Riding the Lircay Horseshoe: Confessions of an Angry Gringo

Every day riding the dirt roads of the Peruvian Andes is special. With so many passes to topple and deep valleys to launch into, it’s a landscape that is forever offering new and seductive dialogues. And the people, on those days when there are people, are generally warm and gentle folk touched by an edge of good humor. Peru is the most incredible place to ride a bicycle. A sentiment typified by the route I recently rode north-west out of Ayacucho. This traced a horseshoe south and then east through Lircay, Licapa and Chuschi before eventually depositing me amongst the Inca ruins of Vilcas Huaman. Dramatic in places, gentle in others and generally more nice than gnarly, this tasty little roll went from arid basin to icy pass, through deserted highlands and into canyonesque lowlands. I’ve been gawped at in numerous small village squares and warmly ingratiated by the smiles of countless brightly dressed shepherds and shepherdesses. There has been sun, clouds, rain, snow and everything in between. Temperatures well below freezing and way above 30 degrees Celsius. Seldom especially challenging but usually relatively involving, it’s been fun and I’ve been as happy in myself and my riding as I can remember. But despite all this a darkness has persisted in trying to peck its way through the positivity.

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Dirt road riding in Peru never fails to deliver

During my time here in Peru I’ve been struggling with a small minority of the population who’ve done a fantastic job of really pissing me off. I try so hard to be positive and understanding about how people act towards me but things keep happening that continue to draw me back into my insular little cocoon. A place where I forfeit the warmth and friendliness of the majority for protection from the enduring dickishness of a few. It is in my nature to enjoy the freedom of solitude and become easily frustrated by the interference of others. Maybe not the best disposition to carry into a world where I’m forever an outsider and a culture that repeatedly throws the same quips and thinly disguised insults my way. I think even the most hardened of ‘people persons’ might find some hairline cracks appearing in their tolerance after a few years.

In line with the strong stink of Catholicism that has clouded my travel for the last three years, it’s my time for confession: My name is Nathan Haley and I throw stones at children. Actually that is exaggeration, I threw a pebble in the direction of some youths I had no intention (or ability) to hit. But the sentiment is the same. Whatever the circumstance you don’t abuse your position as a guest in someones country by throwing stones at them. What kind of idiot throws stones at people anyway? Well a minority of Peruvians it seems. Plenty of rocks seem to have been propelled my way in the last week. This is only storyworthy because it is not usual. Please don’t go thinking that Peru is an aggressive place where tourists are under constant attack, because that is very far from the truth. But on my day out of Lircay a gaggle boys who I suspect to have been around 12 years-old thought it was a good idea to try hitting me rocks as I passed harmlessly on the road beneath them.

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High altitude riding in Peru brings daily contact with Alpaca’s and Llamas

You know how boys egg each other on. I’m also sure you have a moral line beyond which you view certain behaviours as dangerous and antisocial. After the third and largest stone from these kids raised dust on road beside me I saw red. My temper took me and fury took over. Flinging my bike to the ground I growled a string of English insults, grabbed the nearest stone and launched it upwards. They clearly weren’t expecting retaliation. The girlish giggles dropped out of them (probably through their arses) as the realisation quickly dawned that they’d taunted a monster. Faces dropped into fearful surprise and the young men scurried away, apparently terrified.

Released from my tormentors I sheepishly picked up my bike and continued onward up the hill I’d been riding all day. As my pedals spun the fury subsided only to be replaced by a weighty remorse. Looking over my shoulder I could see the boys had fetched their mothers. The group stood like model railway people intently watching me disappear up the switchbacks. I was starving and it started to rain but fear kept me plugging up the climb, intent on finding a secluded lunch spot well beyond the danger zone. As I ate the images of angry fathers on motorcycles vengefully roaring up the road to find me were slowly replaced by a craving to understand the episode. One thing I was sure of is that only a fool targets a cycle tourist just before lunch when he’s at his most vulnerable to the hunger anger.

