I never wanted this route to end, the scenery made me forget about anything but what was in front of my eyes. In 7 passes and 8700 meters (28,543 feet) of climbing all I could think of was seeing the highest places of this country that had a grip on me. I had many short days as the sky had me at it´s mercy but relished every sudden twist & turn. There were times of pushing in mud and being chased by dark clouds but I didn’t know any better. To me, even cloaked in mist, my surroundings looked perfectly amazing. This was my story and I never could have imagined the feeling of these remote places so I didn’t think it should be different. Even after removing socks to cross streams, only to have my feet become mud pies later, I loved it all. In the silent, humbling ambience of these places I am reminded of childhood, awakening senses of wonder & amazement at the magnitude and colors of my surroundings. The rugged beauty of these landscapes (mostly) void of cars made me think that maybe we haven’t screwed things up too much, I am filled with hope.
Part 1 of the divide continued…En route to Punta Fierro Cruz (4820m) I took a turn prematurely & found myself trucking steeply on large rocks when the road disappeared. I realized my definition of a road is far too broad but soon was up the breezy pass and on the other side I had my mind blown. I’m a California girl, my paradise is bodies of water. I can’t get enough of these lagunas surrounded by mountains.
Then came tractors, deep sticky mud & mine traffic. Up I went alongside the trucks bound for the main Viuda-Huayllay road & Mina Alpamarca. When I got to the top some men gave me all kinds of unsolicited advice & I ducked into a tienda to fuel up on coffee & bread to power on to Canta. I was plied with panqueque (where I come from we call it funnel cake) & I am a fan. I stayed far too long gorging on soup & the family hauled out a generator so they could play a video of the nearby Bosque de Piedras which we watched several times. Little Gemela who the shop was named after was such a bruiser & quite entertaining. She made a nest of blankets next to me and I ended up sleeping snugly on the floor.
Next morning the place was quickly bustling with truckers & miners who joked while we ate a papa stew. The road was so fast and flat! to Canta, following a water channel, I lunched in Yantac & was surprised by how astoundingly lovely the ride to Marcapomacocha was.The sky indecisively spit hail then bursts of sun, I arrived in town & a girl told me to look for a fat woman with missing teeth, that she would get me a room. I think she could have been more tactful in her description but honestly, I often hear the darkest person in a group of friends referred to as ‘negrito’. A good chunk of my time was spent fruitlessly knocking on doors in search of the one key to the showers at the agua termales. It’s also a laundry facility & I foolishly offer to help a woman with what must be the whole village’s wet clothes. It weighed a ton & she lived quite far.
The next day I am headed to Casapalca knowing soon I would be on the traffic clogged artery of the Carretera Central by the end of the day. The lush rolling valley soon climbed up to to Abra Antacassa (4880m). It was misty & rainy but remarkably green and at the top was a magnificent snow capped peak. At this point I realized I left my gloves during one of my many outfit changes. I am constantly whipping off hats, steamed up glasses, and layers of clothes. I knew I had to fly down and fetch them. It was a good chunk if distance and back up. The peak at the top was one for the books, here’s a great photo in my pal, Lee´s account https://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/page/?o=Sh&page_id=391234&v=9K
The descent was intensely winding. I was in a race for time, no way in hell was I hitting higway that connects to Lima in the dark. The pastel rocks on the other side were unbelievable. In my mind I promised myself to come back someday. I was exhausted & later when I excitedly emailed my sister to tell her I had seen faces carved into the mountain she told me I was probably dehydrated & to get some rest. I bombed downhill to San Mateo where I had a place to stay & got a shot for my injured shoulder. The climb back up along the tracks of the Ferrocarril Andino, through tunnels on the chaotic main road and back onto ripio meant I was starting Part 2 of the Great Divide at last!
Caruya was a dreamy little village, passing trout farms and ascending pleasantly along the crystal green rambling Rio Blanco. In a month’s time a nearby Laguna´s minerals will turn it milk white. I arrived soaked in Chocna & found a few friendly families about. The store was closed but I tracked down a choco bar & went to set up my tent in a building under construction. I went to wander & see if I could make friends with someone besides llamas.
Bertha said a woman just like me had knocked on her door years ago and she seemed happy to have me. We made a feast of my avocados & her homemade cheese. I slept cozily on her dirt floor & we spent hours in her kitchen by a fire while she explained all the purposes of the herbs she had.I slept in until 6 and she called me a queen because everyone else had been up since 5 to milk cows. She sent me off with a packed me a lunch. I never cease to be amazed by this kindness.
I sweated it out to Yuracmayo in full force sun. This wouldn’t be the first time on a slow climb that a horse fly followed me the entire time. Bumbling, the size of a raisin with wings it would land on my face when it felt like it, or bite me occasionally. Granted, this could be a testament to my bathing habits, it wasn’t as bad as the time I added honey to my water & doused myself to keep cool and a swarm of bugs clouded around me.
