Set to a saw-toothed mountain backdrop in the Ancash region of Peru, sprawling Huaraz makes a good base for exploring the southern reaches of the Cordillera Blanca. Scruffy and noisy, it’s not without its charm; in some ways it reminds me of Leh, in the Indian Himalaya, another mountaineering hub.
A couple of weeks ago I rode up to Pitek, hiked up to the prestine, turquoise-tinted lake of Churup (4450m), then biked back down again.
In hindsight, this bike and hike (rather than the more macho, yet somewhat perverse hike n’ bike) turned out to be an apt way of doing things, given these steep Andean grades. No Herculean bike portages, just a nice ride and run in the mountains.
Now that I’m more fleet-footed in my FiveFinger monkey shoes, I figured I’d try something similar. Starting from Huaraz (3000m), I rode up to the same trailhead as Churup, only to continue deeper into Quebrada Quilcayhuanca. A beady-eyed study of a topo map had promised a leisurely incline along a broad valley floor. Perfect for riding, it seemed. Which thankfully it was.
12 blissful kilometres of singletrack led me to the head of the valley, where I camped for the night, up at 4250m. The next morning I set about the task of de-thawing, dismantling the tent, hiding the bike, and running up to one of the nearby lakes.
Returning from whence I came, I then worked in a trail Julio had showed me, descending via a series of pre-Incan staircases, as I hopped streams, dodged elderly ladies, piglets, donkeys and sheep, and skittled down babyhead-bouldered alleyways. Back down to the Huaraz once more.
A simple overnighter, it reaffirmed the vast scope for accessible adventuring that exists in the Cordillera Blanca – encouraging me to linger just a little longer still…
First things first. Breakfast: a couple of rounds of 50 centavos quinoa brews. Best drunk from grubby glasses while jostling with locals on the street.
Sustenance: a handful of still-warm empanadas to tide me through the day. I wasn’t bothering with my stove. Fresh bread and cheese would be my dinner banquet.
Then began a 20km dirt road climb.
Perfectly balanced dry stone walls to either side.
The weather up ahead wasn’t actually looking quite so inviting… But having climbed for an hour and a half, I figured the least I could do was to push on and see.
Clearly, this is not the Buddhist Himalaya – the park authority has issued a formal license to kill.
Officially, you need to procure one of these – not that anyone checked. 65 soles (about $27), gives you a month’s entry and camping to the Parque National Huascaran (thanks mum!).
I’d pared down Ogre to the bare necessities for an overnighter in the high mountains: warm bag, sleep mat and plenty of layers. I needed only to carry a couple of water bottles, as there were plenty of streams en route.
FiveFingers were strapped to the handlebar roll bag.
The trail was perfect – a faint trace of singletrack cut across the grassy pampa towards Andavite, 5518m.
When things became marshy, extended rock causeways linked up the trails.
And the cool part? It was almost completely rideable. Challenging for sure – but with only a few short stretches that required time off the saddle.
Delving deeper into the Quebrada Quilcayhuanca. Despite inky clouds, the storm passed me by with just a sprinkle of rain.
Some interesting crossings to negotiate.
This energy packet is called a bomba de manzana – an apple bomb.
And these are sweet balls of sesame seeds. 5 for a sol.
That evening, I found myself a sheltered spot to camp, and awoke to a crystal clear sky the next morning.
After thawing out, I slipped on my FiveFingers and went for a walk/run. Miguel’s Tranquilidad Mix supplied the perfect soundscape on my iPod.
More mountain drama.
And weird flowering cacti things.
It didn’t take long to hike up to Laguna Tulpacocha, a lake surrounded by a bevy of 6000m peaks.
The major appeal of the the Cordillera Blanca is how close it lets you get to the big stuff, within just a few hours from towns like Huaraz.
Having stashed my gear, I carried just the basics – camera, snacks, water, puritabs and identity papers. My Osprey Talon 11 has proved an excellent pack for day rides and hikes alike – the helmet clasp is a particularly neat feature. It’s pretty stable to run in too.
Then I bounded back down the mountainside to the pampas once more.
Thankfully, 1) I managed find the boulders behind which I’d stashed Ogre, and 2) it was still there.
What a trail…
Onwards down the valley…
Dodging boggy marshland.
The techy bits were fun – sometimes these went on for several hundred metres, sharp and uneven like bad teeth.
Time and time again I’m amazed by the prowess of a rigid forked 29er, and its capacity to crawl over the most jagged rockscapes. It’s uncanny confidence undoubtedly flatters my riding skills. Riding this kind of terrain has made me wander about the new Surly Krampus 29+, with its mammoth 3in tyres – would they be worth their extra heft?
Leaving the national park… the Cordillera Blanca is the closest I’ve felt to home in a while.
From Pitec, I followed a network of trails, technical much of the way, back to Huaraz.
En route, this little furry fellow and I while enjoyed the remnants of my empanadas.
A liquid bookend to the day: a couple of rounds of fresh orange juice to finish off the ride…
The Need to Know Bit:
The whole ride was only about 60km, but over half of that is climbing. I left after lunch and was back by early afternoon the next day.
How much fun you can squeeze out of the descent, on the return leg, depends on the singletrack you can knit together – look for the trail to the left of the carpark at Pitek for starters. There’s several ways of riding singletrack pretty much all the way down to Huaraz – local insight really helps.
There are two possible campsites. One is at the head of the first valley (where Quebrada Cayesh meets Quebrada Quilcahuanca), set amongst the protection of scattered boulders. The second is just a few kilometres further up, towards the lakes, and requires a short carry. It’s pretty much all rideable on the way down though. This setting is more impressive but it’s also more exposed, with less options to stash a bike.
You can link Quebrada Quilcahuanca with that of Cojup, via a second lake and a 5000m+ pass. But as I heard it wasn’t rideable as a descent – more of a scree slope/boulder scramble – I decided to give it a miss. Quebrada Cojup is meant to be beautiful too though, another valley that’s one on my list, with the potential of continuing down to Huaraz via some ace singletrack, past the Lazy Dog Inn.