Storms Over Paradise

Riding Peru is like being a ten-stone masochist locked in a ring with an angry Mike Tyson. The punches are relentless and hard, but they feel so good; the winding jab of a violent snow storm, the swinging haymaker of thin high altitude air, a five-thousand meter upper-cut, and the stinging body punches of frozen nights and tough road conditions. All the ingredients that I consider essential for a great cycling route, in the high Peruvian Andes get turned up to eleven. It is rare to find a route that ticks all boxes, when roads and surroundings intertwine to bullseye my sweet spot. Even less frequent are the magic routes where landscape, road, company and weather collude to hype all the emotions I seek on my journey. But it can happen, I know it can because it just has. My intrepid cycle partner Cherry and I have just completed the most glorious of rides, a high altitude Andean adventure from Antabamba, south into the depths of the Cotahuasi canyon. A real beauty and a must do for any cycle tourist who likes to get out there.

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Sometimes you just have to take your hands off the grips and surrender to the bliss

What is happiness if it isn’t finding your place in the world, finding your niche and the place where your stars align? What is life if you’ve never given it the chance to take you to that place? I would guess it’s pretty disappointing, but truthfully I don’t know. Having never had children nor experienced the love of a good marriage I consider there to be massive holes in my life experience. However, I am less a stranger than most to the pursuit of happiness, that is what this (bike tour, blog and everything) is all about. I ride and explore to have fun and be happy. At present I consider myself relatively fortunate, I am not currently burdened by unwanted responsibilities nor the weight of expectation. I am someone who sees things in my future rather than regrets those in my past. I am free to live and excited by my readiness to evolve. And as my life and touring experiences swell I find myself becoming increasingly aware of that multifaceted evolution. Just one stream of which is familiarity with the factors that get my cycle route juices flowing. I am currently more aware than ever of the ingredients I need for fun and with that knowledge I find myself chasing the dragon. I need more than I used to satisfy the cravings. But when that cycle hunger is fed the feelings are now stronger and more intense than I could ever have previously supposed. That is why this route was so special, it made me feel so happy, so alive and certain of my place in the world.

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A dirt road riders wet-dream… rough roads and topographic rhythms

During the 51 months since this bike tour began I have been free to explore my wants and search out my niche. But like Russian dolls, every time I crack one code and find something I think is fulfilling, I’m left with another more specific yearning. Years ago I’d wonder about the feeling of freedom, I’d take my lonesome self up to the English Lake District and wander on those wonderings. My dreams would be filled with high mountains and the men who have trodden them. My world needed to expand and my soul needed a journey. Accepting the calling of that journey led me to find my niche, one that involved me, a bike and for the first time in my life, real direction.

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With so many high-points and passes to topple the vistas are constantly evolving and the landscape exciting

Having found my niche to be and my happiness to be in cycling my wants are increasingly narrowing. Once content to cover distance, I would get a buzz from tracking and mapping what I then considered ‘progress’. I’d continually find myself awestruck by new and strange environments and perpetually surprised by the kindness of strangers. But every newness soon becomes normality leading to fresh yearnings and an inevitable intensification of desire. All this has led me onto quieter and quieter roads and out into lesser known country. And these desires are still evolving, I continue to find new adventure and excitement in bike touring. But as I get ever deeply embroiled in my cycling wants I start to fear if they can continue to be satisfied. I cannot imagine bicycle touring getting any better than the high route I have just ridden, how can my cycle desires possibly get any more intense than this?

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On the world’s greatest routes the weather is as important as the roads and the nights as dramatic as the days

The last seven days had everything and were as near perfect as I figure cycle touring can get. Partnered by Cherry we’ve split our time evenly between laughing hard and cycling hard. Together we’ve ridden a high altitude roller coaster where the sun is as punishing as the thrills are great. Twice we had to cut our days short due to sudden and violent snowstorms, witnessing first hand the incredible changeability of weather at 5,000 metres. Every night has been as exciting as the day it has followed. At times we’ve camped in frigid conditions, retreating to our tents early with temperatures already well below freezing. In other instances we’ve shared bunks with young medical workers, slept in a hotel with neither water nor electricity (as standard) and rested amongst musty Llama pelts in a far-flung shepherds shelter. Accompanied by plentiful Alpacas and Llamas we have enjoyed all of what some might consider the hardships of high altitude riding and thrived. Going into the route expecting my lungs to suffer I have in fact never felt stronger on a bike. In the high Andes I’ve never found hard riding so easy and fun so easy to find. All of which beggars the question… Just how much further can that dragon be chased?

