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Cycling The Andes

Gerard Castellá

After seven months working in Cuenca, Ecuador, it was time to hit the road. I was about to embark on a cycling trip across the Andes – something I had dreamed of for a long time. Anyone who’s ever attempted to cycle in Ecuador would agree that the landscape is comparable to a giant rollercoaster – especially the Sierra, the Andean region.

Until I found my rhythm, the first days of the trip were fairly arduous. Riding uphill for half the day and riding downhill the other half. With the passing of kilometers, beautiful landscapes of páramo – typical Andean ecosystems above 3500m – created an incredible environment. Even though it is May (and so dry season), I am getting soaked every day! However, I rarely had to camp at night. At dusk, I usually asked the locals for shelter and often ended up staying at a firefighter’s place, police station or a local farm. This is one of the aspects that best define Andeans: hospitable. Soon I entered the Amazon region of Southern Ecuador, Vilcabamba, also known as the “Valley of Longevity”. From here on the road disappeared and it became a mixture of soil, mud and stones. For 200km I battled the muddy roads and clamber over several landslides to make it to the border with Peru. Bureaucracy is a formality. Passport. Stamp. Change Dollars to Pesos and “Bienvenidos a Peru”.

Peru is a poorer and cheaper country compared to Ecuador. San Ignacio is a rural province of northern Peru specialized in coffee production. I stopped at a small store to buy cookies. The owners, three women in their forties, propositioned me: “Young guy, you stay here with us to help with the coffee production, and we give you a good girl”. I told them that I still have a long way to go, but promise that I will bear it in mind if I’m ever back in the region. The north of Peru, unknown and untouched by tourism, is a region with hostile landscapes and full of rural, friendly people. This part of the Peruvian Amazon is characterised by numerous rice fields that surround Marañon river.

I continued my ride and eventually reached Jaen. I’d been told about the conflicts in the area, also of several robberies recently. My odometer displays 120 km and my head was boiling after 7 hours travelling in the 40 degree heat. Before entering Jaen I encountered three armed guys fitted with vests emblazoned with “national security”. I was stopped and told to stay in a corner, that they had to ask some questions. Immediately I got suspicious, they were not wearing ID badges or police uniforms. In a moment of distraction, I daringly escaped, and frantically raced away from them! Only later did I discover that they were a brigade of volunteers who ensure safety in the area.

Soon I entered the Amazon region of Southern Ecuador, Vilcabamba, also known as the “Valley of Longevity”. From here on the road disappeared and it became a mixture of soil, mud and stones. For 200km I battled the muddy roads and clambered over several landslides to make it to the border with Peru.
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They did not speak Spanish – only “quechua” – but tried to exchange words, even if it was with the international language of smiles. These are the moments that made this trip worthwhile. These are the situations that force you to reconsider the scale of values prevailing in Western countries.
Gradually I entered the Cordillera Blanca. The Abra Cerro Negro (3680 m) welcomed me back to the Andes with its incredible views. What a view from up here! Then came the best part of the day: a fast downhill of over 60km and 2780m drop in elevation! As I descended the temperature increased, reaching 46ºC. I decided to stay in Balsas, a seedy town in the middle of nowhere. I paid €1.5 for a room with flies, fleas and all kinds of insects. I began to feel discomfort in the Achilles tendon area and struggled to reach Huamachuco, only to be greeted by drunks yelling at me: “gringo, gringo!”. I decided to rest up for a couple of days and try to ease the pain in my ankle with ice and painkillers. No improvement.

As there is over 250km of extreme hills to Huaraz, I chose to take a bus. In Huaraz it was easy to listen to the Peruvian local language: “quechua”. I crossed Huascaran National Park and camped in a remote wild area with views of Huascaran (6878 m), the highest mountain in Peru. As darkness fell, so did the temperature (to be expected as I was camping at 4200m!). The following day, after I thawed out, I eventually reached the roof of my route: Abra Yanashalla which stands at 4750m. I headed towards Sierra Central, a vast region where the Inca spirit still survives. Without any doubt, Sierra Central has been the most authentic place I have seen during the whole trip. I am humbled by the nature of the people, and the endless smiles that had been given to me.

