For most people, the northern gateway of the Huaraz Valley is the much-touted Canyon Del Pato, on the western flanks of the Cordillera Blanca. We travelled through the canyon on our way north. This time, we would return to Hauraz via the other side of the mountains, skirting the northern edge of the Cordillera and then riding down the eastern flanks before crossing into the Huaraz Valley via one of the high passes. The Canyon Del Pato is indeed spectacular; but for me, the route we chose turned out to be even better.
When we first visited the eastern flanks of the Cordillera, entering via Chavin to the south, I spoke of the sense of being somewhere a little special, cut off and protected from the influences of ‘mainstream’ Peru. As we crossed the high ground and then descended once again into the valley, that feeling returned. In the more remote areas of the north of Peru, I had got used to having my greetings returned with nothing more than a stare, especially from children who seemed shy and reserved. Perhaps it was the unusual sight of a gringo on a large, laden motorbike. Here, we encountered quite the opposite; all the locals, adult and children alike, seemed excited to see us, returning our greetings as we rode past we smiles and shouts of “Gringo!”
The picture-perfect, snow-capped peaks were visible in the distance as we rode south through the beautiful valley along poorly maintained tracks. Then, as we arrived in San Luis and began to ride into the mountains towards Punta Olympica high above us, the road abruptly turned to newly-laid tarmac. I had known this would be the case from our previous visit, but it didn’t lessen the impact. Since crossing the Ecuador-Peru border until this point, we had ridden just over 1600km. About 1200km of that had been on the dirt: three-quarters the distance, but in terms of time in the saddle an even greater proportion. The absence of tarmac for such an extended period of time had contributed significantly to the sense of being somewhere remote, undeveloped – and thus more ‘pure’.
Dirt roads are in harmony with the pristine landscapes, the remote villages, the hidden valleys. A ribbon of freshly-laid and painted asphalt, however, feels like an intrusion from the ever-expanding modernisation of the developing world. The sense of this was magnified significantly as we crossed the Cordillera. The route to the north which we had used previously, between Yanama and Yungay, had a magical feel to it. Riding along the little-used broken track further and further into the mountains nurtured a sense of exploration. But here, whilst the glaciers, lakes and ice-covered peaks were equally magnificent and breath-taking, the magic was missing. The tarmac had suffocated it. At the risk of sounding slightly absurd, at times I had the feeling of being in a theme park – such was the contrast to the lonely and enchanting dirt tracks we had become so used to.
As light snow began to fall, we eventually found that magic. The new road crosses the spine of the Cordillera through a tunnel. However, the old road which climbs up to and over the knife-edge ridge line is still there – albeit unmaintained and thus gradually being reclaimed by the mountains through erosion and rockfalls. Literally 200 metres after turning off the asphalt, we passed a gap in the bank beside the road revealing an unnaturally turquoise lake below. Rarely does vista elicit a verbal “Wow!” from me; but this one did, as I did a double-take before hitting the breaks and staring in wonder. We stopped to eat a lunch of avocado and cheese sandwiches overlooking this magnificent view.
Then onwards and upwards through the rocks and rubble. Now above 4800 metres, the Suzuki showed its lack of lungs for the first time on the whole trip. We came across a couple of short, steep sections on the hairpins where rockfalls had created little ‘ramps’; the little DR200 simply couldn’t make it. Opening the throttle to get more power, the engine died as it failed to draw in enough oxygen. Then, as if to heighten the tension as the snow began to fall with more determination, an intermittent electrical gremlin that had been with us all the trip decided to return – the bike wouldn’t start. As I removed the fairing to get to the wiring, I wondered what the recovery plan from this somewhat isolated spot would be.
With the gremlin found and resolved, we crossed the pass at exactly 4900 metres – my highest point on this continent. We then descended and rejoined the tarmac, only for Pau to stop and complain of the bike feeling very unstable. An inspection of the back end revealed why – three spokes had broken resulting in all the rest becoming very loose. The dirt was behind us, but we still had 60km until we reached the valley below. Digging out a small adjustable spanner, I tightened the remaining spokes to remove the free-play, leaving the rim very unbalanced and visibly warped, but it was all we could do. It seemed the Suzuki knew the trip was almost done; like a marathon runner reaching the final straight, the pain that had been suppressed for so long suddenly surfaced as the finish line came into sight.
Unexpectedly, northern Peru has turned out to be the jewel in the Andean crown for me. I have ridden though many spectacular mountainscapes between here and Tierra Del Fuego, and enjoyed many, many miles of exciting dirt roads. But the back-route from the Ecuadorian border to Huaraz has been the best – no question. Coming back to Peru and the incomparable Cordillera Blanca has proven to be an inspired decision.
More photos of the ride at: The Backroads of Northern Peru – a Pictorial
You can read about our first visit to the Cordillera Blanca at: A Ride Through The Cordillera Blanca