A few hundred meters up the whole game changed when bolts of lightning struck too close for comfort. I surrendered, I was in their territory now and decided that descending a bit was my best option. Detouring down a few kms along a mystery road. I tried consoling myself with the stinging of pelting hail on my face that it was like an exfoliating spa treatment, natures chemical peel. It hurt something fierce, flying down past freshly shorn alpaca I tried to relate but it wasn’t actually that cold and I had begun to prefer hail to rain. Barely visible in the bluster I made out what could be shelter as I crossed a stream and yelled,”Buenas Tardes!”.
Two miners emerged and asked what the hell I was doing, they said that road led to absolutely nowhere. They were filling bags of nitrate & made me some eggs and coffee. They got suited up and put on helmets ¨vamos!¨ they rallied. I did give it some thought but hiking in the snow & going into a gold mine sounded a little ambitious. I couldn’t feel my feet, in times like this I imagine basking on the black sand beaches of El Salvador or the endless desert in Baja.
I wriggled into my sleeping bag and listened to their dynamite explosions. Lucho was really boisterous, the other miner was silent and loved to cook. We had a feast, I brought a papaya to the table and they made soup. I thought about how strange it would be to spend months there eating & sleeping with your co-workers, then go home for 2 weeks. In the morning they waved down a guy tearing by on horseback. He lived at the end of this road to nowhere and drew my a map to Tanta, all 3 of them couldn´t believe I didn´t have a map. They asked me to stay for a week & teach them English & they would teach me Quechua. When it was snowing all night and I began to wonder if I would be able to bike out of there.
Next morning the sun hit and it was like a drug. Back tracking up where I started the day before I buzzed happily up to 4930m Punta Ushuayca. The top and descent were breathtaking and then it was as if someone turned the lights out in this laguna seconds later. I dropped down into a valley with a waterfall & river with some estancias but felt so desolate. With the sky seeming to be following the same tune as the day before I found myself blinded again with ice and I (serendipitously) missed the turn for Tanta.
Minutes later ….
I asked some kids about the turn off…they didn’t respond & they looked really weary of me. I felt sort of vulnerable, was this to be the direction my days would take? Ending the ride early, scrambling for something to duck under? My tent is waterproof but it is not a mighty structure. It’s a place where me and my belongings barely fit into & spend minimal time in. I kept thinking I saw shelter but it would always turn out to be a massive rock. Alas a Chosa! There was a rock wall covering the entrance that I took down & replaced. I set up my nest & an hour later the sun was out & birds were chirping. I emerged but decided to cook and make the most of my amazing hut vacay.
I slept so well and the next morning enjoyed the climb skyward en route to Abra Suijo (4700m). An hour later I was pushing my bike up impossible mud, sheep crying out seemingly in allied annoyance. I reached a Laguna that bam! disappeared in fog. I was freezing and cursing, once I reached Huachipampa I was uplifted by a man in a pancho. People in panchos always seem to be so relaxed, maybe because they’re warm? I reached a beautiful Laguna and sloshed through the rain, passed only by a man powering through on a bicycle. So close to Tanta! all I had was a bit of haba powder & oats. At this point it looked like a big bustling city. I was licking my chops thinking about lomo saltado then snapped back into reality. I’m optimistic, due to my level of expectation which I have adjusted to fairly low. This keeps me happy. I rock up around 3, everything shut and I want to blubber but I already did that when I couldnt see an inch in front of me at the pass.
I had bought a replacement rain jacket in Oyon. With my shell gone, I needed my down jacket dry to sleep in. I was riding in rain daily & having a slight freak out. I found one to make due for 80 soles ($27) a grumpy woman who told me not even an XL would fit me also assured me it wasn’t waterproof. I found a more suitable men’s one but she was not having that. It’s a men’s jacket she kept telling me. when I returned with the money she had taken down the one I wanted and told me a MAN bought it haha. Anyway this ugly thing from China is pretty bad ass and has done it’s job.
In Tanta a drunk came and was actually a big help, knocking on doors but no lunch was to be had. He convinced a woman to cook me eggs and a heap of white rice and tea. I found a shop and crammed 4 bananas in my mouth to an audience. The municipality didnt like the idea of my tent in their office, as they had a hospedaje. There was a hot shower. It was ecstasy, the only way to keep it hot is to only turn it on to a trickle I trickled away & washed my heap of filthy clothes, making a deal with myself to make up the 10 soles.
This guy asked me if I knew where I was going and if I had ever ridden route. I acted like it was my daily commute. He was coming from Vilca & headed to Tanta for work. Later when I saw what this track entailed I couldn’t believe that this was his commute.
At 4100 meters, only half the road was completed so the hightlight is this shortcut, an exhilarating hike & bike. I carry my trusty stead for about 3 kilometers of absolute cliff hanging excitement. Following the Rio Cañete was some of the most beautiful scenery yet, I put my Spot tracker down my pants in case I toppled and had to push the button like those ‘help I’ve fallen and I can’t get up’ commercials in the 80’s.I was sucking in my gut and hoping my panniers would balance. The track opened up into a valley that turned swampy as I followed the river, blinking in disbelief at the clarity & color as baby ducklings floated by, ridiculous tranquility.
The next day is like Summer, the sun is robust and the ride is easy to Huancaya. A tourism bus stops to shout encouragements. After several times it’s annoying & when they get stuck for a while in a stream I took satisfaction in blazing past (they eventually emerged). The Rio and Valle Cañete are truly paradise.
