient (800m in 12 kms). It took us over 4 hours to get back to the road camp. Stung by nasty zancudos or sandflies and dehydrated, we limped into camp where Roger had prepared quenching tea and some food for us. Gracias amigo!

Here is the inside of our lodgings at Incachaka camp. The final night was a memorable evening, chatting with Roger about Peru and stargazing high above the river and pondering the bridge too far......

Next morning another climb back to the pampa, to Saurama (thankfully no welcoming drunks, today) and finally to Vilcashuaman. Hot showers and beer at a comfortable hostal, La Fortaleza.

A series of switchbacks up the steep hillside from the road camp to Saurama.

Morning views across the Rio Pampas, looking towards Cocharcas and Uranmarca. It looked so near but it would take us another four days to get to the other side.

A day´s rest in Vilcashuaman at the Hostal La Fortaleza (20 soles with private bath & hot water). We inquired about an alternative road down to Rio Pampas without returning to Abra Tocto and avoiding a long climb. Roger and others said thwe road to Concepcion was good and then a rough new road had been cut to the river at Airibamba. Others said it wasn´t finished. We went with the optimists again.

The road from Vilcashuaman to Concepcion. Almost no traffic, good surface and great scenery - riding high above the Rio Pampas. Small villages with unusual inhabitants. The men were out in the wheatfields cutting the harvest and they all sported beards, an oddity in this part of the world. They all looked like little Stu Grahams (from Neika, Tasmania) and the rustic scene was like an Andean version of an Amish community.

In Concepcion there was a misconception. We were greeted with startled looks from everyone and when we told them of our plans to ride to Rio Pampas they thought we were mad. The road to Rio Pampas wasn´t complete - 3-4 kms short of Airibamba. Oh well that´s not too far to push a bike...so off we went down the road to nowhere.
Here is Jude negotiating the rough road. Very steep drops into the quebrada and terrible road surface - white-knuckle riding.

Road construction = environmental destruction

The Road to Nowhere. This was the end of the road for us. An abrupt stop just at the head of two ugly gashes in the steep terrain, So we packed our heavy gear into our 2 backpacks and ferried our bikes and gear around the gullies and up the rocky slope.

Jude pushing bike and carrying gear in backpack down the rocky scrubby hillside. It was hard to hold onto bikes and carry 30 kgs of gear on the back. Lots of slipping and sliding on the steep rocky mule track. In fact Jude went for an awful slide down a steep bank but luckily managed to keep hold of her bike long enough for me to rescue it.

It was very hot down at this elevation (2400m) and lots of thorny scrub to avoid. Not much fun but we eventually found a path heading down to the small village of Airibamba. 2 hrs later and just before dark we arrived at a lovely campsite - a soft green grassy meadow beside a canal with water, 1 km from the village. It was about 5kms from the gully with a descent of 350m.

In the morning we passed through Airibamba and they told us of the easy river crossing. Only waist deep and no current. I was keen as mustrad as it would save us 20kms of riding to the bridge and beyond. Jude was dead against and we had our first argument of the trip. Of course Tuffy the Egg´s stubborness won the day and we headed down the smooth undulating track down to the bridge.

From the other side of the river you can see the road zigzagging and where it comes to an abrupt stop at hte gully. Click on the photo to enlarge.

A hot day´s riding followed, climbing from 1900 to 2600m. An early halt to an eventful day as we found a nice hospedaje in Chincheros. Next day on the road at first light (6am), with a quick climb to Uripa (3200m) then a slow winding climb to Abra Saracocha 4250m.

View from our campsite below Abra Saracocha at 3900m

Clemens and Miriam, German cyclists we met below Saracocha pass. We also met a French couple (Boris and Marie) the previous day, below Chincheros.

We broke camp early again and bounced down the bumpy dusty road to Andahualyas.

All along the road there were remnants of the 10 days of roadblocks- boulders and logs across the road. It´s an old custom in the sierra when the locals have a greivance against the authorities they satge a paro or blockade. This time it was the government´s failed promise to pave the road from Abancay to Andahuaylas. No traffic had been able to pass for the 10 day strike, although they let foreign cyclists cross. There have been similar stories from cyclists coming from La Paz and Puno. Sometimes the protesters get nasty (eg, in Sicuani,as Bob the Australian cyclist told us recently, smashing bottles and throwing stones). There´s another large strike on July 8 which will ground all transport.

