A loop of southern Peru: High roads, canyon hopping and baby volcanoes

With our brains full of verbs from two weeks of Spanish school in Arequipa we were itching to do some riding. A route to Cotahuasi Canyon was on the cards, but there were two good options. The answer (obviously) was to do both, forming a loop of sorts, beginning and ending in Arequipa for more Spanish. Like many of our plans, the return to Arequipa went out the window after some weeks on the road afforded us the time to scheme up something grander. We’ve come to find that we are prone to erratic changes in plans, so we know not to leave a trail of belongings to come back for.

Eileen pedalling on a unpaved road in front of El Misti. Eileen passing El Misti on the climb out of Arequipa.

Our road out of Arequipa climbed steadily from 2,300m to 4,900m over 100km or so without reprieve. Nothing to bat an eyelid at in a few weeks, but a daunting prospect to kick things off, having once again arrived in Peru in less than peak physical condition. It’s hot and rough from the start, and then the altitude kicks in. I convince myself that this will be fun in a few days, but I’m not yet it the meditative rhythm of the ride. Things that become normal and irrelevant are front of mind at first – the dirtiness of everything, the stale bread, the dry and cracked lips and skin.

A few days off the bike in Chivay, the hub of the Colca Canyon, give some extra acclimatisation and time for my cough to settle. The town empties its tourists onto early morning buses, shipping them off on tours down the canyon and we get to enjoy the laid back vibe. We develop a comfortable, short-lived ritual of visiting the same women in the markets: At breakfast for our instant coffee and fried egg sandwiches, followed by a blender full of fruit smoothie at the market juice bar, then in the evening for our dessert of hot rice pudding with mazamorra morada (a jelly-like pudding made with purple corn and fruit). It is exceedingly pleasant. During our lazy days in Chivay we debate whether to head into the Colca Canyon proper, one of Peru’s most famous spots. There’s a definite sense that we should, already being so close, but it’s driven by obligation rather than excitement. We decide we have no need to pay entrance fees to visit a lookout point with hundreds of other tourists. I’m sure it’s beautiful, but we increasingly find less joy in these places, and more in the roads less travelled.

Breakfasts in Chivay

We spend a night in Sibayo in the upper reaches of the canyon. Almost every single person greets us while we wander around – it’s one of the friendliest places we’ve been. It’s also the first of several towns we pass through that have set up cute homestays to attract tourists, and as in all of them, we’re sadly the only tourists in town. With all the headline acts in Peru dominating the tourism industry, I wonder if these little places will ever manage to get a small slice of the pie.

Tolconi – Pretty standard hospedaje vibes around these parts

From Arcata to Culipampa and beyond the scenery ramps up several notches – colourful mountains, alpine lakes, desert-like sand dunes at 5000m. For over 200km the road stays above 4500m so the conditions are dry, cold and harsh. The nights drop to –15c or so, and the daily headwinds are tiring (Being a loop we look forward to having the prevailing winds at our backs soon, though this never eventuates) Still, it’s on this section that we really get back into the rhythm of riding.

Feeling the burn on the first few passes

Into the high mountains and mining territory the roads become more and more beautiful. It’s a paradox that these mines are both destroying the landscapes we love, and the very reason we’re able to access them, being responsible for building the roads. Without fail the miners working in these places are salt of the earth types, always keen for a handshake and a chat as they sign us in and out of restricted access areas.

Entering Cotahuasi Canyon from the north is a delight, but involves more climbing than one might expect from descending into one of the world’s deepest canyons. The temperature climbs rapidly and the scenery transforms dramatically. A week in the canyon passes us by too quickly. Cotahuasi town is warm with cold beer and nice food, and we take a detour on the fantastic road to Quechualla, the end of the line at the lowest road-accessible point of the canyon. Bolivia’s famous Death Road is put to shame by this stretch, etched into the steep canyon walls, a handful of vehicles making the precarious journey each day. Quechualla was also the site of a mysterious incident involving a missing/stolen/lost GPS and my underwear, but that’s a story for another day…

The road to Quechualla and catching a lift back to Cotahuasi

What goes down must eventually come back up. We’re up at the crack of dawn to avoid the heat and climb out of the canyon, racking up 2700m of vertical ascent. A bumpy road north of Nevado Coropuna links us to Andagua and the Valle de Los Volcanes, an intriguing landscape of small volcanic cones, lava fields and cacti. We stock up on supplies in a small tienda in Andagua, where a bunch of local men are getting stuck into some beers. Many selfies are taken, then our groceries are generously paid for by one of the men despite our protests. It also means we need to finish our shopping elsewhere – obviously we can’t keep ordering stuff on someone else’s dime!

Towards Andagua via a quiet road skirting the north of Nevado Coropuna

Andagua’s amazing town plaza topiary and volcanic cones and lava fields in the Valle de Los Volcanes

From Chachas a brutal climb tackled over a couple of days takes us up to our highest ever pass on bikes. It’s nameless as far as we know, but reaches just shy of 5200m. An unexpected mine blocks the road with a fairly solid looking fence and warning signs. Of course we let ourselves in through the unlocked gate but debate the approach – make a dash for it or play it friendly and polite? As we’re flying downhill a truck with flashing lights comes towards us. My heart sinks briefly, but they just wave and drive on by. We’re met with more smiles and waves as we leave through the mining camp. Ah, Peru.

The scenery mellows out into rolling hills as we retrace a short section back to Caylloma and then on to Espinar via a lovely road through the Tres Cañones, another deserted tourist attraction. A tour of bakeries and a bargain of a room necessitates that we settle in for a few days to plan our next move – bikepacking Ausangate.

Route

Download the GPX file (note this is not recorded route but inaccuracies are minor where the roads are unmapped. They’ll be obvious if you’re on them!)

Arequipa – Chivay – Sibayo – Caylloma – Tolconi – Culipampa – Huarcaya – Alca – Cotahuasi – Quechualla – Cotahuasi –Andagua – Chachas – Caylloma – Espinar

~940km over 20 days

We cobbled together some sections from Andesbybike.com (Caylloma to Quiñota and Abancay to Cotahuasi), part of a route through the Valle de Los Volcanes recently ridden by Ryan Wilson, and filled in a few extras.

It’s a fantastic route with diverse scenery, some of the friendliest locals we’ve encountered, and plenty of wildlife (Vicuñas, Guanacos, Llamas and Alpacas, Condors, Vizcachas, foxes, birds…)

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