Switchback Nostalgia: Tracing Old Tracks in the Cordillera Blanca

After seven years, Ryan Wilson returns to the Peruvian Cordillera Blanca to re-ride some of the roads that inspired him to take up bike touring in the first place and explore some new roads around the tourist hub of Huaraz.  Come along for a ride in one of the most spectacular regions of the world.

The roadside settlement of Chuquicara isn’t much to look at, little more than a string of small fruit stands and outdoor eateries on the edge of a dusty road tucked into a deep canyon. It’s situated directly at the confluence of Ríos Tablachaca and Santa, downstream from the majestic Cordillera Blanca which I’ve visited a couple of times before. I have very vivid memories of this place, as I passed through here on day two of my very first extended tour, back in 2016. Everything was so fresh at that point that the details of this place were still vivid in my mind more than seven years later. Arriving here also meant that I’d finally connected the northern half of the Andes from Colombia all the way down to my old 2016-2017 route from Peru to the southern tip of Argentina.

I arrived in town by mid-morning from the Tablachaca Canyon. I sat down at the same little restaurant in the line of food stands that I remembered having eggs, rice, and fried bananas at all of those years ago and looked around to see if I would recognize any faces, but nothing jumped out. I was just another cyclist with a bunch of bags strapped to my bike, heading up through the classic Cañon del Pato road, a rite of passage for any cyclist traveling through the Andes.

I sat and ate my breakfast wondering if I should feel some overwhelming sense of accomplishment for having arrived here.This should be the grand finale, right? The final chapter of my South American journey was written. Or at least that’s how I saw it playing out when I planned my return to the Andes.

In reality, there was no big celebration or feeling of self-satisfaction from having “completed” the Andes. I won’t say that the feeling of being here this time was exactly the same as it was back in 2016, on only the second day of my first big tour. There were a lot more nerves back then. It all seemed so daunting at the time, the idea of crossing a whole continent full of mountains, filled with cultures that were totally different than what I was used to back in the US.

Today I have a lot less fear of not being able to find a spot to camp or being ill prepared with my gear, food, or water. I can talk to locals without resorting to Google Translate. Yet the thing that remained from 2016 was that sense of anticipation. After all, my favorite mountain range in the world, the Cordillera Blanca, was just a couple of day’s worth of riding up the road. I could already feel its gravitational pull.

This time I’d be riding there with my buddy Joe Sasada, who had returned from the UK after a few months back home and he was ready to continue his trip to the south. We’d coordinated from our campsites the previous night via satellite messengers to meet in Chuquicara before making our way up the 100 kilometers to the end of the canyon.

Joe arrived later in the afternoon and after patching up his leaky air mattress, we set off up the canyon to find a spot to camp. That can be a tricky feat on this road given that you have steep canyon walls on both sides, and a river raging directly next to you, but it was preferable to the alternative of staying in the one extremely suspect-looking hospedaje (cheap hotel) in the village.

Scouring the iOverlander app, which can be helpful in these scenarios where wild camping is tricky, we came across an entry a little ways up the road of a man who owns a shop on the side of the road that lets cyclists and RV-ers camp at his place. There weren’t many other options, so we figured we’d give it a shot.

We arrived at night and met “Store Jorge” as he has been dubbed. He’s a super friendly shop owner who has become somewhat of a celebrity on this road, hosting tons of travelers over the years, something he really takes pride in. I wouldn’t exactly call it the most glamorous campsite I’ve been to, as it is just a matter of feet off of a road that sees a fair amount of truck traffic well into the evening, but it was certainly a memorable experience!

Continuing up the canyon, it’s hard not to marvel at the dedication of Peruvian road-building crews as they stubbornly etch the road into the sides of towering cliffs, burrowing tunnels through the constantly eroding landscape. It’s not uncommon here to look up and see clouds of “smoke” on the mountainside, which you soon realize is just another big dust cloud from a constantly flowing rockslide working its way down from way up the mountain.

It may have been my second time riding this road, but I was just as in awe as I was seven years prior.

Further up we crossed the infamous “Cañon del Pato” section, where the road climbs high above the river, hugs the cliff, and passes through another impressive series of tunnels.

Before long we had made our way to the town of Caraz, situated right at the foot of the imposing Cordillera Blanca mountains. It was a good thing too, because we were pretty cooked from the days of riding in the heat of the canyon, and were looking forward to a couple of days off the bike. Caraz is a great place for that, with a busy Mercado (farmer’s market), and just enough stuff around to have things to do, without the chaos and traffic of a big city.

Since we were planning to head up toward the lofty heights of the Huascarán circuit next, which climbs straight up to 4700m (15,400ft), Joe decided to take a bus up to Huaraz for a few days to acclimatize a bit quicker than he would in Caraz, though he found out the hard way about the infamous Huaraz stomach bug, something I experienced in a big way back during my very first trip here in 2015, which laid me out for a solid 10 days. It’s something that can be almost impossible to avoid, especially for first-timers in Peru, and it’s a big reason I tell people to plan for longer than they think they’ll need when planning a trip here.

