On the Trail of Ancient Civilizations in the Peruvian Andes

As Ryan Wilson continues his bike tour south from Colombia to Chile, he runs into the beginning of Peru’s infamous storm season.  Follow along as Ryan has a few close calls in a region that was home to one of the earliest civilizations in the Peruvian Andes.

After tracing my old tracks across one of my favorite roads in the world at Portachuelo de Llanganuco, I found myself at a crossroads. I had to decide whether to climb and descend the iconic paved switchbacks over Punta Olimpica or set off down some unknown (to me) roads heading south. While the nostalgia kick I’d been on was nice, re-riding some old routes that kicked off my first big tour, new roads were calling my name.

From the quiet village of Chacas, I set out on a drizzly morning toward San Luis, with eyes on continuing up the mountain toward the pass at Abra Huachucocha. However, on the final kilometers into San Luis, I could hear the steady groans of thunder rumbling, with dark clouds flickering from horizontal lightning streaking across the sky in the direction of the pass.  I’ve seen this a few times before in the Andes and know by now that it tends to end poorly, so I called it an early day and hung out in a San Luis hospedaje (hotel) while the mountains got hammered by lightning strikes throughout the afternoon.

It was already October by this point, so the occasionally sketchy afternoon weather of shoulder season had fully set in. I can deal with some cold rain, which can be managed with proper clothing and by keeping a steady pace to keep the body temperature up, but getting caught out in lightning storms up in these mountains is where the fun stops for me. Peru’s ideal riding months are actually in their winter (mid-May to mid-September) where conditions can be very cold at night, but are typically sunny and mild for most of the day. Come October and beyond, the weather starts to shift, especially in this region where the mountains and the jungle to the east create the perfect conditions for stormy weather.

Ascending Abra Huachucocha

Leaving San Luis the next morning, a light rain had already started.  Again, not a great sign as things tend to escalate throughout the day, with morning being your best shot at good weather.  I didn’t have much interest in hanging out in San Luis another day, so I hit the road anyways, with the plan to either camp near the pass if the weather didn’t get worse, or just blast down the long descent on the other side of the mountain if it wasn’t looking too good.

The road was surprisingly quiet considering it connects two fairly active towns.  It was a classic Peruvian climb with a smooth gradient and hard-packed dirt. The mountains were acting shy behind a veil of clouds all day, but every now and then I’d still get a glimpse of some impressive rock formations.

Before I even reached the pass, the rumblings of thunder were growing around me while flashes of lightning danced near distant peaks in the direction I came from. I already knew my plans to camp up near the lakes were cooked, so I set my mind on crossing the pass and riding all the way to the town of Huari before I ever crested the 4,341m (14,242ft) summit.

As I started the descent and saw hints of sun hitting the valley far below, I knew I made the right call. Before long I was back in the warmth of the sun, passing through small roadside villages and roads with shepherds trying to corral their goats and sheep.

Passing time in Huari

Huari was a lively place with quite a view. As is standard in these small Peruvian towns, people set off loud firecrackers and all sorts of noise makers at all hours of the day and night. These were made particularly loud in Huari due to the shape of the valley and the surrounding mountains amplifying every bang. I asked a local on the street if there was a holiday or something they were celebrating that would cause them to light off so many fireworks. “No, not really. They are celebrating boredom,” he said with a chuckle.

More to Peru than Machu Picchu

An easy day’s ride led me to the town of Chavín de Huantar. There are many important historical locations across the Peruvian Andes outside of Machu Picchu, which gets by far the most attention. Yet Chavín de Huantar is one of the most important in all of South America as it was once the central hub of one of the first developed civilizations in the Andes, dating back as far as 1200 B.C.

Archaeologists believe it was once the hotspot for all manner of community activities such as ritualistic human sacrifice and the consumption of copious amounts of powerful psychedelics.  It’s also not a madhouse filled with thousands of tourists taking photos on their iPads like Machu Picchu is every day, so it’s worth a visit if you’re in the neighborhood.

