Technically “The Empty Quarter” applies to the Rub’ al Khali desert on the Arabian Peninsula, however I’m going to use a little creative license and use it to describe the last few days on my bike from Laraos; it could equally apply to parts of Bolivia and the Puna de Atacama in northern Chile and Argentina so I reserve the right to use it again.
As usual I’ll use pictures rather then a tedious narrative to describe the journey, but suffice to say the five days required to reach Huancavelica, where I now have my feet up and am filling my face for a few days, probably count amongst the stiffest sections of riding I can remember, and a terrific reminder of just how deliciously empty and challenging Peru’s backroads can be. Peru is much steeper than the Himalayas, the roads and tracks here are generally pretty recent as a result of mining activity in the mountains, and ‘carved’ out of the mountains with modern Japanese 4x4s in mind rather than the crappy old Bedfords trundling around the Himalayas in the later years of the British Raj and shortly thereafter.
Laraos was a great place. Super mellow and friendly, the sort of place that makes you feel as if nothing much matters at all really.
Huancavelica is a nice, untouristed highland town. I imagine I’ll get my camera out at some point when I’ve finished stuffing myself. I have work to do as well as I expect I’ll be here for a few days. From here I must head to Ayacucho.. I shipped a spare tyre there from Jauja with the Cruz del Sur bus – cargo service. They’ll keep packages for 30 days so from there I’ll ship it on down to Arequipa and replace my rear which should then see me good through Bolivia and the Atacama. I can’t buy 29″ x 3″ rubber over here, and I haven’t got the time or patience to mess around with customs and import issues.
In Huancaya I met Jan and Lucy.. we caught up again in Laraos. A super couple and great company. They took a slightly different route to me, and we were able to catch up again on my arrival in Huancavelica.
In the five days it took me from Laraos I crossed five passes at between 15,200ft and 16,400ft. The first of these being the climb of Punta Pumacocha…
It’s a spectacular track as it winds its way skywards from the relative warmth and lushness of the valley at Laraos (3460m / 11,351ft) to the summit at 4990m / 16,371ft…
The temperature dropped dramatically as I winched my way slowly up, with ice and snow lying in areas shaded from the fierce daytime sun.
Knowing I would not make it over the pass in one day I camped mid-afternoon just above Laguna Sunococha at about 4550m / 14,930ft. I’d been told it was also the last water supply for quite some way so a good place to sit and drink tea before filtering 10 litres in the morning for the journey ahead… It turned out that advice was not entirely accurate and there were a number of opportunities for finding reasonable quality water on the far side of the pass. Perhaps it was just seasonal bollocks, the wet season not long being ended water was probably more abundant than later in the dry season. If I was to do it again at this time of year I would take a litre or two for the climb, then just below the far side of the pass there is a clear pool that would be fine to filter I think, and another 10km or so on a few clear trickles across the track that would also be fine. There are many lakes too but they look pretty stagnant, however are home to flamingos which is pretty nice to see. It’s pretty dry then for a day or so depending on how quickly you can ride….
Brew on… and a sample from my supply of cakes… I had 4 days of food on board, expecting to reach the next village after 3 days but not being entirely sure an extra day of ‘insurance’ is always a good idea.
From my camp I could see the road ahead, and tried not to think about it. It rises with gradients approaching 20% at times on a surface of loose rubble. Tough enough at sea level…
.. so instead just sat back and watched the mountains..
Clichéd ‘view from the tent’ sort of a thing.
The final 7km of the climb are utterly spectacular. Brutally hard going at times but so worth the effort as the track winds it way up the steep scree slope.
… and the view back down from the summit. I was quite pleased to reach the summit before midday.
The far side of the pass is equally spectacular…
This lake would also be fine to filter water from I reckon, a few km the far side of the pass. Much of it is inaccessible via a loose scree slope but the head of the lake looked accessible if you could be bothered with the scramble… and were happy to risk it.
..the road ahead is… spectacular.
The weather closed in that afternoon and I was chased across the mountains by snowstorms.
Escaping from under the weather by late afternoon I perched my tent on a spur above an immense valley. Another perfect spot to enjoy a brew and a ration of cake. It gets dark early, around 6pm, at the moment so dinner is always early before retreating to the tent. Temperatures plummet after sunset and at these altitudes everything is pretty much frozen solid by 8pm. Mornings can be hard to get going, with temps as low as -10C and everything frozen solid. My water filter has been living in my sleeping bag each night to prevent ice damage.
It truly is an empty place. For three days I didn’t see a soul…
.. just a few resident alpacas and llamas for company.
I love the domesticated camelids of the Andes..
..there’s a certain comedy element. I’ve decided to keep a diary of alpaca expressions.
Dude… or dudette, I have no idea.
They look very funny having been shorn. Here’s a convenient before and after pic.
Traffic jam. They always lift my spirits. On my final day, slowly grinding my way up the fifth high pass in as many days I was feeling utterly drained and feeling quite down. I came across a large herd of alpacas… a hundred long woolly necks popped up together, and a hundred little woolly faces all turned to stare at me as I inched my way past. I felt so happy. The remainder of the climb was so much easier.
So cool… both alpacas and llamas are the product of centuries of human intervention, being derived from their wild cousins the guanaco, and delicate and rare vicuña.
Anyway, I digress. More of that empty scenery. Being alone there are no ‘cyclist in the landscape’ pictures. Hopefully that doesn’t matter.
So deliciously empty…
.. tortured and folded rock..
the fatigue is easier to deal with when it looks like this.
The next village is Acombambilla. The descent starts gently enough…
..before things get a little steeper as the track plunges into a deep cleft in the mountains.
I reached Acombambilla about 2pm. Too shagged to stand almost I had the shivers from fatigue. It’s a simple one street adobe place but friendly as usual. I found a basic little shop with a kitchen attached on the road through; she warmed up some rice and potatoes for me, followed by a few bars of chocolate. I didn’t have the legs for the climb to follow so ended up staying upstairs. A bare mattress and some ‘prison blankets’ in a dusty box room with gaps in the walls, a bare bulb and glass missing from the windows, and accessed via a vertiginous welded steel spiral staircase. I curled up in my sleeping bag and slept fantastically well; I also enjoyed getting rid of some of the layers of dust and sunblock under the icy cold shower outside. I got talking to chap, Romero, mostly he just wanted to try on my sunglasses and know if I’d had any trouble with pistol-wielding bandits. They are around but mostly where the pickings are worthwhile, i.e. not on these remote trails in the mountains.
Feeling much refreshed.. another long, long climb back out of the valley.
An oasis hidden away amongst the mountains.
Yet another fine campsite. Having been on the road since 8am I stopped early again, about 2.30pm. The pass ahead looked increasingly steep and I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to find a spot to put my tent.. I was also feeling pretty well done in for the day… the climbing to this point had been super steep and loose, again..
.. so I parked myself in an inviting looking meadow complete with tinkling brook. It’s sometimes very tempting to keep pushing on but I’m not here to just ride through as fast as possible, so I enjoyed a very pleasant late afternoon watching the birds, drinking tea, and finishing off some by now rather stale cakes…
If you’re interested here’s a GPS plot of my ride from Jauja to Huancavelica. Not a huge distance but it’s not fast or easy terrain. From Huancaya I made use of the excellent route notes from the Pikes adventures in this part of the world.