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bikepacking for girls*

PERÚ: CHIQUIAN — CAJATAMBO

On the eastern side of the Pastoruri pass there are three options for heading south: 1/. follow the main highway  – fast and paved – to Huanaco and then to Cerro de Pasco: 2/. follow dirt roads to the east of Huayhaush and then through the Cordillera Raura – areas with a dubious reputation for lawlessness and banditry, or; 3/. abandon the road system completely and follow the eastern section of the Huayhaush trekking route to some convenient road connection that hopefully will avoid the worst of the trouble spots further east.

I have spent a large part of the last month or two dithering between these options. No. 2 being my preferred route, I persisted – in the face of much evidence to the contrary – in trying to find people who would reassure me that it was safe, or at least safe enough, until I was finally definitively disabused of these notions during my stay in Hatun Machay.

No. 1 never bore serious consideration and so that, at this point in time, leaves No. 3.

Now, I love the idea of bikepacking but in practice I know that I’m not particularly competent to shoulder even my unladen bike up a couple of flight of stairs let alone lug it over mountain passes when it is weighed down by two sizeable panniers, a framebag and a handlebar bag.

I long to ride, carefree, over any terrain but it just doesn’t work out that way. I am stubborn and persistent but not particularly strong and while I carry a lot less stuff than many a cyclist I am no weight weeny.*** My appreciation of the merits of minimalism has evolved over time and some key items of gear still don’t reflect this new found ideal since I don’t really have the budget to replace stuff that is still functioning with new items that might weigh in at a few grams less.

Anyway, to cut to the chase, in contemplating how to make this work I plan on enlisting the aid of a donkey or two. The donkey can carry my panniers and I will deal with the bike.

Simple… Well, maybe.

From Pastoruri, I drop down to Chiquian (which actually sits a mere thirty kilometres or so from Hatun Machay by the most direct route).

One to the logistical hitches of bikepacking in my experience is that if you are on a continuous trip that you aren’t necessarily in a position to restock your supplies with particularly convenient foodstuffs at particularly convenient times. Even small village supermarkets in Colombia stock dehydrated soy protein, a handy, nutritious, in not particularly tasty trekking/bikepacking provision, Ecuador’s regional supermarkets boasted such exoticities as cous-cous but Peru’s options are much more limited.

The Chiquian market doesn’t appear, today, to extend even to such basics as raisins or peanuts. There are plenty of oats and I have two packets of dehydrated potato puree in my panniers that I’ve lugged all the way from Huaraz. I buy some bread, some popping corn, some sugary puffed wheat, some processed tomato pasta sauce, and calculate that in three days I probably won’t starve.

Leaving Chiquian, a long steep descent...

... into another dry valley saved from total aridity by the snow-melt stream.

My next problem is organising a donkey. About 95% of people who do the Huayhaush trek go as part of an organised tour group. All luggage, equipment and supplies are carried by teams of donkeys, leaving the trekkers with not much to do but admire the views. The men driving these donkey trains are known as arrieros.

So, what I need is not only a donkey but also an arriero. What I fail to take into account is that as one person with a very small quantity of luggage I don’t have a lot of buying power. It doesn’t take me long to discover on arriving in Popca, the settlement closest to Matacancha, the Huayhaush trailhead, that nobody much is interested in this particular job.

It is without the necessary services of an 'arriero' and his donkey that I arrive in Matacancha but I decide to hang around to see if I can inveigle my way into the orbit of a larger group somehow.

A few unsuccessful attempts to infiltrate agency groups leave me thinking that tomorrow I'll be circling back around to the highway to reivestigate the possibilities of options No. 1 and 2 but I finally meet a young Portuguese couple, travelling with a Russian friend, who have hired an arriero with four donkeys. If the arreiro agrees, they say, they are happy for me to add my panniers to their donkeys' burden. Catalino, the arriero agrees. Yay!

True to form, pushing my bike over Cacananpunta, the first pass, leaves me no time or energy to take photos until I reach the top where I'm confronted with this techni-colour view. There is a fine looking road down there and I wonder where it goes...

Catalino, the arriero, takes it upon himself to push my bike over the top and down the other side while I am distracted by the views.

The travails of the ascent are soon forgotten on the very rideable descent.

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Until fairly recently the eastern side of the Huayhuash Cordillera was included in the adjacent area that is considered lawless and unsafe – a couple of trekkers were fatally shot resisting a robbery on the Huayhaush route not so many years ago. Perhaps in an attempt to change this state of affairs, a system has been instituted since then that allows local communities to charge trekkers to pass through their land. These fees range from 10 – 40 soles/person and are nominally levied to pay for the development and maintenance of campsites as well, I suppose, as providing the communities with a form of income.

