Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Spine of the Andes: Part 2, September 28 - October 6


Our short but harrowing section on the main highway from Lima to the mountains, the Carretera Central, was thankfully behind us as we set off immediately on another massive climb. Unlike the partial cloud cover we had enjoyed over the few days before, the sun today had the whole sky to itself. No matter how high you are in the Andes, if there´s sun and no wind, the temperature soars, and there´s nothing better than a bit of sun to temper a frigid morning. Our road wound through a couple of little pueblos where we didn´t see anybody and past a gorgeous mountain lake. Late afternoon we reached the top of the pass. The road climbing steeply, the sun throbbing above... we were exhausted. Although this was part two of the route we were following, there was no demarcation in our minds, no break for our bodies. We vowed to stop in the next village for a day of rest.

Lake, mountain, clouds. Beautiful.

On the way down

Camping under some bright, snowy peaks recharged our batteries a bit, and we set out the next day on the next pass of the route, Abra Suijo. Its steep, rocky face would not be conquered easily, but one pedal at a time gets you places, no matter how slowly. I classify this type of climb as Type II fun - more fun to talk about later - but we eventually made it to the top. Awe and wonder were waiting there, as usual, by the blue-green lakes and snowy peaks of the windswept plateau on the other side.

Expansive grasslands, a boulder here and there, a mountain here and there
Soon we were flying downhill, kings of the road unless some stubborn sheep or llamas happened to be around. We soon came across the town of Tanta, a curious cluster of adobe houses with matching red roofs and ordered rows of street lights. Even though the street lights weren´t doing much lighting - the power had been out for days - we immediately liked this little village. A tiny, motherly lady took us under her wing and into her simple hospedaje, a good sign for a rest day. With no internet and no market in the town, and anything involving physical activity out of the question, we were totally content to read, eat, and sleep the day away.

The portal to our attic in Tanta

Eating cachangas, simple fried dough. After we asked where we could find some, the lady at our hospedaje offered to make them for us. The photo is blurry because we were eating by the light of a lamp.

Feeling a bit more energetic the morning after our luxurious loafing in Tanta, we hit the road again only to find it peter out after a few kilometers. The going was mostly slow on our sometimes precarious, sometimes rocky donkey trail, but there were some nice singletrack sections that we enjoyed riding, all next to possibly the clearest river I had ever seen. To get in and float downstream to the next town would have been a dream. Bikes don´t float, however, so it took us a while to get to Vilca.

Smooth trail, clear river, sunshine, what more could you ask for?!
Arriving around lunchtime, we found the town deserted. No stores open, no one in sight, a big change from the generally chaotic nature of Latin America. Apparently, we were told after we finally found someone to tell us what was going on, everyone was out in the fields tending to their flocks of animals. Sheep, generally, with some llamas, alpacas, and cows mixed in. They would be back around six. We had seen this kind of thing before, but only in tiny villages. To see entire towns empty was a bit strange.

The super friendly lady who opened her store/restaurant for us told us that the old bridge, which was previously under construction, was now passable by bicycle... if we gave the workers some colaboracion. We at first took this to mean money, but no, she said, the workers get thirsty out there, and we needed to bring them a soft drink! I couldn´t decide if she was joking with us, or just trying to get us to buy something else, but in the end we bought a cheap gaseosa and made our way to the bridge. After pushing and hoisting our bikes to the other side, we encountered a beefy woman who demanded - demanded! - that we show her the soft drink. We had left it with the first guys we met, and I went back, laughing, to retrieve it and show her that we were not, in fact, delinquents. All this over a bottle of fizzy sugar water!

Beautiful river/lakes and waterfalls after leaving Vilca

Hordes from Lima visit this area to see the colonial architecture and picturesque waterfalls, but the two towns we saw, Huancaya and Vitis, were both ghost towns. Same explanation as before, ranching and sheep and all that. There was no one around to answer their hotel doorbell, so we ended up camping at the municipality in Vitis. Later that night and the next morning, all the shops were still closed. Probably the locals all operate by the same schedule, and our time in Vitis didn´t correspond with the generally accepted time for shopping. I don´t know how the hotels make any money.

