Lost On the Road Less Traveled.
The mood changed with the decline in elevation; it was fast. From Bettys’ home to Laraos we saw ecosystems change from high alpine to lush jungle in the span of an hour. Down we went, passing the town we had stayed at the three previous nights. Although the thought of a warm meal, soft bed, and friendly cobbled streets called to us, we didn’t make a stop back in.
Hitting paved road, our decline in elevation took on a new magnitude. Soon we were biking past massive cliff faces next to the Cañete river that ran with such feriousity that just being in it’s proximity set us on edge. We passed huge wooly trees and watched at they turned into threatening cacti. Soon the plants disappear altogether and the scenery revealed itself as a desert. Dry and barren, the civilization changed with the ecosystem. Warmer temperatures and higher densities of roads made the area more livable, so larger and poorer populations revealed themselves. Dogs of all forms trotted through the towns and barked at our arrival, not understanding the strange horses we seemed to be riding.
After 75 km and a full day of descent, we set up camp next to the river. Bugs and heat plagued us that night. We realized our “small” detour was going to be much larger then anticipated. We had seen a road connecting a small nameless town up a winding nameless canyon on our basic iPhone map leading to Huancavelica. We wanted to find WiFi to confirm our suspicions and see an elevation profile as we were trying to keep below or around 14,000 ft to avoid the freezing rain and snow. However,the last town before our nameless road had no WiFi to be found. Eventually, the local police department allowed us to use a slow and aged computer. We were able to find photos and take pictures of maps confirming our route, but only found vague elevations of the highest passes. With our only other option being to continue another 100 miles to the coast, we took our turn off the pavement and began to undo our 10,000 ft descent.
Climbing through the desert, our worries shifted from hypothermia and altitude sickness to lack of water, overheating, and dehydration. We sat under small shrubs for shade and welcomed every headwind and small cloud in the sky. Early afternoon brought us solace in the form of rain showers; just before camping for the night we began to see evidence of lush farmland. That night we camped among abundant apple orchards and avocado trees.
The next day brought more climbing. We were now gaining elevation rapidly. From our starting point at 4,000 ft to our camp site at over 7,000 ft, we climbed more than 5,000 ft over the span of 20 kilometers. In Lincha, the last town before our climb out of the canyon, we wandered through the town looking to buy some extra grains for the road. The few old women sitting on stoops explained that there were no shops and there was nothing to buy. A woman—aptly named Milagro, “miracle”—offered to make us some soup. She lead us into her small home. The room was very dark, a pile of rocks in the corner of the lumpy dirt floor where she would build a fire and then put the pots over them to cook. Two small tables and a wooden ladder leading up to the loft bedroom took up the remaining space. She set down three plates full of broth, a few carrots, and rice. We realized how hungry we were as we inhaled the food. We thanked her and offered to pay but she insisted we didn’t. Still, we slipped 10 soles under a plate.
We continued our steep climb out of the canyon. The only flat surfaces around were the thousands of terraces dug into the steep mountainside. Exhausted from our day, we pitched our tents on an unused terrace, settling next to an old stone hut to escape the rain and cook warm food and enjoy hot chocolate beneath a stunning South American sunset.
Not knowing our exact elevation profile for the next few days; knowing we would be above 14,000 ft for quite some time, I, on a whim, tried to use my international phone service to call Ben (my boyfriend back in Ithaca NY). Surprisingly, he answered. Here we were, deep in the Andean backcountry, and there was phone service! I told Ben where we were and where we were going. He was on it, and within an hour we had a mile-by-mile guide for our elevation and route for the rest of the way into Huancavelica. Thank. you. Ben.
However, the profile revealed a daunting reality we had expected, but hoped wasn’t true. The road ahead revealed three more 15,000+ ft passes and a road remaining above 14,000 ft. Running low on food and unwilling to once again undo all of our climbing, we realized our only option was up.