By Steve Marks, aka the “Malbec Pilgrim”
A few May snowflakes appeared out of nowhere, drifting down and brushing off my jacket as I paused to enjoy the immense vista. It had been a tough cycle to the summit, and was just one of the many times my altitude almost touched 5000 m (16,400 ft). The blackened rocky and mountainous landscape stretched seemingly forever. No sign of human presence at all other than the sandy gravel track which scrawled a curving line down the mountainside and out towards the horizon. What struck me most about cycling the Peru Divide was just how much vast emptiness there was.
In those epic solitary moments, the elevation of my viewpoint was matched only by my realization that there was no evidence of another living soul as far as I could see.
A rite of passage for adventure cyclists
A decade ago, an inspirational couple named Neil and Harriet Pike from the UK sketched out a high mountain route almost entirely on gravel backroads running for about 1000km (630 miles), loosely between Cusco and Lima. It was dubbed the “Peru Divide.”
[The Peru Divide can be ridden to continue past the junction to Lima, ending up in Huaraz. For more details on that northern section see this article on bikepacking.com]
In the decade since, the route has increasingly developed a lofty reputation among cycle travelers worldwide, and traversing it has become something of a badge of honor.
The area has featured prominently on key cycle adventure resources like bikepacking.com and The Radavist as a route that pushes people’s boundaries. Renowned international cycle traveler, Alee Denham (cyclingabout.com), called it “the best touring route anywhere in the world”.
Having cycled the 10,000 km from Ushuaia (bottom of Argentina) up to Lima, Peru, I can say those final 1,000 km up the Peru Divide were the toughest. The route bounces wildly between 3000 m and 5000 m, on gradients that can be steep. The total elevation gain was just shy of 25,000 m (82,000 ft).
Big terrain, small villages
The road condition also presents a challenge – the majority is rideable gravel, but at times rocky sections required walking. Parts of the route were simply hacked out of the hillsides by mining companies long ago and don’t exist on GoogleMaps. Therefore, it’s essential to have the right GPX file (I used MapOut to navigate).
There aren’t many towns on the Peru Divide, most villages consist of a small number of mud-walled houses. Some have no accommodation for visitors, but the friendly villagers often helped me find a suitable place to pitch my tent.
Other villages had basic “hospedajes” for $3 USD to $7 USD. They were pretty simple affairs – a spartan room with a bed, a communal bathroom with either a cold-water shower or sometimes just a water tap and a bucket.
It was about 0°C or colder most mornings so I’d pass on the cold showers—the hospedajes don’t have heating either (just lots of llama-hair blankets!).
The two larger towns along the route are Huancavelica (50,000 people) and Vilcas Huaman (9,000 people). They provide some-much needed temporary comforts.
Cycle, eat, sleep… repeat
While no doubt grueling, cycling the Peru Divide rewrites the definition of what it means to “get away from it all.” Huge snowy peaks, seemingly impossible zig-zag roads etched into cliffs, massive vistas, mirror-glass mountain lakes, and an almost eerie sense of peace and quiet are the intrinsic rewards here.
Peruvians have a nickname for the ambience way up among the higher Andes; they call it “El Silencio,” or the silence. It’s an apt description—the only sounds were those of my own breathing and the crunching of gravel beneath tires.
Traversing the Peru Divide alone involves a lot of solitude—quiet, meditative, reflective solitude. Each exhausting day guarantees a sound night’s sleep. Sunsets were early, usually before 6 pm. Over three weeks or so my routine became almost rhythmical … cycle, eat, sleep… repeat.
Warm welcomes and places to camp
Perhaps the greatest reward is spending time among the shy but friendly people who live in these remote mountains. They speak both Quechua and Spanish (no English), and are curiously inquisitive about this stranger cycling alone through their lands.
Some nights I camped in my tent behind a local family’s house. They’d bring me cheeses from their cows or a hot drink. Kids would approach me and we’d use Spanish as a base language to teach each other to count from 1 to 10 in both Quechua and English. I never felt concern for my personal safety and security. In fact, no one I’ve spoken to has reported any type of issue on the Peru Divide.
Resupply stations and local cuisine
Regarding food and water, with villages dotted throughout, resupply points are common, allowing you to carry enough for two to three days at a time. Between villages, isolated farmers are often happy to help with water needs. Outside of the villages, I mainly ate porridge, pasta, and snacks.
