Cordilheira Branca - Peru

The Peruvian Andes and a complete tour of the Codilheira Branca.
MTB/Gravel 720km 17190m 60 2 May/Jun 2018

And there I was, 3100 meters above sea level. I felt good until I went up the first flight of stairs. The first days of acclimatization in the city of Huaraz - the most important city in the Cordillera Branca - were essential for the success of the undertaking that would pass the 4500m altitude sometimes. During acclimatization, I suffered a somewhat serious fall descending from Laguna Wilcacocha, and my road rashes burned like embers at bedtime. After applying the arnica solution in alcohol as recommended by the natives, I cured the inflammation and we were ready to start riding with the circle route around Huascaran. But why not play a game of volleyball before that? Residents have fun on the streets, install volleyball nets, and count the wins with clothespins on the ropes. Guilherme and I were placed on either side of the net, treated like giants, and in a decisive move of the match, he twisted his foot badly. And this is how our journey began… I just don’t remember who won the volleyball match.

The Cordillera Blanca is a mountain range with 16 peaks of over 6000 meters in altitude. It extends for 180 km in a straight line, right next to the lower Cordillera Negra. Huscarán is the highest mountain in Peru, at 6768 meters. It took us a few days to go all the way around. We started in Huaraz, and crossed the highest road tunnel in the world. Then we passed through Chacas, Sapcha, Yanama, crossing Paso, and Laguna Llaganuco, Laguna 69. And finally finished the first leg of the trip to Yungay. In 1970 Yungay was completely buried by a landslide from Huáscaran, and today it’s been rebuilt in a new position. It was the May and June’s 2018 season.

We climbed to Laguna Parón, one of the most incredible sceneries I have ever had the pleasure of laying my eyes on. And then we packed our bags to set out towards the trekking of Quebrada Santa Cruz. Then Guilherme found out he had an urgent matter in Brazil and had to return as soon as possible. I thought about going back with him after all, we planned this trip together for so long, and there were still 40 days and hundreds of kilometers to go. But I decided to stay, even though I was by myself. So I boarded my friend on the first bus home… and found myself alone, in the middle of the Peruvian Andes.

First things first: to put my hand on my head and scream AAAAAAAA! I observed the Cordillera Negra on the left, the Blanca on the right. And faced that headwind from hell that takes the valley at exactly 1pm. After that, I set up my old bike that now carried alone: a tent, and a kitchen for two people, groceries for 1 or 2 days, water, sleeping bag, camera, snow clothes, tools, mini pharmacy, backpack, and trekking stick. The bike was still incredibly good, light, and maneuverable.

The next section was less known, less busy, and even less studied by me. I had all the necessary resources, enough money, a good bike, excellent physical shape, I was properly acclimated… And yet I felt a kind of fear.

Fear of what? I don’t know. At the moment I didn’t have time to think. Actually, I had time, but I was too lazy. I still had the stitches in my knee, but I pushed it into my head that would complete the return of the Cordillera. Just as we had already agreed in Brazil. I had this commitment to myself and also to my partner. Can you imagine going home without the goal completed? I don’t particularly like it.

I entered the Canon Del Pato, a road with a lot of sequenced tunnels carved in stone, with only one lane for cars. There the Peruvians (who aggressively honk even when it’s their grandmother in front of the car) were completely silent. Even though many signs asked to “HONK”. That made me so angry. Human beings… and one more thing for me to be thinking about.

In the next sections, I felt solitude, freedom, anger, shortness of breath, wonder, but almost never, if ever, loneliness. Passing through the Peruvian villages dressed as a robot on top of a cramped up bike is almost like walking naked in the center of a big city. Stories of foreign cyclists caught on quiet roads were common. I wanted to believe everyone was making fun of me. And I chose to take the unlikely risk of being shot rather than turning around.

I met a gringo on the road, a New Yorker named John. He carried a notebook, a drone, a kitchen, a tent for 2, and his bike. Everything that’s good and the best. Really tasteful. We cycled a few days together, exchanging a lot of knowledge. I worked on my English and taught Spanish classes on the hardest cycling days. We ate together on the side of the road a couple of times, and after a junction where he finished his trip, I still had a few hundred miles to go. I felt happy to meet someone, and I made a friend for life. But when I found myself alone again, I felt more relieved. Few moments have I felt so free in life as this, and what an incredible feeling it is to be alone. I’m not much of a believer in God, but there are some things that seem to be put in our way so that we can see ourselves in the right way.

I finished the circuit and stayed another 2 weeks in Huaraz. I studied, ate pizza, felt homesick, drank Cusqueña and coca leaf liquor, and explored the area climbing rocks and cycling around the peaks of more than 4000 meters high, and the turquoise lagoons that are a few kilometers away. I took a van to Hatun Machay, where I camped for 2 days and could see the sunset in the Huayhuash mountain range, many kilometers away. I also trekked from Quebrada Santa Cruz, the second most beautiful in South America in my opinion. Coincidentally, I did it in the company of a Frenchman called Guilherme. I was able to learn from Peruvian culture in the most beneficial way of traveling: by bike. I believe that there is no smarter way to travel when we seek to do the most with the least.

This part of Peru is very poor and yet very few people were on the street or begging. The cost of living is low and the economy is based on agriculture and a little tourism, mainly in Huaraz. The old vehicles on the street are either destroyed or Tuc-Tuc-shaped. People walk kilometers on foot or take vans that cost 1 or 2 reais to travel kilometers in an unhealthy environment, where even sheep and dogs can enter, below the screams of the collectors. The mamacitas carry their shawls with everything possible, from tree trunks to children, and are strong as bulls. They seemed to be happy people, who sing and dance, smile, fight, and hug. Every night there is a party on the street. The women move the city: they are tour guides, butchers, farmers, owners of inns, and restaurants. I was impressed with how some gringos (Yankees, as Peruvians call them) are disrespectful to the natives and consider them their servants. And saw some unpleasant scenes. Once our van got bogged down on a cliff towards Laguna Churup, and none of the muscular gringos inside help push. In another, the same guys did not stand to allow an elder to sit. So when they called me “gringooo!” I replied that I was Brazilian. Nowadays I don’t know if I would be more ashamed of being in the country of Trump or of being in the country of Bolsonaro.

Sleeping in a hostel falling apart, family houses, pensions, hostels. Camping in the wild, or in public football fields. Being welcomed at a farm of only Quechua speakers, at 4200 meters high, in the middle of nowhere. Eating dry and pure bread, street food (really street) with questionable hygiene standards. Trying sour and cold food, and biphasic mayonnaise. Having cold baths for 60 days in an alpine climate and still choosing to dive in a melting pond. Having diarrhea in the middle of the night at 4500m high, and at least 30km on foot from any point with civilized life. Sharing an emollient in the cold night. Giving curious kids a ride on the bike. Buying chocho, choclo, and cancha from the farmers. I remember this simple part more than I remember the mountain landscape and snowy peaks. And I always remember with a smile on my face. Little do I remember the comfortable beds and sophisticated foods, and they certainly did not teach me anything new. The mountains are there for anyone to see, but the life around them is not. I ask myself almost every day: what is the pleasure I take from doing all this? Somebody tell me! I’m still looking for the answer.