I was disappointed to find the one open shop in Vitis to be poorly stocked, but I asked anyway if they had avocados, cheese, bread, more pasta than what was on the shelf, etc, and they had all of it. Amazing. The lady kept reaching into corners and sending her kids into the back rooms, and finally we were stocked with almost three full days of food. It cost just under 50 soles, about 15 dollars.

The beautiful waterfalls near Huancaya, and... a cow. In a restaurant in Colombia we came across a painting of literally this exact scene, plus a giant house. Now, seeing it, I had to take a picture.

Checkerboard terraces
About mid morning the next day we passed our final town for the next few days and continued on our current challenge: Punta Pumacocha. Relieved to find the road gradual, rideable, and remote, we made great time, reaching the top the next morning. Though uneventful, the spectacular ride literally took our breath away, topping out at almost 16,300 feet.

This curvy yucca can´t make up its mind which way it wants to go

Yoga at 16,300ft.  Cheers to Mom and our favorite teacher Moses!

The Andean birds consist of a few usual species, but on the flats below the pass we saw a surprising sight: flamingos! What they´re doing there in the stratosphere is beyond me. (A quick google search revealed that the Andean Flamingo is a rare type of flamingo that is adapted to high altitude.)

Andean Flamingos

We cycled by some abandoned mineshaft entrances after eating lunch with the flamingos, then began our next climb. The road leveled off onto what I can only describe as a mosaic of flat rock, basically bumpy pavement, like cracked, hardened, desert tesselations. A sinkhole yawned nearby. Soon the black clouds behind us began to make their presence felt. It began to snow lightly and then not so lightly, and we found a flat spot off the road and dove into the tent for cover.

The abandoned Don Mario mine
The storm continued until morning. The snow didn´t stick, only some patches here and there, but a frigid wind was still blowing, the sky still angry. I mentioned earlier that any altitude in the Andes can be really hot with some sun and no wind. On the contrary, with no sun and a lot of wind, 15,000 feet feels a lot like, well, 15,000 feet. Our savior, the sun, didn´t peek through until late afternoon, by which time we had made it down from the pass, up the next pass, and all the way down to the village of Acobambilla.

Nice views on the way to Acombambilla
We spent about eight minutes in Acobambilla. With a day of food remaining, we chose not to hunt around for various items and instead hightailed it out of there. A thought started growing in our minds; maybe tomorrow we could make it to the city of Huancavelica. Two more passes remained. The horizontal distance was largely irrelevant.

We polished off a bit of Abra Viñas (the next pass) before finding the only flat spot around on the side of a cliff. There was a town across the valley, and sleep claimed us over the garbled chants of their Sunday night church service echoing throughout the landscape.

Throughout the morning, while climbing up then descending a million switchbacks, we didn´t really expect to make it to Huancavelica. We had enough food for another night out. A nice guy invited us into his house for mondongo, corn soup, and we happily accepted his offer then spent some time with him and his family. Four guys at his place were cutting up an alpaca with hacksaws for a celebration. We watched them sawing away. We were in no rush to go. Yet, after lunch, we pushed hard up the steep switchbacks for no reason other than to push hard in the here and now, and found ourselves at the top. It was 4:00, and we would easily cover the few miles downhill to Huancavelica before dark. A celebratory pack of crackers commemorated the occasion, but, as if on cue, a loud rumble of thunder sounded from the ominous clouds ahead. No more celebrations, down we go, but it was too late. The snow hit us hard, quickly turning the hillsides white. I was rather jealous of all the alpacas we passed, minding their business under their thick fur without a care in the world. The shepherd huddled under a blue tarp didn´t seem so happy with the current situation.

The top and the other side! Yesssssss

Alpacas staying warm

The snow turned to rain as we descended and then fortunately let up, coming again in spurts as we rode hard through the streets of Huancavelica under dark skies. Waiting were warm food, a dry place to sleep, and a steamy shower. A rest day, too! We took today to stock up on food at the market, clean off our muddy bikes, and eat a ton of the local apple pastries. More adventures coming!

Huancavelica Plaza de Armas
We love Peruvian markets
Route notes:
See here.
In Huancavelica, La Portada hotel has affordable rooms, hot showers, and super fast wi-fi. Basic bicicleterias can be found at Sta Rosa and Carabaya (descend from the main plaza to the river and go one block to the right).

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