The whole thing stinks, just a little, of a protection racket and as a model of economic development I find it pretty problematic – where does it leave similar communities nearby whose traditional land does not encompass the trekking route, for example*** – but it is undoubtedly less stressful for all concerned than holding people up at gunpoint. Mind you, the arrieros are full of warnings not to leave so much as a toothbrush unattended outside your tent at the campsites.

The 'cobradores' wait, generally in intimidating groups, at strategically placed gateways to charge trekkers to pass by. I have to admit to being - what now, at greater distance, seems quite unreasonably, since I was well aware of the practice before setting out on this venture - extremely resentful about the transaction.

The process is formalised with receipts and my collection sets me back over 100 sol. The low-point of this particular adventure is being charged for access to the three lakes area which I could not actually visit.

Catalino, the arriero's, presence always seems to make things go a little more smoothly.

So all in all it is with mixed feelings that I travel through this astoundingly beautiful landscape.

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Cahaucocha Laguna is the first camp site.

Refelctions and light...

... and water fowl calligraphy;...

... all of it glorious!

And how about that, for a sunset?

On the second day I follow the donkey route as it is significantly more bike friendly than the route the trekkers follow past the famous ‘three lakes’ and I consequently miss out on the most spectacular of the route’s views. In retrospect, I should have stashed my bike and hiked to the pass and then returned to follow the donkey trail with my bike later but my status as a tag-along doesn’t give me the leverage to organise things quite to my liking.

All in all, it is somewhere around this point that I decide that, really, while I like both hiking and biking that perhaps I prefer to keep a little distance between them and that the bikepacking-lite choice, with a four-legged support vehicle, doesn’t give me the independence that makes the whole thing worthwhile. That said, it certainly beats the highway alternative represented by route option No. 1.

People live in small communities through out these mountain ranges with their herds of llama and alpaca. It a way of life that looks largely effected by time - the circular stone corals have probably been there for centuries.

Arriero's are the true heros of this route. They race ahead of their groups to the next camp site where they set up the tents, tend to their beasts and start cooking.

Day three brings a welcome treat in the form of a hot bath at Viconga. The spring provides water at a toasty 40 degrees or thereabouts.

Note the pile of garbage in the right-hand corner of the image. Ecological awareness is low and both tourist and locals alike use the springs for laundry, dishwashing and bathing without much regard for what kinds of chemicals they might be introducing with their detergents, soaps and shampoos.

Vicongo marks the point where I diverge from my trail companions and head down this valley towards a road that will lead out towards Cajatambo and then Oyon. I bid a fond farewell to Catalino and his donkeys. If you ever happen to want to hire an arriero in the area I can't imagine that you could do better than contact Catalino of Popca. (Coincidentally, his brother Britaño, had provided me with a welcome bed for the night in Popca - another fine person!)

The road is easily reached and takes me past herds of llama...

... and pounding rapids...

.... before joining another road which climbs up over the ridge and emerges high above Cajatambo. Given the barren state of my food pannier and the scant rations I have been on for the last few days it is sorely tempting to descend for a decent lunch but the prospect of climbing back up again to the Oyon turn off deters me and I plough on. Sadly, I don't see a shop selling food for another twenty-four hours.

* The adjectives ‘manhandle’, ‘macho’ and ‘manly’ do not appear in this post.  There will also be no gear talk of any kind and it is donkeys that get to do most of the heavy lifting. See here for how the boys** do it.

** But seriously, many thanks to Cass Gilbert for providing timely info – before he had even properly dried out – which helped with planning and decisions on my Huayhaush-lite adventure.

*** The only item that I carry that is absurd is my dive computer.

**** Those would be those lawless bandits just slightly further to the east.

Suggested reading: Death in the Andes by Mario Vagas Llosa, often comes to mind while I am in this area. Death in the Andes is a compelling and disturbing novel by Peru’s most famous author: Llosa is a Nobel Laureate (for Literature, 2010) and was a Peruvian presidential candidate in 1990. The book is multi-layered and complex, plumbing frightening depths in a series of intertwined narratives. It’s a mystery thriller of sorts set in a small Andean village: terrorism, community – and communal violence, superstition, the deep, and seemingly unresolvable, tensions between ‘modern’ and ‘indigenous’ thought and ways of life, and gender relations are just some of the subjects of exploration in this chilling book.

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  1. […] the Huayhuash in Peru. Cass has some breathtaking photos – whereas Anna calls her own article bikepacking for girls and manages to get by without words like macho and manhandle… but not without a donkey! Which […]

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