We pull off of the Pan Americana highway for the final time with a feeling a relief. Sometimes hectic, sometimes tranquil, we have been dodging on and off this road for the past 4000 kilometres. In Peru, the standard of driving has fallen to an all-time low (which is takes some achieving) and we are happy to leave the lorry drivers, coach chauffeurs, and various other homicidal lunatics behind us.
We pull up at the gatehouse of the private road, shake hands with the jovial guard who merrily waves us on towards the highest mountain range outside of the Himalayas, The Cordillera Blanca.
The road is a gravel track and will continue so for the lions share of the next month. We are in a desert now with not a sign of life. The desert is beautiful, the contours of the hills the rocks and the sand cast a multitude of hues.
This is the South America that we came here for, wilderness open space and beauty. Amidst this parched lowland desert, it is difficult to comprehend that just a hundred or so kilometres away stand giant snow-capped mountains. Come dusk we find a fine camp spot with a magnificent view, the only sound is silence. The sky is clear as we lay outside the tent after dinner watching the stars. We try to identify the Southern Cross. We think we find it, then we find another cross, then another, it is astonishing just how many celestial crosses there are in the night sky. We find Orion's Belt, we always find Orion's Belt, we are happy that Orion's Belt exists for there are few other constellations that we can identify here, then we spot the Plough, larger than in the northern hemisphere and upside down. We discuss the size of space and the fact that the universe is expanding at an incomprehensible speed, we wonder how, given that space is infinite, it can be expanding. We discuss black holes and white dwarfs and wormholes and light years. We discuss things that are really beyond us, we realise that we are becoming very confused and so we retire for the night. This always happens when we camp in a desert.
There is a momentary silence as the roar of the raging torrent bellow is replaced by the crunching of gravel beneath our tyres. It is now the second day of the long climb to Huaraz and we are entering one of the many narrow tunnels hewn into the side of the Canyon del Pato. The single lane track clings to the cliff face high above the Rio Santa, the river that relentlessly gouges out the canyon on its journey to the sea. The tunnels on this rock-strewn gravel road are narrow and we are pleased that the traffic is light, to meet a lorry in one of these dark passages would be far from good.
Finding camping in this narrow valley is a challenge. Tired after a long day in the saddle we fuel ourselves with a sugar hit from a battered bottle of warm cola before clambering to a ridge high above the road. We while away a pleasant evening there laying outside the tent drinking tea and arguing about which constellation is the Southern Cross, we have to date discovered 37 crosses.
The following morning the wind is kind on the climb to the Cordillera Blanc. When it builds to something closer to a gale in the late morning it is behind us. Still, our progress is always slow, we blame this on potholes rocks and piles of loose sand, not on our tired old legs. We stop for a drink break at a small settlement of just a few houses, what do people do out here? There is mining but the level of traffic is so low that despite the occasional appearance of men as black as soot we conclude that it cannot be coal; I see a small restaurant with the word opal in its name, and wonder if this is what they are clawing their way into the rock face for.
We sit down with a big bottle of something fizzy and full of sugar, the proprietor gives us an apple each and engages us in a short conversation, where are you from? Where are you going? By bicycle? Wow, very strong? We agree about our strength and point our handsomeness as well. He seems impressed. This open friendliness is repeated all along the way.
Exiting the final tunnel we leave the canyon and find ourselves in another world, metaphorically speaking of course. The valley is green, cultivated, and populated with a backdrop of giant snow peaks. The contrast to the past three days is startling.
It takes us a total of four days to complete the 330 kilometres to Huaraz. The final 70 kilometres are on paved roads peppered with potholes and populated by drivers who can most politely be described as incompetent, although we came up with a variety of more colourful adjectives with which to describe them.
Now at 3100 metres, we will spend a couple of days here acclimatising before heading higher into the thin air of the big hills.