Antabmaba to Cotahuasi Route elevation profile

Here is the story of mine and Cherry’s seven-day 179 mile (288km) adventure from Antabamba to Cotahuasi. A journey that kept us over 4,500 meters altitude for over 80 miles (130km), had us climbing five five thousand meter passes and to numerous other high-points on often difficult roads. And a ride that took us out into some of the most remote communities of Andean Peru, a land where old men hadn’t seen gringos’ before us and luxury simply means unfrozen water.

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After just a night in Antabamba Cherry and I spin out of town brimming with excitement. A short climb and we spill over into open farm lands…

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… before skirting around an impressive gorge…

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… and stopping for an early lunch. Having had a series of gear problems in the days leading up to Antabamba, Cherry once again finds herself sat in the dirt repairing a puncture

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Having lost a fair bit of time and resigned ourselves to a shorter day we launch back onto the route…

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… enjoying a few ups and downs before pitching camp for the night

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The gorgeous warm light of the previous evening seems a long way away as the morning brings in low grey clouds. Thankfully we have a fun little climb to keep us warm

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Feeling strong we make short work of the climb, stopping at the top (4,520m) to layer up against the cold. This is the true start of the fun, we’ve mounted the high altitude roller-coaster that will be home for the next few days

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There is light snow in the air and Alpacas on the ground as we float through the silence towards lunch…

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As we cook up some noodles and slurp our coca tea the grey clouds part and a burst of sunshine wrestles through…

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… but not for long

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Just before the summit of Abra Ccotaccasa (4,870m) a storm quickly sweeps in, breaking in a violent bombardment of cold snow. Cherry is a little way behind when the weather hits but catches up to find me huddled back to the wind desperately trying to keep my feet dry

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Thankfully the storm passes through as quickly as it arrives, leaving us a beautiful white blanket descent from the pass…

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… down to 4,760m and into the frigid evening shade

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A cold night pitched up just below 4,800m is made all the more easier with the treat of Cherry’s special soya chunks for dinner (any resemblance to dog food is purely coincidental). With the temperature already below -6°C and the wind chill considerable, our tents provide welcome refuge

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When morning comes the sun rises on an amazing world. I collect water for breakfast…

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… as the local residents enjoy theirs

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Within no time we’ve toppled Abra Ninaccasa (4,880m) and climbed up to a second pass. The descent from 4,950m gives us an opportunity to see whats ahead… mountain after mountain, pass after pass… pure paradise

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Like day follows night, in this part of the world climb always follows descent…

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… and stunning vista follows stunning vista

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Every inch of the road is beautiful… taking photos has never been so easy

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On the descent from Abra Ninaccasa Cherry managed to bag a couple of free bread loaves from a lorry driver… they prove a welcome addition to our lunch, setting us up nicely…

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… for the afternoon climb up to Abra Huacullo, at 5,016m this is the first time either of us has cycled beyond 5,000m

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An initial descent from Abra Huacullo…

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… is followed by a short climb…

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… and more outstanding natural colours

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As the afternoon stretches out the landscapes pulls open…

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… sucking us into late afternoon bliss

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As the last of the day’s sun tints the mountains tops we descend down into the tiny village of Huacullo (4,690m), our home for the night

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After cold nights in the tent it’s relaxing to have a night in a guesthouse, even if it has no water and only one hour of electricity a day. With all the villages water-pipes frozen breakfast proves a challenge. Tinned peaches and evaporated milk come to the rescue making these two cycles the happiest tourists in town (they don’t see many visitors)

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Leaving the child hustlers of Huacullo behind we spin a quick 7km over to the next village, Culipampa (4,770m)

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Culipampa quickly buries into both of our hearts. The master of the local tienda (the beautiful lady pictured) brews up some coffee and boils eggs for us to take away for lunch

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Culipampa feels like the Peruvian wild-west, dusty, open and remote. As we drink our coffee in the local shop an old man comes in and is startled to discover us, he has never seen a white person before

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It’s with a slight heaviness in our hearts that we leave Culipampa, experiencing such remote communities and meeting people with lives so divorced from our own is a privilege and honor

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From Culipampa we’re on the climb again, this time up to Abra Culipampa (5,024m). The further we climb the more otherworldly our surroundings become…

