Ayacucho to Avancay: the smell of fresh asphalt.

Ayacucho-Tambillo-Ocros-Andahuaylas-Laguna Pacucha-Quillabamba-Huancarama-Avancay. 400km.

(This route will be completely paved before too long; the diggers and steamrollers are tirelessly at work. Right now, only the turnoff to Laguna Pacucha until the last descent before Avancay are dirt sanctuaries. Although parts of this segment are undoubtedly pretty, I’d choose the Pike’s Huancavelica to Avancay alternative if travelling earlier in the season.)

Ever so slowly, we’re closing in on Cuzco – not a task that the Peruvian Andes makes particularly easy, it must be said.

From Ayacucho to Avancay, one goliath pass lies sentinel after the next. Duly, we’ve been spinning our pedals patiently to 4,000m in altitude, only to lose all climbing credit immediately, freewheeling down to half that elevation – into a hot, sticky and fly-infested land. Still, compared to the rugged and remote mining roads traversed between Huaraz and Huancavelico, these ribbons of road that unravel between one valley and the next have been far gentler in grade. And, until Andahuaylas at least, almost completely traffic free.

Somewhat disappointingly for connoisseurs of dirt roads though, much of the powder has recently been smothered under a coat of fresh asphalt, and widened to dual carriageway proportions. It’s all part of a concerted effort to link up the Longitudinal de la Sierra – which I presume will eventually connect the length of the Peruvian Andes by way of pavement.

These ‘improvements’ have made our task more straightforward in terms of effort, if a little less exciting in the spirit of adventure. It’s not so much that I begrudge a quiet, paved backroad. It’s more that I bemoan the changes that asphalt so often brings: the inevitable onset of faster driving, kamikaze overtaking and a general sense of traffic malaise. Cars whistle through small villages at breakneck speeds. Kids no longer play in the street. I have a theory that it’s the beginning of a real and lasting erosion in communities.

Still, I can’t complain about the incredible reception we continue to receive, even if it does revolve around us being gringos – as locals so delight to yell out as we pass. It’s become standard issue that we’re quizzed about our countries, and our eventual destination, at every pitstop we make. How will we get home? Are our bikes for sale when we do? Kurt’s fat Pugsley, often mistaken for a motorbike, draws particular curiosity, envy and tyre fondling. But perhaps what I like best is how most conversations end. Feliz viaje. Have a great journey. These words ushered by everyone, from hunched-over grannies in the street to restauranteurs where we stop and feed. There’s a sense of pride that we’ve chosen Peru to visit and explore. Road crews we’ve been passed only fleetingly have shown particular enthusiasm in wishing us well for what lies ahead. It’s inevitably a small interaction, but always one that feels genuine, and indicative of how people here reach out to talk and connect. I’m not sure I can imagine the same interest and support from JCB drivers in the UK…

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Despite our best intentions, it’s become something of a tradition to dawdle casually out of a city mid morning. After cake and juice, of course.

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Olga, juice lady extraordinaire. As repeat customers, we are treated with a complimentary second serving of a Surtido – a mixed juice that will set you back a dollar.

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One for the road.

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On our way out of Ayacucho, we meet Eddie, travelling around South America for just shy of seven years. Over all that distance, he’s clearly not become a proponent of lightweight travel. Try as I might, I cannot budge his bike off the ground.

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One thing’s for sure though. He’s a proud, warmhearted Brazilian bike nut.

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Dinner that night: almost-impossible-to-find mushroom flavoured ramen. A bag of freshly cut vegetables that cost just 0.50 Sol (less than 20 cents). And a few cloves from some pre-peeled garlic that cost only twice that.

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Ah, the sweet smell of fresh asphalt in the morning.

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Oh well. Another dirt road we’d been promised has recently been ‘improved’.

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Meaning more of this.

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Still, at least our fear of the rainy season has subsided. Clouds still gather threateningly, but have released little more than occasional downpours.

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And when rain has fallen, we’ve found abandoned building in which to seek refuge.

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From a cool and lofty 4100m, we find ourselves in a hot and sweaty 1900m. In one fell swoop.

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More iPhone propaganda. By way of my Son 28 dynamo, the Bright-Bike Revolution and around 9-11kph of pedalling power, I can listen to Radiolab podcasts on the climb back up, and still be charging the phone.

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Another wall, another political opportunity.

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Finally, after some 250kms of pavement, we turn off towards Laguna Pacucha. The sound of tyres scrunching on dirt gives me an immediate sense of relief and wellbeing. Traffic dwindles to the occasional motorbike and pickup truck. I can truly relax.

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And we’re back to the majestic views I’ve come to know and love in Peru.

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More of this please.

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A ribbon of dirt. A sight for sore eyes.

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Yep, it’s good to be back.

The plaza in Quillabamba.

The plaza in Quillabamba, where time stands still.

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For some reason, even dirt road climbs are more pleasant than their paved counterparts.

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A few hundred metres in the bag. A few hundred metres to go.

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We both agree. We could pedal all day across this kind of terrain. It’s touring bliss.

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Interlocked. The Peruvian embrace.

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Almost at the top…

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One more switchback.

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An impregnable wall.

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Teetering on a knife edge.

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Then a descent, slaloming through diggers and road crew, leads us to Huancarama. This is the upstairs.

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And this is the downstairs.

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Lush.

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Breakfast. A glass of quinoa. Some cake…

... and a bowl of caldo.

… and a bowl of caldo – chicken soup – to tide me through the final push to Avancay.

23 thoughts on “Ayacucho to Avancay: the smell of fresh asphalt.

  1. Chris

    Awesome stuff, despite the depressing progression of tarmac and all that goes with it. But how on earth does Eddie ride that bike anywhere – its nuts!

    What iPhone case are you using there? I couldn’t quite make out the brand on the back. And how is the Bright Bike Revolution doing? It sounds as if it is the simple, reliable answer to USB power on the road…?

    Keep up the good work.

    Reply
    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      Thanks Chris. It’s an iPhone 5, in a Lifeproof case (nice case, btw, just a bit prone to being scratched). Running the new OS, which seems to sap a little more juice than before. I leave it in Airplane mode much of the time, using the GPS to check junctions and altitudes every once in a while, via the Gaia App.

      So far, the Revolution is working a treat. It’s super light, very efficient, and slips neatly in an internal side pouch I have in my framebag. Its held up well to all the bouncing about and rainfall too. Although it’s supposed to kick in with a trickle charge at 5.5kph, it struggles to charge the iPhone on the steeper, dirt road climbs – but there’s always the descent on the other side (-;

      It’s nice to know that keeping gadgets charged up is never really an issue any more – so much so that I rarely bother to make use of plugs in restaurants.

      Reply
  2. Simon Giles

    Hey Cass…great to see your updates. You are visiting some of the little places we visited in 2008. I was in Medellín last week and am in Bogota this week so have been a little closer than normal. Seems like your bumps and bruises are history now. Take care…S

    Reply
  3. Kelly

    Wow, wow, wow! What an adventure and what fantastic photos – I love reading your posts and enjoy the day-dreams that follow. You’ve inspired me to take my first, thrilling off-road rides. Thank you!

    Reply
  4. TM

    What an excellent tour blog – great images. What kind of camera are you shooting with, and how are you keeping it dry and safe? (I tour with a DSLR in a padded waterproof handlebar bag–easy access, quick draw to shoot–but I’m always looking for better strategies.)

    Thanks!
    Taylor

    Reply
    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      I’m using a Canon 5d Mk2, whose sensor is sadly in the midsts of its death throws. Perhaps it’s a result of getting damp and shaken about, or perhaps as I bought it second hand. In any case, have yet to figure out the perfect way of stowing it. Right now, it sits on a bed of clothes in my Carradice saddlebag, which rests on a small front rack. Lenses are stashed to the side.

      To be honest, it’s a heavy camera and not very practical for travelling with. But I do love the image quality of a DSLR.

      Reply
  5. Cass Gilbert Post author

    Thanks for the comments. I can’t recommend dirt road touring enough, to anyone who is considering venturing away from pavement. The whole world seems to slow down (-:

    Reply
  6. bridget

    this brings back so many great memories of the up and down all the way through the cordillera central, pity to hear that its changed from complete dirt to almost all asphalt… the inevitable i guess… but those chacras, chanchitos and choclo still look very much the same and the chicos just as friendly 😉

    Reply
  7. Nick

    The October 14 issue of the New Yorker features an article about the the changes more and faster traffic brings to a small town in east India. Thought you might be interested because it sounds like your experience. My daily commute demonstrates the same principle in reverse. The city put traffic barriers in intersections in a neighborhood between my house and work. I think their intention was to make through streets less attractive to drug dealers, which it did, but by reducing the amount of traffic and slowing it down, they made it more attractive to bicycle commuters and kids playing in the street.
    You sure have gotten off the beaten path now. I’m trying to follow your lead on Glorieta Mesa and the Carson National Forest, but I’ll never catch up to you on the road to Huancarama.

    Reply
    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      Thanks for sharing that Nick. I’ll look up the article.
      As for catching me up… well, I’m known to dawdle…
      Have fun in New Mexico. I miss that place.

      Reply
  8. Chris H

    We could with less asphalt and Tarmac here and more dirt roads!

    I happened on you’re site whilst researching to buy a Surly Ogre. After looking through you’re adventures and finally building up the Ogre (currently for commuting) I have been inspired to start planning some (UK) trekking/camping with my family!

    I find your photos/site a welcome reminder that we don’t have to live our lives at a hundred miles an hour.

    Reply
  9. Karen

    Great post and thanks for the details. On your tail in Ayacucho now, headed back on the road for the final push to Cusco mañana.

    Safe travels.

    Reply
    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      Karen, all the best for the road. Samy’s Hostel is a decent, cheap place to stay in Avancay – on the main restaurant drag. Wifi there too.

      Reply
  10. Neil

    Enjoy those last few weeks of Peruvian dirt! It didn’t take long on their Bolivian counterparts for us to miss those long sweeping zigzags…
    Keep the photos of Peruvian street food and cakes coming! Mmm.

    Reply
    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      Neil, in your honour and bowing to your cake consumption expertise, I promise to do so. (he says, chomping into a particularly delicious brownie…)

      Reply
  11. Tibor

    Hi,

    I must admit, that you are impressive.
    I’d never do this.
    But, I will travel round Peru, and our track will be partly on these roads too.
    We will going from Pacucha to Ica by car.
    I try to find information about the roads (I prefer asphalt, and I guess the car rental company too :)
    Google already calculated some routes those container non-asphalt roads, so I don’t trust them. Maybe, you, as experienced Peru travellers hae some ideas.

    Thanks
    Tibor from Hungary

    Reply
    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      Hey Tibor. Sorry, I’m not too familiar with the places you’re planning to visit. But more and more roads in Peru are being paved these days.

      Reply
    2. Cass Gilbert Post author

      Sorry Tibor, I’m not too familiar with the area. All I know is that Peruvian roads are quickly being asphalted, so unless you’re really heading off the beaten track, you’ll probably be good.

      Reply

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