To Huaraz – Through Mud, Rocks and Snow

Cord Blanca

I am back in the ‘high mountains’ – the Cordillera Blanca, a cluster of dramatic, ice-covered peaks, surrounded by glaciers and lakes, rising at the highest point above 6500m. Other than the occasions I crossed between Santiago and Mendoza late last year, I haven’t ridden amongst such landscapes for a year now. Looking at a map of South America, it would be easy to assume that the Andes are a continuous chain of high peaks. But that is not the case. From northern Argentina, the mountain range expands in width and flattens out. The towering mass of snow-covered peaks found further south by-and-large disappear; in their place is the gently-rolling Altiplano punctuated by a few isolated peaks and volcanos. There are exceptions – the beautiful Cordillera Real which overlooks Lake Titicaca is similar to the Cordillera Blanca, but I did not ride through that mountain range.

MudAfter four days in Huanuco, where we had the bikes serviced, we left and headed west. The heavy rain had continued, but whereas earlier it challenged us with swollen river-crossings and muddy tracks, this time it manifested as new obstacles. Following a river valley en route to La Union, we came upon a queue of stationary vehicles. Edging to the front to see what was causing the blockade, we found a mud slide had engulfed the road, making it impassable to cars and trucks – but that didn’t necessarily mean motorbikes. As we rounded the corner, the group of locals who had gathered beside mud slide enthusiastically gestured to us to pass.

It didn’t look so bad, so I revved the engine and waded in – literally. It was much deeper and thicker than I had expected. The mud clung to my rear wheel, and the bike struggled to pull itself free. Some of the spectators came to my assistance (without being asked, as is always the case here in Peru), but soon retreated in peels of laughter when my rear wheel covered them in mud. With a lot of throttle I finally made it through. Pau was next. Her underpowered Suzuki fared less well. By the time I had dismounted and returned to give her a hand, I found a group of locals pushing a very muddy bike towards me – accompanied by a very muddy rider.

Mud was the name of the game for the remainder of the day. In some places it was just the residue from previous slides which had been hurriedly cleared, leaving the road smeared in a few inches of the stuff. In other places, fresh slides were being cleared by bulldozers as we waited. Telegraph poles leaned over the rushing water where the riverbanks had collapsed. We pushed and slid our bikes through it all. By the time we reached La Union our bikes – and in Pau’s case, riding gear – were filthy.

Yesterday we left La Union after another night of rain, but at least under a brightening sky. After no more than 20km, we came across another queue of static vehicles. This time a major rock fall had blocked about 30 metres of the road. Such challenges are tailor-made for adventure bikes. After conducting a foot recce and clearing the worst of the rocks away to create a path, I was confident I could get the motos through. After removing my kit bag to lower my centre of gravity, I rode the Tenere into the obstacle course. It was a case of ‘little by little’ as I picked my way up and over the rocks, sometime having to clear large angular stones from in front of my rear wheel.

Into the RockfallAt one point, when I was delicately edging round a boulder, a shower of small rocks began raining down from above. The locals shouted warnings, telling me to leave the moto, and Pau (who was videoing me) bolted. Unable to deploy my kick-stand due to the uneven rocks below, I was left atop the moto and feeling somewhat exposed as falling rocks bounced around me – a few uncomfortably close. I just tucked my head down to protect my face, hoping the helmet and my riding jacket would absorb some of the impact if I got hit. The ‘shower’ over, I got the Tenere to the other side, and then returned for the Suzuki. Without any luggage, the 110kg bike skipped nonchalantly over the rocks – another very convincing demonstration of why I need a lighter bike.