Reluctantly I moved on and soon reached Cuzco. I stayed in a small rural settlement of around 100 people called Chontaca. Joel, a young Peruvian nutritionist who fights against child malnutrition, invited me to spend the night in the local health center. We talked about the current problems of Peru and he took me to visit some indigenous families living in isolated mountains. The time stopped. We were offered a share of their dinner on our arrival. Up here three generations of one family live under one roof, sharing ground with dogs, pigs, chickens and cows. They do not speak Spanish – only “quechua” – but try to exchange words, even if it is with the international language of smiles. These are the moments that made this trip worthwhile. These are the situations that force you to reconsider the scale of values prevailing in Western countries.

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I finally arrived in Cuzco and, of course, did not miss the chance to visit the most famous Inca’s piece of art: Machu Picchu. I met up with Sam, an English guy doing a world tour by bicycle and we headed to Bolivia, through the Peruvian highlands and we didn’t descend below 4000 metres for weeks. Temperatures dropped dramatically with heavy snowfall and freezing nights. After a week of heavy riding, we finally reached Bolivia.

Bolivia is a country with a large indigenous population, and is considered to be the poorest in South America. In some areas of Bolivia it was difficult to move on due to the altitude, poor signage and inaccessibility to water and food supplies. We stopped at Copacabana to visit the “Island of the Sun”. Rolling between rain and snow we got to La Paz. The city is majestic, surrounded by huge mountains.

Sam stayed here waiting for a spare tyre while I headed south, towards Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat with a surface area of 12,000km. Even though it is dry season, the Salar had plenty of water! I decided to cross the Salar, despite being flooded, to reach “Incahuasi Island”, located 37 km away. I was cold, my eyes are burning from the sun reflecting on the salt, and I’m soaked. I couldn’t feel my feet. After 5 hours, I made it to Incahuasi island. The next day I woke up early and, after putting a foot on the ground, I realised I could hardly walk. My feet were burned and I felt physically and mentally drained. I was ready to leave but Bolivia did not want to relinquish me, and I had to battle against powerful headwinds all the way to the Chilean border. For me, Bolivia was an extremely demanding country to cycle.

Chile is one of the richest countries in South America, and thus is corroborated by European prices. I rode southwest down a track in very poor condition, partially covered by snow and surrounded by volcanoes making it feel like I was riding on a lunar landscape. I passed by the famous Salar de Ascotán and Carcote and I eventually reached Calama where the traffic and noise of the city completely overwhelm me. I’d spent so much time alone, lost in the mountains, and now suddenly I was immersed back into hectic civilisation.

The Pacific Ocean welcomed me when I arrived in Antofagasta, where I rested for a day before leaving for the Atacama Desert, the driest in the world with an area of 105,000 km. There is absolutely nothing in this huge radius. According to my map I was 30km away from the European Southern Observatory and so I deduced that I could look forward to a spectacular night sky. I decided to make a bivouac in the desert and huddle down, trying to keep warm, and enjoy the greatest astronomical show I’ve ever experienced.

Because of the time of year, the Argentinean Andes were impassable so I wound my way down to Copiapo and onto Santiago where I met up with a friend from “Warmshowers” and owner of a “Casa de Ciclistas”, and I stayed at his place for a week before flying back home.

The trip is over. The accumulation of feelings is immense and it’s hard to sort through everything that happened during my journey. Overall, it was 100 days and 5100 km by bicycle through the heart of the Andes, across Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Chile. An unforgettable experience through lands that have many things to offer, although many who live there have little. Yet these people are the ones who will offer warmth, smiles and dignity.

I rode southwest down a track in very poor condition, partially covered by snow and surrounded by volcanoes making it feel like I was riding on a lunar landscape.

Gerard Castella

In 2011 Gerard Castellá cycled through the Andean countries of Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Chile with the intention to encounter the wilderness of the Andes, get immersed in a new culture, and learn from local people that he would meet along the way.

For more information on his adventures, please visit: www.elsandesacopdepedal.wordpress.com

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