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The Peruvian Andes offer a surprise on every pass

I was and am really disappointed in myself. I stopped throwing stones at dogs a few months ago after accidentally hitting one on the head. It wasn’t the aggressive one I was aiming for I hit, but a docile bitch who was sloping around in the background. The hollow ‘clock’ of that stone hitting her innocent skull still reverberates around my memory. It sickened me and I am still burdened with remorse, often imagining her subsequent brain tumor and slow decline into painful death. I vowed to stop throwing stones at dogs and have stuck to it. Just because you’re in Rome it doesn’t mean you have to become a Roman. Unfortunately my abstention didn’t extend to people. Those youths managed to flick my switch, something that is unfortunate on so many levels. But there is one angle to all this that I find particularly upsetting.

Despite being a well trodden and established road, the route from Lircay to Licapa (on the Ayacucho/Pisco highway) doesn’t appear on any maps. The northern most section exists but I had to follow the progress of this road south on Google Earth to ensure it went through. Probably as a result of this the route is ignored by cycle tourists. I’d be surprised if it hadn’t been cycled before but the reactions I received and conversations I had suggested other cyclists didn’t live in the collective memory. When arriving in the small town of Carhuapata for example, the kids ran away and the adults laughed nervously. The stares were more intense than usual and their general incomprehension of me all too obvious. For places like this where tourists are seldom seen I have a responsibility. Many communities harbor a misapprehension of who ‘gingo’s’ are and what we want. Often we’re like mythical creatures, details of our limitless wealth and undesirable qualities passed down through generations. Gringo’s are sometimes associated with negative mining practices, all apparently come from the USA and we speak only English (a language invented in the USA). How I act and react feeds and becomes this folklore. I have the power to either smash or reinforce stereotypes, I can perpetuate the myth or I can reveal it to people for what it is, just a myth. Angry Gringo’s throwing stones lays the foundations for such myths to flourish and does a disservice to other cycle tourists.

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No visit to Peru would be complete without taking in at least some Inca sites… Vilcas Huaman ticked that box for me

Unfortunately the stone throwing youths do not offer an isolated incident on this leg of cycling. They say bad luck comes in three’s and it did for me. I experienced another unfortunate situation on the stretch of paved highway I rode east out of Licapa. There is traffic here but it is sparse. The highway is in great shape, it is wide and each side has significant shoulders. I was riding the line between road and shoulder on my side of the highway when a car travelling the other direction seemingly decided to try and hit me. With no other traffic or distractions around it veered from the opposite lane, across my lane and into the shoulder on my side, coming straight for me the entire time. I was forced off the road and off my bike. Why he (I saw the driver) did this I cannot fathom, it was incredibly dangerous and even more incredibly pointless. I think justifiably this bought my fury back; picture a helmeted cycle tourist in the middle of the road huffing a poetic stream of f-words and c-words whilst liberally throwing around middle digits and bizarre crotch grabs. That man played with my life and I desperately wanted him to come back so I could let him know how I felt about that. After Mr. Swerve-driver I suffered one more memorably negative experience. The third notable incident happened on the climb up to Totos when an idiotic shepherd boy decided to use me for pitching practice. Once again I found stones raining down from the hill above. This time, despite my hunger, I just ignored him and cycled on, my lesson learnt.

Every country seems to harbor an obnoxious minority intent on targeting their twisted thoughts or pure ignorance on outsiders. We all harbor abhorrent racists in our societies and every culture includes good parents, bad parents, good kids and bad. These are realities of the human ability for choice and diversification, they are not products of poverty or opportunity. You’re as likely to find an idiot in Eton college as you are rural Peru, it’ just how this idiocy is channelled that differs. Life here is different, there is different context and with it come differing perceptions of acceptability in most aspects of life (although just because its accepted doesn’t mean it’s necessarily condoned). For example, you wouldn’t think of throwing stones at dogs in the UK, but that sentiment doesn’t transfer to Latin America where dogs live alongside humans with no owner other than the streets. Hurling rocks at aggressive packs of stray dogs is a necessary of self-defense, a situation that doesn’t arise in more ‘developed’ countries where people only usually see the animals as docile and lovable pets. At home most people would be repulsed by putting soiled toilet paper anywhere but in the toilet, in Latin America you never flush the paper. And in our cultures reheating rice is dangerous and refrigerating dairy products standard. Knowledge ignored here where virtually all my restaurant meals rise from a base of halfheartedly reheated rice and where refrigeration is an unaffordable luxury. Life is lived on a different standard, a situation that pervades law, order, expectations and mindset.

