As novices to bikepacking it made sense that we do our first tour longer than one week somewhere sensible. A trip across the Peruvian Andes was the obvious choice. In all, we biked just over 1,300 km and climbed eight different passes over 4,000 metres above sea level (our longest climb was well over 50km) to reach Puno from our start point in Huancayo.
Stage 1 (Huancayo – Huancavelica)
Huancayo was a great place to start. At 3,300 meters above sea level it is a comfortable place to acclimatise and has plenty to offer. The parque de la identidad – a hodge podge collection of random objects symbolising the cultural identity of the region, hosts up to twenty different wedding parties each weekend and we spent an afternoon on its benches not quite sure if it was real.
From Huancayo, we took the back road to Huancavelica. This follows the river down into the mountains. The track is mostly dirt and gravel. The views are grand and constantly changing. There are steep and long climbs, which we had to push in parts but it was worth it for the views at the top. There are some fantastic places to camp, none of which we used because of the threat from organ traffickers in the region. Luckily (despite initial scepticism about our own intentions) the locals put us up in their villages.
The climb before Huancavelica is long, high and steep. Llamas start appearing at 4,000 metres and the road summits at above 4,500 metres. We ran into another cycle-tourist, on his recumbent bike about half way up and took a very welcomed break comparing kit. More luck came in the shape of ‘Arturo’ a government official returning to Huancayo, who offered us a lift up the last 5km of the mountain. We accepted and descended down the long, empty road into town.
We learned the hard way how much easier it is to climb up dirt tracks with partially deflated tyres, and were delighted to find that you are much more likely to come across herded animals than cars in the remote mountains.
Stage 2 (Huancavelica – Ayacucho)
Our second stage started with a 17 km climb as we followed the main road out of town towards Lircay. Nobody thought to tell us that this road is still under construction but since Peru has almost no health and safety regulations this was no problem. We biked through piles of dirt, half laid asphalt and right through the tracks of enormous CAT machines without being questioned.
The sections of this road that have been completed are spectacular and virtually empty. Our only trouble came from the local dogs which chased our bikes and tried to nip at heels, panniers and back wheels. The best way to fend them off is to dismount and hurl stones. Very soon, we were keeping score.
The road from Lircay to Ayacucho is singletrack asphalt. The first 10 km was filled with tuk tuks and local taxis but after this the road quietened down. It follows the river out of town before climbing to above 4,200 metres past a couple of abandoned mines that have been left open to the elements and keen explorers. It is the best road that we have cycled, driven, or even walked in our lives. We saw only three cars for al 50 km of the descent and were able to take extravagant racing lines down the almost endless series of hairpins and long, fast straights.
Our only panic was a desperate ascent up the last 10 km of the final climb as we tried to escape an afternoon storm. Ali added to the stress when his chain broke. (He forgot to thread it through the front derailleur after cleaning it.) We are not Top Gear and Seb and I both stopped in solidarity. But as the clouds grew closer and darker I started questioning the value of our friendship.
Stage 3 (Ayacucho – Abancay)
Ayacucho is stressful and busy. To avoid cycling through Ayacucho we took back roads out of the city, which joined later with the main road. The route is a series of ascents to above 4,000 metres and descends back down to under 2,000. Our longest climb was well over 50km long and some of the descents were even longer. As before, we had the roads largely to ourselves and could enjoy the views, climbs and descents without the stress of Peruvian drivers and their love for honking.
Unfortunately, Seb’s bike snapped half way up a climb and he took a local bus on to Cusco but Ali and I made the stage unscathed (except for some delicate stomach moments.)
We particularly recommend the detour around Lake Pacucha, which adds an extra 15km of dirt track on to the distance. Although the lake is underwhelming, the secluded valley which comes just afterwards is not. Once again we slugged through ongoing roadworks and were rewarded with perhaps the best view of our trip. My sense of wonder was overtaken by a very real panic when my brakes failed half way down the climb, but this was soon overcome with a very small and easy adjustment. I only wish that I had figured out what was wrong before spending quite some time detaching, cleaning and reattaching them!
Stage 4 (Abancay – Cusco)
This stage held the last of the real mountains before the road hits the Altiplano. It is also much more heavily trafficked than anything we had come across before. This stage was also the first time that Ali and I went truck surfing. The trick is to find a big lorry with two trailers and start a sprint just before it pulls alongside. Usually, the drivers enjoy the game and slow down long enough for you to catch hold and get a free ride up the mountain.
The first real flat of the tour comes some 50km before Cusco and continues all the way into the city. We enjoyed being able to spin the big gears and were grateful not to be climbing when a rain storm decided to accompany us into the city.
Cusco lies over the shoulder of a small ridge. The main road (into the central tourist area) descends down very steep cobbled streets. It is a nightmare to ride when slippery and my friend (who had recommended a hostel in the centre of town) had neglected to mention that it was on la calle resbalosa (slippery street) and up a long flight of stairs. Having arrived at the base of these stairs in the rain, we didn’t want to look around for alternative accommodation and spent a very angry few minutes ferrying our kit into the foyer.
Stage 5 (Cusco – Puno)
The road from Cusco to Puno is busy, long and mostly straight. It goes across the Altiplano and is largely flat. This was the least enjoyable stage of the trip and we got very irritated with Peru’s drivers who insist on honking at everything on the road and leave no space when they overtake.
