22 October 2014

Ayacucho to Haquira: A scenic way of bypassing Cusco

After some restful time in Ayacucho (and of course another 24-hour bug for Lucy, it being impossible for us to go more than a few weeks in Peru before one of us gets sick), it was time to keep heading South, trying to stay ahead of the impending start of Peru's wet season. As much as possible, we sought out ways to avoid the main road (3S) from Ayacucho, to Cusco, and onwards to the border with Bolivia (especially as we had no need to go into the city of Cusco itself, having been there already with Alberto's family). In some ways it was challenging to deal with a route that was less stimulating than what had come before -- but there was plenty to enjoy as we found ourselves in an area unexpectedly full of colonial constructions and (less unexpectedly) teeming with friendly people.

We left Ayacucho as a group of three with German Joerg in tow. Instead of the 3S, we took what we thought would be a dirt road alternative via the town of Tambillo. Turns out it is all paved, shorter distance, and climbs less high than the main route - what more could a cyclist ask for?

Having had a late start from Ayacucho we only made it about 40km before it was time to set up camp. We found a great spot above the road with a view overlooking the valley
Continuing on the 3S alternative the next day, we were passed by a school trip... looks a bit different than the ones we remember as kids!

At the top of the climb  our road rejoined the 3S for a fast (and luckily very quiet) descent to Ocros. Arriving into town, we were invited to sleep in the secondary school.
Little did we know the school was having a party that night in honor of "Dia de la Juventud" (Youth Day). Obviously having three cycling gringos at the party added a sense of gravitas to the occasion. Lucy was in popular demand for a dancing (here with the director of the school)...
...and everyone wanted their picture taken with Alberto and Joerg.

The following morning we descended the rest of the way to the sandfly-infested river valley, then wasted no time in climbing up the other side until we reached an sandfly-free altitude. No stopping for pictures on the climb as you would literally have to pay for any breaks with your flesh!

We spent the night in bustling Uripa, where we were impressed by the ingenuity of the local plumbers.
We reached Andahuaylas the next day. Suckers that we are for markets, we got stuck there for a day off (Sunday) exploring one of the largest small-town markets we have seen yet (with election time approaching, the market stalls were also decked out with political propaganda).

We said goodbye to Joerg, who had a flight to catch giving him a tighter schedule...
...and spent the day checking out what the market had to offer.
From Andahuaylas we soon turned off of the 3S again and onto dirt, past the Laguna Pumacocha

We stopped for a gaseosa in Quillabamba, where even the kids' bikes were sporting political banners...
Then it was time to descend into another river valley (ahead of climbing up the other side of course!)

And continued downhill where we met these guys, who wanted a photo to add to their collection of (basically) photos of gringos that they have seen/met. They lived in Matapuquio, halfway up the climb on the other side of the river, and told us that cyclists had stayed in the municipalidad there. They were on motorbikes and said they would go ahead and tell the mayor to expect us, so we decided to carry on to the town despite knowing we probably wouldn't make it before dark.

The benefit was that we got to see the amazing sunset.

Of course, when we arrived in town in the dark the municipalidad was closed and no one was expecting us. Still, we managed to find someone with a key to let us in where we enjoyed the rare luxury of eating dinner on an actual table.
On the climb out of town in the morning, some school kids asked for a lift to their school, 100 vertical meters above the plaza. When we told them we already had too much weight and couldn't climb with more, they changed their tune and decided to push us up the hill. It really helped!
At the top of the climb, we turned onto a paved road and met a motorcyclist with a flat tire who asked if he could borrow our bicycle pump. It barely did anything for him, but he was still grateful enough that he wanted to share his breakfast with us -- fried cuy (guinea pig), which we had never tried before, despite it being a delicacy in the Andes. Our verdict: relatively tasty, but an awful lot of work to find the meat in between all the bones and cartilage.
We spotted a sign for an archeological site off the side of the road and a small dirt track, so decided to see where it led. Soon we found ourselves totally alone with a pretty awesome pyramid. Peru is so full of ruins that ones like these barely even register. We have passed many signs for archeological sites as we ride through Peru and now we wonder what was behind them all!