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… until we’re left wondering what planet we’re on

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The final pedal strokes up to Abra Culipampa (5,024m) have Cherry’s lungs working overtime…

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… before the views down the other side take our remaining breath away

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I can’t remember smiling so much on a bicycle. There really aren’t enough superlatives to convey how I feel about this route

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It’s a slow and sandy descent from Abra Culipampa (5,024m), not because the riding is hard but because we can’t stop taking photos

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We drop down to lunch at 4,720m…

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… before climbing again…

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… a long shallow ascent up to Abra Huarcaya (5,057m)…

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… followed by a cold evening drop down to the tiny mining village of Huarcaya (4,540m)

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Where there are mine workers there is usually a medical centre. Cherry manages to charm us a meal, bunk and hilarious evening in the health centre with fast talking Doctor Agusto and eccentric Nurse Kimberlin

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From Huarcaya 7km of gentle valley riding in the company of numerous unwelcome mine vehicles delivers us…

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… onto the gentle climb up to Abra Loncopata (5,119m)

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At 5,119m Abra Loncopata represents the high-point of the entire route and rewards the most expansive views of the ride

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After a cold break we prepare to say goodbye to our highest point…

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… descending down and down, well past our planned turning. Confused at having not seen the junction we continue on in hope but eventually turn around after a lorry driver confirms our mistake. Riding 6km back up the road you’ve just descended whilst above 5,000m and hungry for lunch is not recommended… nice views though!

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When we do eventually find the junction we discover our road to be nothing more than a set of tyre tracks in the sand

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Fate has a funny way of working. Once on the correct route we’re followed downhill be a fast-moving storm. Thankfully we hit a shepherd’s hut just as the storm hits us. Within minutes the world has turned white and we decide to cut the day short and sleep in the drafty hut

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Warm morning sun and a high remote mountain hut in the snow… cycle touring poetry

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You can’t buy breakfast views like these… you can only earn them

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Our return to the road is soon met with a freezing river crossing. I regain the feeling in my feet sometime in the late afternoon. Not that it matters…

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… as we’ve got a tough rocky climb to occupy our minds

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As the road levels out at 4,990m, conditions give us two options… either spin through energy sapping sand or momentum sucking snow. Snow turns out to be the preferred choice… oh for a fat bike!

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A bouncy descent down to 4,830m and we mount what is regarded by some as the toughest climb of the route…

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… a rocky, sandy and quite technical spin up to Abra Quenco (5,020m)

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As I wait for Cherry on top of Abra Quenco I can’t help but get emotional… it’s our final 5,000m pass of the route, we won’t find ourselves so high, riding in such sharp clean air and surrounded by such absolute majesty again for a while

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A long descent from Abra Quenco takes us to lunch deep in the valley below (4,220m)

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Struggling through cloying mud we climb up and over into the next valley and a descent through the small village of Chinchayllapa (4,010m)…

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… to a night on the floor of the Huactapa community hospedaje

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Waking up in Huactapa only one more pass sits between us and Cotahuasi. Having got on the road early we put a lot more energy than expected climbing up to Abra Huactapa (4,181m)…

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… before dropping quickly through Maghuancca (3,770m)…

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… into our first dramatic views of the Cotahuasi canyon, the deepest canyon in the world

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Our final big thrill of the route is the switchback descent into the dark depths of the canyon…

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… where we join the Cotahuasi River…

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… running through the enormous canyon…

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… to the town of Alca

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Chasing the last of the days light we power through the 10km from Alca to the start of the pavement in Tomepampa. From there it’s a routine roll up to the town of Cotahuasi

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Arriving in Cotahuasi just after dark we find ourselves a comfortable hotel and record our first moments of relaxation. Tired but completely wired, you’ll be hard pressed to find a happier pair of cycle tourists. What a route!