Found a clean friendly hospedaje in Andahualyas - `Cruz del Sur´ on Ave. Andhualyas.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Huancayo to Ayacucho

We stayed in a cheap hospedaje at 10 soles a night(A$4), basic with cold water, but run by a friendly and helpful family. Huancayo is a busy noisy city and quite dangerous. In 1985 I was chased down the street by a gang of thieves so we were on guard walking around town, particularly in the busy market area.

Over 1000kms and the bikes are rolling along without too many problems. No punctures so far.

However, one concern for me is the speed wobbles I´m getting from the front wheel on long descents on paved roads. It´s very disconcerting hurtling down the long switchbacks and the front rack and panniers get into this awful lateral vibration and the front forks shudder. I´m not carrying much weight up front and I can´t find the source- either the Rockshox forks, the Old Man Mountain racks or a design problem as my Velosmith Mark 1 didn´t have this fault. I now put more weight over the wheel (water) and this has stabilised it a bit. No problems on the dirt roads so we´ll be sticking with these in the next 10 days or so.

I bought 2 spare chains (Taiwanese)in Huancayo for the abuse on the rough dirt roads ahead.We will interchange these every 500kms or so.

Jude´s brake pads (Kool Stop) squeak as she bounces down the gravel descents. At least I can hear her coming and know she´s OK.. Just hope it´s not a human squeal.
My bottom bracket came loose on the ride to Huanuco so I had it tightened there. Managed to find the tools in a small bike shop there (mind you, I should have had them in my tool kit).

My Rohloff is going along sweetly but Jude´s is leaking a lot of oil and it coats the skewer in thick oil. I can´t find the leak as it usually comes from the threaded plug screw. Tim, any ideas?

Well, we left Huancayo at 7am under cool blue skies. It hasn´t rained at all in 5 weeks, not a drop. On a nice sealed road climbed to a small pass and then down to Izuchaca. Then a long hot climb towards Huancavelica. Late in the day, we found a nice hidden campsite at 3500m among a grove of eucalypts, with fresh water.

Next morning we came upon this colourful village, Cachillallca, with brightly painted houses.

Many of them had interesting motifs like these.....

At a bridge (Puente Palca), we were stopped by the police for an hour for a mountain bike race to pass. We had some funny conversations with the locals who were bemused and curious about our trip.

Some lads at a small village on the way. Everybody was excited by the annual bike race and couldn´t understand why were going in the opposite direction with loads of gear. ¿Que pasa?

The hillsides at this elevation (3700-4100m) are covered in wheat fields. A woman is gazing over this patchwork Brueghelian landscape.

Sheaves of wheat drying in the sun.

A farmer is threshing wheat by the old-fashioned method - hitting it with a long stick.

The rock here is a black limestone, a contorted karst landscape, which the locals call `El Bosque de las Piedras´, or Stone Forest.

The road went through many twists and turns and ups and downs until it peaked at 4170m. at an aptly named Sachapite (pronounced as `such a pity´). Then a long winding descent to a gorge and the city of Huancavelica at 3700m. This is the view from Sachapite down to the valley.

Huancavelica is set in a gorge surrounded by verdant mountains. We found a nice hotel and at 40 soles (or US$13) a night, we were really treating ourselves for 3 nights.
The churches in this town were of an interesting design, altars of silver, mined nearby, instead of the crass and heavy gold ones found elsewhere from colonial Peru.

We decided to take the little-used backroad to Ayacucho from Huancavelica, via Lircay and Julcamarca. It was a good decision as it had little traffic and some wonderful scenery and interesting indigenous culture. Everybody along the road greeted us with surprised but welcoming greetings.

Riding at elevations over 3700m, this is now llama country, and we had some comical moments with the cameloids.

Bad hair day

A Tibetan llama in Peru? So what, what are you looking at, gringo?

Llamas as beasts of burden carrying freshly-dug potatoes from the chakra.
A flashback to the sixties? The Llamas and the the Papas.

Follow the llama. Cycling along these high roads you encounter llamas on the way to work, all very apprehensive and nervous of the gringo on a bicycle.

Red seems the fashionable colour in these parts.

The road out of Huancavelica was steep and in bad shape. For 10kms lots of messy and muddy construction. Here Jude is dwarfed by a large truck carrying fill for the road. The drivers were really courteous to us and we could ride behind them as they packed the gravel down for us.

More peculiar geology and botany. Bumpy limestone and pimply cactus.