After lunch in Huancarama and a short climb, it was time to descend, descend, descend, losing 1200m of altitude over the course of a few hours. We reached the main road, which joins Cusco to the coast, and camped in the garden of a restaurante campestre along with Neil, a northbound cyclist who we happened to meet just before camp o'clock.
Our climb the next day followed a river valley for a while...

... until a sudden thunderstorm meant we stopped our day early in Lambrama, much to the amusement of the local kids who wanted to hear all about our journey.

We finished the climb to Abra Llullita (4650m) the following morning and then began the long descent to Vilcabamba.
Lower down, we enjoyed some warm riverside riding...and ended up camping in Vilcabamba due to the lack of any good spots alongside the river

The following morning we climbed to Ayrihuanca for lunch, with an impressive colonial church that the shopkeeper was able to get opened for us to see inside.

After a night in the dingy mining town of El Progreso, we passed the newly-built concrete and brick village of Fuerabamba, which we later learned will house the communities that new mining operations will displace.A truly weird place in the middle of nowhere, with brand new roads and European-style housing - the power of the mines once again
Then arrived in Haquira, another colonial town, where we opted to take a day off to see the colonial prison built into the rock face.

Our day off also coincided with election day in Peru, so the town was bustling with campesinos who had come down from the surrounding area to vote (it is obligatory in Peru).  
Route notes:
- Ayacucho to Andahuaylas: Asking for Tambillo will get you on the alternative to the 3S. The road is all paved, mostly one lane, with plenty of villages along the route (and some traffic due to these villages). The road is rolling, but overall does not go as high as the 3S. You rejoin the 3S already on the downhill to Ocros. The 3S itself was surprisingly quiet as well and never felt unsafe (and was all paved).

- Andahuaylas to the Carretera 26 (Nazca-Abancay road): About 7km after Andahuaylas we took the dirt road turnoff signed for Laguna Pumacocha. The road is mostly in good condition. At the top of the main climb, the road rejoins a paved road (which is apparently the 'new' 3S in this section), with roadworks still ongoing around Huancarama. From there the road is paved all the way.

- Carretera 26 to Haquira: Coming from Andahuaylas / the 3S , you need to make a left onto the 26 (towards Abancay) for a few km before a sharp right (just in front of a gas station) which is signposted for Grau. This section coincides with an Andes by Bike route from a few years ago with useful route notes. The main update to their notes is that it is now paved from the turnoff until the town of Chuquibambilla, then unpaved for about 120km until about 10km past the town of Chalhuahuacho, at which point the paving starts again and continues to Haquira (and beyond). In addition, Chalhuahuacho now has at least one ATM (Interbank, which charges S/.14 per withdrawal).

05 October 2014

Huancavelica to Ayacucho: switching from alpacas to goats

A few days resting in Huancavelica was much needed after the rewarding but challenging Great Divide route. The town provided all a cycle tourist can hope for: all types of Peruvian food, yummy desserts, fresh fruits and a very laid-back atmosphere. 

There are mainly two routes going down to Ayacucho: the faster Panamerican of the mountains, which would involve a bit of a detour and the usual peruano way of driving, or the more relaxed, yet unpaved, route through the town of Lircay. No doubt we took the latter...

Leaving Huancavelica for the unpaved road to Lircay was not an easy affair. Everyone we asked seemed to point at the main road, so we took it...then had to turn around once we realised we were going downhill as opposed to uphill like we knew it should be....If you intend to take this road, ask in town for the road to Lircay as it is not on the usual online maps...
Even though the traffic was relatively busy at times, mostly due to the many pueblos along the road close to Huancavelica, it was pleasant, and the gradients much more gentle than those of the Great Divide. 