 

Route Tips

7 days, 179 miles (288 km), 21,608 ft. (6,586 m) of climbing

This incredible route was devised and noted by Neil and Harriet Pike. Their route notes and my updates and comments can be found on their Andes By Bike website here. There I offer this summary of my thoughts on the route:

This route was nowhere near as challenging but every bit as beautiful as expected. It’s a genuine treat to spend so much time up in the highlands. With so many high-points and passes to topple the vistas are constantly evolving and the landscape exciting. Road conditions are at times challenging but rideable. I was able to ride the entire route without any pushing. Often remote but seldom isolated I’d recommend this route to anyone with a modicum of winter camping experience. However, if you are not fully acclimatised to the altitude there is a strong chance you may spend the entire time quite miserable. And take heed of Neil and Harriets advice concerning load weight, keep it down and you’ll have considerably more fun (if you’re riding heavyweight, bus company Cruz Del Sur will safely, cheaply and reliably encomienda any excess gear between major Peruvian hubs). Obviously at such high attitudes it’s important to be prepared for any weather, it comes in fast. Riding in the last week of July, 2014, the dry season, our movement was halted twice by snowstorms. With enough warm clothing, food and a sizeable bag of coca leaves this route has every chance of becoming your favourite.

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6 responses to “Storms Over Paradise

  1. Pingback: Deep Canyon Capers… Cotahuasi to the Colca | Velo Freedom - Cycling South·

  2. Nathan, i really enjoy your words. From the first sentences they are taking me into the journey. You have a talent of story-telling. It must feel nice in your heart and mind when they come out of you. Your short-wordy style is so beautiful that at one moment it made me to grave for more. At that point I recognized and understood my graving and again I only saw the beauty.

    “Just how much further can that dragon be chased?”

    For the heaven’s sake Nathan, chase that dragon with the whole of your energy(as you are doing). Chase: and observe, observe and observe that chase. Observe the nature of your chase. Into that observing will be filled your cravings. To the understanding will fade the fear of “if your wants can continue to be satisfied”.

    When you understand that you have NO PLACE in this world, no more you have something to search, not even freedom. Then you are and you know you are. Even in that knowing, the journey still happens as far as it is destined to happen, and then and only then, you see the journey as it is. You will ask nothing from it. When you see things as they are, you are never apart from the beauty and the thrills of an most incredible adventure. One heart without fear will get the thrills and is completely satisfied even on a every paved and flat highway of Kansas USA!

    If you didn’t completely understand the nature of your feeling of happiness on the high-route, sooner or later the hang-over is coming to you in some form of frustration. If it comes, hug it as whole-heartedly as you open your arms to the mountains in the first photo of this post, and observe, observe and observe it without any words, without any opinions and without any hopes….

    Cheers NathanMan!!!

    Jukka from Chivay (when i was to post my comment in Chivay i lost the connection and i thought it was non-sense anyway, so i forgot it. Now i read my comment again and decided to post it, non-sense or not 🙂

  3. Nathan, i really enjoy your words. From the first sentences they are taking me into the journey. You have a talent of story-telling. It must feel nice in your heart and mind when they come out of you. Your short-wordy style is so beautiful that at one moment it made me to grave for more. At that point I recognized and understood my graving and again I only saw the beauty.

    “Just how much further can that dragon be chased?”

    For the heaven’s sake Nathan, chase that dragon with the whole of your energy(as you are doing). Chase: and observe, observe and observe that chase. Observe the nature of your chase. Into that observing will be filled your cravings. To the understanding will fade the fear of “if your wants can continue to be satisfied”.

    When you understand that you have no place in this world, no more you have something to search, not even freedom. Then you are and you know you are. Even in that knowing, the journey still happens as far as it is destined to happen, and then and only then, you see the journey as it is. You will ask nothing from it. When you see things as they are, you are never apart from the beauty and the thrills of an most incredible adventure. You will no more have requirements of any kind and you won’t need more to satisfy your cravings. Then you are not taking the journeys anymore, you just witness them happen. As the journey won’t give you nothing nor take, there is no more place for fear. One heart without fear will get the thrills and is completely satisfied even on a every paved and flat highway of Kansas USA!

    If you really did not understand the nature of your feeling of happiness on the high-route, sooner or later the hang-over is coming to you in some form of frustration. If it comes, hug it as whole-heartedly as you open your arms to the mountains in the first photo of this post, and observe, observe and observe it without any words, without any opinions and without any hopes….

    Cheers NathanMan!!!

    Jukka from Chivay (when i was to post my comment in Chivay i lost the connection and i thought it was non-sense anyway, so i forgot it. Now i read my comment again and decided to post it, non-sense or not 🙂

  4. Pingback: A Bloody Big Lake and a Sizable Bolivian City… Around Lago Titicaca to La Paz | Velo Freedom - Cycling South·

  5. Pingback: To Love or to Loathe?.. Wrestling with the Lagunas | Velo Freedom - Cycling South·

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