Volcanos, lava fields, and mountains of volcanic ash is what typifies the landscape of the second half of the cones and canyons route. The geology in this area is quite impressive, to say the least. The region has recently been declared the first national geopark of Peru because of its unique setting and geological characteristics.
For the second part of the cones and canyons route, we were accompanied by our English friends again. After two rest days, of which one was a day trip to the lower part of the Cotahuasi canyon, we knew we would have a relatively easy start.
The climb out of the Cotohuasi canyonwas gentle and we were grateful it was tarmac as a start. It was an easy day and we found a beautiful camp spot with a panorama view over the Cotohuasi canyon.
The next day easy riding and smooth tarmac continued. A beautiful descent with views of the Coropuna volcano made for fast progress. Only once we left the main road to reach Mauca Llacta, the tarmac switched to dirt again.
We stopped for lunch in Mauca Llacta and bought some extra food in one of the shops. We considered staying there for the night because of the approaching thunderstorm on the horizon. But Mauca Llacta did not really felt like a special place so we pushed on for another two hours. Luckily the storm passed and we found a suitable camping spot. That night we camped near Peru’s biggest volcano Coropuna (6425m). Unfortunately, the weather was not on our side. Clouds covered the snow-capped volcano for the rest of the afternoon and the next morning taking away the views. The wind picked up early the next day and with an overcast sky and washboard road, it was a bit of a struggle to enjoy the ride. More than the barren plain was not to be seen.
In this section between Mauca llacta to the highest point at 4800, we had to cross several streams. Nothing big though, so only one of us had to get in the water. The rest of this section is desolate and bare pampa with some alpacas and vicunas roaming the plain.
In the blog of highlux.co.nz we read we could expect a beautifully paved descent into Andagua once we would reach the intersection. This prospect kept us going over the rocky washboard roads, with only limited views due to the clouds. Once we reached the intersection, we got a glimpse of the beautifully paved road winding down into the valley. It would have been an amazing 27 kilometers long descent if only the clouds, wind, and cold didn’t throw a spanner in the works. If such a road would exist in Europe, it would be one of the famous roads for road cyclists.
Although this descent could have been one of the highlights of the route, we suffered quite a bit. Hail, winds, and freezing temperatures made it a very cold descent. In fact, it was so cold Pim had symptoms of pre-stage hypothermia. Luckily, Nienke was wise enough to force Pim to stop and put on extra down jackets and dry clothes.
Within a few minutes, Pim thawed and gained back his normal self. It was a bit frightening to experience how the cold can slowly get into the body and have such an impact. Pim was fully cramped in arms and hands, was heavily shaking, and completely lost sense in decision making.
After the short break of putting on all our warm clothes, on both our bicycles the hydraulic Magura rim breaks weren’t working anymore. Something we never experienced before. The wet conditions combined with freezing temperatures must have cooled the rims down. A thin layer of ice might have been stuck on the rims. After a few minutes of pumping the brakes, while going very slow of course, the brakes started working properly again. We cautiously made our way down to the next town Andagua.
We found a hostel with the promise of a hot shower, something we could definitely use. Unfortunately we got a cold shower, and our room in the hostel had a leaking roof. It was however still so much better than being outside after being so cold in the descent.
The next day we continued. The road from Andagua down into to valley provided some incredible views over different volcanic wonders. The valley is filled with cones, and small lava domes, and the valley is covered with a blanket of an old lava flow. This basaltic lava field is about 100-150 meters thick and covers an area surface of about 100 km2. Because this lava flowed and cooled off rapidly, it contains sharp angular pieces of lava. While the original cones and canyons route follows the road all the way down, we choose the road that goes directly through the Valle de los Volcanes and lava field. It was a really beautiful section to get into the town of Chachas.
We read about the friendly town of Chachas, but would never have expected such a warm welcome. The lady from the restaurant hugged and kissed us upon arrival. Her daughter would help her to prepare supper if we’d like. Hard to turn down such a lovely lady, we accepted the offer and had a nice dinner in the evening.
We stayed in a lovely homestay and same as before, this woman hugged us and provided us with all the information we needed. She was a bit worried about our plans to go up into the mountains because of the bad weather in the last few days. There had been snow- and thunderstorms every afternoon which was abnormal for this time of the year. She warned us about lightning and advised us to seek shelter in the second part of the afternoon. We planned our route accordingly because sensible local information and advice have been proven very useful.
