Perú: Cusco to Juliaca – little roads worth taking

A while ago, in Quito, we were pondering how long we would take to get to Patagonia.  Others there, heading north, said “if you’re going to take a bus anywhere, take one from Cusco to Puno”.  More recently, our friend Joe did just that.  He’s at least got an excuse – with a flight home at the end of January.

We spotted a small road route running almost in parallel to the Panamericana, and Ruso from the bike shop in Cusco added another sector.  It proved to be very well worth it – recommended!

First – get out of Cusco…  Not one of our finest moments – laziness limited any research, so there were a few backtracks and misdirections before we escaped the peripheral concrete sprawl surrounding the ‘nice’ centro historico.

Asphalt is spreading tentacle-like from Cusco. It takes us nearly a day to escape it, but once we make it onto dirt life is very very good - Sarah heading out from Paruro
There's been a bit of work on the bridges, thankfully! Our low-point from Paruro before most of a day of climbing to Accha
Winding up, passing villages - dusty, mostly empty, sometimes with notice taken, sometimes we pass invisibly
Digging up the road again... Reluctantly climbing (again) from Pillpinto into the fading light, we pass easily - no-one else does - a clear road, but not a lot of flat land to camp on
Part way up a climb, Acos - is Beetle-land again in southern Perú after all those in México
Acomayo brings tarmac and more climbing, Sangarará comes with an opening of vistas and flatter lands. And bicycles. And lakes - lots of them
We dance with afternoon rain - a shimmy to the right, and it passes us giving a dramatic background to (more) roadworks and even some flamingos
Gentle rising dirt after Yanaoca - an unnamed Nevado in the background - morning brilliant sunshine adds to our joy
Nothing much up here apart from us (we could be on a bus, or riding the highway now - but we're not)

Our highway avoidance is in continuity for us – we avoid successive ‘opportunities’ to take the ‘pista’.  We are repeatedly met with confusion for our line of travel – “but there’s a highway!”

After passing (yet more) road building, and another escape – towards Langui this time, we land in Layo in time to buy juices (1 sol each – about 35 cents).  The town-square ladies chat.  Again, I regret not learning any Quechua (the most common indigenous language in Perú) – maybe next time?  We ask about the ‘white’ road (very minor) out of town to Macarí.  It takes a while to convince them we’re serious – then they offer us a choice – one sounds as if it goes to the highway, so we pick the other.  It’s a gem :-)

Evening light again - climbing again.. Now on a vehicle free two-track (someone's blocked the road as it leaves Layo - not to bicycles though). For a while I'm accompanied by Juan - a 13 year old Colegio student heading home on a bike with broken spokes, one pedal and bits that fall off if he pedals too hard. He has to walk the steep bits - the bike is single-speed by default. We leave him here at his home - nearly an hours walk from school - with some money to get his bike fixed, we hope
Light's dimming - all we need is water. Coming round a corner - layering up as evening's cold penetrates - we have a choice of sites - camping bliss
Morning bright clarity, with morning climbing and rising. I pause at a collection of adobe houses to wait a moment. I'm greeted with enthusiasm, and as Sarah arrives, we discuss many things. Mining wealth lost to the few in Lima and countries abroad (a long story in Perú - hundreds of years). Inequalities between the ruling few and the many indigenous. Have there been other travellers along here? A few - asking for camping 2 or 3 times - not many. Smiles and wisdom. We are enriched and humbled (photo: S. Hedges)
Only 2 motorbikes have passed us all morning - still rising, and still glorious
nearly there!

Macarí proves to be further away that our map tells us, and when we get there not an immediately friendly place.  Giggled whispers – kids daring each other to go over to us – none do.  A return to “gringo” from all-comers – though with a new variation. “Hola! Señor Gringo” comes from a girl perched atop the camioneta (minivan) taking her home from school.

We're heading for a small stretch of highway - and are hit by headwinds and corrugations - wide, open spaces with nothing to stop anything.
Drained and needing a sheltered place to camp, we stop at the last collection of buildings before the highway. Instead of being pointed at a patch of grass, the matriarch leads to a 'cuarto'. We are given a room with beds for the night.

While we were getting various bike repairs done in Cusco (new sealed bearings for both our front wheels), Ruso approved our plans  – muy bonito – and added a line to our map.  He told us of forests of Puya Raymondii and cañons.  We are very grateful.

Signed off the highway a little south of Ayaviri, the Cañon Tinajani shelters herds of sheep and alpacas. Lunch, some story, and we head on.
A while later we begin to climb - after nearly 25km of mostly flat riding from the highway through the Cañon. The local dogs pay their respects - grabbing at our bikes with a tenacity we don't appreciate. They're bigger and better fed than the central american ones.
In contrast to relatively small numbers of Puya Raymondii we passed between Huaraz and Huallanca earlier in Perú, there is a large forest of them here. Whole hillsides with plenty in flower - this one many times my height
Near the top of the climb we camp. Just after dinner's prepared the storm arrived - snow at this altitude, but we're snug and warm. The next morning as the sun progressively bathes the view the tent is the last to escape the shadows. With only a hint of the night's weather left
Cresting the pass, and with swooping downward curves to come, a pause to allow the traffic to cross
Sheepfolds and tin roofs. If you look carefully further up there is the glint from a pit dunny - wouldn't want to be caught short! Sanitation, water and electrification are slowly reaching the remote heights
A road to follow - sky - mountains - bliss
Back into cañon-lands heading for Palca
On from Palca, heading for Lampa, we're back into the wide-open again. Diversion from incipient monotony in narrow 'short-cuts'. Juliaca and a side-trip to Puno to officially exit Perú are next


  1. Hello I am Phillip from Collingwood, Ontario Canada. I am following your adventure since Banff, Alberta and enjoying every minute. Now I am suggesting about winter season is coming soon in Argentina. will you both make to arrive at Ushuaia “bottom of South America” ? You have only 3 1/2 months left to go there. Where will you stop or keep going on your trip?

    • Philip
      We’re going to try and get as far south as possible. I’ve got a job starting after Easter back home, but Sarah may continue. We’re well equipped for winter weather, and really the limiting factor to our planned route will be the ferries on the Carretera Austral. We’ll see how we go. We’ve not been very good at ‘making distance’ by sacrificing ourselves to the devil that is the Panamericana, so we may come up short this season and have to come back to do the Carretera and Torres del Paine. We’re not that fussed about Ushaia as a destination in itself given that we didn’t start in Alaska so have nothing to ‘prove’!.

      We’re really glad you’ve enjoyed it so much.
      Tom and Sarah

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