I've said it before and I'll say it again, Trailblazer guides take some beating.
— Adventure Travel
Sample route outline: Peru
Among cyclists, Peru polarises passions unlike anywhere else in the Americas. Some hate it, put off by the Cordillera’s whopping climbs or the coma-inducing boredom of the PanAm – ‘Wake up! there’s a tree in 100km, and a bend the day after!’. But we’ll let you into a rapidly escaping secret: for lovers of dirt mountain roads the opportunities in the vertical Inca heartland are virtually unrivalled in the adventure cycle-touring world.
A decade of strong economic growth based, as for centuries, on mineral wealth, has brought infrastructure investment and a burgeoning road network which expands faster than you can turn those cranks up the hills. To every mine and two-llama town, past glacier-etched peaks and into the deepest canyons, roads cut through one of the most geographically diverse countries on earth. As you chug up one side of a valley in deepest darkest Ayacucho, stopping occasionally to compliment a campesina on her fabulous hat, a faint zigzagging track appears opposite. But even if it’s only 10km away as the condor whirrs, can you summon the energy to cruise down, then saunter up the other side to investigate?
Throughout the mountains and along the coast, impressive archaeological sites pepper the landscape. The visiting masses converge on the wonders of Machu Picchu, but with your own wheels other more ancient marvels like Kuelap, Choquequirao or Chan-Chan become readily accessible.
I need how long?
With so much choice, few riders lay down identical GPX tracks through Peru, but it’s still possible to categorise the main ways from north to south. Either stick to the tarmacked highway near the coast; take the established, and almost all paved, ‘Mountain Route’ through Huaraz, Huánuco and Cusco; or else head onto the rough stuff for the challenging ‘Peru’s Great Divide’ route along the Atlantic-Pacific watershed. As numerous roads cut east from the coast, most people mix and match the three, tailoring the terrain to fluctuating energy levels and priorities.
It’s easy to underestimate the size of the country or the effort required to pedal through. Sticking to the PanAm, Tumbes to Tacna is over 2500km and takes in excess of a month. Head into the hills for some kicks, as most riders do at some stage, and even if you remain on the blacktop you’ll need over double that. Begin yo-yoing through the sierra on dirt roads, your altitude profile soon pogoes like the output from some out-of-control seismograph, and if you brave it this way for the long haul to Titicaca there’s a half-century of 4000m passes to tackle before you emerge, euphoric or broken, and more than three months older, onto Bolivia’s alienly-flat altiplano. Luckily, many can get six month visas on arrival, so there’s no reason to race through it all; not that you could if you tried.
Getting your seasons right
Dry season in the Peruvian mountains is May to September and if hills are what you bike for it’s worth planning your whole Andean jaunt to coincide with this. During wet times you’ll at least be able to get through if you stick to paving, though you can guarantee there’ll be plenty of misery, and days curtailed by electrical storms. Venturing out on high dirt routes in wet season is a whole different undertaking and means accepting the additional inconvenience of being slowed, or turned back, by mud and snow, particularly in the wettest months of December to March. If you’re headed south bask in the lack of wind: as sure as lomo saltado follows sopa, it won’t last.
In contrast, the coast is often windy, generally blowing from the south, and though cycling at any time of year is possible, it gets hot in the north in the summer months from December to April. East of the Andes, dirt routes rapidly become mud baths in rainy season.
On the road
Paper maps will suffice if you’re sticking to major roads but they’re next to useless for dirt road enlightenment – it’d be like trying to navigate Britain’s footpaths using a motorway map. Much better are the downloadable electronic maps from the Ministerio de Transportes y Comunicaciones: : mtc.gob.pe/portal/transportes/red_vial/mapas_redvial.htm, or use a smartphone app. Ask around on the ground, though, as any mapping errors could lose you a day or two. See : perut.org and : viajerosmapas.com for invaluable GPX data for download.
To save energy on the climbs and make the mountains a more enjoyable experience, consider making use of bus companies’ encomienda (cargo) systems. Going light opens up a whole world of new route possibilities, with roads which would have meant torturous hours of pushing suddenly becoming a rewarding challenge. Whatever you do, make sure you keep good waterproofs and heavy-duty gloves with you for when that rainy descent from a lofty pass just won’t end.
For many, Peru still elicits visions of the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) and banditry, and raises the question ‘but is it safe?’ In recent years the country has become far safer and though there are occasional reports of robberies in lowland coastal areas in the north and you need to take the usual precautions in large cities, you’re more likely to find poor driving standards and dogs with anti-cyclist tendencies the real annoyance. On main roads, riders often become frustrated by children and some adults shouting ‘gringo’ as they ride by. It’s rarely used as an insult, so it’s best to treat these encounters with a smile and an ‘hola Peruano’ or else to stick to minor routes where ‘gringo’ shouts are much more infrequent than being stopped by a kindly campesino wanting a natter.
A portaledge might seem a sensible addition to your kit in some areas, but wild camping on quiet roads in the Cordillera is generally easy and memorable. A night indoors won’t break the bank, and even in small villages there’s often a bed to be found if you ask around. The wide availability of clean white gas (bencina blanca) ensures you won’t be spending time cursing your dirty malfunctioning stove; save that for Bolivia. Lima has the best selection of spares, but places with mountain biking scenes, such as Huaraz and Cusco, have plenty of parts too. Reassuringly, even if you’re in, say, Challhuahuacho and it feels like the back of beyond, as long as there’s a bus service, and you’ve got internet, enough Spanish and know what you want, it should be possible to arrange for that Shimano essential to be encomienda-d up from a bike shop in the capital.
Peru currently holds the dubious distinction of ‘counterfeit dollar capital of the world’, and lots of fake Nuevo Soles, the local currency, are produced too. It always pays to check notes, like the locals do, to avoid being lumbered with a worthless wad of bills.