Cherry Lircay Pass

The start of this leg saw me reunited with Cherry, an English cyclist on her way south from California, U.S.A.

Incidents like I’ve described here are not unique to Peru, I have been hit by sticks in Guatemala and had stones thrown before. What most of these incidents have in common though is that it is kids that are the perpetrators. If it were adults I suggest things would be a whole lot more serious. Also, if I rode my bike around the dive estates of Europe or North America I am sure I would attract a great deal more trouble. So I do not judge and now the red mists have dispersed, I do not harbor resentment. All these episodes mean is that I become more isolated, increasingly blinkered in my interactions and almost exclusively focused on my riding. That said, it is not lost on me how for every negative interaction there are many many positive ones, some of them being quite profound.

Pablo Misael Limaco

Pablo Misael Limaco of Vischongo, Ayacucho, Peru… legend

 Intending to watch the World Cup final in Vilcas Huaman I’ve found myself with time to kill. So, I split the days ride from Cagallo to Vilcas in two, settling on breaking the ride with a night in the small town of Vischongo. There I was attracted to Hospedaje Rosita and into the life of a remarkable man, Pablo Misael Limaco. At 70 years old, Misael is the grandfather in the Limaco Hinostroza family who own and run the guesthouse. Within minutes of my arrival we’d had conversations about football, organic farming, the second world war and China’s current position in the world. The sweetest man I can ever remember meeting, Misael was a teacher who lived and worked most of his life in Ayacucho. This area suffered horrifically during the time of the ‘Shining Path’ so I shudder to think of what this man has seen and experienced in his life. He has lived a long life in times and circumstances a million miles from my own existence. Yet in Misael I found a kindred spirit, I met my own ideals, beliefs and ambitions, I encountered a man who reminded me that despite my recent lapses I am taking my life where I want, in a good direction and with positive intentions I can be proud of.

Map - Lircay Horseshoe, Ayacucho to Vilcas Huaman

Route from Ayacucho around through Lircay to Vilcas Huaman… click here to view the fully interactive map and elevation profile

Profile - Ayacucho to Vilcas Huaman

Lircay Horseshoe (Ayacucho to Vilcas Huaman) Route elevation profile

For this leg of my journey I was once again joined by hardy English cyclist Cherry. During an enjoyable and relaxing week together with extremely accommodating couch surfing hosts Jan and Ellen, Cherry and I had concocted a plan to ride together until she turned north to Cusco and me south towards the Colca Canyon. Here is the story of my journey around the Lircay horseshoe, Ayacucho to Vilcas Huaman…

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Leaving the urban oasis of Ayacucho Cherry and I race downhill on paved highway for a short while before west onto the ripio road towards Lircay.

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More used to the fresher climes of higher altitudes the dusty heat has us clambering into the shadows for lunch…

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… before emerging for a picturesque spin up an agriculturally greened valley…

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… to a night on the floor of the Ccayarpachi village hall

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When morning comes we start our climb out of the parched heat…

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… up and over into the one-horse town of Julcamarca for lunch

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As we refuel in the fantastically named ‘Super Gordo’ (Super Fat) restaurant rain clouds make their way into town…

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… ensuring us a wet and windy afternoons riding

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Unimpressed by the weather we submit to a night in Secclla. As Cherry does the rounds in search of beds for the night I accrue an impressive collection of local kids. Some of them even follow us into the hospedaje!

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Thankfully morning brings back the blue skies, a welcome start to our days climb up to Abra Lircay

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Before long we’ve left the villages and their surrounding farmlands below and are enjoy the ruggedness of the mountains

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As the day wares on and we climb higher the mornings enticing weather gives way to…

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… cold rain, then sleet and then snow

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But even temperatures hovering only slightly above freezing can’t freeze out Cherry’s smile. As we close in on the pass a local politician flags us down for some photos

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Just over an hour after enjoying a sunny lunch in this valley…

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… we’ve scaled a few switchbacks and are cresting the pass before Lircay. It’s cold and although not visible here, it’s snowing

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Thankful for an escape off the freezing pass, we zoom down hill…

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… until a closed road halts progress. Much to the amusement and bemusement of the road construction workers and waiting traffic we overcome the problem by taking the direct route straight downhill

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Rejoining the road we plunge quickly down…

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… until road construction stops us again. Once again the road is closed and won’t reopen until after dark. Unhappy at the prospect of riding in the dark we rush the barricade and make a break for it. When we reach the actual construction site the workers take great joy in lifting our bikes over the giant hole that stretches across the road… he who dares wins!

