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The road north we chose to take from Huancayo after Semana Santa winds its way up to an altitude of 4,150m. It was a bleak peak when we reached it on a windy Tuesday a few weeks ago; most Tuesdays are windy up here, and these are not the sort of winds you’d be glad to have freshening the air if you called the area home. But the weather can change in an instant. At the top, the gales dropped, the clouds began to lift and the views to the valley below casually revealed themselves to be spectacular.

As a touring cyclist, you feel every metre on long, high-altitude ascents such as this. So you’d better make sure you enjoy the descents that inevitably, if you’ve done your research, follow the climbs. In 80km of near-constant downhill from the windy peak, we lost a laughable 3,230m of altitude; more than two miles, for those of you reading in black and white. The road runs from this barren hilltop down a glorious river valley, vegetation changing almost by the minute, and on to San Ramón, gateway to the selva alta – the Peruvian high jungle.

 


 

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An 80km, two-mile drop is extreme, certainly, but the last couple of weeks have been defined by similar rises and falls. This is central Peru in a nutshell, a land where a 1,000m climb or descent is a near-daily occurence. (Dirt trails such as this one offer even more extreme ups and downs. We’re mostly sticking to the beaten paths.)

oxabridge-1024After three bike-free days in the jungle, we rode the 87km from San Ramón (altitude 820m, 30°C and sunny) up to Oxapampa (1,830m, 17°C and drizzly). This pretty and pretty isolated spot has, for no good reason, been heavily colonised by Germans: alongside the brick-and-concrete catastrophes that pass for architecture in Peruvian towns, there are numerous ersatz chocolate-box wooden cabins with pitched roofs, cheesy bridges, German-owned bakeries and bars (Das Tee Haus and Vater Otto), and hotels with such iconically Peruvian names as Posada Edelweiss.

Having planned to cut west from Oxapampa, we then learned that the road wasn’t in good enough condition for riding and we’d just missed one of only two weekly buses – so we freewheeled back down again to San Ramón (still 820m, still 30° and sunny). From there, it was back up to Tarma (3,050m, 14°C and the weather couldn’t make up its mind), where the crops are not the bananas and oranges of San Ramón but raspberries and aguaymantos. And from Tarma, it was a 1,200m climb out on to the sierra towards the town of Junín (4,125m, 7°C and dreary).

 


 

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The scenery up here on the high plains can be spectacular. Junín sits on the edge of the Lago de Junín, a birder’s paradise; the dirt road around its western edge affords beautiful views. The towns, though, can be dismal places. Life in rural Peru must be hard enough without having to contend with the kind of spirit-sapping weather that passes for a normal day up at 4,100m above sea level. Once the cold here gets inside you, it’s impossible to shift it. In Junín, the staff at our hostal were bundled up and near-shivering at 4pm. We slept in three layers of clothes while a gale ripped through the open stairwell.

Junín, though, feels like Lacock next to Cerro de Pasco (4,330m, 6°C under slate-grey skies), the next big town north of the lake. The sign above the entrance bills it as the highest city in the world. Wikipedia disagrees, but does give it credit as the world’s highest city with a population above 50,000. There’s only one reason why man would be drawn to live in a place as bleak as this, and that reason generally has the face of a dead president printed on it.

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Cerro de Pasco is lucrative mining territory, although precious little of the wealth generated by the industry seems to have filtered down into the city. Homes are propped willy-nilly on to hillsides looking down towards the open pit mine, which pollutes air that the altitude has already left hard to breathe. The Peruvian habit of leaving buildings unfinished, apparently as a way to dodge paying property taxes, is as distressingly present here as in any other city we’ve visited. (We still haven’t quite come to terms with the contrast in Peru between the awesome beauty of its natural landscape and the staggering ugliness that characterises many of its towns.) The best-kept building appears to be the 8,000-capacity football stadium. We left the next morning in a hurry.

 


 

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From Cerro de Pasco, more of the same, but more so. It was 120km and some 2,600m of descent to lively, likeable Huánuco (1,910m, 24°C and bright). From Huánuco, a joyous 2,000m climb up to Punta Unión, then a couple more days of river-valley riding to Huallanca (3,540m, 14°C and pleasant). And from Huallanca, the big one: a spectacular tarmac road winds up to 4,650m, before a dirt track takes over and crests the cordillera at what our GPS device reckons was 4,853m, three miles up and even higher than the Paso de Jama. (The estimable Pikes on Bikes reckon it’s higher still; their reading of 4,879m tips it over 16,000ft.) Literally and figuratively, it was one of the high points of our trip.

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With a storm following perilously close behind, nowhere to shelter and no trucks with which to hitch a ride (in 55km of dirt road, the only vehicle we saw was a minibus paralysed by a flat tyre), the descent arrived just in time. From 4,800m, we fairly flew all the way down to the gringo trekking haven of Huaraz (3,100m, 23°C and sunny), where we’re spending a few days figuring out what to do next. Hills look likely to play a major part.

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(Footnote: if you’d like to see how this route jigsaws together, you can see a map on the Americas page of this website, where you can follow our progress. Click here to take a look.)

from Huaraz, 02, Peru