WORDS AND PHOTOS BY MICHNUS OLIVIER
TRANSLATION: THE BEST COUNTRY ROADSIt is difficult after 4 years and nearly 60000km through South America to choose our top roads and passes. When people ask, we usually bumble off so many that you could write a book. How do you decide which are the best? Some passes are only 20km long, some include asphalt and/or dirt, and they all navigate such various terrain. For us personally, the best is a combination of eye-wateringly engaging passes that traverse landscapes too beautiful to put into words. Of course, those out-of-the-way, unknown paths always climb the ranks of any adventurer’s favorite journeys.
We have spent countless hours looking and researching places and roads to explore. Our memories are overloaded with the sensations, images, and experiences we have encountered. We have stumbled on some pretty groovy roads that blow our expectations clean out of the water. There are so many routes worth sharing that it would take a book to pen them all. Alas, we will share a few that have left a long lasting impression on us.
This is the first of a two-part series showing you some of the crazy passes and roads in South America.
ECUADOR: BORDER TO LIMONCOCHA AND THE AMAZON REGIONLet me say this upfront: Ecuador is a small, power-packed, hard-hitting destination. You can go from the Amazon, to riding through the Andes, to cruising along the sea and sipping a beer on a beach eating Ceviche, all in a single day depending on the route you choose.
As we entered Ecuador, we hit a bit of asphalt and then turned left onto a dirt road that was not really on any maps. Only later did we hear most people do not ride this as it is a Colombian-Ecuadorian corridor for drugs and illegal wood.
Taking this back road was one of the best decisions. The mountains and landscapes were numbing the faculties. It was simply incredible to experience; riding on the rim of one side of the valley under tremendous tree overhangs, while Colombia rested in the distance on the other side of the valley.
We have never seen so many waterfalls. They were everywhere as far as we rode, and some at 3000m (9800ft) altitude.
This 175km (108 miles) route was almost all dirt road with small pieces on tar close to the towns. The route is dangerous when it rains, as possible landslides can block the road. Landslides are part of life in South America so always ask the locals and look at the weather forecast.
ECUADOR: CHIMBORAZO - QUILOTOAWe were on our way from Chimborazo volcano to a small town and aimed to arrive at the Quilotoa Lake the next day. We checked paper maps, Google, MAPS.ME, the stars, and even consulted a sextant for routes. One route had all the hall markings of a fun ride. It was extremely twisty and was marked on one map in white, which meant it was not a ‘normal’ road.
An early morning start got us riding down massive dirt passes, and climbing up others. The further we went, the narrower the track became. It was mostly uphill rocky climbs and although we did not struggle, it was slow going. Eventually we realized only locals with donkeys traversed this road and no bloody cars had been on this track for a long time. We were rewarded with fun and beauty that is still etched in my brain today. Mesmerizing grass altiplanos; breathtaking views above the clouds; and dirt roads to connect them all.
We stopped often to take in the views, as we had never seen such unbelievable expanses running into tomorrow. We were truly riding on top of the world.
This road is 250km (155 miles) and at 4300m (14100ft) altitude, there was nothing around us for miles.
PERU: NORTH - CARAMABA TO PUENTE VIRUNothing sanitized about this track. You have to focus and pay attention. Hairpin bends aren’t the same here as the nice, neat ones in the EU. Every turn and bend is different, with different poison coming at you.
We decided to see the famous Dakar Rally start in Lima. We headed towards the coast to hit the Pan-Am to make headway as riding in the mountains just took up too much time. I told Elsebie over the intercom that something had to change as we had to drop from 3000m (9800ft) altitude to sea level and we were less than 100km (60 miles) away. As we went through a cutting in the mountain, a view greeted us that dilated our pupils to the size of dinner plates. It felt like we were at the top of a roller coaster looking down. 3500m (11500ft) altitude, and in the distance, the sea was a straight line about 50km (30miles) away.
From up here it looked like a quick walk in the park, yeah right!
The magnitude of the scenery and landscapes in Peru are bewildering at times. The size of the mountains, canyons, rivers, everything is almost supersized. It took us the best part of 2-3 hours to ride down. Two vehicles cannot pass each other on this route, it is right on the edge. This is also not the place to be if you suffer vertigo, and if you planned on going over the edge, you will have to set up camp as you will be there for a while.
This route is 80km (50miles) and a worthy ride.
PERU RAINBOW GORGE - CONCOTCHA TO OYÓN
We wanted to skip Lima and stay inland, but Peru being Peru, there are no easy shortcuts. The Andes Mountains make bloody sure of that. So, for our planning, it was either Lima or way back into the Amazon area. Both would have taken a long time and involve sitting on tar in traffic without a freaking option.
We found a route; it looked dodgy and there were some pins on iOverlander.com that mentioned the ONE bridge, a pillar of society, we had to cross, that was not in good standing. The other small conundrum, the routes we could follow on our maps were a bit vague and did not really work out well. We ended up routing it in sections and the total time showed a long day ahead in the saddle.
The reward was finding what we named ‘Rainbow Gorge,’ something so spectacular we lost a few hours taking photos and riding slowly to truly experience the incredible landscape. It is so rewarding to find these little gems. We debated about how strange it was that a place like this was not on the main tourist attraction list of Peru. No tourists, as it is nearly impossible for tourists to venture here without their own vehicles.
It took us about an hour or more to descend into the riverbed with all the switchbacks. Straight down it could not have been more than a mile or so.
The color of the soil on this mountain ranged from purple, blueish, red-orange and green with numerous shades in between. There were lines of colors meters wide with different colors running next to each other. The total track eventually took us two days to ride.
There was not a single 50m stretch of dirt that was straight along this 335km (208 miles) route. The route is not for those who get dizzy easily. In the rain and snow it would certainly be impassable.
PERU: CERRO DE PASSO - LA UNION
This route was suggested to us by a local miner in Cerro de Passo. It is a mining road through the Andes mountains to the interior of Peru. They are still mining up in the mountains, and the miners are supposed to maintain the roads. However, they see this more as a suggestion than a rule.
The route traverses over the mountains a couple of times with a scenery combination of canyons, plateaus and white snowcapped mountains in the distance. The best part is it runs through the Cordillera Huayhuash, Zona Reservada Cordillera Hayhuash National Park. The park has all the signs of a small piece of heaven with its snowcapped mountains and turquoise lakes.
We passed farms with llamas and alpacas roaming around and reached over 4800m(15700ft) altitude when riding into the small town of Oyon. From here is where the next part of the fun started. The dirt road climbs out a pass with views back into the valley. The snow of mountain Kuntursinqa was visible from the top of the pass. Crossing over the top, the incredible view over the back part of the Andes stretched as far as Lake Lauricocha. This lake is still at 3800m altitude with the most beautiful turquoise water fed by the surrounding glaciers and snow-covered peaks.
The view over the valley is stuff of biblical paintings. We stopped for an hour to have some coffee and a shot of rum to warm up. The entire 166km route is made up of passes, switchbacks and views that will be carved into your memory for life. The route is not advisable in the rain or snow. We did encounter some rain but were lucky to be on a good stretch at the time.