Bikepacking Peru’s Valle de los Volcanes – Ryan Wilson

Bikepacking Peru’s Valle de los Volcanes
Photos and words by Ryan Wilson

After dealing with a dead Garmin and a bricked iPhone (my only GPS devices) for a while during my last stint in Perú, I decided to put the trip on hold for a few months and head back to the States. It was a nice break to sort a few things out, skip a little bit of Peru’s rainy season, and take it easy for the holidays.

That said, it doesn’t take a whole lot of time enduring the salty, gray winter of suburban Detroit to long for the days of getting hailed on in the high Andes and eating alpaca intestine soup with a rusty spoon.

Originally I had planned to head straight back to where I left off near the border of Bolivia, but after landing in the Peru, I decided to piece together a route to get back into the flow of things (read: get back into some semblance of riding shape). It would also allow me to check out some areas that were out of reach on my previous route. This lead me toward a region of the country that is home to the two deepest canyons in the world, the second largest glacier in the tropics, and quite literally hundreds of volcanoes.

One way to kickstart getting back into riding form is by throwing yourself directly at what has to be one of the largest sustained climbs in the world, from the small town of Aplao at 2,000 feet above sea level to a pass above 16,100 feet roughly 55 miles (and couple days) later. It isn’t often that you get to climb through the sweltering lower canyons, into the lush greens of the cloud “forest”, and over the glacier-laden high Andes in one go.

Of course, in true Peruvian fashion, the route is scattered with small villages filled with friendly locals. One such local that I ran into was a gentleman name Alfredo, who was out riding a skinny tire bike up a rather muddy road toward the farm that he works at. After the usual tire squeezing and counting of the cassette cogs (doce!), we continued on in opposite directions.

Later that evening after I set up in a local hospedaje (cheap hotel), I was walking down a road just outside of town when I heard a voice cry out from a small home just off the road, and out comes running mi amigo Alfredo. He quickly waves his arms and tells me to follow him. “Wait right here” he said (in Spanish), as he went inside his home… A minute or two later he comes out donning a full set of traditional Peruvian attire and requests that we re-do his photo in the proper gear.

Of all my time in Perú, this was unquestionably one of my favorite interactions and is a prime example of how proud the people of this country are of their traditions.

The route continues down into El Valle de los Volcanes, which contains more than 85 volcanic cones on its own, and a road that twists through hills of volcanic rock and a sea of San Pedro Cacti. With canyon walls rising 6,000+ feet into the air all around, this is really one of the most unique places I’ve ever been.

Leaving the warmth of the valley to head up a gated-off road that the locals denied existing, I made my way to the oxygen deprived 17,000+ foot pass. It always seems to happen that the standard afternoon hail storm hits right when I get to the top of a pass, and this one certainly didn’t disappoint. After all, who doesn’t love descending into a face-full of ice needles? I can’t get enough of it (apparently).

The route rolls on along the high pampa before dropping into what might be my favorite of the large Peruvian cities… Arequipa. It’s the second largest in Perú, flanked by the towering Nevado Misti, and is home to some solid “gringo food” as well as a hot shower, which I definitely needed at this point. (Seriously, if you go to Arequipa and are sick of potatoes, check out Taqueria Vive Mexico, which may be the best Mexican joint in the country).

Here’s my route.
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  • Dr J

    Amazing pictures as usual.

    One question though – is Alfredo riding a bike with no functional brakes (pads seem not to reach rims) or do I just see things wrong?

    One more – have you changed from Fly Creek to Copper Spur recently?

    • You are correct about the brakes, and it’s funny because all of the roads in this area are fairly steep.

      As for the tent, I switched to the Copper Spur before leaving for this trip last year. I knew I wanted something that was a bit more livable since I’d be in it a lot. To me, the dual-side doors and extra head room (I can actually sit up in this one!) are totally worth a little extra bulk.

      • After spending 50+ nights in our Fly Creek last year, we also are going to do a Copper Spur for our next tent. Two vestibules and side entry is huge!

        • Yeah, having two vestibules is pretty much a must for me at this point! I’ve gotten into the pattern of stashing my bike under one side and anchoring it inside the tent (so it doesn’t get up and walk away in the night). IMO a huge benefit of that extra vestibule space.

          • Absolutely, the second vestibule is super useful because then you get a separate door for entry and a vestibule just for shoes and easy-access stuff, while your other gear can go on the other side out of the way. I knew this before getting the Fly Creek – my last two tents have been MSR Hubba series – but it was something like 12 oz lighter than the Copper Spur which really meant we could take a 3-person tent for the weight of a 2-person. Now, after that many nights in it (definitely over 60 at this point), having to pivot 180º after sitting inside and removing shoes and doing the reverse to get out, is just not as convenient as a side door. Instead, you climb over your partner if you’re on the gear side…

      • Jonathan McCurdy

        I’ve got a Copper Spur 3-man, and it’s absolutely luxurious. And I recently discovered it will fit in a King Manything Cage.

  • Transit

    Dammit Ryan, yet another set of pics that incite wander lust like no one’s business. Stop it, don’t stop.

  • Kerry Nordstrom

    Dat pig!!

    • I think that was the first moment that I wondered if having a trail-pig was feasible.

      • Bring him back and we’ll teach him how to ride on your handlebars!

  • Whitney Ford-Terry

    #NSFW

    • Says the one who’s s24o’d three separate times this week… you’re living inspiration too, Whitney!

  • Chris Valente

    Dude….

  • smoothjazzlines

    Ryan, those two portraits are beautiful.

  • The best yet! Mind blown!

  • Per Thomsen

    What an incredible journey in such a beautiful place.
    Didn’t spend enough time there in 2001

    http://spottymoz.com

  • So good!

  • Ian Reiman

    Whoa.

  • Harry

    Incredible images

  • Unbelievable. This is Ansel Adams level outstanding. This is one of the single best photo sets I’ve ever seen, in any context.

    Wow.

    • Thank you, Max. It really means a lot to hear!

  • Will

    Blown away as usual. Those mountains down there are gorgeous. Bravo.

  • charlesojones

    Dude, you need to write a book. Seriously.

  • Chris W

    Definitely needed this today. Incredible as always, Ryan.

  • supr3mo

    Beautiful narration and photos, as always. Thank you, Ryan!

  • Hunnibell

    God. The memories. I was there 10 years ago and climbed Misti down the valley and up over the other mountain Chachani. It killed me.

    • That sounds like fun! I had actually contemplated trying to hike to the top of Misti. Maybe one day…

  • How has the bike held up to the constant mud/rain/snow mile after mile?

  • Dylan Buffington

    Ryan’s images blow me away every single time.

  • Pascal K

    Man! These just get better and better! A joy every time. Thanks Ryan!

  • Rex Lombardi

    Sad cacti made my day. Keep it coming! :p

  • land1

    I want full screen so badly here. Maybe I just need a bigger laptop. Beautiful as always!

    • PNT

      Full screen would be great for galleries like this!

  • kermitonwheels

    So many wows! That’s an incredible route with so many sights, and captured so well.

  • Sean Talkington

    Ryan…You are getting REALLY good at photoshop.