Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Spine of the Andes: Part I, September 22-27

Oyon- Huancalla-Picoy-Yantac-Marcapomacocha-Casapalca
September 22nd
We leave Oyon late morning and make a beautiful ascent up into the mountains following mining roads. After some lunch in the sunshine by a bubbling river we're reluctant to continue. But we persevere and late afternoon reach the top of the pass.  A new altitude record at around 16,200ft! This is the first time we've broken the 16,000 mark on bikes and we feel pretty happy about it.

Nice views on the way up
A shop owner I talked to in Oyon asked me what I thought of his town and I told him that I liked it quite a lot. He responded that it's nice enough but there are more beautiful places in the mountains.  When I asked what he meant, he explained that the countryside has been ruined by mining.  The mines apparently bring in some money but dont really do much to help the local community.
Cresting our pass, I get a real sense of what he was talking about. The next valley is filled with an enormous mine. Orange cones, trucks beeping, and men at the entrance station wearing official looking neon uniforms. We skirt around the side of the mine but have a clear view of its destruction.  Below us is a surreal landscape, no vegetation anywhere, just huge muddy lakes oozing with murky streams. On the bright side, the guys working at the mine are quite friendly, asking us questions about our trip and filling our bottles with water. As the sun sets, we cruise into the next valley over and are able to find a quiet, grassy place to camp.

Alien landscape
September 23rd
Our descent in the morning is smooth and fast, bringing us into a narrow river canyon. There are quite a few birds out and about and at one point we spot several monsters flying overhead. They are by far the biggest birds I have ever seen and we decide that they must be condors! We stop and try to follow where they went but unfortunately don't see them again.

Near the bottom we encounter the Huancalla-Picoy hot springs, which are bustling with activity. The green steaming pools are visible from the road, no chemicals or filtration in use here. People wrapped only in towels in the the cold air emerge from a central building; women call out to us, trying to sell snacks and hot drinks; a school group runs through the area talking and laughing loudly. Why didn't my school take field trips to local hot springs? A bit overwhelmed by all the activity, and not overly enticed by the crowded green pools, we just stop to have breakfast before continuing.

Arriving in Picoy we decide to stop early. We've barely done any mileage today but we're tired and our new setup has been giving us some problems. It's time to take an afternoon and actually sort out the best way to organize things. Plus, the town is adorable.  The colorful sculptures and leaning collumns adorning the front of the tiny church look as if they were made from Sculpy. Upon arrival in town we search out second breakfast/lunch, and a kind old lady invites us into her place. The room is rather like a cave, small, dark, and crammed with baskets of various foodstuffs: onions, tomatos, a bloody leg of some animal, the usual. As we begin to enjoy our rice and eggs we notice some squeaking under the table.  There are guinea pigs of all sizes scurrying around under our feet! After our meal we observe the lady methodically sawing off the head of one of the larger ones. Wow, that's local food at a new level.

More to my taste is a large truck that has just arrived outside. All of the local ladies are lining up behind it to buy fruits and veggies. I learn that this truck only comes once a week so everyone is stocking up. I get in line and wait my turn to buy some fresh produce as well.  The ladies are super cute and teach me the local names for all the vegetables.

Grocery shopping 

Doors here are a bit low

To our surprise, there is a small hospedaje in this town, complete with running water and flushing toilet!  As we work on our bikes throughout the afternoon, a number of locals drop in to say hi. One lady actually thanks us for visiting and supporting her small community.  That's the first time we've heard that! Everyone is super friendly and welcoming and although sometimes it's hard to feel totally comfortable in a foreign country, tonight I feel at home.

Not sure if our room has enough beds
September 24th
In the morning we set off on a big climb. We're hoping to find some bread in the next town, but apparently the bakery isn't open until after 12, and until then there's no bread for sale. Oh well, crackers will do for lunch.

Often people I talk to are interested in what it's like to bike at such high altitudes.  The answer is, it's not easy, but your body adapts. When climbing a high peak, or hiking at high altitude, the key is to get into a rhythm, step, step, breathe, step, step, breathe, etc. The same is true for biking: pedal, pedal, breathe. A slow, consistent pace will slowly move you upwards. What makes biking a bit trickier than walking is that you have to keep up a certain speed to keep your balance. Thus, if the terrain is very steep or very rocky and loose, it is necessary to break out of your rhythm and accelerate. This often leaves you gasping for breath and in need of a break. So it was at the top of our pass. Lots of steep sections, and lots of breaks. But late afternoon we arrive triumphantly at the top.

Near the top

At almost 16,000 feet you wouldn't expect to find much. Thus, it's to our surprise that we are suddenly surrounded by curious llamas. There's a house here, with a young family who comes out to peer at us and wave their barking dogs away. The lady has a baby in her arms. And you thought raising a kid was hard at sea level.
It's freezing cold, so we only descend a short ways before setting up camp.

Among the mountains
Big cliffs... where´s our climbing gear when we need it?

