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Plans

Colin had a plan, which was:
1. Ride to Lake Safuna.
To which I had put
2. Eat a lot of ice cream.
but this wasn't going to take three weeks so we also added
3. Then do something else.

Preparation

We were not very fit this time. We had become a lot better at mountainbiking, because we'd had so much fun last year in the Pyrenees and in Kumaon riding over rocks and steps, but at the cost of losing interest in roads. We had neglected to get round to doing long rides, instead playing in the bombholes in Cranham woods. We did a couple of longish rides the week before, but finished inauspiciously with my wipeout on Crippetts into the nettles and hawthorn, resulting in a captivating boil on my knee.

We got a bus to Caraz with Moviltours, who are fine but have peculiar ideas of films. We like Caraz, not only because of the ice cream but because Alberto Cafferata of Pony's Expeditions is based there. Alberto is a great guy and has done some of the rides we fancied; he has been to Safuna and to Pastoruri. He told us lots of useful stuff, such as if you ask for accommodation or a camping spot, you're likely to get it.

Over the mountains to Sihuas

The first 20km of the tour was too easy, riding downhill on a tarred road. Then rather abruptly, we hit the start of the Cañon del Pato and the end of the tar. The canon stretch of road is a remarkable piece of engineering, navigating a ravine between the upper and lower Río Santo valley. The usual way to build a road to link the upper and lower valleys would be via painstaking wiggling up to 2700m pass and wiggling down again, which is what the route through Huaylas does. The audacious way is to drill a narrow line through the cliffsides of the ravine. But the engineering is not just gratuitous showing off : this route was once the course of a railway, and railways are picky about gradients.

The day was searingly hot. After Huallanca, what seemed like an gruelling long climb dragged up towards somewhere that we assumed must have been Yuracmarca. Actually Yuracmarca proper is a little further up and off the main road. Both components of Yuracmarca are sleepy places. For the grown-ups there is not much to do but to hope to sell oranges to the one vehicle per half hour traffic, and gossip about what those gringos might be up to; later in the day once the rush of traffic had abated, the youngsters took over the road to invent and play ball games for hours.

The first day's climb had only amounted to 300m or so and that had stuffed us; somewhere above us the road topped out at 4000m and we avoided thinking too much about what this was going to do to us. We set off early, with the help of a decent pasta breakfast; the road climbed efficiently through arid and half-farmed slopes to Sta Rosa, then made for a deep side-valley, climbing steadily up the side.

It wasn't awfully clear what it was planning to do next. The road came out of the valley, round the spur beyond which a large landslide had clearly recently taken out the entire hillside including any roads may have ventured that way. A little higher up from the road was a goat-track zigzagging steepily. As we got closer, is was pretty clear that the lower road was blocked opposite us by a smaller landslide and at first it seemed the goat-track thing was in the same state. Still, there were fresh tyre-marks in the dirt and nobody had expressed doubts to us about the validity of the route. Closer still, the goat-track transformed into an actual road, of a mostly unblocked, but nevertheless fearsome sort. We struggled up; a landslide had been converted to an entertaining hump. We stopped for photos. Then we saw a bus descending, and bounce over the hump.

That was enough excitement for the day. The road relaxed a little, rounded the main spur and descended to meet a new road. This new road starts up the valley from Huarochiri and is clearly the main access now. We had been hoping for a convenient restaurant here but all there was at the junction was a man waiting for a bus. The new road faffed about as regards climbing; we would rather it got on with the job, but after a while it settled into tracking up the side of the mountain in a respectable manner. Yanac took a long time coming but was an immediately winning place, especially with its delicious garlicky lunchtime aroma, which was, alas, someone's home cooking and not an eating place. We asked in a shop. We took a punt on asking for accommodation and were astonished to hear, yes, I have a room here, do you want it? The house was a large traditional adobe one with a courtyard with 2 chickens and some drying peaches, the beds were of straw and the sheets beautifully embroidered.

This left us still with a large remainder of the climb the next day. The next village was Tarica, which also has lodging, and a cocktail bar, where we had an early lunch but left off the Pisco Sours; just as well as the climb out was a vicious 5km before easing off onto high puna and a steady drag towards the pass. Just before the pass is a junction, and for once it was actually labelled, though hardly helpfully as neither direction said Sihuas. We cast around at the emptiness. How long ago had we seen a vehicle? About half an hour ago? Then we heard the faint sound of a motor engine, a driver was astonished to find two windmilling gringos lost in the Puna. Which way Sihuas? Both ways!

Sihuas, way below, is a bustling and friendly place, though come breakfast-time, there were no restaurants open. Instead, by the market, there were a number of little one-woman stalls; here one could assemble quite a feast of potato or quinoa soup, and sandwiches of palta, tortilla or sweet potato.

Our climb out of the place started with a long annoying descent down the valley, warming up for a murderous ascent up a sun-scorched desert. We had views of the Sihuas valley and the rugged flanks of the Cordillera: it is a confusing side, this side of the mountains, compared with the Rio Santo valley and it's hard to disentangle and make sense of the lines of the ridges.

By Sicsibamba, water, fields and people reappeared, and led to a a more pleasant but still uphill and increasingly lunchless drag up towards the place called Palo Seco. There is nothing at Palo Seco - it is merely the name of a junction. It is a fairly rubbish place to camp, but we weren't sure of anything better on the Safuna route, and we pitched in a sort of horrible quarry.

Riding to Safuna

The Safuna road right at the start is dismayingly hard, and it's not great to have to start off pushing, but despite the odd section of sand it becomes all right and pleasantly like any decent UK roughstuff. The weather wasn't great, low cloud hid most of the mountains and made the whole ensemble a big copy of the UK-roughstuff picture. The road had been nicely engineered to contour below a ridge, and quite some effort had been put into it, as sections had been blasted through rock spurs. You might wonder why there is a road here at all. The mountains here are terribly vulnerable - earthquakes can dislodge massive chunks of rock and glaciers, and in 1970 a truly horrible mudslide wiped out Yungay. Safuna must have been a fragile place and the level of the upper lake has been lowered to reduce flooding risks.

We reached a wider area with some lakes and clusters of horses, cows and even pigs, below the final ridge of the pass and the usual zigzags. The bends were hard, even with 22x32 gearing, and we finally acknowledged the 4000m altitude, using it as an excuse to get a breather after each bend.

The pass should have given spectacular views of the Alpamayo range - we could see something was there, glaciers radiant in their patch of sunlight, but we'd have to hope and wait for a day with less cloud. Down from the pass, we surprised a few local herders, and down further to an otherwordly bowl of empty pastureland, a few stone houses and corrals. The track stays high, veers left back towards the peaks and crosses a small ridge to reach another high pasture, and three houses - this is all there is to Huillca. From here the track climbed yet higher, steep and rough, and I was so spent that we were reduced to pushing the worst. We had not been eating enough.

We were getting close to the peaks and the clouds were hinting at lifting. A cold river crossing and a hard drag up a moraine, the track beginning to falter, and we reached the lake. There are two lakes: the original moraine-bound glacial pool is higher, the lower exists only as a run-off from the upper, which otherwise would hold a danger of bursting. The higher one now sits in a dizzyingly steep surround of moraine, only the lower is campable.

The clouds cleared. We spent the entire next day here, just being in this mountain haven, only stirring to walk up to the higher lake. We watched the light change over Pucaraju, we heared avalanches crash.

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