It felt like this ride had been a long time coming. Ever since we decided to sit still in Colombia and wait out the worst of the Andean rainy season back in September last year, we’ve had half an eye on Peru – and in particular on giving ourselves the best chance of riding amongst these snow-capped peaks in all their glory.

For mountain lovers, I can’t imagine it really gets much better than the Cordillera Blanca. Outside of the Himalayas, this is the highest mountain range in the world, with 22 peaks over 6,000m squeezed into an area just 21km wide and 180km long. This makes for mountains that are incredibly accessible, yet still surprisingly unspoiled by the crowds; just a few hours walking or pedalling from the valley, and you can be standing at the foot of a glacier or beside a turquoise Alpine lake – probably with no more than a stray llama or mule for company.

As always, the most difficult part was deciding how to squeeze as much as possible out of our limited time here – the age old bike touring conundrum of must-see sights vs progress vs budget vs I’m knackered, let’s just sit around, drink coffee and eat cake. Consoling ourselves with the rapid realisation that this was likely to be the first of many visits here, we opted for a five day loop by bike which we hoped would give us just a taste of what these mountains had to offer.

And so, with the help of some wise words from our cycling godfather Salva (who we’d first met in Panama, near-missed through Ecuador and finally seen again in Caraz), we plotted a route which would take us from Huaraz across to the eastern side of the Cordillera and back. On the way, we would take in two of the four passes which cross the range at an altitude of just under 5,000m: Punta Olímpica and Portachuelo de Llanganuco. It would, we figured, be a fun test of legs, lungs and sleeping bags – with some glaciers and lakes along the way just to distract us from the lactic acid and hyperventilation.

So after an overnight warm-up ride to Laguna Parón from Caraz, we were ready. All that was missing now was that clear blue sky we’d spent the last 10 months waiting for…

James

Hostal La Merced in Carhuaz, Peru

A false start: we make it along the valley to Carhuaz before the clouds roll in and the peaks disappear. We cut our losses and find a hostel. The next day is even worse – we load calories and try to curb our natural impatience. Finally, on the third day, we wake to clear skies…

Bikes loaded to cycle the Cordillera Blanca

The bikes: with excess baggage stashed in Huaraz, for us this is “fast and light” mode. Or, more realistically with full camping kit and lots of warm clothes: “still slow but not quite so ridiculously heavy” mode.

Cycling through Shilla to Punta Olimpica, Peru

From Carhuaz, we climb up the valley towards Shilla, a small village in the foothills of the Cordillera…

Village square in Shilla, Cordillera Blanca, Peru

…where the immaculate square is occupied by the usual contingent of two snoozing old men and one sweeping lady…

Pigs in Shilla, Cordillera Blanca, Peru

…and the roadside is lined by the local pig population. Forget the dogs –  a small pig would be my pet of choice for this trip. It’s a pragmatic choice: entertainment, waste disposal and – when it gets too big for the bar bag -bacon…mmm, bacon…

Cycling to Punta Olimpica, Peru

Ahead the Cordillera gets closer – here the mighty peak of Huascarán Sur, the highest in Peru at 6,768m…

Cordillera Negra, Peru

…while the less dramatic peaks of the Cordillera Negra retreat behind.

Quebrada Ulta, cycling Punta Olimpica, Peru

We reach the flat pampa of Quebrada Ulta as the sun dips and the shadows climb the canyon walls…

Camping Punta Olimpica, Peru

…a perfect spot to pitch for the night, with just a few inquisitive cows and the cracking noises of the glaciers high above us for company.

Frost on tent, cycling Punta Olimpica

A cold night leaves a dusting of frost…

Sunrise, Punta Olimpica, Peru

…and us shivering as we cradle our breakfast porridge and coffee. Finally, the sunlight begins to touch the surrounding peaks.

Cycling Punta Olimpica, Peru

From the pampa, the switchbacks begin, and we work our way up. Salva, starting half a day behind, catches us…

Cycling Punta Olimpica, Peru

…”The best pass in the world!” he shouts triumphantly – and after seven and a half years cycling around the globe, he should know.

Cycling Punta Olimpica, Peru

We pass the new tunnel, swapping perfect asphalt for a final few kilometres of dirt towards the pass. Breathing turns into panting…

Cycling Punta Olimpica, Peru

…as we reach the snowline and the glaciers close in around us…

Building a snowman, Punta Olimpica, Peru

…and then we’re there! Punta Olímpica – the high point of our trip so far at 4,890m. And what would any self respecting, serious cycle tourist do to celebrate – build a snowman, of course…

Lake descending from Punta Olimpica, Peru

A quick stop for a bread and boiled egg lunch beside a beautiful lake…

Salva Rodriguez cycling Punta Olimpica

…and we pile on the layers for the descent. A thumbs up from Salva, and down we go…

Plaza de Armas, Chacas, Peru

…perfect pavement all the way to Chacas. It’s a picturesque, time-stood-still Andean village with an unusual grass square – perfect for defrosting and drying still-frozen tents, and for mid-afternoon siestas.