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Reaching Lircay, with its dubiously titled restaurants, marks the end of my time with Cherry. Having been recently bitten by a dog she is undergoing a series of Rabies injections. Unfortunately the Lircay health center doesn’t carry what she needs. After much deliberation she chooses to abandon the route, figuring a long rabies free life trumps continuing to ride with me and then dying a painful death.

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From Lircay I head south on a road less traveled. The northern part of the road follows a river valley up through a dusty landscape…

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… of small villages and increasingly craggy peaks

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Having dealt with a group of stone throwing youths it’s with great delight that I climb into El Silencio

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The road snakes up…

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… over shallow plateaus and past a smattering of farm dwellings…

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… reaching higher and higher…

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… into a land of earthy palette and contrasting textures

Abra Lircay 2c

As I summit the pass (15,800 ft, 4,815 m) the sun is slipping quickly away…

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… taking its heat elsewhere for another day

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With temperatures plummeting fast it’s a pleasant surprise to find a small chapel up on the pass

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With no windows to let in the biting wind and complete with an array of carefully placed Christmas decorations, ‘Santuario Senor de Huayallcruz Carhuapata’ turns out to be the perfect bedroom

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The morning brings surprised worshipers to the chapel and a long descent for me, down from a snowy 15,700 ft (4,785 m)…

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… to the end of this particular road in Licapa (13,880 ft, 4,230 m)

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After a fun stretch of dirt out of Lircay the paved climb away from Licapa has me bored out of my mind…

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… still, a podcast later I’m cresting Abra Apacheta (15,570 ft, 4,746 m) and enjoying the lightning descent down to the junction to more dirty fun

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Glad to have the left the highway in the back of my memory I start pushing the pedals upwards again…

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… passed domineering peaks and mirror marshes…

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… on an empty and silent road…

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… through cold late afternoon shadows…

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… beneath imposing rocks…

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… to the heady heights of Abra Ritipata (16,076 ft, 4,900 m)

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Within 20 minutes of cresting Abra Ritipata and posing in short sleeves the sun sets and the temperature quickly falls below freezing. Putting on all my clothes I descend in search of water for camp. It’s as good as dark when I eventually find a small puddle. Breaking its icy covering and ignoring the submerged cow shit the small pool answers my prayers, providing enough water for dinner and breakfast

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From my cold puddle camp it’s a massive descent…

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… down through Paras…

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… to the Rio Pampas. I follow the river for a while before starting to climb again in the village of Lloqllascca (9,875 ft, 3,010 m)

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I climb up to lunch in Totos…

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… before continuing on up to camp

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The next day I’m back on the climb. At times tricky with loose rocks, the ascent takes me up switch back after switch back…

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… until I pop out onto the most beautiful high plain…

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… where the road swirls…

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… and shadows dance

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This dreamy stretch of high riding ends with Abra Tucuccasa (14,764 ft, 4,500 m)…

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… from which I freewheel down into the next valley…

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… before climbing out again into more expansive views and enormous skies…

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… the perfect spot for some coca tea and lunch

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From the lunch the afternoon brings more ups and downs before depositing me into the Rio Pampas gorge. As I enter the sun is setting dramatically leaving me a thrilling fast descent down to Chuschi in the dark

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Chuschi is of great significance in Peruvian history, it is here on May 17, 1980 that the Shining Path guerrillas burnt ballot boxes and started their war against the Peruvian state. That war would lead to the death of around 70,000 people

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An easy days climbing from Chuschi offers up plenty of dramatic views of the Rio Pampas…

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… before a brand new stretch of pavement takes me down into Cangallo