September 25th
I love good roads. Our smooth road carries us down, then up the next pass with hardly any effort. The next descent brings us to a giant gem of a lake. It's impressive, but I can tell at once that, like so many of the large lakes around here, it was once a mine and is now a dam. I can't help but feel like its man-made nature takes away a bit from its natural beauty. But maybe I'm just too much of a purist.
The town at the edge of the lake doesn't do much to increase my opinion of it. Two large wooden bars form a gate blocking our road. Since no one is around we carefully take them down, cross, then put them back up. The houses mostly look abandoned but one is clearly occupied; it has at least six giant dead waterfowl hanging up around it, like some sort of gruesome decorations. We both agree that the place feels rather creepy and bike up quickly away from it.

A beautiful meadow makes for a perfect camping spot.  As the sun sets behind me, I do some stretches and watch the moon rise over the nearby jagged cliffs.  When the moon is close to the horizon and you watch carefully, it looks like it is rising quite quickly.  Tonight's almost full moon reminds me of a gigantic balloon that a far-off child accidentally released into the too blue sky.

September 26th
We complete our ascent of the next pass in the morning and descend into an expansive valley. Our road turns to follow what appears to be a newly constructed aqueduct. There's no water in it currently and the paint looks almost fresh. I decide that gradual aqueduct grade is my new favorite. Are we going up or down? Who knows? We're flying! Later we see a sign that indicates that the aqueduct is bringing clean water from the mountains down to Lima. A likely prospect, considering that Lima is an enormous city built in a too-dry area (cough Los Angeles).

A deep crossing

Our road winding through the valley, aqueduct adjacent
We're excited to arrive in the town of Yantac for a hot lunch, but when we arrive it seems as if it's deserted. In the central plaza an ancient church cowers behind a crumbling but undoubtedly proud statue of a sombrero hat (the style typical of the area). About to lose hope of lunch, we spot a small open doorway. A restaurant! The two guys inside prepare us gigantic plate of rice, eggs, and fried bananas, along with steaming mugs of hot chocolate. Everything is more than delicious. In addition, the guys running the place are extremely friendly. They explain that the town is deserted because everyone is out with their ranch animals in the fields. But, in early October they'll be having a fiesta, and of course we're invited!

Not much going on in Yantac

So delicious!
Leaving town we bike past a series of huge lakes, one of them a dam.  Trout fishing is big here, and we can see the nets floating out in the water.  Upon arrival in the town of Marcapomacocha (can you say that in one breath?) we find it also to be nearly deserted. These towns have been a strange contrast to what we're used to finding in Peru: lots of noise and activity! In the central plaza is a statue of a leaping puma and a few kids playing volleyball across a net that has been set up across one of the streets. Otherwise, nothing.

When we ask about a hospedaje, we are directed out of town to a horribly ugly green building with peeling paint and huge windows. It looks like some sort of excessive cruise ship that failed to sail and instead beached on the shore of this lake.When we ask the attendant for a room he tells us that the last room has just been taken. Luckily, the young couple who took the room is right there, and seeing us, they explain that the room has two beds, and if we don't think it's too weird, we can use one of them.  We happily accept. How nice of them!

The room turns out to be pretty nice, with a spectacular view of the lake from the big windows.  I don't believe that all the rooms are taken. There is a whole hallway of doors, and we don't see anyone else around. For the rest of the afternoon we do shopping in town and then play on the deserted playground, one of the first playgrounds we've seen in Peru. The design is rather funky: the monkey bars are super low, and the slide super steep. But it's fun!

A lonely young sheep on Marcapomacocha´s main street

The doors are short, but the slides...

Monkeying around

That's a pretty lake
In the evening we go out to dinner with our new friends Santiago, Daniela, and their adorable dog Checho. They currently live in Lima and both have worked in the U.S. for many years. We spend an enjoyable evening talking half in Spanish, slightly more than half in English, and sharing stories. We feel so lucky to have met such friendly and welcoming people here in the middle of nowhere.

New friends :-)
September 27th
Sunshine, big snowy peaks, soaring hawks, a wide green valley with gentle streams, and fuzzy alpacas all make for an excellent morning. Alpacas may be my new favorite animal. A sort of cross between llamas and sheep, they aren't quite as big as the llamas, nor as small as sheep, but they manage to be fuzzier than both. Their faces and bodies are so puffed with soft wool that you just want to give them a hug when you see them. Unfortunately, when Danny actually tries to go make friends they all run away.


I'm convinced that once you start touring on dirt roads you can't go back to pavement. Dirt is simply more interesting, challenging, surprising. You always have to be on your game. Plus, dirt roads have taken us where there is far less traffic and jaw-dropping landscapes every day. How could you not love them?

Niether of us is looking forward to the stretch we must ride on the paved highway known as the Carretera Central, an artery connecting Lima with the mountains. Immediately upon arriving at this road we are appalled by the way people are driving. Danny has about half of his bike out into the road, and a car coming the other direction (in the opposite lane) zooms out of nowhere and almost hits him. (This car was in the wrong lane going down a blind curve.) Other crazy driving includes passing without looking, large buses screaming around tight curves, etc. Luckily, perhaps because it is Sunday, traffic is light. Also, the short section we need to ride is all downhill so we complete it quickly. I am more than relieved when we turn off onto another quiet dirt road and begin our climb up a steep river valley.

Our late afternoon ride is like a bit of therapy. We cycle through dappled sunlight along a rushing river bordered by large leafy trees, something you don't find at the altitudes we've been at. To camp, we find a quiet flat spot right by the river and enjoy a quiet night.

Route notes:
See here.

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