Staying with Don Bosco, Chacas, Peru

Chacas is also home to a renowned community of Italian Salesian missionaries, the Don Bosco. They work with locals to produce beautiful woodwork, and have also built a hospital which serves the whole valley. We ask to camp – and instead are treated to a bunk bed and three delicious meals – including the best pizza we’ve eaten in the last two years. Grazie mile amici!

Nastiflu, Peru

Coming from the stubborn school of sickness denial, I had hoped that some mountain air might rid me of a lingering cough and cold. Sadly not – the next day I can’t even stay upright long enough to ride around the square.  And so we wave goodbye to Salva, stock up on Nastiflu…

Alojamiento in Chacas, Peru

…and find ourselves a nearby hospedaje, where I retreat to bed. It’s our favourite kind of place to stay – miraculously held together by rickety pieces of wood, run by a friendly old lady who fusses around us…

Sombrero in alojamiento in Chacas, Peru

…and full of family details like her husband’s beaten old sombrero…

Kitten in Chacas, Peru

…and a resident playmate for Sarah, with an in-built homing device for a warm sleeping bag.

Drying Maiz, Cordillera Blanca, Peru

The next day I’m feeling stronger, and so we head off along the Eastern side of the Cordillera, where drying maize is hung from every roof and balcony like Christmas decorations.

Cycling with schoolchildren out of Sapchaa, Peru

We coincide with afternoon rush hour leaving Sapchaa, and pick up an escort of schoolkids on their way home. They insist on running alongside and pushing my bike up the hills for the next 5km back to their village – if only they were on hand every day…

Cycling towards Yanama, Cordillera Blanca, Peru

Soon we leave the dry and hot valley behind, and head back towards the snow caps once again. A late afternoon pass has us puffing…

Cycling to Yanama, Cordillera Blanca, Peru

…and then it’s downhill into Yanama, where we find a restaurant camp spot with a sunset view of the serrated ridges of the Cordillera.

Leaving Yanama, cycling Portachuelo de Llanganuco

Our luck with the weather continues as the next morning dawns clear. We make an early start from Yanama…

Quenua trees, Cordillera Blanca, Peru

…a twisting 35km dirt climb up through the Quebrada Morococha, past stands of quenual trees with their burnt orange, flaky bark…

Blue flowers, Cordillera Blanca, Peru

…and the delicate purples of Andean lupins.

Lakes, Portachuela Llanganuco, Peru

The road becomes rockier and steeper – or maybe the altitude just begins to kick in – and we pass a series of beautiful lakes…

Condor, cycling Portachuela Llanganuco, Peru

…then, in a flurry: a pair of foxes appear at the side of the road; our first Andean condor drifts effortlessly over our heads…

Cycling Portachuelo de Llanganuco, Peru

…a rock tunnel opens up before us and we crest the pass: Portachuelo de Llanganuco, 4,737m.

cycling Portachuela Llanganuco, Peru

We take a breather…

View from Portachuela Llanganuco, Peru

…and take in the stunning panorama spread before us.

Cycling down from Portachuela Llanganuco, Peru

Down through the rocky hairpins we go…

Cycling Portachuela Llanganuco, Peru

…past Chacraraju (6,108m), commanding the valley like an impenetrable, icy fortress…

Cycling towards Lagunas Llanganuco, Peru

..until the Lagunas de Llanganuco lie in front of us .

Eating spaghetti, cycling Peru

We pick a stream-side camping spot for a spaghetti-fest and an early night.

Lagunas de Llanganuco in the morning light

The next morning the shadows slowly fall…

Turquoise blue of Lagunas Llanganuco, Peru

…and the sun casts its turquoise spell on Llanganuco.

Climbers memorial at Lagunas Llanganuco, Peru

A sobering moment as we pause at the monument to the hundreds of climbers who have been killed in the Cordillera Blanca…

Football match under Huascaran, Peru

All that remains is a jarring descent towards Yungay in the Callejón de Huaylas, toes and fingers defrosting as we pass Sunday league football in the shadow of Huascarán.

View of Cordillera Blanca from Santiago's House, Peru

From Yungay, it’s a quick shuttle back to our comfy home-from-home in Huaraz, Santiago’s House. A hot shower and hot food awaits, along with the hypnotic view back along the Cordillera from the rooftop terrace. We’ve said “We’ll be back” about many places in this trip, but this time I think we really mean it. With some more time, a rucksack, tent, and a mountain bike, the possibilities really would be almost endless…

 

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22 Responses to “La Cordillera Blanca: a tale of two passes”

  1. skip Says:

    These make me think about a trip South, gorgeous photos, love the B&W with the road switchbacks. I really get the altitude bug seeing them. Hope you are over the nasties and on the mend.
    All the best to you both, Skip and Nancy

    [Reply]

    james Reply:

    Do it Skip! I’m pretty sure you would love it down here…
    Love to you both from both of us!