In smaller villages, you may find a singular menu each evening—what they serve is what you get—with a starter and main for about $2 to $3. It’s often batch-cooked soup followed by a stew, not ideal if you’re vegetarian or vegan.
In the larger villages, you’ll experience a range of the local cuisine. I tried “Cuy Frito” (shallow-fried guinea pig). Every once in a while, you might experience Chifa cuisine, a blend of Chinese-style cooking with a Peruvian twist. The tradition is rooted in the mid-1800s when many Chinese migrated to Peru for gold prospecting, sugar plantation work and mining. The tradition remains hugely popular and Chifa restaurants are everywhere.
Packing light for success
Packing light is essential on the Peru Divide. Some cyclists prefer to ship luggage ahead between the bigger towns in order to avoid carrying everything. I didn’t bother and just toughed it out, but then I tend to pack really light. Here is my essential kit list:
- MSR Hubba Hubba tent
- Therm-a-Rest NeoAir sleeping pad
- Camping stove and pots
- Sleeping bag to cope with sub-zero nighttime temperatures
- Merino baselayers to use as pajamas along with knee-length ski socks, fleece jacket and beanie
- A down jacket for the evenings
- A sufficient number of changes of clothes to fit with your tolerance of your own stink.
- SPF 50 sunscreen (the sun can be harsh at high altitudes), sun hat, sunglasses
- A waterproof/windproof jacket and waterproof leggings
I was there early in the “dry season,” and didn’t use my waterproof gear much. Mountain weather in Peru loosely falls into two seasons – dry season which runs from May to October, and wet season (mud and landslides can become an issue) from December to March.
I cycled from late-May to mid-June and enjoyed little wind and good weather most days, apart from the passing shower, or snowflakes when my altitude reached the lofty 5000 m mark.
It’s important to take patience with you. The roads make progress quite slow. Expect to cover 50 to 60 km a day. This slow and unpredictable pace means you won’t always be near a village at sundown, but brings with it wild and solitary free-camping evenings.
On one particularly memorable night, I slept at 4700 m with a huge sweeping view over a mountain lagoon backed by a jagged ridgeline, which darkened to craggy silhouettes as the fiery sunset glowed behind them. It’s moments like those that define the sense of adventure that awaits those who have the patience and determination to tackle the great Peru Divide.
How to cycle the Peru Divide yourself:
- There are airports in both Lima and Cusco, which both have some proximity to the end points of the Peru Divide as shown on the GPX files included. Cycling the Peru Divide can be done in either direction.
- No permits or registrations are required. Tourist visas are issued free of charge to most nationalities on arrival.
- The currency of Peru is the Sole. Other currencies aren’t widely accepted but you can change major currencies in the larger centres. In the smaller villages it’s definitely Soles only. There are Cash Machines sporadically in larger centres but it pays to keep a certain amount of cash with you for the periods without.
- The main hazard to be aware of is altitude sickness. You should do your own research on altitude sickness and plan your trip with appropriate rest/acclimatization points accordingly. Many people who cycle the Peru Divide do so as part of a longer tour across the Andes so may already be acclimatised, as I was. But someone starting from Lima (sea level) will find themselves cycling up to 5000 metres within a couple of days which is potentially hazardous (most people not acclimated will start to notice the effect of altitude from 3000-3500 metres upwards, especially during a cardio-heavy activity like cycling). If doing the Peru Divide as a standalone activity and not as part of a longer cycle-tour, I would recommend starting from Cusco at 3400 metres/11,200 feet and enjoying the many tourism activities around there for a few days, in order for your lungs to catch up with the thinner oxygen supply. Your regular medical professional can also prescribe Acetazolamide (formerly known as Diamox) which aids with adjustment to rapid changes in altitude.
- The road from Lima to the northern end of the Peru Divide is called the Carretera Central, and it’s hectic with traffic including endless heavy goods vehicles with little concern for cyclists but great enthusiasm for the accelerator. It is not a highlight, so you may wish to consider skipping it. I cycled it, but then I was finishing and going downhill (ie. from 3500 metres to sea level on smooth tarmac over 120km). I would imagine going up it has not a single redeeming feature!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Steve Marks grew up in New Zealand but is now based out of London, UK. He doesn’t always like the winters there, so he escapes when he can for travel adventures, often by bicycle. You can keep up to date or ask him any questions via his “Malbec Pilgrim” Facebook blog or his @malbecpilgrim Instagram account. Steve also recently launched his website, www.malbecpilgrim.com. For more photos from his time on the Peru Divide, please see these two links: here and here.