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A laid back town, Cangallo can easily seduce some days off. I take one in order to watch the World Cup semi finals

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A mornings climb out of Cangallo and the space opens up from tight valleys to open expanse. The perfect place for a quiet lunch (before an obnoxious fat man finds me and insists on instigating a bombardment of inane questions)

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From the open landscape to an open mind… A short descent takes me to a night in Vischongo with the splendid Misael, an invigorating experience that sets me up for the short burst to Vilcas Huaman

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Vilcas Huaman boasts some fine Inca ruins, probably the only ones I’ll see as I plan to bypass Cusco and the Sacred Valley

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No Latin American plaza would be complete without a church…

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… in Vilcas Huaman that church just happens to be built on Inca foundations. An interesting little town in which to finish an interesting little run of cycling

Route Tips

Be aware that distances and elevations are taken from my bicycle computer and barometric altimeters, thus they are in some ways an approximation.

Ayacucho to Licapa
4 days, 129 miles (208 km), 15,387 ft. (4,690 m) of climbing

A fun little route that takes riders from low semi-desert up through the vibrant little town of Lircay to a high point of 15,800 ft (4,815 m) and then down to Licapa on the Libertadores Highway. Dovetailing perfectly with Neil and Harriet Pike’s route through the mountains from Licapa, it’s a great way out of Ayacucho back up into El Silencio.

  • Following distances cumulative from the turning off the paved highway from Ayacucho onto dirt towards Liracy
  • 10.5 miles (17 km) village of Ccayarpachi, tiendas & municipal building
  • 15.4 miles (24.8 km) Caramate, tienda
  • 22.8 miles (36.7 km) flowing water source (on left of road)
  • 25.7 miles (41.4 km) High point (11,540 ft, 3,517 m)
  • 26.8 miles (43 km) Julcamarca, shops, restaurants & accomodation
  • 34.6 miles (55.7 km) Secclla, shops, restaurants & accomodation
  • 37.6 miles (60.5 km) Atuna
  • 37.8 miles (60.8 km) continnue straight for Lircay (right goes to Chillama)
  • 40.1 miles (64.5 km) turn right (left is an alternative route, going to Ayacucho not via Secclla)
  • 48.1 miles (77.4 km) Abra Pampamali (14,650 ft, 4,465 m)
  • 71 miles (114.3 km) Lircay
  • Following distances cumulative from Lircay
  • 2.5 miles (4 km) turn left, sign ‘Banos Termales de Huapa’
  • 6.6 miles (10.6 km) Tucsipampa, tienda
  • 7.4 miles (12 km) continue around to the left (right to Pampacancha)
  • 9.5 miles (15.3 km) Carhuapata, a few shops
  • 11.6 miles (18.7 km) Allpachaca, tienda
  • 15.3 miles (24.6 km) Occopampa, tienda
  • 16 miles (25.7 km) Pass (15,800 ft, 4,815 m)
  • 25 miles (40.2 km) Pucarumi, water taps
  • 32.6 miles (52.5 km) continue straight (right for Licapa-Vizcachayooc-Yurallasa road)
  • 34 miles (54.7 km) Licapa, shops, restaurant and hospedaje

Licapa to Vilcas Huaman
5 days, 189 miles (304 km), 23,610 ft. (7,196 m) of climbing

An up and down route that Neil and Harriet Pike detail on their excellent Andes by Bike website. See their ‘Licapa (Libertadores Highway) to Santa Rosa (Nazca-Abancay Highway) – Peru’s Great Divide‘ page for route notes.

  • Note: There is now two route options out of Totos. Either take the toughish climb up into some amazing landscapes or the new longer but flatter road that skirts the Rio Pampas. Ask in town for details.
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5 responses to “Riding the Lircay Horseshoe: Confessions of an Angry Gringo

  1. Awesome photos! Sadly you arent the first person to cop a load full of rocks. It seems to be a young peruvian past time!

  2. Another well written post, can just imagine the fury you would have felt in those moments and I probably would have reacted in the same way. Peru looks awesome though aside from those incidents, enjoy it to maximum (Looks like you are!)

  3. Pingback: While Out Giggling… Vilcas Huaman to Antabamba | Velo Freedom - Cycling South·

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