Close-up of the common pampa cactus - Lots of pricks and a bit of fluff.

Late afternoon views over the pampa. The man-made corralls merge into the natural landscape.

We were desperate for a campsite at dusk and luckily we found this trail leading over to a hidden valley and a lovely spot for the night. Not too hidden as it turned out..as we had visitors, a family on their way home from the chakra who invited us to their home to stay, and a young shepherd called Walter who left us in tears as he walked home in the dark (still a mystery why).

Next morning from the camp, pushing my bike up the rocky path back to the road.

Climbed higher onto the pampa, through some ugly mines and slagheaps, and into this surreal world of black pinnacles. The dusty and stoney road winds its way down to Lircay. You can spot a bus in the distance.

Eucalypts imprisoned in a black forest of stone.

Lunch in Lircay, nothing of interest so we headed up the steep-walled and narrow canyon cloakec in thick vegetation. No villages, just clusters of stone and thatch dwellings. The locals use the ichu grass from the pampa to line the roofs.

Higher up towards the pass, rope from ichu grass is used as tie-downs.

A campesina taking her flock of sheep down to lower pastures. No wheeled traffic on this road but plenty of people on foot as they headed to their fields for planting and harvesting potatoes. They all lead their animals down with them - sheep, llamas and mules.

The road climbed from the canyon in a series of switchbacks and onto the pampa. Here Jude is riding high overlooking the escarpment. Our campsite was way below in the distance on a windy exposed knoll.

Just below the pass we found small herds of vicuñas. This group were in feverish excitement as 2 males were challenging over the harem. Lots of chasing, bucking and snorting.

Just below the pass, Jude is rounding the bend on the final stretch. This was her altitude record at 4530m. It was a beautiful tranquil spot.

On top of the pass looking north back to Lircay - a distance of 38 kms and an altitude gain of 1300m.

Then the descent down the other side, gentle gradient and OK road surface. We made it to Julcamarca just at dusk after a long day and found a great little hospedaje by the plaza (12 soles). A pleasant village to spend the night. Had a few beers that night to wash down the dust.

We had expected a cruisy ride the following day as the locals in Julcamarca told us the road went gently down a river all the way to Ayacucho. Well, it´s a lesson not to be comforted and fooled like this as it was an atrocious road. Climbed 200 metres above Julcamarca and then a rapid and very steep descent down a pulverised and rocky road. Droppped 900 metres in 17kms! Look out! Steep switchbacks ahead!

Then across a bridge and then an awful stretch of constant ups and downs on a dusty bony road in dry cactus country, passing eerily deserted villages. The only highlight was the impressive sky and unusual cloud formations.

...and the odd little cactus

Once we reached the main road we were hankering for the quiet and vast pampa once again. It was very hot, dry country down here at 2500m and the traffic became heavy again.

17 kms on a sealed road and an hour later we were in Ayacucho, Bolivar´s `City of Blood´. It was also the birthplace of the brutal Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) movement which unleashed extreme violence upon the surrounding countryside. The subsequent military reprisals were just as harsh and the land and population was bathed in bloody atrocities. I tried to travel to this city in 1985 but it was off limits because of the violence.

No bloody revoutionaries these days, but plenty of ice-cream whipping ladies in the plaza....

... bicycle fireworks.

...and revealing colonial art above a mansion´s doorway.

Erected in the 17th century and still standing proud.

We´ve spent 3 days here in this delightful city and now it´s time to hit the road (figuratively speaking of course, no more broken bones please).
We´ll leave tomorrow morning (June 16) and head out on an unknown road to Vilcashuaman, a famous Incan ruin and then hopefully join the main Abancay road beyond Rio Pampas. We may have to raft across, as were not sure if there is a bridge. Should be fun! Next post from Cuzco in 10-12 days.

We met some young Canadian cyclists today who are also heading to Cuzco, but by the main route. Their website is www.rideforhope.com
It seems there are quite a few touring cylists riding through the Andes as it´s the dry season. We expect to meet more as we approach Cuzco and La Paz. Good to catch up with fellow cyclists and trade stories from the road.
Judy met a German couple on the road to Junin heading north a few weeks back, but I was too absorbed in the Stones `Moonlight Mile´ on my MP3 to notice them resting by the roadside and shouting to me...

"The sound of strangers sending nothing to my mind
Just another mad mad day on the road
But I´m just about a moonlight mile down the road"

See you all down the road......