The captivating Laguna Huallhua
From above the scenery is a knock out. I decide to see it from below & hike to tapa. The trail starts in back of a school, goes through a camping zone and then gorgeous streams where I took a swim. It was just me & horses. At some point the trail was overgrown & I had to climb over a tree & scramble up a cliff. Not the safest thing I’ve done, but not the most dangerous either. The top was bliss.
More spectacular river, laguna riding and then I hit pavement for the first time in weeks. I arrive in Tinco to scarf bananas and convince a car full of Limeños to go to Huancaya instead of Huancayo. I get pretty bored of the paved ride, just psychological I guess.
I arrive hot and sweaty and the plaza is full of sweet ladies to chat with. Some kids drag me all through the village, which seems to be made all of stone steps,showing me the worst camp spots. They were such characters and four of them ¡ shared a bicycle with 2 of the flattest tires. I pumped those suckers up and they were flying around, all piled on that bike.
Happily back on dirt, I climb steadily up to Laguna Pumacocha when the relentless hail hits. A chasing dog indicates I may find humans and hopefully, a roof. Gumela kindly gives me a spot to pass the night. She grew up here and shows me a nearby tragadero which is the deepest cave in South America. She laments that people pass and never know this wonder that exists there. It was really extraordinary. She yells at me several times for getting too cose to the edge.There are other caves up in the mountain and a few nearby. I hike around in the snow and explore some of them, promising myself I will indeed slumber in a cave soon.
In the morning the drunkest man comes around, even in the middle of nowhere I find them! Gumela fries me up some trout and I make us good strong coffee. After a few cups she tells me she can’t have coffee because of her blood pressure and then It’s my turn to yell at her. I am over the moon happy. I hadn’t taken money out in awhile and was at this point with less than a sole and as my route was taking twice the time, my food supply was pretty depressing. I never say anything about this but she gives me 3 more trout to throw on the fire for my dinner later.
She laughed when I told her I was from Los Angeles and showed me the box of trout eggs she receives from the US. There it is, the LAX shipping label, full circle.
En route to the pass Punta Pumacocha I can hardly believe my eyes as I see 2 cyclists. When one of them says,¨You must be Leah¨ I realize it’s Mike who I had been e-troduced to from Cherry. Check out his amazing adventure here. http://www.mikehowarth.co.uk/blog/ It was inspiring to meet some other weather warriors and they were in good spirits about riding late in the season. They had been warned of ghots too which made me chuckle. I was totally pumped to ride 430 meters in 4km with an average of 10.5% gradient. On the other side they had a pretty hefty one too.
A few times I was pretty moved by the views and perspectives and would get a tear in my eye. I wasn’t going to mention this but I figure enough people have seen me cry over silly things like movies and men,so there it is. This was on the other side…
Chasing dogs me lead to another kindred spirit. Ade (pronounced like idea with an A) runs out asking me all sorts of questions like about what I eat, when I whip out the 3 raw trout I’m carrying. She invites me into her chosa and we fry them up and make potatoes and coffee. She is in her 30’s with no children and we talk about falling in love and other strange stuff, I feel as if I’m with an old friend. I set up camp near her alpacas that night and am surprised when she leaves her house to sleep in what she calls her tent. It is a pen of rocks covered with tarps where she sleeps to keep an eye on her animals from being eaten by foxes. A fox eating a llama sounds kind of horrifying and I offer to keep watch but she seems to have little confidence in that idea, having seen my herding abilities earlier. She has calls and whistles that keep 200 animals in line..very impressive.
When I left she said it was a beautiful visit, and it really was. She was cooking a big pot of hearts and parts for her dogs and when she said she would worry about me out there I made a dumb joke to defer a pang of guilt. I know how lucky I have been and my hope is that these stories and my experiences make people worry less.
The pass is fairly easy and when I arrive in Turpo I stop to talk to a family outside. Hoping to snag a roof overhang in the rain, they offer their couch and then take off an a motorcycle with their baby. It was strange finding myself in their home and when I opened the kitchen door 2 baby lambs jump out of a cupboard & I slammed the door shut. A guard for the neighboring mine comes round and asks me to rent him my bike. The family returns and as there are no lights the sheep eyes glow in the dark.
In Acobambilla I spot a school next to the river that looks like good camp and I did something I rarely do and spoke with the police next door. They were quite jolly and invited me in to sit in the warmth and watch tv, hard to argue. They were actually getting soused with 2 16 year old cousins on some aguardiente and cola. The girls sang to youtube videos and got home safely, they reminded me a bit my cousin & I in our young rebellious days.
I arrive in Huancavelica. After a ride that changed my life, I have caught a fever..literally & figuratively. Thank you to Harriet & Neil Pike for sharing these routes and your knowledge and to Rocio Arteaga who kept me going with a new derailleur when mine exploded. I will never forget your words…. ¨Man, you have to keep going¨ and to James Real who sent me tires and pedals…the wind beneath my wings! and to my cousin Renee for inspiring me beyond belief.