With our accommodation being somewhat famous amongst cyclist, staying at Jo’s Place meant there was no shortage of cyclists coming and going. Two such cyclists, Johnny, from Ireland and Ryan, from America were hoping to do at least the first half of the great divide. With our date of departure matching theirs we decided to join forces and take on this famous route as a foursome.
Opting to save ourselves a days ride up the main road we jumped on a bus that was surprisingly happy to take four loaded touring bikes, ok so ours was no longer fully loaded, we had heard that the next stage was going to be a tough one and after our earlier experiences in Peru we were all too keen to shed some weight. Peru it turns out has an amazing service that allows you to send luggage to set destinations for very little cost, after some advice from other cyclists who couldn’t understand why we hadn’t made the most of this service already, we shipped all of our hiking equipment to Lima, we now had one month in which to get there to claim it!
We set off with great excitement of what lay ahead, we turned off the main highway and waved goodbye to tarmac for the next 8 or so days. With a short day we picked out our first campsite, already the Peru Divide was meeting expectations as we pitched our tents with a view of the Huayhuash in the distance.
The second day gave us an amazing descent that tested our downhill skills, Jess with new brakes that performed no better was somewhat more sensible than the rest of us, that was until Johnny got a little carried away and ended up splitting the sidewall of his tyre. Insult was later added to injury when he got a second puncture, this was a pattern that was set to follow for the next few days.
Next on the Divide’s hit list was Jess who awoke to a flat front tyre, Johnny then wanting to out do her went on to get 3 more punctures before we decided to call it a day in an abandoned mining town at our low point for the day, from here we had a 3500m climb to look forward to.
We attacked the climb with gusto and determination, mainly due to our distinct lack of water, even though we camped next the river it didn’t look the cleanest to drink from and we knew there was, or hopefully was, a waterfall not too far up the canyon. With our water bottles filled we were back into the climbing, this time we made it a whole 2km, our progress was halted by the appearance of a small shop selling snacks, a necessity with two days of climbing ahead of us, we were also told that in a further 10km up the road there was a restaurant; ideal!
Less than ideal is when you push on to the expected restaurant with rumbling bellies dreaming of the delights of rice and chicken, only to find it has a limited supply of snacks and a hot shower! The owners, who in England would have probably been put in a home many years ago, sensed our desperation at the situation; with a fresh supply of eggs and bread in stock we were able to order up fried egg sandwiches, the owners did seem a little taken aback when Jess and myself ordered 10, then Ryan ordered a further 4 followed by Johnny trying to take their remanding supply of bread for some tuna sandwiches. After some deliberation, maybe the reason they should of been in a home, maybe our poor Spanish we managed to get our fill of eggs and bread and were on our way.
From here the climbing really kicked in and before long the egg butties were a distant memory, now all we could think about was the next snack stop. That was until Johnny got yet another puncture. We deduced that it must be the inside of his tyre and while Johnny went about patching his quickly diminishing inner tube Jess and I used the duck-tape to the inside of the tyre trick that worked so well on Jess’ tyre back when we started riding Peru. The switchback continued and with legs failing we opted to dive on the first flatish bit of land we could find and set up camp, it was here Johnny found out he had been riding with his back brake on, an justifiable explanation as to why he was looking so beat even with a high sublime diet he had been taking. (Sublime is our favourite snack of Peru, a chocolate block filled with peanuts, on more than one occasion it has been the answer to many of life’s problems)
With us suffering more than enough bike mechanicals to last the rest of the trip we prayed we had seen the last of any tyre leavers and inner tubes. We carried on the climb knowing that we would make it to a town for some much needed resupplies, as well as a real meal rather than the bread we had been lunching on. Cajatambo delivered on all fronts. We gorged ourselves on rice, chips and meat as well as soup for starter, we even managed to squeeze in some Jelly and cake just before we left. With bags refilled, and feeling a whole lot heavier we once again returned to the continuing uphill. It was just as the day was coming to an end that yet another puncture struck, a brief photo stop and a quick joke with Johnny as I waited making sure he hadn’t suffered yet another flat when I realised the joke was on me. Even worse, Jess had just ridden off with our puncture repair kit and our spare inner tubes!!!
A quick fix with Johnny’s rapidly decreasing patches and we were on the road again. Luckily the others, figuring Johnny had succumbed to another injustice by the adventure gods had stopped by an idyllic camp spot and with the weather turning we wasted no time in getting the tents and taking shelter just as the worst of the weather hit.
From our camp we knew we were in striking distance of a major town where a much needed night in a hotel and a hot shower was the order of the day, all we had to do was make it over the top of this climb, 4850m, and then it would be a well earned descent to roughly 3500m.
We rolled into Oyon tired, hungry and in dire need of a shower. The descent was stunning but with rough roads and photo stops at every bend, it had taken us longer than we thought. We found the plaza and checked a few of the nearest hotels. For some reason, this small town in the armpit of nowhere was proving to be the most expensive area for accommodation. Rather begrudgingly we forked over the money and found ourselves in a basic room. Insult to injury, the hot water we had been promised was somewhat lacking leaving myself and Jess with mild hypothermia after our attempts at a shower. The boys opted to wait til morning and gleefully reported on scalding water temperatures for all of 5 minutes before the boiler ran dry!
We tried to make the most of the extortionate price and hung around eating and general internet-ting until midday, we then once again started to climb. In hindsight half a days rest was not enough, especially for what lay ahead. The road became steeper and with 3 days of climbing already in our legs we began to fade. A measly 13km from Oyon and we were done, we set up camp and prayed that the road would relent slightly allowing us to make better progress in the morning.
