Bikepacking the Cordillera Negra Peru
Published: March 19, 2019 by PICSPORADIC
Bikepacking the Cordillera Negra
“It’s all uphill from here”
Liz was not feeling well, she was used to excelling on the bicycle –and with the added weight of the bikepacking rig I could tell she was out of her comfort zone. She dipped into her easiest gear and fell back on the climb.
We cut along a deep vallies, all the while ascending before encountering our first steep switchbacks in the road. Elevation 6,000ft.
Just buckle up and do it. – Liz Sampey
Arriving in the small town of Lampanín we looked up at the road ahead: it zig-zagged as far as we could see on bare, shade-less slopes – joining with the horizon and into the unknown. We visited the tienda in town to escape the sun and ordered up a liter of beer. It was high-noon. Outside, dogs perched in small puddles of shade. A few goat herders wandered through town – the sound of television sets floated up from the tin homes. Siesta time.
Inside was a dread that neither of us wanted to talk about. Lampanín was the last point on our map. Our next re-supply wouldn’t be for at least 3 days of climbing ton the 15,000ft passes of the Cordillera Negra. I knew we would be fine, but we were both stuck in the last moments of apprehension before taking the jump. About 3pm we headed out – water bottles full, up the switchbacks to the mountains.
The Dead Zone
The sun lowered in the sky as we climbed and around us the mountains began to gain definition – their ragged slopes and rippling ridges spread in stacked layers on the horizon. Above us, enormous peaks came into view – rocky, black, ominous. The black mountain range: La Cordillera Negra.
The only traffic we saw on the road was a taxi driver who cheerfully pulled over and jumped out of his car for a conversation. He told us the road went to Huaylas – which was good news. He told us that it was camino silencio -a silent road used by only by the occasional maintenance workers as access remote mountain reservoirs. We continued on.
A young child was wandering around half dressed eating chicken poop off the ground – he offered me some stuck to the tip of his small finger, I declined.
Quilcoy – a Small Town in the Foothills of the Andes
After camping at 8,000ft we headed out the next morning. The air was pleasant and cool -we continued the climb. We came to an intersection with a sign for a place called Quilcay – an out-and-back not that was not on our map. We gambled, figuring that it might be a good resupply and headed up.
The altitude was beginning to effect us. In Quilcoy I was dazed and stumbled into a school for shade. I talked to a traveling teacher who made the 5hr drive twice a week to teach the handful of kids that lived there. She was a bit in a hurry, and eagerly awaiting the bus that would come and pick her up that day – and tame her back down to civilization. Outside in the mid-day sun the town was a cacophony of animals: dogs, sheep, goats, chickens and pigs scampered around.
We bought some eggs off the locals and I had the stove going outside to boil them. Liz and I were feeling the elevation – the last two days we had not done that much distance but we had climbed over 10,000ft. I was ready to either get moving or take a nap. The women of the town poked out of their houses and eventually came to talk to us – they said the men were coming back from the fields soon and invited us for lunch. “when?” we asked – “in a little bit”. We both waited for what seemed like hours.
When the men arrived they were a bit more reserved than the others, giving us a few shy nods before dipping into a low doorway for lunch. The women invited us in. Their home was made of crude adobe – with slivers of light cutting through the bricks in the walls. The ceiling was stained black from smoke. On the television played telenovelas – whose white actors and made-up faces beckoned like a glimmering portal to a culture a world away.
Over a delicious plate of of steamed potatoes and rice the men told us that there was a trail that left from town – crossing the high mountains. That same phrase came up again “Camino Silencio” which they used to refer to the pass to Huaylas. Very few people go there, and the men said they had said they had never gone. So we still didn’t know what lied ahead for us…
Following “el Camino Silencio”
The women refused our payment – repeatedly, and with a whirlwind of thanks and group photos we were on our way -pushing our bikes up the slopes out of town. The road ended and we found ourselves on our first trail of the trip – too steep to bike. We encountered several sections of rock steps and made our way around an out-cropping along a cliff. A woman trailed us with a horse below -keeping her distance. Perhaps she was keeping an eye on us?
The trail mellowed and we got in brief moments of riding which brought some joy for the first time in a few days. It was much more rocky here – and the mountains ahead rose in huge vertical cliffs forming a passage.. The light was fading. We were at 13,000ft and it was getting cold. It was clear that we had entered a new environment.
The sunset started slowly, colors growing warmer. We layered up preparing for the cold to come. We were quite high now and in the desert below us showered golden rays of light cutting across the coastal plains it’s sub-ranges, mountains and ravines. It was clear the ocean -some 13,000ft below where we had started 3 days before. The sun dipped into the shimmering horizon.
In the afterglow everything was gold. The light faded from crimson to violet and indigo – stacked in layers all the while shifting with rays of residual light. We both agreed this was the most fantastic sunset we had ever seen and were frozen in awe.
Entering the Aline (a Familiar Place)
Off the beaten track Liz and I immediately felt more at home and relaxed. Everything we had carted across the desert seemed less impractical now. We set up camp and bundled up in the cold. For dinner we had hastily prepared sandwich of hard boiled eggs and bread sprinkled with ají. The journey had begun. We had entered the Andes…
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