There was a brief stint of riding in northern Chile. Then there was a jump ahead to go spend the holidays with a friend from home and her family. It’s been a while on the road, and the end looms near. Being able to spend time welcomed and treated as part of a family, incredible. Thank you.
We have alternative extended families in other cyclists, effectively. The cyclist network connects more or less all of us now. So many of us are looking at calendars and it’s been 1 year, 2 years, maybe more that we’ve been on the road. Slowly we meet each other, slowly word gets passed around of who else is nearby or rode through in the past few months. Slowly the network grows. By the time we get to central Chile and Argentina, we all know each other one way or another.
Chile. Been here now for a few weeks, and it’s been a bit of an adjustment. To being in a wealthy country, around people and family like me. There’s this idea of beauty being found in extremes, from scorching deserts to freezing arctic tundra, and in that, Bolivia does not disappoint.
Press on further and further into the desert. Vegetation disappears entirely in places, llamas and their companions roam in larger and larger circles looking for food. When the winds come, they kick up mini-sandstorms. Duck behind the mini-dunes to hide, pull up the hood of your raincoat. Wait it out. Empty your pockets later and you’ll find you’ve since been carting around a few extra grams of dirt.
Bike and body washed clean of salt, leave Uyuni heading south. Washboard roads give way to faint tracks etched across the desert, road heads for the provincial capitol but that’s not to say it’s a highly trafficked destination. Aiming for the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve, home to distinctly colored mineral lakes, and on the other side of that, Chile.
Skirting the edge of the altiplano, from pancake flat roads re-enter the mountainous border and once again start planning daily distances by how many passes are in the way. En route to the first pass, start to take breaks huddled against roadside rock walls, the only windbreaks around. Would have been a good day to set up camp early instead of fighting the daily late-afternoon winds, but lacking water to cook press on over the pass to the next village. Sleep there at the local hospital, am offered a bed in a room where a patient is sleeping but that seems a little questionable. Instead they put a mattress out in the entrance room and I’ll pass out there.
Salt flats, Bolivian cycling classic.
The smaller Salar de Coipasa to the north, ride off soft sand corrugations and all of a sudden the ground becomes flat, reflecting white everywhere, hard but the topmost layer away from the “highways” crunches as wheels turn over it. This southwest corner of Bolivia, nearby in Chile too, is full of salty ground. The Altiplano region is surrounded by mountains, and what little moisture there is has no way to drain away, instead evaporating and leaving behind salt. In such an environment, moisturizer (uses: human skin, and rubber o-rings on mechanical equipment) is a great thing to carry.
Switch to Bolivia.
Desolate and windswept, welcome to the country of sandy, corrugated roads. Route outlined to cycle the length of the country through the altiplano, that high altitude desert claiming the west. Solo. No other dirt riders here right now. In La Paz at the Casa de Ciclistas, the nine- nine!– other cyclists plan a parallel path on better roads. Consulting schedules upon leaving, there’s a possibility of all of us converging on the same spot on the same day, but ultimately I’ll be a half day ahead of one group and a half day behind another and will only catch up to some of them in the next town south.
Spinning upwards into whiteness, mud hurled everywhere. Ground saturated, movement possible only by dropping tire pressure and pedaling in an ever lower gear. Andean rainy season in all of its menace. Paul just visible ahead, a vague bicycle shape silhouetted against a background of mist.
3 hours of climbing in rain just light enough to make everything damp, find a stream gushing water and call it quits for the day. Set up camp fingers trembling, don’t care how much the ground slopes, will get in later and sleep contorted to avoid the larger lumps. Peel off wet clothes and open the drybag protecting the warm stuff, only to find it wasn’t closed properly, and that stuff is a little damp too. But less so, so it’s ok. Slide into sleeping bag and lie there getting warm, an hour and a half rest before going back outside for dinnertime.
Spend time in Huaraz and the trekkers flocking to the mountain city namedrop Huayhuash, that snowy peak filled range just to the south. The trekkers go out for a 10+ day hiking route there. Cyclists tend to spend some time kicking back and then setting out for Peru’s Great Divide route, a high altitude remote dirt road network effectively linking Huaraz to that other mountain capitol farther south, Cusco. But before you know it, you’ve spent a month staying put sleeping in a bed, resting from the exertions of the last leg and working on side projects.
A month off the bikes calls for a little something something special to get going again. Maps record a thin black line leading to a red one ending with a dotted black line offshoot. So theoretically a route exists, dirt roads to the start of the Huayhuash trek and after getting over a short section of trail, mining roads should link up the villages on the eastern side of the range before coming back west to the main Divide route. Uncommon sense says this would be a good idea, a bikepacking opportunity to test new bike setup iterations and a chance to explore even more of Peru’s back roads. The Divide route promises the latter too; in the mere year since the Pikes pioneered the route it’s well on its way to becoming a Panamerican classic. But the size and scope of Peru’s mountains means that however many cyclists ride through, there will always be more unexplored dirt roads taking you wherever you want to go. So Paul and I set off looking for some.
Rest day contemplation, looking three weeks ahead three weeks ago now. The Cordillera Blanca with its stunning snow-capped peaks waited ahead of us, the mountain city of Huaraz there, our next planned major rest. Glory-seeker cyclists can make a loop out from Huaraz eastward over one pass in the Cordillera and returning westward over the second pass. One pass is paved, 4900m, the other dirt, 4700m, you pick which one you want to do first. No other passes with road approaches in the northern heart of the range. Huaraz departure allows for leaving behind unnecessary gear, less weight then to lug up and over. This loop then a pure masochist’s effort: thousands of meters of climbing, against altitude hypoxia, cold, and variable weather, only to return to where you started from.
Paul and I had no excess weight to leave behind. And we may come from ride-your-bike-in-circles racing backgrounds, but now we’re acting touring cyclists, wanting to ride in a continual southern progression. So, seeking stellar mountaintop views, how to ride both passes? Three options (3 the recurring theme here):
In the beginning, centering this trip around riding dirt roads was an idea, a goal. Now it’s become reality. Paul and I jetted out from Cajamarca almost three weeks ago, finally arriving in Huaraz, spending some 850km linking up one remote village after another. And to finish with a finale, we ended this leg with the premiere Cordillera Blanca Triple Heart Bypass- but more on that to come in the next post. First up, the beginnings of our expeditions into El Silencio regions.
No hay nada arriba, everyone warns. Just the way we like it.
Things started ok. Two shepherds watching their flock came running up to ask who we were, what we were doing. Normal. Less normal was when they wanted us to accompany them to meet unknown-spanish-word up the road, to the point where one put a hand on the bike’s handlebars to stop me from leaving without him. Suspicions rising.
Northern Peru, Cajamarca province. The Spanish came to the Andes in the 1500s looking for gold. Whatever they found, they shipped back to Spain. 500 years later, mining rights to Peruvian gold, silver, copper, plus many more mineral deposits are sold to foreign companies who come in to extract as much as they can. Peru the country might profit from this, but less so the people living in the immediate vicinity. Cajamarca, one of the richest states in terms of mineral resources, is one of the poorest states in terms of personal wealth.