However, it wasn’t all bad. The Altiplano is home to wild flamingoes and we managed to camp next to a lake full of the awkward pink bird (in the morning they were Flamingone!) We also found a (very) hot spring near the top of the stage’s only climb. Entrance cost 2 Soles (50p!) and spent a great few hours putting off the last genuine ascent before Puno.
The only trouble we had on this stage was trying to remain sane as the road carried dead straight and the scenery remained unchanging and barren. Corners became an event and we were very glad to reach the small (9 km!) uphill that precedes the entrance to the City.
Water was only a problem in the mountains when Ali tipped his drinking bottle upside down in the middle of nowhere. There are plenty of fresh water sources and locals are always willing to provide agua de la caña (kitchen water.) It is worth noting, however, that in Peru, water from taps is not drinking water and will need to be treated.
You are not always guaranteed to find clean washing water at the end of each day and we were very glad to have a set of Pampers baby wipes for the end of each day.
The rain in Peru starts in October and rains are bad between December and March. The best time to tour the mountains is August – November. This is after the heat of summer but before the worst of the rain.
A trick for cleaning chains in remote areas is to shake them gently in a bottle of gasoline. This is easy, quick and takes off a lot of the dirt / grease from otherwise hard to reach areas. You don’t need to carry a plastic bottle with you; they are easy to find on the side of any road.
Storms roll in quick in the mountains and it is crucial to have a good pair of waterproof and windproof gloves. Ali took an old pair of ski gloves and mine were only windproof. Both of us will invest in a better pair before our next trip.
Food is cheap in Peru so long as you do not eat like a tourist. Local comedors (restaurants) serve two course meals for around 5 Soles (£1.25) and you can buy a bag of bread for 25 p. Our regular lunch in the mountains was 2 bags of bread with a tin of tuna.
It is essential when biking in the mountains to pack light and we tried to keep our kit under 20 kg (not including the bikes.)
I rode a Raleigh Sojourn (2016) Ali took his Diamant Undertaker. Both bikes have been great although the Undertaker’s frame snapped at a joint on day three. This was cheap and easy to get welded and we are both grateful to have steel frames. It is almost impossible to find a mechanic who can weld aluminium outside of the large cities in Peru.
Ali took Schwalbe Marathon tyres. These have been fantastic. He has had no issues. My Vittoria Randonneur Cross tyres have been less good. I had two punctures on the trip and the rubber which protects the tyre’s metal bead wore in places far too easily.
Panniers and Rack
Our panniers and racks have both been stellar. I took Altura Orkney’s (56 litre) and A Tubus steel rack. Ali took Ortlieb City Rollers and an old steel rack he had at home. Both sets of Panniers have survived storms, mud and bumpy dirt tracks. We have no issues and recommend both.
It is possible to camp wild almost everywhere in Peru. We only had trouble in the first week where a spate of killings around Huancayo by organ traffickers made it dangerous to stay outside of towns. Locals have only ever been curious about our trip but after long days in the saddle we quickly got fed up of explaining how all out gear worked and decided to stay away from towns as much as we could. This meant peaceful evenings and nights undisturbed by the horror of Peruvian dogs.
Our camping gear has held up to most of Peru’s weather. Our MSR Dragonfly stove has been essential. It can take any liquid fuel and we have been able to use petrol throughout the trip. We have not seen much camping gas and recommend getting a liquid fuel stove. Sometimes above 4,000 metres the stove has been unreliable but this can be fixed by removing the wind shield and turning down the power. Our Vango Banshee 200 tent has also been a winner although it does have problems with condensation. It is worth noting that even in Summer it gets cold in the mountains. My three season (good to -1 C) sleeping bag has only just been warm enough
One success story of trip has been our BAM clothing. Made from bamboo, BAM clothing doesn’t get smelly, is super comfortable, offers good UV protection and wicks moisture away better than any of the cycling / sports kit we own. BAM socks are especially good and have lasted day after day without becoming grubby or foul. This was a real blessing after getting caught in a couple of downpours.
We were also very pleased to have a SPOT GPS device which allowed us to send messages home from the top of mountains.
Our solar chargers (Anker) have been excellent. They work reliably and fast and were only £37.99 on Amazon.
Maps.me (mobile app) is amazing. We were able to download maps with all major and minor routes across Peru and ten use it to navigate offline. It is free on the app store and even recommends hostels and food stops on the way. We would not have been able to do the trip nearly so easily without it.
Crocs! We love our Crocs. Super lightweight. Sturdy. Comfortable and waterproof. We clipped them onto the top of our panniers and used them everywhere.
The hardest part of the trip was the organisation. Not being regular tourists we had to source our kit from scratch as well as fix dates, sort out a route and find transport to our start point. A useful start point for any unconventional cycle trips is the Pikes Adventure Cycling Handbook (which can be found at pikesonbikes.com.) We used their packing lists, well documented routes and advice for cycling at altitude as a foundation.
Arriving in Lima can be stressful. It is busy, loud and everything happens fast on the roads. There are regular reports of kidnappings and robberies so it is important to book a taxi with a registered company and have accommodation booked before you arrive. We used taxidatum.com. This was a bit overpriced but our driver arrived on time, took us directly to our destination and was able to come and pick us up in the city. We were happy to trade reliability for a slightly higher price.
To get from Lima to Huancayo, we took a Cruz del Sur bus. They were able to transport us and our luggage to Huancayo in relative comfort and without any hassle. They are a reliable and risk free option. This was exactly what we wanted.