Crossing the Cordillera

When I was in Huaraz, I picked up a route on quiet dirt roads to connect from Chavín to the southern end of the Cordillera Blanca from a local mountain biker who runs the hotel I was staying at (Benkawasi).  It was said to roughly follow a route that people have been taking for thousands of years to get back and forth from Chavín to the coast, so it seemed like a no-brainer to follow their steps, to imagine what it must have been like crossing these mountains thousands of years ago.

The climb started unusually steep for Peru but soon eased up and cut through an impressive canyon surrounded by rock walls.  Before long I started to reach higher elevations again and could look back to find a view of towering snow-covered peaks of the Cordillera Blanca in the distance, serving as a reminder that I’d have to cross them once again over the next couple of days.

I reached the highway and breezed down a long, fast descent before running into Diego from Brazil and his pup companion who were set to climb the same road I was. He was strapped to the gills with not just a dog in a basket but also a guitar! What a legend!

We rode together for an hour or so before stopping at a little restaurant on the side of the road for a late lunch of trucha (trout), and Diego decided to camp out in a small shed near the restaurant since I was continuing up the mountain for a particularly high wild camp at 4700m (15,400 ft) and he wasn’t sure that his sleeping kit would be warm enough up there.

I turned off the paved road and onto a dirt track that kept on climbing. Near the top of the ridge, a huge view opened up toward Yanashallash and Huallanca peaks with the road winding around below. There was a perfect little depression on the hillside so I made that my spot for one very chilly night.

Racing the Storm

In the morning the clouds were suspended in the air, draped across the surrounding landscape with only hints of sun shooting through. I had a long day in store, with plenty of ups and downs at very high altitudes, and the restless night in the thin air at 4700m wasn’t going to help me out a whole lot, so I had to get moving early.

The undulating stretch of trocha (what locals call dirt roads) that followed is one of my favorites in all of Peru as it really gives a real sense of scale to these mountains. On a clear day, you can see all the way down to the peaks of the Cordillera Huayhuash in the south.

Every curve in the road revealed another hanging glacier on one side and layers of endless mountains on the other. It’s the kind of place where I find those moments when nothing could wipe the smile from my face. When my body momentarily forgets that my energy is drained to zero and I can’t help but feel overwhelmed by gratitude that I get to exist in this moment and this place.

With most of the climbing of the day done, I descended from the pass under ominous skies. The clouds let out a barrage of hail, rain, and lightning just as I arrived in the town of Catac and I stood under the awning of a tienda (small shop) having miraculously kept myself almost entirely dry by a matter of seconds.

As the deluge slowed to a trickle after about 30 minutes, I made my way around town looking for a place to stay. One by one each hotel told me they were full, which seemed odd. Hotels are generally easy to track down in most Peruvian towns.  Eventually, I was told by one hotel owner that there was a construction project in the works nearby and every single hotel was booked with workers for months within a 30km radius. Ughh.

I got back on the bike as day to night and hit the main road. Camping options were non-existent to completely grim side-of-the-road situations that I really wasn’t interested in, so I made the call to just ride as fast as I could to Huaraz, 40 kilometers down the paved road, where I knew I could get a place for the night.

Adding to the grim situation, the drizzling rain turned back into a full downpour. Lightning was hammering the hillsides just across the valley from me, no more than one kilometer away. I stopped for a second at the side of the road, but there was nowhere to seek any kind of shelter so I just got back on the bike and kept pushing on. There was so much water on the road that each car going past kicked up a giant wave of road water straight onto me. Lovely. I couldn’t be more wet if I were at the bottom of the ocean.

An Escape to the Coast

I got to Huaraz dripping (and probably smelling) like a wet dog after what turned into an impromptu 100km day and took a well-earned rest day… errr, actually three. That last stormy evening turned out to be the final straw for me as I made the call to ride over the Cordillera Negra (Black Mountains) and descend to the perpetually dry coastal region for a much-needed change of scenery (and climate). The allotted days on my Peruvian visa were running out anyways, so I’d have to quickly head south toward my next destination on my route toward Chile… the Bolivian altiplano.