Peru’s Great Divide (The Peru Divide) cycling route was pioneered by two legends of the South American cycle touring scene, Neil and Harriet Pike. So first things first we have to give huge kudos to them for putting this route together, and making all of their information available on their website; andesbybike.com
Our start to this iconic dirt-road route wasn’t as plain sailing as we had hoped. Waking up to driving rain and freezing temperatures is never good motivation to leave a cosy hostel and get on the bike, but that morning really set the tone for what was to come. As luck would have it by the time we were actually ready to leave the rain had abated and despite the sky still being full of ominous clouds it had become marginally brighter. With intrepid optimism we left Huancavelica and began our first of many mountain passes.
Progress was slow for the first two days as the rain really made itself known. Both days involved just crossing one pass and then trying to find somewhere sheltered to spend the night, and dry out our clothes. We were lucky, the tiny mountain towns at the bottom of each of the first two passes both had basic accommodation available. Little more than a bed and a roof, but that was exactly what we needed.
The following days’ rides were going to be taking us into more remote territory, reserved only for mine workers and the occasional hill farmer. Knowing that accommodation would not be available we resigned ourselves to getting wet and made our way up into the high places once again. We were lucky, the sun actually showed its face for the first time in several days and we could really appreciate the scope of our surroundings. Amazing geological formations sporting a plethora of colours caused by the different minerals present in the earth were abundant, also the reason that mining is such a huge industry in these parts. Often the rocky debris on and around the road was so colourful that from a distance it looked more like rubbish than anything natural. The too-many-to-count 4000m+ peaks of this region were strikingly visible now the clouds had lifted and we trucked on in awe of where we were.
Despite the sun making brief appearances the weather was living up to its shoulder season reputation and we were rained/hailed/snowed upon every day. In typical fashion one of the hailstorms struck just as we reached the highest point on this section of the route, Punta Pumacocha. At ~4950masl (16,240ft in old money) just getting up to it was a struggle. Even though we have been at altitude for months now Ben still struggles when things get really high. Over 4500m it feels like every breath only half fills your lungs, regardless of how deep you breath in. Though Steph seems remarkably unaffected by this! Our steady progress to the top was hampered when the hail started, but thankfully we weren’t totally engulfed in cloud and could appreciate some of the incredible views on both sides of the high point.
Punta Pumacocha also marked our entry into the ‘Reserva Paisajistica Nor-Yauyos Cochas’ (basically an AONB) and the days following our descent from the pass were spent alongside the stunningly beautiful Rio Cañete. The emerald coloured water flows down from the mountains through impressive canyons and lagoons so deep you can’t see the bottom despite the clarity of the water. This section was definitely a highlight of the route.
The Divide passes through some truly remote areas so keeping stocked up with food was occasionally a little tricky. Villages were few and far between and often the shops in the villages had a very sparse selection of things to eat. Crackers and biscuits were ever-present but sometimes that was it. Huancaya is supposedly a touristy town so when we arrived there we were looking forward to stocking up on some varied foodstuffs and spending the night somewhere comfortable and warm. It turned out to be a huge disappointment as of the 20+ hostels in town only about half were open, and only about half of those were even accepting guests. The few choices we were left with were expensive and because of a power cut had no lights or hot showers. We realised that we would be paying for somewhere that offered nothing more than our tent would, so we carried on out of town to sleep in a field instead. The lack of open infrastructure we noticed throughout the route could be put down to it being late in the season, particularly if places like Huancaya do get busy with tourists in high season, but it was very frustrating to see places advertised as a shop or a hostel but then be closed and locked. Still, we had enough food and camping in the mountains is always awesome, even if it is raining.
And rain it did, again. We continued following the Rio Cañete under a saturated sky, the clouds hanging low and obscuring the views of the surrounding mountains. Never have we been so grateful for waterproof clothes, even though up until then we had hardly needed them on the whole trip! There were two more passes left before we reached the Carretera Central, the end of this section of the Divide, but there was only one village on our side of those mountains. Tanta turned out to be a great place to rest for the night. There were several places to stay and shops that had exotic things like fruit and vegetables! It also turned out to be the wettest and coldest night of the ride, we were both very glad to be out of the rain.
A cosy night’s sleep and rolling out of Tanta underneath a beaming sun put us both in high spirits and we planned on tackling both of the remaining passes that day, leaving just a descent to the Carretera Central the following day. The rain from the day before had been snow at this altitude so everything looked beautiful in the mountains. Views of glaciers crawling their way along 5500m peaks accompanied us as we rode. Approaching the final pass, Punta Ushuayca (~4920m), it was clear that we were in for a soaking again. The peaks disappeared under their grey blanket and then, just 5km from the top, the storm really hit. We were engulfed in a total whiteout, even the road disappeared due to the thickness of cloud and density of the hailstorm that had begun. The thunder that followed sounded like it was inches above us (which considering our altitude, it probably was). For once our stubbornness was completely overridden by our self preservation instinct and we retreated a short way down the track to a sheltered area protected by an enormous rocky overhang. Quickly we rigged up our trusty sheet of Tyvek (worth its weight in gold) as a roof to protect us from the now blowing-sideways hail and we patiently began waiting to see when this would pass.
When it became obvious that the storm wasn’t going anywhere our sheltered area started to look conveniently like an ideal camp site. Being on a bit of a ledge it was by no means flat, but with some minor landscaping it turned into a great place for the tent (I think Ben had been watching too much Grand Designs recently.) The worst of the storm had passed through as it was getting dark so we went from listening to thunder to listening to avalanches of fresh snow cascading down the mountains around us. Our big rocky shelter protected us from everything up the mountain so we felt safe all bundled up in the tent. Considering the conditions, and the 4500m altitude we both slept really well that night.
Morning brought better conditions, though the distant grey skies promised that it wouldn’t last, so we got on with riding over the top of the mountain as quickly as possible. The now sodden dirt road was more muddy and sticky than before so we slogged our way up and over, with only a short pause at the top to add more layers and admire the admittedly incredible view that the snow-covered landscape offered us. As expected the rain began its deluge long before midday. What wasn’t expected was to get a puncture about half way down the descent! Ben’s normally infallible tubeless system had let us down at a pretty inconvenient time and his rear tyre was flat. For the first time in the entire trip we had to put a tube in to fix a puncture. Once the tyre was off the problem was obvious, no sealant left in the tyre at all. It was then we realised it has been over 6 months without putting any fresh liquid in there, no wonder it wouldn’t seal even a tiny hole. In typical fashion punctures always happen at the most inconvenient times and just a handful of kilometres before where we planned on stopping, with the rain coming down hard, the tyre was flat again. We hate tubes (new sealant is definitely on the shopping list). Repairs done, another tube put in, we rolled the last of the descent down to a town on the main road where we hoped to find somewhere reasonable to stay and rest for a day or two. This time we succeeded.
The first half of the Peru Divide route was everything we expected it to be in October; beautiful, remote, challenging, and wet. Due to the majority of it being on mining roads the surfaces and gradients were generally fine, making the huge amount of climbing manageable. The ride took us through some incredible landscapes and we got to see a slice of genuine mountain life in the villages we passed, would definitely recommend. However, the weather really caught us off guard with how ferocious it can be and it slowed things down considerably. While it didn’t stop us enjoying the route it definitely detracted from it. Currently we are debating whether or not to continue on and do the second half, or change our plans and do something different. But first, a bit of a rest.
See you soon,
Ben and Steph