I’ve been back in Boston now for nearly two weeks, occupied with work and family dinners and shoveling snow for hours at a time, and it seems I’ve forgotten to share the story of my first trip to South America. Sometime over the summer I managed to convince my friend Phil that it would be a grand idea to build a bicycle and take it to Peru, then immediately ride up the biggest mountain we find, and so on December 29th, we flew from Boston to Lima.
From the airport, we took a cab to central Lima and stayed at a Hostel called 1900 Backpackers. Despite the taxi drivers warnings that we’d be robbed, we found central Lima to be rather safe, with plenty of other foreigners, parks, art museums and even bicycles. We spent the first night and day in Lima putting our bikes together, and walking around searching for vegan food and bus tickets for Huaraz. The best find was a tiny restaurant called Yami that was only open from 12:30pm to 3pm. Although we arrived about 20 minutes after they closed to nothing but a closed storefront in a residential neighborhood without so much as a sign indicating a restaurant, we were let in after knocking and served some of the best food we would have of our entire trip. After heading back to the hostel and packing we made our way to the bus station and took an overnight bus as soon as our bikes were together.
Huaraz is a mountain town known as a starting point for hiking through Huascaran National Park, home to Peru’s highest mountains and the Cordillera Blanca or “White Range.” It normally has a panoramic view of the glacier covered mountains, but January is the start of the rainy season, so for most of our time they were hiding behind the clouds. At 10,000 feet we could immediately feel the elevation, as we rode up towards our Hostel. The plan was to spend a couple days acclimating and then head up into the park over a road that would take us straight to over 15,000 feet. Although I felt light headed every time I climbed the stairs to the 5th floor kitchen, I had no trouble with altitude sickness. I did however suffer from a small cold I had brought with me from home, just a stuffy nose and slight cough, but over all we both felt pretty good and ready and excited to ride.
We spent new years wandering the streets of Huaraz, lighting off 100 shot roman candles and watching effigies burn in the streets. The next day we decided to take a day ride without all of our gear and test out the bikes and our riding skills. We headed out into the surrounding mountains and did nothing but climb for about an hour. The clouds peeled back a little and we were able to see a few of the smaller peaks of the Cordillera Blanca before we descended back into Huaraz.
On January 2nd we got up early and made our way by collectivo to Yungay, a small city about an hour north of Huaraz, and about 2,000 feet lower. From there we began our long ascent into the mountains toward Huascaran National Park. The riding was hard, constant climbing on loose, rocky dirt surfaces that constantly wound back and forth through farm land. We slowly watched Yungay become smaller and the horizon expand. The elevation made the climbing hard, but manageable in a low gear, so we sat down and patiently turned our pedals over for hour after hour until we reached the entrance to the park. Sitting below two giant walls of sheer rock, the road snaked in between them as the landscape changed from agricultural land to natural reserve. After about 7 hours (including a lot of stopping for photos and food), we rolled up to an aqua green glacial lake and made our camp beside it.
The next morning it hit us. My little cold that I had brought with me turned into a monster and I couldn’t stop coughing and snotting all over the place. Phil was feeling the effects from the prior days riding, and was not too interested in continuing upward toward the 15,000+ foot summit of the road we had been planning to take to the far side of the mountains. We had also heard the rain was much worse on the west side due to it’s proximity to the Amazon rainforest, and so we decided to ride up until we felt like stopping, then turn around and head back to Yungay and ride north on the east side.
We left our gear at the camp site and set out with light bikes, heading up in hopes to get some crazy views, photos, and ride one of the gnarliest roads we’d ever seen. As we hit 13,000 feet however, there was nothing but clouds and rain ahead of us, and we decided to turn around and head back to camp. Descending was about as rough as climbing and required much more skill and attention, especially around hairpin turns clinging to cliff sides. We made our way back to camp and prepared to spend a second night, hoping some rest would help our immune systems get us back on track.