Cactus y Cañones: A Return to the Peruvian Andes

After some indecision over where I’d go following my tour through Southern Turkey, I landed back on familiar territory. I’d originally planned to head for Ecuador or the Western Wildlands route in the US, but once my plans got pushed later into the year, I decided that a trip back to Southern Peru would be more enjoyable than trudging through Ecuador’s rainy season or dealing with the seemingly constant fires in the western US. Plus I’d get a chance to see if the months of Duolingo to shake off my rusty Spanish would pay off in any meaningful way.

There are still tons of places that I didn’t get to in any of my three previous trips to Peru from 2015 to 2017. In reality, you’d probably need more than a lifetime to ride all of the roads worth seeing around here. So, I had no shortage of route ideas floating around in my head and plotted out onto maps to put into action.

I planned to make Arequipa my home base, which is easily my favorite city in South America, and make big loops up into the surrounding mountains. Here, the landscape is dominated by 6,000m volcanoes as well as some of the deepest canyons in the world, which means the climbs can be very long and the climate fluctuates dramatically. From nights at altitude dropping down well below freezing, to sweltering heat deep inside the Andean canyons. You’ve got to prepare for it all, here. However, being on the edge of the Atacama desert, this area has a shorter wet season than zones that are closer to the Amazon, so it’s ideal for late fall or spring when other places are likely to turn into a mud-fest.

After two flights and an 18-hour bus ride, I arrived in Arequipa and prepped the bike for the road with a couple of test rides up in the surrounding hills. Getting everything dialed in before heading up to the Puna.

To kick things off, I’d climb up a road out of the city that I once descended a handful of years ago before splitting from that route and heading across some rarely used tracks for Aguada Blanca, a salty lake bed area that is reminiscent of some of the otherworldly landscapes of Bolivia. Immediately, I had to climb up to 4,750m (15.5K ft), which probably was not the smartest route choice after being away from these kinds of elevations for so long.

The altitude is always a struggle (especially the first couple of passes), but for me, it typically just manifests in the form of feeling permanently exhausted. Where every movement feels like it takes two or three times the effort that it should. You can look at a road and think, “this looks so easy, it’s not even steep! I should cruise up this with no problem!”, but then you get on the bike and suddenly a 5% gradient feels like 20%.

If you’re not fully acclimatized, camping at these altitudes can also be a bit tricky as your body is working harder just to keep running while you’re asleep. But, it’s hard to complain considering the limitless campsite options and amazing views that the Puna offers.

With a couple of days and passes under my belt, I set my sights on the altiplano village of Tarucani as a place I could restock and maybe even get a shower if I was lucky. When I arrived in the afternoon the streets were barren. The only soundtrack was that of a rusty swing-set rocking back and forth in the wind while sheep bleat in the distance.

After hunting around, I found an unmarked door that looked a little bit like it could be a shop and gave it a knock. After 30 seconds of commotion behind the door, a woman came to let me in. It turns out my tienda-radar was still on-point after all this time because she was stocked with all of the typical fare you’d find in places like this (pastries, cookies, crackers, and pasta). I asked if there was a place to stay in town. She said yes, but followed up by mentioning that she didn’t know if the man who ran it was in town at the moment. I’d have to ask around in the Plaza de Armas.

I spotted a group of women in traditional attire leaving the church and asked around about the hotel. One woman confirmed that the hotel owner indeed was not in town and wouldn’t be back for a week, but offered up a spare room at her home, which I happily accepted.

We chatted about why I choose to ride a bike in these places and about some of the other areas of Peru that I’ve visited in the past. After a relaxing night under a mountain of blankets, she whipped up a mean pan con huevo and a sugary tea before her daughter went and grabbed a locally knit hat to give me for the cold road ahead. Only a few days in and the Peruvian hospitality was already shining as bright as the Andean sun.

Continuing along the road, I was aimed directly at Ubinas, a volcano that erupted only a couple of years ago. I’d climb my way up to another 4750m pass that sits along the lower slopes of the mountain itself while evening storms were brewing on the horizon.

I lucked out in avoiding most of the foul weather and began the first part of a descent that would stretch for nearly 140km until finally reaching the bottom at 1350m (with no shortage of climbs thrown in for good measure).

I camped amidst the alien-like yareta plants at the foot of Ubinas, an area covered with volcanic ash. In the morning a local shepherd came by as I was packing up and asked if I’d heard any strange sounds overnight. Not that I could recall… It seems I was lucky because he then told me about a family of Pumas he had spotted a couple of days prior in the boulder fields nearby.

My descent continued into the valley below, where the flora slowly increased with every meter of elevation lost. Eventually, the road twisted down into terraced hillsides with quiet villages at 10km intervals.

The canyon walls grew steeper, and the landscape began to remind me of those amazing Tajik canyons of the Pamir Mountains. This place had a totally different feel when compared to other routes in Peru and was a very welcome change.

The closer to the coast I got, the drier the surroundings became. Grassy terraces gave way to cacti, villages became more infrequent, and the temperatures began creeping upward.

I stopped for the night in the one-street village of Sijuaya, waiting for the woman who runs the municipal hotel to return from the avocado fields well into the dark. I must have looked hungry because a kind neighbor who’d seen me waiting came by with a tupperware filled with rice, eggs, potatoes, and a spicy sauce that hit the spot after a long day.

Shortly after 5 am the next morning, a traditional song played loudly over the village loudspeaker, almost like an alarm clock. The ladies were already dressed up in their brightly colored dresses and hats adorned with flowers, getting ready to head back to the fields with shovels in hand. I visited the shop to pick up a few things on my way out of town and the shopkeeper handed me a bag filled with boiled potatoes, local cheese, eggs, and avocado. Without much space on my bike to spare, I decided to make a spontaneous omelet in the plaza, much to the amusement of the señoras, who were particularly fascinated by my little alcohol stove.

I continued deeper into the canyon that day, connecting to Mark and Hana’s Puma Route, with a goal of reaching a nice campsite they recommended way down at 1350m. It’s not often that you get warm nights to camp around here, so I’d have to take advantage while I could, and the spot overlooking Río Tambo did not disappoint.

Of course, in Peru, what goes down must come back up, so the next day I began the long climb up to 3600m, stopping in the chilled-out town of Omate along the way.

Soon, the prominent peak of Volcan Misti would come back into view, and I knew that meant I was getting close to Arequipa once again, where the luxuries of the big city were awaiting.


My Route for this section: