In 2014 I spent 3 months cycling across Peru and along the way I learnt that there is so much more to this beautiful country then that famous photo of Machu Picchu and the popular Inca Trail. Peru is a truly vertical land, full of deep valleys, high peaks, remote villages, ancient ruins and an endless network of quiet mountain trails and hidden dirt roads.
Our journey began in the north as we rolled in from Ecuador. More or less totally overlooked by foreign visitors, northern Peru has so much to offer: rural communities that have seen very little tourism and scenery more dramatic than the Grand Canyon.
Dating back to the 6th Century, the hill top fortress of Kuelap is the alternative Machu Picchu of the north. Once a strong hold of the Chachapoyas civilisation, it stands high in the clouds above the village of El Tingo and can be reached by a long trek from the valley floor. A local villager showed us around and told us the story of it’s ancient residents.
Further south in the Cordillera Blanca, many trekkers come to tick off the well-known Santa Cruz trek, which is brilliant but the experience that really stayed with me was our trek over the Huapi pass.
We discovered this walk on a cycle tourist’s blog. The only indication of a possible route was a line sketched onto google maps. It involved a dodgy taxi ride up an extremely bumpy road from Huaras city centre, followed by a quiet walk up a long flat valley, with only an odd local Shepard for company. After a cold night of camping at 4,000 metres, we began a long, tough climb over a rugged mountain side and across a huge boulder field.
We reached the top at 5,000 metres and were alone, in silence and surrounded by a host of 6,000 metre peaks in perfect sunshine. The way down the other side was equally improvised. After a lot of scrambling and a few river crossings, we sprinted back down the valley and hitched a ride back down to Huaras. By 9pm we were enjoying a well-earned meal in the comfy Cafe Andino.
The Cordillera Blanca is such an accessible trekking destination. The Huascaran national park entrance fee will cost you very little. Exciting adventures can be enjoyed and then down in the valley you have a sting of towns with plenty of facilities and lots of local culture. Wander the markets and try the local food, drink Inca Kola and eat Sublime chocolate.
Learn a few words of Spanish. It is a relatively easy language to learn and your efforts will open up many conversations with local people and a chance to learn about their lives. Once you have done this, be prepared for a lot of questions! Peruvians are charming and welcoming but endlessly curious…How many children do you have? Aren’t you cold in your tent? Did you cycle here from England? Do you believe in God? Why aren’t you on a motorbike?
Talk to the guides and the arrieros (donkey handlers). They are mountain people and seriously tough. You will learn about the legends and myths that make up their mountain culture: Pachamama (or Mother Earth) that you must respect to ensure fertility of the land, the white man Muki who will punish bad miners who take too much from the land and finally Pishtaco the white Boogeyman who preys on poor Indigenous villagers.
Enjoy the long periods of settled weather during July and August but remember the altitude and the freezing temperatures. Drink a lot but take care in the source and treatment of your water. Enjoy a cup of Coca leaf tea on your mountain trek to relieve any feeling of altitude but don’t be surprised to find a chicken foot in your soup. Be prepared that when you get off the beaten track, rice and chicken may be the only thing on the menu, along with the occasional guinea pig.
Allow time, the mountain roads demand it. Buses leave when they are full and don’t always run to set schedules or leave from the same place. Most of the time you will just stick out your thumb on the side of the road or negotiate a price with a local who has a truck.
When you leave the touristy spots behind be prepared for the locals to shout “Gringo” (foreigner) a lot. It’s not a bad word, it just shows curiosity or a lack of understanding. I was commonly called “Gringita” (small foreign girl) or “Flacita” (skinny little girl).
Be prepared for the huge contrasts in mentality, culture and behaviour between the indigenous populations of the rural villages and the mestizo (or mixed blood) folk of the bigger towns. Some will share your hobbies and passions while others will never have heard of England.
Read…you will be walking in the footsteps of many adventurers that have come before you. Their writing and your reading will give depth to everything that you are seeing. Try 8 Feet in the Andes by Dervla Murphy or Cloud Road by John Harrison – Both long physical journeys of slow and remote mountain travel.
By the time we arrived into Cusco, the famous Inca city in southern Peru and the gateway to Machu Picchu, I already felt as though I had been completely amazed by this mountain nation and I was still yet to see it’s most iconic site. The sudden appearance of so many tourists was a total shock as well.
Despite our long and thorough journey through the country there was still so much to see and do: the high altitude Ausangate circuit, the trek to another spectacular but lesser known Choquequirao archaeological site, the summit of Volcano Misti near the deep canyon of Colca. Peru could easily tempt the keen explorer back again and again.
As featured in the Professional Mountaineer Magazine, Autumn 2017: