Well, not quite all of it, as it happens… Our original intention was to close the loop around this compact but rugged Andean range – a tight knot of snow-capped mountains lying south of the Cordillera Blanca, known to climbing literature enthusiasts as the setting for Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void. Our plan was simply to circle our way back to the mud-brick village of Llamac, the starting point for the ride, following the established trekking route.
But… it soon became clear that the eastern flank of the Huayhuash is far more bikepacking-friendly than the west. What’s more, heavy weather slowed us down, and lured us towards contemplating an exit point onto a dirt road to Cajatambo, a timewarped town that lies over a low pass two thirds of the way round the ride. After all, although manhandling our bikes up and over mountains was what we’d signed up for, it has to be admitted… riding them is a lot more enjoyable.
Ultimately though, it was my close encounter of a watery kind that sealed the decision – an event that, as I put this post together, has had me ingesting a cocktail of painkillers, and awaiting a third visit to the chiropractor tomorrow. Scroll on for more details!
Still, what we did ride, from Llamac to Cajatambo – via four respectable passes – was as rewarding an adventure as we could have hoped for. Despite the extended sections of hiking, the majority of the trail was eminently rideable. To those who enjoy a challenge, these are hard fought trails, and all the sweeter for it: flowy, rocky, technical, awkward… and very satisfying. Perhaps it was the sense of place, or our toils, or the knowledge that so few tyres have rolled across these pampas before our own. Certainly, the Huayhuash ranks up there with the most memorable of bikepacks I’ve yet to take on…
It’s hard to convey the strength and scale of the rapid in this snippet of video, but hopefully you’ll get the idea…
To cut a long story short:
Charlie heads off to the nearby hot springs. Cass mans the fort (this particular area is known for horse-riding vagabonds, so it’s deemed best to take it in turns for a soak). A stout gust of wind whips the empty Tarptent into the nearby river. Cass lopes across the plains in pursuit. Triumphantly, he grabs tent but falls into river in the process. Current is strong. Frothy, roaring rapid approaches. Fast. Oh… dear…. Deep breath… Flash of life history… Much water is imbibed.
Thankfully, Cass manages to extricate himself before running a second set of rapids. Both emerge considerably worse off for wear. Tent is torn apart, poles deformed, broken or lost, Cass battered, bruised, and just a little traumatised. Limps back to camp, dragging bedraggled tent. Charlie returns, relaxed and refreshed, to find Cass writhing around on the ground. He smiles. Some kind of yoga move, he wonders, reaching for his camera. Cries for Ibuprofen send him instead to the First Aid cabinet. Drugs and ointments are duly administered, at which point both Charlie and Cass laugh heartily at ridiculousness of the situation, given all the challenging trails they’ve just negotiated these last few days…
Soberingly – had I hit my head – it could have been far, far worse. My watery journey might have continued to the Pacific!
A special thanks to Charlie – both for joining me, and for insisting we bring a First Aid pack. Your manly TLC, at a time that I was feeling distinctly sorry for myself, was much appreciated!
I couldn’t find any online info about riding the Huayhuash – though several people have completed the journey on two wheels in the past. So, for statheads, I’ll add in our day to day distances and altitude tallies soon. In the meantime, the total ascent is around 4000m, and the total distance around 91km from Llamac to Cajatambo. We also recorded a gpx file of the route, which I’ll try and upload. Otherwise, ask I can send it.
Weather-willing, I would allow a day at Carhuachocha to hike up to the 3 Lakes. The views are said to be fantastic. Everyone we spoke to said it would be an ordeal to carry a bike up there.
Without the help of a donkey or two, I’m not sure I could recommend riding the whole loop. But even as a bikepacking traverse to Cajatambo (or even, Oyon), the Huayhuash is definitely a worthy adventure. If you are contemplating the full loop, riding the dirt road (it begins half an hour from the hot springs) to Yuallapa makes more sense for the cyclist. From there, it might be worth investing in the help of some four legged friends to carry your gear over the next pass – a climb of some 1300m – to make the return trip more enjoyable.
Food and Water:
Luckily for us, Charlie had a bunch of dehydrated camping food (complete with desserts!) for dinners. Lunch was brown tortillas, parmesan and salami, along with nuts (cashews, almonds, Brazil) and dried fruit. Breakfast came by way of granola and oatmeal. All of these can be sourced from the market in Huaraz. Plus, tea and hot chocolate for evening hydration and warmth.
There’s no shortage of water on the trip. Both Charlie and I used Steripen Freedom UV purifiers, which worked extremely well. With ample streams to draw from, we only needed to carry two water bottles, at most.
We took at 5.30am El Rapido bus to Chiquián (10 Sol, plus 5 for each bike). Journey time is around 2 hours. Then, we hopped on the local Nazario bus to Llamac, which leaves at 8am. The distance is far shorter, but the time take is similar as it’s an unpaved road. In fact, this section would be very nice to ride, as would the segment to from Huaraz to Chiquian – especially if you stopped by the impressive Hatun Machay, the sprawling rock forest, on your way out.
We took public transport from Cajatambo to Huaraz, the first leg of which was in a chicken-shit stained bus (really, the windows were covered), that descended down to the coast (dirt). There’s only one a day, and it leaves at 5.30am. From there, you can connect with a midday bus back up in the Cordillera again (paved, 4 hours). Total time: 10, long and relatively uncomfortable hours. According to Google Maps, there is a way to ride back without dropping all the way down to the coast, linking up with the road to Conococha.
Alternatively, we could (had I not had my incident) continued to close the loop, but this would have included a 1300m elevation gain (over Tapush Punta) up a largely unrideable trail. From what we heard, the descent down the other side isn’t much better either. Perhap it’s best to employ the help of four legged friends if doing so, which should be easy enough to do in Huayllapa. From Llamac, there’s a 11.30am bus back to Huaraz.
The best map of the area is probably the Apenvereinskarte Cordillera Huayhuash. It’s available locally, but cheaper if sourced in Europe. We also used an iPhone and the excellent Gaia App – it seemed like OpenCycleMap had the best detail for the area. The trekking route was even marked.
You can read about my setup here.
We took the early bus early to Llamac. Then we rode to Matacancha (the start of the trail), where we camped early in the day, due to a storm. The second night we camped en route to Punta Carnicero, which involved crossing 2.5 passes – a hard day. Our third night was at the hot springs (1.5 passes), and our fourth in Cajatambo (predominantly dirt).
Unlike the Cordillera Blanca,the Huayhuash isn’t a National Park. Each community demands a fee for passing through and/or camping. In theory, the total should amount to around 190 Sol, to complete the circuit. It’s all relatively official, with a receipt for each payment – which varies from 10-40 Sol at a time. Make sure you’re given one, both in case you are asked for it later, and as the fee collector may otherwise be pocketing the cash for themselves. (At the hot springs, for instance, we were told the ticket book wasn’t on site – until we insisted, when ‘another’ mysteriously appeared!) At the time of writing, payments should amount to around 110 Sol ($40) to reach the hot springs at Viconga. There’s been some security issues in the area over the last few years, so you’re advised not to try and fare dodge, and incur the wrath of the locals.
Charlie took some great GoPro footage, but it will needs to be edited. In the meantime, this is just a couple of minutes chopped from one our favourite sections of trail – the traverse and descent from Portachuelo de Huayhuash, 4783m.