After a complete resupply at the very well-stocked shop near the plaza of Chachas, the day came when we would start our climb up to the highest point of the cones and canyons route. A climb of 2000 vertical meters up to 5200m awaited us. We left early in the morning to reach the planned camp spot, Umapallca, at 4500m before 14:00 as the woman had advised us. There would be no water up to 4900m which meant we each carried 3 extra liters of water.
In Nahuira, a rough mining town only 3 kilometers away from the friendly town of Chachas, we filled up our MSR with gasolina for the stove. At the fuel station, at around 7:30 in the morning, we chatted with a drunk gold miner. He pointed to some white tents high up in the mountains. Apparently, he had an (illegal) gold mine there. He explained to us that he walked up to the mine every day. He was pointing at and worked in a tunnel of max 1.5m high and 300m deep into the mountain in search of gold.
Leaving Nahuira and starting the climb, we first had to pass a checkpoint. Everyone who takes this road for the first time has to register. After a chat and a ‘fee’ of 10 soles p.p. we were allowed passage. Happy days for the lady in the booth earning 40 soles.
The climb of that day was tough but doable. The average gradient is 7,5-8%. The quality of the road was fairly good, but with a lot of loose rocks, it takes a fair amount of effort. The views on ‘valle de los volcanes’ was beautiful though, and with every break, we enjoyed the beautiful vistas.
We reached the camp spot around 12:00, the same time the dark clouds started to approach. We could hear the thunder roaring in the distance. It looked like it could start raining or snowing any minute. It was our lucky day though. The camp spot actually was a deserted alpaca farm with one building still intact and half a dozen small collapsed stone huts. It meant that we could put our tent up inside one of the buildings.
As soon as we started pitching the tent in the abandoned building, the rain started pouring down. Without hesitation, we filled our pots and pans with rainwater to make some extra hot drinks. Another lucky moment and a bonus, because we had limited water with us and there was no other water source nearby. The luck wasn’t over yet! Rain turned into snow as the afternoon progressed. The mountains were covered in a blanket of snow. With the snow outside, a roof over our head, ánd enough water to make ourselves comfortable, it was a memorable wild camping spot.
The next morning, most of the snow was gone and the skies were clear blue. The perfect start to cycle up to 5200-meter pass. The higher we got, the more snow was still left on the mountains. The already beautifully colored mountain views, became even more beautiful with parts of it covered by a white blanket of snow.
Passing the 5200m climb was easier than expected. Roads were good and the climbs gradual. It was an exciting moment to reach the highest point. We celebrated our altitude record with a piece of chocolate and a short break.
After the 5200 meter pass, the route continued through the Chila gold mine. This gold mine was actually already in use in Incan times, continued being used by the Spanish colonists and is still in commission up to this date.We read stories of people who were refused entrance and had to backtrack all the way back to the town of Chasas. We discussed with Don & Jo to cross the gold mine as a group. If needed, it might make it easier to persuade the miners to grant us passage as a group. It turned out to be an easy and relaxed descent without anyone keeping us from passing through. The mine was deserted, gates were open and before we knew it, we passed the last ‘checkpoint’.
The roads through the goldmine and the descent afterwards were of perfect ‘dirt road’ quality. We were flying downhill! From a cyclist’s perspective, we could be grateful for all the mines that have created rideable routes through the beautiful Andes mountains in Peru.
We continued our way to Caylloma. With a day of rest, a nice hotel and a hot shower in mind, we kinda wished we were there already. We hoped for an easy day, but whenever an easy day is expected or wished for, a difficult day is what you get. Slowly the traffic in the area increased with more and more mining trucks and pickup trucks passing by. Road conditions turned for the worse. A tough descent with huge rocks, sand, and washboard, followed by a nightmare last 15 km section of washboard into Caylloma. Shaken up, dizzy, and a little bit grumpy we made it to the mining town of Caylloma.
We checked in at Hostal Emanuel, a clean hotel with a hot shower and fast wifi. It felt like we deserved and needed a proper rest, so we stayed for two days. The town itself is not much to write home about. Nonetheless, it is still a nice enough place and has all the luxury a hungry a tired cyclist could wish for.
And of course, like in many other villages, we cycled through in Peru, there was yet another fiesta. It’s like Peruvians want to party all the time. This time it was the fiesta of virgin San Rosario. There was a procession on Sunday, with dressed-up llamas and fireworks at night. It lifted up the atmosphere in this otherwise rough mining town.
