Onwards to the Cordillera Blanca

Barring vigilante arrests and the local’s seemingly uncontrollable tendency to yell “gringo” upon sight, the Peruvian Andes are proving an adventure cycling paradise. Colorfully dressed women fill the streets of every village, sporting ever more outlandish headwear and generally a sleeping child lashed to their backs in a cocoon of fabric. Hats vary from the quirky to simply ridiculous, as we move from the modest bola to huge rimmed offerings that would give even the most daring of fashion designers a run for their money. All this to the backdrop of the hulking Andes, whose great peaks loom ominously in the distance, a beacon for adventure and an irresistible draw for many.

As Peruvian mountains go they don’t come much more imposing than those of the mighty Cordillera Blanca, which, through no accident, is the destination for our next leg of riding. Following our escapades with the angry villagers we took a breather in the small town of Cajabamba before summoning the motivation (or possibly courage) to head back into the unmapped. Once again our intended route was of the remote dirt road variety; in a stroke of masochistic map work we’d pieced together a seldom trodden easterly route, winding its way through high altitude wilderness before depositing us on the eastern flank on the Cordillera. A sure fire recipe for disaster, or adventure, depending on your mindset.

Days 1-2: A Return to the Unmapped

Things started tamely enough, with the first couple of days easing us into the tougher stretches that lay ahead;

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A leisurely 2pm departure from Cajabamba saw us climb past numerous small villages, including one where this woman looked to be in the process of setting a new world record for most epic piece of solo embroidery.

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With dusk approaching we pitched camp by a lake and, short straw in hand, I soon found myself wading through a marsh to collect water. Nice spot though

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The following morning saw us veer off the paved road just before Huamachuco and commence a sandy climb back into the unmapped. Refuelling in the village of Curgos this curious little chap checks out my set up, no doubt asking himself where on earth the racks and panniers are?

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From there it’s a lot of up and downing to reach the village of Mumalca, where a friendly chap offers us a room in his house for the night. (Cracking photo courtesy of Sam).

Days 3: Cheap Biscuits & Riding Blind

Now things get real, gone are the intermittent villages and it’s up into the remote highlands aptly termed ‘El Silencio’, where, as we’re constantly reminded, there’s ‘nada’ (bugger all). Our plan was to cross this emptiness in a single day and reach the small mining town of Pampas, a decision largely based around a complete misjudgment on my part of the actual distance.

So, rather optimistically, we set off and started climbing up to 4300ish m, armed only with flavourless biscuits and a couple of boiled eggs. Hampered by a 100 soles note (around $35), which strikes the fear of god into any village shop owner, these were the only provisions we could actually afford with our remaining cash. Culinary delights aside though, the ride itself was an absolute cracker, with moody skies, breathtaking panoramas and not another soul to be seen.

Things started to look slightly less rosy however, when, as we were nearing the top of the final 4400m pass, it became painfully clear that we were never going to make it before dark. In fact dusk had already set in by the time we’d layered up ready for the 26km descent to Pampas. Without food camping wasn’t an option that particularly appealed, so with one functioning head torch between the two of us we pressed on into what soon became pitch black darkness. On a paved road this wouldn’t have been too much of an issue, but with a rocky, switch backing decent things become a little more challenging. To make matters worse, in almost comedic fashion, a dense fog soon enveloped us, reducing visibility to almost nothing. We were forced to slow to a crawl, straining our eyes to try and make out the direction of the track, let alone worry about the boulders and potholes that were strewn along it. Whilst sounding terribly clichéd, it really was all about teamwork. In fact the whole thing would make an ideal corporate bonding exercise; send two executives on bikes down an eerily dark mountainside armed with one sub-par head torch and just let the chaos play out.

Finally at around 9pm, almost 3 hours after dusk, we wearily rolled into Pampas. It was the kind of exhaustion where you can barely string together a sentence in your own language, let alone a foreign one. Fortunately menu options in rural Peruvian restaurants are fairly limited and you basically get told what you’re having when you sit down. After all, as the saying goes; “If it has a menu in English – definitely too expensive; if it has a menu – probably too expensive; if you can recognise what you’re eating – perhaps too expensive”. There was no mistaking roast chicken and chips though and it had never tasted better…

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Day 4: Fiesta!

The following day was fortunately a short one to the small town of Conchucos, where, as luck would have it, a fiesta was in full swing:

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Their sawdust ‘street carpets’ aren’t quite up to Guatemala’s level of precision, but impressive nonetheless

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Hats….