    [Reply]

  2. Inge Says:

    Hola!
    Once again, stunning photos accompanied by a captivating story.
    Thanks for deciding to go travelling and make us boring office workers see green with envy! ;)
    Bon viaje!

    [Reply]

  3. Carol Moncrieff Says:

    Really CRACKING PICTURES, just beautiful xxx

    [Reply]

  4. Jorge Iván Says:

    S&J,
    Placer al ver todo lo que hacen, maravilloso. Acá nos dejaron humildad y alegría, los extrañamos y recordamos en cada momento.

    Les enviamos lo mejor, abrazos y buena vibra.

    Les queremos.

    D&J

    [Reply]

  5. Mum and Dad Says:

    Oh my! w2hat beautiful pictures! What an amazing story! Well done. You really do need to puiblish this road less travelled when you get back! Hope you are over the flu bug and back on the road. Take care and look after one another. All our love
    Ma and Pa

    [Reply]

  6. Lars Henning Says:

    Wow, amazing photos! We are looking forward to following your lead on a similar route when we get down to Peru. We just hiked Tajumulco, GT yesterday with summit at around 4200m and we thought that was high!

    Really enjoying your stories and photos!

    Lars & Jenny

    [Reply]

  7. Neil Says:

    Great photos as always guys!
    I decided the other day that Punta Olimpica is probably the best road pass in the world – glad Salva agrees!
    I can see why you’ve decided to settle down in the Blanca for the next few months…
    abrazos
    Neil

    [Reply]

    james Reply:

    We’re leaving tomorrow, honest! Or maybe the next day – we’ve just heard about a great museum – mummies, shrunken heads, pieces of pot, scratch and sniff Inca dog turds…ooh, sorry, touchy subject? Hasta Fiambalá chicos!

    [Reply]

  8. Margy Says:

    Hi Both, what stunning pictures, the blue of those lakes, really beautiful!! Yes it really looked wonderful, no wonder you were feeling bad with all those huge changes of temperature!!
    Thanks for your message, Sarah, yes the holiday is nearly here, just getting all washing up to date and sorting out all my jobs at Church!!! I’m sure they will cope, I shan’t bother anyway!!
    Yes, Sheltons are all home, very brown and have had a super time. Both Helen & Phil were very tired and in need of a break so I am glad about that!
    Take care and lots of love, Margy xxx

    [Reply]

  9. Cass Says:

    Sounds like you could have move on by the time I make it there. Next Friday! Woohoo!

    [Reply]

    james Reply:

    Sadly so – dragged ourselves away as we have a date in Cuzco. Enjoy the Cordillera Part 2 and say hi to the Pikes for us over a 3L bottle of Inca! Hope to catch you further south…

    [Reply]

  10. Mary and David Says:

    Amazing – love the pusseycat, the piggies and the mighty, magnificent Condor, looking over you, a magical encounter mdx

    [Reply]

  11. Mario Kausel Says:

    This part of your journey is quite different to those arid places you went through.As always your photography is marvelous not mentioning your almost poetic descriptions of the passingby locations Don’t let the flu bother you
    Big hug!.

    [Reply]

  12. Lee and Gary Says:

    Hi James & Sarah—we are heading to Tangle Lakes where we first met you again on Sunday. We would share more halibut with you! Sounds like you are having a great journey. We will drink a toast to your health. God speed.

    Lee in Alaska

    [Reply]

    Sarah Reply:

    Hi Lee & Gary! So good to hear from you both – we still drool at the thought of eating delicious halibut with you two years ago! The food in Peru is good but not that good! Hope you are both well have a great break at Tangle Lakes…we remember it very fondly and it seems like a world away from where we are now, can’t quite believe it has all been part of the same trip. A hug from Peru S&J x

    [Reply]

  13. Dominic - OneBikeOneWorld Says:

    I can’t understand why anyone would ride through there in the rainy season. Not being able to see the spectacular views you’ve posted there. What a great reward for hanging out in Colombia!

    [Reply]

  14. Forks | Contours of a Country Says:

    […] Punta Olímpica, a mountain route that people who know about this sort of thing have described as the best road pass in the world. Here’s a quick […]

  15. Alberto Says:

    Incredible pictures and lots of inspiration for all of us cycle tourers in Perú. Seems that we will be hitting the Cordillera about the same time you did, so will order the same views also :)

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    Hi Alberto – we’ll keep our fingers crossed for you! The CB is definitely one place where I’d say it’s worth waiting out any bad weather for a good window. If you haven’t already, check out the Pikes (www.andesbybike.com) for route inspiration for the Cordillera and further South – they are the high altitude cycling gurus. Suerte!

    [Reply]

  16. Alberto Says:

    Muchas gracias :) . Of course we know the Pikes web, so much good stuff in there. Let´s see if both our lungs and legs can handle the almost 5000 m passes of the CB and beyond!

    [Reply]

  17. Mark Petry Says:

    Such incredible pictures ! the contrast of blue sky, rugged landscapes, and crystal blue skies make for spectacular images. thank you for sharing this photos from your trip!

    [Reply]

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