Peru is world famous for its incredible destinations like Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca. What’s perhaps less well-known is that Peru is also fast becoming a magnet for those hardy souls who prefer their adventures by bicycle. A decade ago, an inspirational couple from the UK named Neil and Harriet Pike sketched out an epic high mountain route almost entirely on gravel roads. Running about 1000 kilometers (just over 620 miles), this biking adventure in the Andes begins just outside of Lima and heads in the direction of Cusco.
Since then, the route has slowly developed a lofty reputation amongst cycle travelers worldwide. In fact, traversing the Peru Divide, as it’s called, has become something of a badge of honor for adventurists.
Having cycled the 10,000 kilometers from Ushuaia (Argentina) up to Lima, I can honestly say those final 1000 kilometers on the Peru Divide were the toughest. The route repeatedly bounces back and forth between altitudes of 3000-5000 meters, on gradients that can be quite steep. The condition of the road occasionally presents a challenge: for the most part the gravel surface is rideable, but there were a small number of sections where it became so rocky and uneven that I was forced to get off my bike and walk.
Parts of the route were simply hacked out of the hillsides by mining companies in days long since passed. Bikers will find that these have no official status and simply don’t exist on popular mapping resources like Google Maps. To undertake the Peru Divide therefore it is essential to have the right GPX file loaded onto a Garmin-type device. As well, there are a number of good apps for smartphones which can fulfill the same function.
Other essentials for a biking adventure in the Andes are having a bike with lots of low gearing, at least 50 millimeter (2 inch) tires, and being prepared to pack as lightly as possible.
There’s little in the way of big settlements on the Peru Divide, it’s mainly just tiny communities. Several of these villages are so small that there’s nowhere to sleep. Luckily the locals always helped me find a place to put my tent. Other villages had very basic hospedajes for S/10-30. They’re usually just a room with a bed, no heating (unless you count the llama-hair blankets) and a shared bathroom with either a cold water shower or sometimes just a cold water tap and a bucket. Temperatures typically ran below zero at night, so when I got up in the mornings I often passed on the cold showers.
At one point I went a week without a proper shower, which I decided was preferable to trying to wash in cold water among freezing mountain temperatures. The two (relatively) larger towns along the route are Huancavelica and Vilcas Huaman, both of which provide temporary welcome returns to the comforts with which most of us are familiar.
At times, the Peru Divide is rather grueling—but no one would undertake this sort of journey if the rewards were anything less than spectacular. To be riding high in the mountains on little-used gravel roads where you might only see a handful of vehicles all day brings a real sense of adventure and exploration.
The whole mission is exemplary of carpe diem and has an air of redefining what it means to “get away from it all.” Huge snowy peaks, seemingly impossible zig-zag roads etched into cliffs, massive vistas, mirror-glass mountain lakes, and an almost eerie sense of peace and quiet are the intrinsic rewards here. If there’s one thing that struck me most about cycling the Peru Divide, it’s just how much vast emptiness there was. Those epic, solitary moments where the elevation of my viewpoint on a hilltop was matched only by my sense that there was no evidence of another living soul as far as I could see.
But perhaps the greatest reward is the opportunity to spend time among the shy but friendly people who live in these remote mountain areas. For the most part they speak both Quechua and Spanish (definitely don’t expect any English), and would usually overcome any initial shyness to become curiously inquisitive about this solo traveler on a biking adventure in the Andes.
Some nights were spent camped in my tent out the back of a local family’s house, and they’d bring me cheese from their own cows or a hot drink which was always a nice touch. Kids would approach me and we’d use Spanish as a base language to teach each other to count from one to ten, in both Quechua and English.
Progress is often quite slow cycling the Peru Divide, but that just helps with enjoying the scenery. For much of it, expecting to cover 50-60 kilometers in a day is plenty, and I had a few days where I pulled up even shorter than that. This slow and unpredictable pace meant that I wasn’t always near a village at sundown, so there was plenty of free-camping with my tent in the wild.
One particularly memorable night was the highest I’ve ever slept, at 4700 metres altitude. I had a privileged view over a mountain lagoon backed by a low ridge of craggy hilltops which turned to blackened silhouettes as the fiery orange sunset slowly dropped behind them. It’s moments like those which really define the incredible sense of adventure that awaits those who have the patience and determination to tackle the great Peru Divide.
All photos: Steve Marks