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From Huaraz, the main gateway town to the astonishing Cordillera Blanca, there are two main ways to reach Loja, the first city of any consequence in southern Ecuador.

If you turn right after Yuracmarca, you’ll take a winding mountain route through Cajamarca and historic Chachapoyas before crossing the border on to a badly maintained road towards Loja. The climbs are often tough and the roads can be in bad shape, but the culture is fascinating and the cycling spectacular. (This was the route chosen by southbound riders Jukka, Cherry, Johanne and Nathan, and on which fellow northbounder Alex has just embarked. You can read about them all at the Encounters section of this site.)

Turn left, meanwhile, and you’ll whizz down to the Pacific coast, arriving between the mid-sized cities of Chimbote and Trujillo. Once you hit the Panamerican Highway, the road surface is excellent, the climbs barely register, the winds are usually behind you and the riding is an utter bore. (This is by far the more popular route.) It’s a much quicker way to reach the border – especially if, like many cycle tourists, you travel by bus between Trujillo and either Chiclayo (200km to the north) or Piura (a further 215km) to avoid Paiján or the Sechura Desert (just south of Piura), two notorious areas where cicloturistas have suffered serious assaults in recent times.

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It’s the first fork in the road about which we’ve been conflicted for several months. In the end, we turned left, and the reasons have nothing to do with Peru. Approaching us is a nice little window during which we should have favourable weather in Ecuador and Colombia, two countries that can be tremendously rainy. Factoring in the time we’d expect to linger in Cajamarca and Chachapoyas, dropping to the coast will save us at least two and probably nearer three weeks, and means we won’t have to plough north to Panama in as much of a hurry. (Today, we’re taking the bus from Trujillo to Piura in order to avoid the aforementioned danger areas, which also saves us time. Lucho at the Casa de Ciclistas in Trujillo told us that Paiján is safer than it once was, and that the police are generally happy to escort riders through the town. However, given the horror stories we’ve heard, we decided not to take any chances.) All being well, we should be in Ecuador by Tuesday.

While Ruth has struggled a bit with some of the high-altitude climbing in the Peruvian Andes, Will was much more reluctant to leave these dizzy heights. The riding up here must be some of the most spectacular in the Americas. However, before we slumped down to the coastal Panamericana, there was time for Will to take one last trip high into the hills from Huaraz over the Punta Olímpica, a mountain route that people who know about this sort of thing have described as the best road pass in the world. Here’s a quick scrapbook…

 


 

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From Huaraz (3,060m above sea level), it’s a simple descent through the Callejón de Huaylas to the pretty town of Carhuaz (2,640m), where our climb begins. From the square, palm trees appear in front of glaciers.

 


 

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For the next four days, I’ll be riding with Alex, an amenable Austrian with a gloriously unrestrained appetite. On Alex’s advice, we choose to prepare with a second breakfast of seven sandwiches (fried egg, avocado, ham and cheese), a massive Gatorade, a jug of pineapple juice and (not pictured) ice cream. Take that, nutritionists.

 


 

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From Carhuaz, it’s a modest, 50-minute climb to Shilla, the last town we’ll see for 24 hours. On the left is Luís, a talkative youngster whose knowledge of Europe seems gleaned mostly from the Champions League. We never did catch the name of the grinning child behind Alex who spent 20 minutes trying to pull our bikes apart.

 


 

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After a steady, mellow climb up to the park boundary (3,630m), where we camp in what turns out to the favoured hangout for a herd of cows, we’re up with the sun the next day. It’s a glorious morning.

 


 

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As we ride through the valley… (Photo: Alex Krauss.)

 


 

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… We’re hemmed in by mountains. This is Huascarán, at 6,768m the biggest of them all and the peak from which the national park through which we’re riding takes its name Chopicalqui, which tops out at 6,354m. (Photo: Alex Krauss. Correction: Neil Pike.)

 


 

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I’ll be blackballed from the Latin American cycle tourists’ union for saying so – but as a road rider at heart, this is my favourite type of climb. There’s a perfect surface, a steady and forgiving gradient, incredible views – but with all the traffic (ie none) of a terrible dirt track to nowhere. Left, right, left, right: after crossing the river, there are apparently 34 switchbacks, though we lost count. With each one, the mountaintops get closer….

 


 

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… Until we feel we can reach out and touch them.

 


 

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When the authorities paved this road a few years ago, they built a tunnel at 4,730m rather than tarmac the tough stretch to the peak. But we haven’t come all this way to take a shortcut. To the left runs the original dirt road to the summit, the Punta Olímpica. We take it. The road isn’t in good shape, but it’s rideable…

 


 

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… Or so we thought. Turning a corner, we find our way blocked by six inches of snow.

 


 

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The top. Officially, 4,890m above sea level, though the Pikes reckon 4,902m and our GPS reads 4,906m. If in doubt, always claim the higher figure (but see a caveat in the comments below). Not only will I never be this high again on anything without an engine and/or wings, but after several months spent riding at altitude and with a descent to easier climes soon to follow, nor will I ever again be this fit.

 


 

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On the other side, a surprise. This is Jukka, Cherry (from Hackney!) and Johanne, whom we’d earlier met at our Huaraz hostal. The three of them set out on the same circuit we’re attempting, but two days earlier and clockwise (we’re riding the loop anti-clockwise). Cherry’s account of their loop ride, with some stunning photographs, is here. (Photo: Johanne Vandersteen.)

 


 

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With clouds descending and the light fading, the descent is less spectacular but still… spectacular. Look closely in the bottom right-hand corner of the second picture, and you can just about make out Alex.

 


 

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And then, apparently, we’re in Tuscany. No wonder the valley here was settled by Italian missionaries, who kindly provide us with a bed, breakfast and dinner (pizza!) when we arrive in picturesque Chacas (3,360m).

from Trujillo, 13, Peru