Back on our way, we slowly climbed into the high mountains, up the eastern flank of the Cordillera Blanca. Topping out at 4700m, we turned off the main road on to a small dirt track which cut 60km across the mountain range. We were now riding flanked by snow-covered slopes, up to 4890m – the highest point I’ve reached thus far in South America. In a brief window of clear weather, we were treated to some stunning views of this wild and rugged landscape. But then the window closed and we were blanketed in cloud and snow, driven hard into our faces by strong winds. In some places the track turned into a stream, the numerous and large potholes becoming clusters of small ponds. We were wet and cold, but it made for exhilarating riding – alone in the remote mountains, knowing we had to push on and expecting that no one would be passing by to assist us. It was a challenge, the sort of which you just don’t find riding a ribbon of tarmac. I loved it.

They say the Cordillera Blanca rising above Huaraz is one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the world. As yet, we haven’t set eyes on this vista – only cloud. We are passing the day in the town, drying our clothes and kit and hoping for sun. There are numerous tracks crossing the mountains which we hope to explore – tracks that should be a dream to ride, but it would be nice to see some mountains too.

6 Comments on To Huaraz – Through Mud, Rocks and Snow

  1. Jim & Jenny Mitchell // 25/03/2014 at 9:55 am // Reply

    Paul, thanks for your posts. Me and my wife Jenny are coming to S. America in October. We’ll be heavy – 2 up on a GS1200A, so we’ll be limited on what roads we can/can’t manage. We’ve got a year and hope to end up in Canada at the end of it all. Love reading your posts and like the way you write – thoughtful and very readable. Very best of luck to you both with your adventures!

    • Thanks Jim. Feel free to email me if you want any specific info as you plan. More than happy to help – I got a lot of help from another rider before my trip so I am very happy to share my experiences as payback!

      Check out Two Moto Kiwis’ blog – they are two up on a KTM Super Enduro and are heading south from Canada.

      All the best. Paul

      • Jim Mitchell // 27/03/2014 at 10:47 am //

        Paul, that’s great thanks. What I call ‘pay forward’ when someone helps you and you go on to help someone else – the way the adventure biking community help each other out is a joy to experience! There’s a couple from East Anglia we’re in touch with doing the same trip about a year after us so we’re pooling info and are going to let them know anything useful we can as we travel.
        Tell you what would be useful to hear about from you and is a bit difficult to estimate here in UK – how are you finding costs? Hostels, fuel, food, camping? We’re struggling a bit to work out what it might cost us on average in S America to travel. From what we’ve read hostels etc are pretty cheap as is food so we expect not to use our camping kit too much until we hit N America when costs inevitably will go up.

      • Hi Jim,

        Just back from the most stunning 4 days of riding I think I have done here – I’ll post about it in the next couple of days. (No internet so catching up now.) I was thinking of you going two up on the Beemer. If you are happy on the dirt with Jenny on the back and do it in the dry season, I reckon you can do it. Not to be missed under ANY circumstances!

        I’ll put my thoughts to costs. Peru is proving cheap – all up I reckon I’m averaging around USD 20 a day, and that isn’t doing much wilderness camping. Chile is the expensive place. I’ll do my sums and let you know.

        All the best,

      • Jim Mitchell // 02/04/2014 at 5:58 am //

        Thanks Paul, any info on costs would be really helpful. Just finished reading your post on Chavin and it sounds a very special place and really well written up. Ironically we had just been poring over our maps and had marked Chavin as a place to visit after reading about it in the ‘Footprint’ SA Guide book!
        Looking forward to reading about the 4 days riding!
        Given how well you write (not blowing sunshine up …etc… but you do write well) had you thought of submitting articles to mags? I know Paddy Tyson at Overland Magazine is always looking for good articles and pics? (However, I know some people don’t like to take up valuable trip time on that kind of thing – just a thought)
        Regards, Jim & Jenny

      • Hi Jim. Thanks for your kind words. I have indeed started writing articles – Adventure Bike Rider took my first one, published this month. In fact, they are interested in an article on my ride through the Cordillera Blanca. I haven’t contacted Overland yet, but maybe I should – they may have a slightly different slant to ABR and may want some different stuff from me. I just need to find the time to write – too many ideas!

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