Unfortunately, those grey skies delivered loats of cold rain once we reached the summit...and got us totally drenched and shivering on the way to Lircay...
...where after some negotiation with the gerente, he kindly let us sleep in the basement of the municipalidad, next to the government program Juntos´office.

The following morning the sun came out, and we hit the road to Ayacucho, cycling past this Gaudí-inspired park...

...before some heavy road works slowed us down...Mostly all "main" roads we´ve cycled in Perú had some sort of road work going, showing how quickly the road infrastructure is changing

After dealing with some more road works, we soon gained more elevation. Buenavista (3800 m) was the only sizeable town before the big pass. Its plaza the Armas looked a bit "unfinished" though!

Once at 4300 m we got hit by the usual afternoon storms...which forced us to divert to what looked like a small town...Ccochatay. As it turns out, there were only a handful of kids and no adults...so they invited us to take shelter in the old church until the president of the community arrived

The adults turned up at 4 pm for their weekly community meeting. Victor, the president, kindly opened the community hall for us...which came with a few mattresses and blankets. What else can you ask for in a cold miserable storm, at 4300 m?

After the heavy rains, the next storm lined up towards us, as light started to fade. With a dry shelter and the luxury of the mattresses, we did not have anything to worry about!
From Ccochatay we took the long way to Secclla, passing a handful of Alpaca haciendas. As often happens in Perú, the owners and their kids quickly came out of their hut to see the passing gringos on bikes...

...after the last few haciendas only another 400 m separated us from the last big summit before Ayacucho

Half way down on the descent to Ayacucho we hit Julcamarca, a small colonial village with a few facilities and a much needed almuerzo. 

We stocked up on the usual fare of galletas and other junk for the remaining km ahead...

...and then switched from alpacas to goats - the "lowlands" of the Ayacucho area (2400 m) were so incredibly hot that we felt out of place after so many days riding in the cold. A cold beer did the trick

The grifo (gas station) owner Victoria kindly let us camp in her back yard, where we enjoyed a night without the need of sleeping bags

In the morning, as we were leaving, Victoria gave us some aguaymantos and avocados from her garden (she just about grew everything imaginable!)

...and finally, after some dodgy km on the busy 3S, we reached colonial Ayacucho
Buildings by Spain, electrification by Peru
After we settled into a cheap hospedaje, we visited the Santa Clara market, and ate too much fresh foods...

...before enjoying the hustle and bustle of the rush hour traffic...

...and noticing that we are not the only machacas in South America!

Ayacucho was off-limits to tourists in the 80s and 90s because of the conflict between the Shining Path and the Military. Nowadays, apart from being a lovely quiet town with barely any tourism, it has a very interesting and informative museum set up by the victims of the conflict´s families - Museo de la Memoria

And of course, Alberto had to sample the local ceviche - freshly prepared or instantaneo

After a few days, it was to leave town, heading East through the Arco del Triunfo

Route notes:

- Huancavelica to Lircay: it´s a good unpaved road with a fair amount of traffic going to the local villages. There´s plenty of villages to stock up with food and water. Ask around town for the road to Lircay, as it is not obvious otherwise.
- Lircay to Ayacucho: there are currently (late September 2014) heavy roadworks along the road from Lircay starting at 7 am. Some may not let you pass until the only break (noon till 1 pm), so best to plan accordingly. Also, near the top of the pass, we were advised to take a diversion via Ccochatay to Secclla, which adds some 20 km to the ride but guarantees no delays.

The dirt road meets the main road (3S) with about 12 km left to Ayacucho. We found this section to be very dangerous to cyclists as there is no shoulder and plenty of erratic driving. We believe there are ways to continue on trochas all the way into Ayacucho via its mirador to the North of town - we would suggest asking locals or planning using online maps (openstreetmaps, Perut, or the government maps) to avoid the 3S.