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Sam keeping the fans entertained

Days 5-7: Back to the Wilderness for a Bull Fight

The next leg took us back into the remote highlands for what has to rank as one my favourite stretches of the trip so far. Sam may disagree with me here though, as shortly after setting off he, or rather his bike, had an unfortunate incident with an angry bull being walked in the opposite direction. I was someway behind at the time and it came as a bit of surprise to say the least when I saw a Sam’s bike bouncing down the valley side ahead, immediately followed by a bull crashing head over heels in a similar fashion. Things didn’t look good for either bike or bull, and when I arrived at the scene panicked farmers were busy trying to regain control of the beast someway below. The bull appeared to have recovered from his monumental tumble remarkably well. It transpired that the farmers had given warning of the angry animal and so Sam had got himself and bike clear of the track, but the bull had thrown itself at the bike all the same, resulting in the spectacular somersault display I’d witnessed from afar.

Fortunately Sam was unscathed and when safe to do so we picked our way down the slope to recover the bike. Damage was surprisingly minimal, with the worst of it being an out of true wheel and bent disc brake rotor. Sam did a good job on the wheel and I’d like to say I managed the same with the rotor, but although it was now able to actually rotate he was still left with almost no front braking ability. No problem…

With this little saga out the way we pressed on with this cracker of a route towards our ultimate destination: the small town of Pomabamba at the foot of the Cordillera Blanca.

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The bull versus bike aftermath. Sam and farmers peering anxiously down the valley side

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Onwards we rode, past the occasional shepherd’s hut…

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And increasingly imposing mountain backdrops.

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It doesn’t get much better than this.

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Scotland?

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After cresting a 4400ish m pass (the standard height for passes in these parts it would appear) we seek refuge for the night in an abandoned shack. At 4200m it’s a chilly evening, and Sam can be seen here worshiping the last precious cup of tea before we run out of gasoline.

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The next morning we catch our first real glimpse of the mighty Cordillera Blanca…

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And start our long decent down to the small town of Sihaus

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From Sihuas locals tell us of an ‘easier’ route through the mountains to Pomabamba, and heeding their advice we soon cross back into the unmapped…

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Before pitching camp for the night in a farmer’s field with cracking views across the valley.

Now safely in Pomabamba after another eventful weeks riding, we’re preparing for our assault on the Cordillera Blanca itself, something we’ve termed “Operation Triple Heart Bypass”. Rather ambitiously we’re planning to cross the range three times via different high altitude passes. A perfectly rational endeavor I’m sure you’ll agree….

Route Info:

My GPX file for the route is saved here. (Note: The couple of gaps are where I accidently paused it/ran out of battery, but it should still be easy to follow).

Cajabamba to Pampas

The route we took differs from others in that we turned off the paved road before Huamachuco and opted for what appears to be a more direct route to link up with the Pampas road.

Distances from the paved road turnoff are as follows:

  • 10km to Curgos
  • 30km to Sarin
  • 47km to Mumalca (Note: there are two routes from Sarin to here, we took the easterly one which means crossing the river, as we we’re told it was easier)
  • 120km to Pampas (Note: This is a rough road and a monster day Mumalca, with no chance to resupply between the two. Broadly speaking you climb to 4300m ish to where you intersect the ‘main’ Pampas road, undulate quite a bit before descending to 4000m, then climbing up a seemingly never ending ascent to the last pass at 4400m. It’s then a long 26km descent to Pampas at 3200m.

Pampas to Conchucos

25km with one pass involving a 500m climb straight out of Pampas.

Conchucos to Sihuas

80km – Basically follow the route south out of town. This is the ‘main’ road to Sihuas but we veered off to the right onto a secondary ‘high altitude’ route after 16km following Nathan’s notes here.

Sihuas to Pomabamba

Instead of taking the more main (but still dirt) route via Sicsibamba we took the advice of locals and took an alternative, supposedly easier route via the village of San Juan, which ultimately links back up with the main road.

Distances from Sihuas:

  • 9.5km along main road following Rio Rupac, cross river and link up with dirt road following Rio Chullin to San Juan
  • 17km to San Juan. Take left turn and climb up through the village. Ask for Chinchobamba if in doubt.
  • 21.5km take left turn up towards main road to Pomabamba. (Continuing will take you up to Chinchobamba, a good place to resupply if necessary)
  • 29km Intersect main road after a fair bit of climbing
  • 35km Reach top of 3800m pass. From here it’s all decent/flat to Pomabamba
  • 63.5km to Pomabamba

7 responses to “Onwards to the Cordillera Blanca

  1. Pingback: Steeling Away | Peru, dirt roading.·

  2. Incredible text, wonderful pictures. I’m profoundly amazed at your fortitude. Sheila Marshall.

  3. Pingback: Peru, dirt roading. | Steeling Away·

  4. Pingback: Where has the time gone? and Approaching the Cordillera Blanca – Sihuas, Pomabamba, Llumpa | Nick's Bike Tour·

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