Getting to Peru, and route inspiration
Peru makes an excellent stand-alone tour, but if you fly into Lima, do yourself a favour and don’t try and ride out of town. Better to jump on a bus and start your ride somewhere más tranquilo and with fewer than 10 million inhabitants.
Coming from Ecuador
A number of crossings link Ecuador and Peru. Pista (tarmac) tourers usually enter at Macará and make their way through the desert towards the Chan Chan ruins and Casa de Ciclistas (see p291) in Trujillo. Watch out in the vicinity of Paiján, just north of Trujillo – it’s notorious for an armed gang who took a fancy to robbing cyclists. Local police escort tourers through the danger area but make sure you read up for the latest beforehand.
The quieter, unpaved route across the border at La Balsa, between Loja and Jaén, opens up a myriad of interesting possibilities for progressing south towards Cajamarca. This part of Peru is little known in the mass tourism world – it’s too much effort to get to on public transport – and there’s some exciting, adventurous riding to be found. Possibilities include pedalling via Chachapoyas, the magical ruined fort at Kuelap and eerie mummy museum at Leymebamba, then tackling the famous road down to and up from the Río Marañón.
Cajamarca is an engaging city steeped in history – the place where the conquistadores’ cunning and deceit put paid to the Inca Atahualpa, and whole rooms were filled with a ransom of silver and gold. Put some planning into your ride south to the Cordillera Blanca while you’re here as there are various enticing small roads to pick from.
Cordilleras Blanca and Huayhuash
Few can resist the temptations of these two neighbouring ranges, which offer some gob-smacking mountain scenery. For those who’ve PanAm-ed to this point it’ll be the first foray into the peerless Peruvian Cordillera, and the excitement of the meeting is heightened by entry through the Cañón del Pato’s many tunnels, and the views of Huascarán, Peru’s highest peak. If you’ve made it this far through the mountains, Huaraz’s tourist comforts will come as a relief – pizza and craft beers anyone? In season there are always other grizzled tourers to chew the coca with and, if they’re headed in the opposite direction, spin outrageously exaggerated yarns about the colossal climbs that await. Once your energy’s returned, aided possibly with a cheeky Inca Kola or two, make sure you set aside a week to pedal the Huascarán Circuit – it’s one of the continent’s classic rides.
Classic Ride – The Huascarán Circuit
The 300km circuit of Huascarán provides a visual and cultural treat to all intrepid cyclists willing to accept the challenge. The loop through some of the most spectacular natural beauty in the Andes crosses the spine of the Cordillera twice, at Punta Olímpica (4890m) and Portachuelo de Llanganuco (4710m), passes cut through rocky ridges in the 1980s for roads which soar high among glaciers and are towered over by the Blanca’s largest peaks. We think this region has some of the best hiking and biking in the world, so for more detailed route inspiration and information buy yourself a copy of our Peru’s Cordilleras Blanca & Huayhuash: the Hiking & Biking Guide, also from Trailblazer.
South to Cusco
From Huaraz the ‘Mountain Route’ marches south; the gradients aren’t steep, but the climbs are enormous. The oft repeated ‘4000-2000, 4000-2000’ mantra touted in cycling circles is based on fact, and altitude that’ll take a day or two to climb will be lost in a flash. The drive to pave this route through the Cordillera’s largest cities has meant frustrating roadworks in recent years but the Andes’ master roadbuilders are finally getting there. Passing through Huánuco, Huancayo and Ayacucho en route to Cusco, this isn’t a tranquil mountain road but there are opportunities to take quieter parallel alternatives.
Embarking on a ‘Peru’s Great Divide’ route south from Huaraz is a far more demanding option, linking up a network of remote mining roads. It’s not one for the heavily loaded, with high altitudes, steep sections, bad surfaces and a vertical kilometre to climb every day, but you reap the rewards in spades with spectacularly varied scenery, welcoming villagers and deserted roads. The route’s topography makes it blindingly obvious why Pachacuti and pals never invented the wheel.
If your will to climb hills has waned and you’re thinking of continuing south on the PanAm, be aware that the interest level (outside of shopping and sampling some novoandina cuisine in Lima) remains low until you reach the department of Ica, which boasts Paracas and the Nazca Lines. From Nazca a pleasant paved road rolls over a few high passes toward Cusco to rejoin the inland routes.
Cusco and the Sacred Valley
Iconic Machu Picchu and the Inca capital of Cusco are the reason the vast majority of foreigners visit Peru. Both are a must for most cyclists too and despite the circus that surrounds MP, few leave disappointed, or unmoved by its mysticism. Unfortunately, despite valiant recent attempts, it’s not actually possible to reach the site by bike; however, there is still excellent riding to be had in and around the Sacred Valley. See the box above for how to visit MP without burning a hole in your wallet so deep that you can no longer afford to make it past Uspallata though you’d planned on Ushuaia. In Cusco, Hostal Estrellita (Av. Tullumayo 445) is central and welcoming and has been a favourite with cyclists for years.
Into Bolivia, Chile or even Brazil
The most popular cross-border route south is to head straight from Cusco to La Paz via Puno and the western shore of Lake Titicaca, from where there are distant Cordillera Real views. An increasingly popular alternative is to take the quiet roads round the eastern shore of South America’s largest lake – this requires more planning, with a detour for an exit stamp in Puno.
Venturing into the Brazilian Amazon is rare but possible in dry season by taking the Puerto Maldonado road from Urcos, just south of Cusco; much more common is to cross the only border post with Chile, between Tacna and Arica.
- Planning (sample section)
- Sample route outline: Peru
- Tales from the Saddle (sample)
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