The two days in Calloyma provided the needed rest for our bodies and mind. Filled with energy, we were eager to set out on the final stretch towards Arequipa. The profile on the map for the last few days looked promising. All went well and we continued the road to Sibayo, where a few nice homestays were located. It is a village with its typical stone houses.
The homestay we checked in was fantastic. Nice owners, nice room, nice beds, perfect. The next morning we planned to leave early, but actually only left at 10:00. Not only was it because it was such a nice place, but also because the owners dressed us up in ‘traditional’ clothes. Apparently, it’s something they do in Sibayo with the tourists.
The next stretch consisted of pretty bad dirt roads. There were lots of ongoing road construction, we think this whole part of dirt road through the national park will be paved in the near future. A few kilometers before reaching the final pass, we stopped at a small village, Pulsera, where we enjoyed a cafe pasado. A rare moment where the lady in the shop had fresh coffee instead of instant coffee.
Once on the altiplano, it was washboard all over again. In this mining area, every few hours a convoy of up to ~10 trucks passed us by. Quite annoying, but we were happy they were driving in ‘groups’. So we just stopped for 5 minutes, let them pass, let the dust settle, and get on our bikes again. We finally reached the end of washboard roads and hit tarmac. One of those moments, to be soo happy to find a paved road. Soon after, we pitched the tent at a lake with flamingo’s.
From there on it was an all perfect smooth tarmac to Patahuasi. Vicuñas were running around and crossing the road. More and more tourist buses appeared and before we knew it, we cycled into a completely different world. We have left the desolated roads and mining area with only few people around, back into a tourist world. What a shock it was.
At Patahuasi, the junction of the main road to Arequipa and the dirt road in between the volcanos Chachani and Misti, we asked about the road conditions. Not just was it to be a tough stretch of road, but there were no water sources between Patahuasi and Arequipa. Together with the prospect of cycling into a large city, we evaluated our options. It was either a very bad dirt road, camping, and carrying extra water, or hitchbiking to Arequipa.
Although we still liked the idea to cycle between volcan Misti and Chachani, we opted for a lift. Within 20 minutes a pick-up truck gave us a ride and dropped us off right in front of our hostel. Misti B&B, is an affordable and clean hotel near the historic center, with friendly owners and a nice free breakfast.
We made it to Arequipa where we indulged ourselves in the positive vibes, warm weather, and plenty of opportunities to taste delicious food. It felt like a well-deserved holiday week in which we could rest, enjoyed all the good restaurants, and look back at a wonderful month of cycling the cones and canyon route
Thoughts about the cones and canyons route
We truly enjoyed the cones and canyons route. It has been an amazing adventure with high ups and low downs. The people we’ve met have been incredibly kind, friendly, and welcoming. The landscapes, views, and surroundings were often overwhelming and stunning. We can highly recommend cycling the cones and canyons route if you like dirt road touring. We rode it on fully loaded touring bikes with two-inch tires. It would make life easier to have wider tires, a smaller granny gear, and less weight to carry. However, it is not an absolute necessity.
We found the second part from Cotohuasi to Arequipa easier than the first part from Antabamba to Cotohuasi despite the many washboard roads. The gradients were friendlier and there was more tarmac.
We want to thank Harriet & Neil (www.andesbybike.com) and Cass Gilbert (www.bikepacking.com) for creating this route and Mark Watson (www.highlux.co.nz) & Hana Black for all the very useful information.
Useful info for Cones and Canyons route
- Duration: It took us 10 cycling days to get from Cotahuasi to Arequipa.
- Road conditions: The first 60 km out of Cotahuasi is a perfect tarmac road. Thereafter, the road becomes a reasonable dirt road with some sections of loose rocks and washboard until you reach AR-106 road. The descent down to the Valle de los volcanos is a new tarmac road. From Chachas until 10 km before Caylloma 95% of the dirt roads are of good quality. The last 200 km from Caylloma to Arequipa contains a lot of washboard roads. We can recommend taking the parallel (old) dirt roads where available. They are working on road improvements in this region and road conditions might change in the future. But as of October 2019, only a 10 km section after Sibayo and a 30 km stretch up to Patahuasi are tarmac.
- Food: there are well-stocked shops in Andagua, Chachas, and Caylloma.
- Water: water is readily available on most parts of the route, with an exception of the climb from Chachas to an altitude of 4700m, and the section between Patahuasi and Arequipa.
- Money: You can withdraw money with VISA or MasterCard in Cotahuasi at the shop next to the police station (Multired sign). You can exchange dollars in Caylloma for a reasonable exchange rate at one of the shops at the plaza.