Peru has some of the most amazing roads I have ever had the pleasure to ride, and one area which was particularly awe-inspiring was Huascarán National Park in the Ancash region. The area is truly spectacular, surrounded by snow-capped mountains towering up to 22,204’ (6768m) and forming part of the Cordillera Blanca mountain range. Getting off the beaten path is one of our main goals, and it’s definitely rewarding. Having purposefully hunted out the roads less traveled we’ve stumbled upon some of the most beautiful locations we’ve ever seen, and in Peru places like this are in abundance.
A year before this adventure I had only been an asphalt warrior. However, in order to enable myself to make the most of my travels, I was determined to get confident off-road with the help of some good friends and it has certainly paid off.
We had made our way up through central Peru, winding our way through the Andes, following the numerous, maze-like mining roads. The GPS was a little redundant at times, however because of the mining industry in the area the roads were reasonably well marked.
On our route from Huallanca to Huaraz, we took a small back road leading across the mountains. It was my first ever experience of riding in snow. I must confess I felt a bit nervous, I got that fluttery feeling in my stomach as I looked at the blanket of white that lay before me, my palms would have been sweating if it wasn’t so cold, but I decided to go for it. To be honest, despite a little bit of snaking on some iced up puddles covered in snow, it actually wasn’t too bad. Having already ticked off my first sand riding experience in Peru, I had now also completed my first snow ride! Phew! The reward was getting to the Pastoruri Glacier. With the viewpoint being at about 16,732’ (5100m), the walk up from the car park was a struggle due to the lack of oxygen, made worse being in full bike kit, but it was well worth it. Getting there before any other tourists was advantageous and allowed us time to give the drone a quick fly before the snowstorm hit. To say it was cold was an understatement. It was bitter! Hiking back down was much easier and a coffee to warm up was most appreciated.
On exiting the park we also got the added bonus of an awesome dirt road. On route we came across some huge plants we’d caught glimpses of before, aptly named “Queen of the Andes” or ‘Puya Raimondii’ for those of you who like the proper name for things. They were huge, and apparently some reach an amazing 49’ (15m) in height.
Huaraz was touristy, as we knew it would be, however for us it was a perfect base for a couple of days whilst the bikes had a little TLC before we went off to explore. Much to our delight, we met up with a local motorcyclist who took us to some of the little known viewpoints around the city, which allowed us to really appreciate the magnitude of the surrounding mountains.
There are a couple of options to cross the Cordillera Blanca, so we decided to do a circular route venturing in all four directions. It cost us just a few dollars to get into the National Park at the entrance deep down in a huge valley, and we were rewarded with a few days of spectacular riding. The road was tarmac, but fun as it switched back and forth, disappearing into the distance. All around was pointy white mountain peaks, trickling waterfalls and the immense view of the valley floor below. The road is home to “sector de las mil curvas” or “1000 corners section”, with a length of 16 miles (26km) and 46 hairpin turns. The temperature was steadily dropping again as we reached the dizzy heights of 15,542’ (4732m), passing through the famous Punta Olimpica tunnel. At this height it’s said that oxygen is about 40% less than at sea level! Luckily, having spent most of the past week at over 9,842’ (3000m) our bodies had gotten used to it, although getting on and off the bike for photos still took its toll on my breathing. On some occasions I felt like I had a Llama sitting on my chest!
At the end of it all we reached the small town of Chacas, with its beautiful, hand-carved balconies made by the Don-Bosco Artisans. They surrounded the main square, adding to the town’s charm and at the head of the square was the picturesque white church, where people regularly gathered. It was such a tranquil place, and the best part... there were no tourists in sight! Many elderly folk sat around chatting happily or wandered around the square with their wonky tree-branch walking sticks.
While taking in the culture and scenery, this tiny enchanting town captured our hearts for three days. We then departed on to what was one of the best rides of our adventure so far. We decided to take the small back roads across to Yanama and it was fantastic. The road was pure dirt and picturesque with local farmers herding their pigs, sheep and cows all together up the small tracks, most smiling and waving as we chugged on past. The people in the mountains are a hardy bunch and I was especially fond of their bright and colorful traditional clothing. The ladies worked hard, their babies or toddlers tied on their backs with colorful cloth, and the older kids mucking in with the day to day chores.
The day was packed with endless dirt roads, and breathtaking scenery but my bike just ate it up. There were only a handful of vehicles that we came across in those few hours, all locals going about their daily business. Just before we thought it couldn’t get any better we passed through a gateway of rocks and the valley just opened up before us. Jaw-dropping doesn’t come close! Not only were the frozen, white capped mountains towering above us, to our right was one of the most amazing switch-back roads we had ever seen carved into the mountain side, and in front of us was the brilliant, piercing aqua blue colored Llanganuco lake, that disappeared off into the distance, enticing us to come down and see it. It was magical, one of those moments you only dream of when you set off on your adventure. We must have spent a good hour sitting there taking in the surroundings before negotiating the twisties of clay and rock down to the lake side. What a day!
After a night in nearby Caraz, our bikes having taken shelter in the garage come wood mill, we headed out to nearby Cañón del Pato, with its numerous tunnels. There’s something strangely exciting about venturing through long tunnels on a burbling 4 stroke motorcycle, and the ones in Cañón del Pato were no exception with over 35 dark tunnels carved through the rock in the gorge, continuing for about 28 miles (45km). Most of these were only one lane and occasionally so long there was no way to tell if another vehicle had already entered at the other end. Fortunately we only had to make one evasive action to avoid an oncoming truck. However, the bonus of being on a bike is that you can squeeze up against the wall of the tunnel in order to let any vehicles go past. Easy peasy and only mildly scary. On the other side of the gorge the road continued and the changing colors in the rock were dramatic, rugged yet very alluring.
Following our tunnel fun, it was off to Lake Parón and mount Pirámide, which is said to be one of the mountains where the inspiration for the Paramount Films logo came from. Heading back towards Caraz and after the short tarmac section it was back to the delights of the dirt road. I was very glad not to have all the luggage with me because of all the loose rocks and stones on the way up, although it was definitely fun. It wasn’t a road I would relish tackling on a street bike, however, on our zig-zag climb up to the lake, we passed a Colombian motorcyclist slowly making his way up with his street tires. I admired his determination and we waited to greet him at the top. Sadly the clouds were concealing the peak of Mount Pirámide, however it was still well worth the effort. The dazzlingly blue lake was so calm and tranquil, with a little, weathered wooden row boat sitting on its shore which made for an excellent photo. A couple of ‘loco’ travelers decided it would be a good idea to brave the waters in just their underwear, however their adventure only lasted about 10 seconds due to the freezing temperatures, and they were soon wrapping up again. For me, I just felt so fortunate to be in a place like this on my bike.
I can’t say it enough, but getting off the beaten track, especially on a motorbike is unbelievably worth it. The sights, the people, the culture and the adventure make it priceless, and Peru is definitely a country worth exploring. Get it on your adventure list!
THIS STORY WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN UPSHIFT ISSUE 28, DECEMBER 2018 HERE>