The adventure gods seemed in a good mood as the road did let up allowing us to make the peak, our highest yet at 4960m and from here we began another knuckle busting descent back down to the balmy heights of 3000m. It was on this descent the Irish had another set back, his bike decided back brakes were for wimps and started spitting out pads. With yet another roadside fix we made it to the bottom in one piece and with time and daylight now against us we asked if we could camp on the local football field.
“Of course” was the reply, “Just make sure you don’t get in the way of the game!”
Jess wasn’t too happy with this however, being the day before her birthday, she had grander expectations as of where she wanted to wake up other than a local football field!
She was somewhat happier in the morning when the local school children, whom happened to use the football pitch as their playground gave a rendition of happy birthday for her!
The rest of the day wasn’t all that great for Jess, steep uphill all day with the only silver lining being a special birthday lunch…tomato sandwiches with butter and a great view to boot!
The evening was spent having a major, full-scale party in our tent complete with cake and candle. At the rock and roll age of 26 this party was shut down at 8pm when we were all too tired and cold to continue.
The next morning, all still tired from the previous night’s partying we set of from camp later than usual. Straight from the get go we were into heart attack inducing climbs with gradients to cry at. Ok so they wouldn’t have been too bad if it wasn’t for the previous 6 days worth of climbing and the fact that we were at 4300m and oxygen was hard to find. The last 8km were spent crawling, Peru was well and truly kicking our asses! Luckily for myself, Johnny was able to lend a helping hand when it came to pushing, between the two of us we managed to get Jess and her bike to the top.
It’s funny, I was well and truly put in my place by this climb. I usually enjoy the climbs, I like to attack them from the off but this one was different, as soon as I attacked the hill hit back, I couldn’t ride more than 100m without doubling over my handlebars with lungs and legs screaming for oxygen. Ryan was long gone, slowly spinning his way to the top and out of sight while I stood/ hunched feeling like I was trying to breath through a straw. It took me all of the three days to remember my mountaineering times.
“Pole Pole…” I was told on Kilimanjaro.
“Slowly, slowly…” I was instructed in the Himalayas.
Where were the trusty porters and guides when I needed them on my bike? As I neared the top I opted to stop attacking the climb. Instead I sat in my smallest gear going no faster than the gear would allow. I was taking it slow and it was working. Ok, so the gradient had definitely eased but still the lesson held true. If only I had remembered it two days ago I would have had a far less stressful time.
We made the peak of the pass as a three, Johnny Jess and I, Ryan, opting to escape the freezing wind, snow and hail that was starting to fall and descended to warmer climes.
We took the pictures and began another long a jarring descent only for Johnny once again to come unstuck with his brakes, literally!
With the memories of our butt kicking on the hill fresh in our minds we weren’t overly keen to begin yet another pass so took a detour to the nearest town in search of food and accommodation. No such luck with food but we were offered a room above a shop as all the hospedajes turned us away. Not fully sure of where we were staying but relieved to be out of the ever worsening weather we set up shop in what looks like a make shift hospital from the 1940’s, very Anne Frank esq
Enjoying our unconventional accommodation we opted to give our bodies a well-earned rest taking the next day off to watch films and catch up on our charging needs. A decision that was reinforced as a great idea when the weather took a turn for the worst, most of the day was spent questioning just how waterproof our abode was and also struggling to make the laptop heard over the din of the rain on the roof…first world problems!!!
With what we hopped would be fresh legs and minds we rolled out the next day knowing we had a steep climb ahead of us. All too soon the gradient was once again at risk of inducing a heart attack and on more than one occasion bikes were pushed. We had read that it was only 4km of steep so it was with great relief when we passed the road marking for this distance, whoever said it was easier after this though must have had quads of steel as I didn’t notice any real let up in the gradient!
We slogged on upwards for the rest of the day passing through an abandoned mine before emerging at a plateau of sorts, we decided this was as good a place as any and set up camp for the night over looking a lake and surrounded by mountains. A stunning camp site but a nagging headache was doing its best to spoil my evening, lots of water and hot tea drinks were the order for the evening hoping the headache didn’t develop into anything worse.
The next morning the headache hadn’t shifted and I was left with the choice of descending back down the horrible steep climb from the day before in order to adapt to the altitude or carry on and hope that I would miraculously recover. I opted for the second choice and we left hoping I wouldn’t deteriorate.
The route was stunning and luckily not as steep as the previous day but AMS made the most of making me useless. As the day progressed my ability to ride even the most gentle of gradients deteriorated. My breathing became more laboured and by the end of the day I was beat. We rolled into a town and were given space in the municipal building to pitch our tents, even this minor task left me doubled over panting for breath. I was well and truly beat and left questioning how I was going to make it over the next days 4900m climb!
With a restful nights sleep we once again attempted to ride and once again I was left wanting. Any change in gradient and it felt like I was trying to breathe through a straw and my head was fit to explode. I admitted defeat and in the next town went in search of a collectivo (small minibus) that could get me to a lower altitude ASAP. The first leg of the Great Divide had beaten me at the last hurdle but with no way of getting over AMS other than descending I was left with no option. We waved goodbye to Johnny and Ryan and agreed to meet them at the end of the route, a mere 60km away.
The bus had to follow our intended route and as we topped out on the last pass we overtook the boys taking shelter from a snowstorm. With my head once again pounding I was only too keen to stay in the warm van and make a hasty descent.
So the end of the first leg of the Peru Divide and what a route. We now intend to take a few days to recover. We are heading into Lima to catch up with an old friend who I used to work with and buy some supplies for the second leg. Hopefully I have had my last dealing with altitude sickness and I can get back to just having my butt kicked by the climbs.
Danny and Jessica living the nomadic dream.