As the days passed and Joe wasn’t feeling much better, we decided to set up in Huaraz and not try to rush back into riding, as these mountains are a pretty unforgiving place to try to get back in the swing of things if you’re not feeling 100%. I’d been dreaming of spending a season based out of Huaraz since I first came here, so it didn’t take a lot to sell me on the idea of staying put for a few of weeks and having a chance to explore some of the big glacier-carved valleys straight out of the city on overnighters and day rides.

First on the agenda was a trip to Lago Palcacocha. It starts with a standard climb leaving the city but splits off down a small 2-track road that is blocked by a large gate. Thinking I’d arrive in the evening and no one would be around, letting me toss my bike over the rock wall and continue on my way, I was surprised to find a guy hanging out at a shepherd’s hut near the gate.

At first, he tells me something about bikes not being allowed on the road, which I know isn’t true. “You can walk up”, he said, before quickly shifting his tone “buuuut, I might make an exception for you for 50 soles (~$13)”. It was clearly a scam, but I wasn’t in the mood for an extended discussion, and it was getting late, so I offered 30 soles and he quickly unlocked the gate for me.

After a short but steep stretch of rocky track, I got to a crest in the road and the impressive Nevado Palcaraju (6274m / 20,584ft) came into view. It was already drizzling and just past sunset, so I scrambled to put up the tent before getting too wet.

The next morning I set off toward that dramatic wall of ice that I’d only gotten a brief glimpse of the previous night. This particular valley is pretty low on the stacked tourist trail priority list, so I had it all to myself for the day save for one hiker and a truck full of scientists who were going to monitor the glaciers. It’s hard to imagine that this particular view isn’t one that tourists flock to in droves, but that just goes to show how amazing the rest of this mountain range is.

Next up on the list was Rajucolta Valley. This one acts as a perfect acclimatization overnighter for low-landers who are looking to tackle bigger routes in the area. Along the way up I rolled through the small village of Macashca which was popping off with some sort of celebration in the main square. It was impossible trying to figure out what the party was all about because any time I would try to ask a local about it over the music, they would immediately assume I was asking for a drink and run off to grab me a cup of mystery liquid that seemed like a mix of orange Fanta and some kind of vodka.

With 800 meters of climbing left to the spot where I wanted to camp, I decided to forgo asking any more questions that might result in me getting handed more drinks, so I waived goodbye and pedaled on, now with the added obstacle of a buzz to make the impending climb a little more challenging.

The last handful of kilometers of double track heading up this valley as Nevado Huantsan begins to reveal itself is an all-time stretch of road leading straight to some all-time camping opportunities at the foot of the mountain, which I was happy to take advantage of. It’s hard to believe that this kind of place exists and is just an afternoon of pedaling away from the city.

Getting back to Huaraz, Joe was still feeling the effects of his illness and decided to head down to the coast for an easier recovery without also fighting against the altitude of this region while I continued on riding.

I debated for a moment about whether I should ride the famed Huascarán circuit again, my 4th time in 8 years, or just quickly head south and look for something new, but there was something about the idea of being so close to one of my favorite routes in the world, the one that inspired me to take up bike touring in the first place, and passing it up that didn’t sit well with me. So, I made a compromise. I’d do my favorite half of the route to Portachuelo de Llanganuco and then split off to find new roads on the eastern flank of the Cordillera.

It was already pretty late into riding season, and stormy afternoons with the mountains shrouded in cloud had become commonplace, so I plotted out my route for the clearest days I could find and aimed toward that familiar bone-rattling dirt road.

During the first few hours of grinding up the foothills filled with small farms, there’s an immediate nostalgia hit from the smells of the (invasive) eucalyptus trees and the small fires that local farmers set at this time of year, preparing their fields for the rainy season. The familiar chorus of little yappy dog barks as you approach any house along the road. It all takes me back to that first trip in 2015.

Leaving the foothills behind, the road passes two milky turquoise lagunas before it twists and turns its way up 34 switchbacks, each providing a more spectacular view than the last. Before long it feels like you’re riding almost eye-to-eye with the 2nd tallest mountain in the western hemisphere, Nevado Huascarán, which certainly helps with the tired legs and lungs as you make your way to the pass.

One of the benefits of having ridden this road a few times before is the mental notes I’ve made for future wild campsites on previous trips. This spot was one that I’d picked way back in 2016 and I knew I wanted to plan my day around arriving here for the night. Safe to say, it was worth it!

Following a long descent to Yanama, the last push to the village of Chacas is always a deceptive one after the previous days. It can look like just a couple of little lumps on the elevation profile, but the reality always hits harder than the stats suggest, so I can’t recall a time that I wasn’t running on fumes during that final climb to Chacas’ picturesque town square. With storms in the forecast for the next day, I was thrilled to use that as an excuse for a much-needed day off before I’d split from the route and find some new-to-me roads to the site of one of the oldest civilizations in the Andes. Stay tuned for that!