The Cones and Canyons route in Southern Peru and its description on bikepacking.com promises a dirt road adventure galore. High peaks and passes of up to 5200m, deep canyons, altiplanos, and remoteness. We heard and read only good things about this spectacular route. After some background research on the route, we decided it would be possible to ride this with touring bikes. It turned out to be the most amazing month of cycling of our lives.
This blog is mostly a mix of how we experienced the route on a touring bicycle, and some information on road conditions that might be useful for fellow cyclist planning to cycle this route. The weeks before we started the Cones and Canyons route we took quite some time off the bikes and spent almost a month in Cusco. Hiking the Ausangate trek, the Choquequirao trek, and meeting up with other cyclists, made us overstay our planned time there. By the time we left, we were well acclimatized, which is not an unnecessary luxury for this route.
Start of the Cones and Canyons
We started the route in Abancay. Abancay is a typical Peruvian city, that only sees a few foreign tourists. It is a bit chaotic, but everything you need for provision is readily available. In the hotel in Abancay, we met two other cyclists, Don & Jo, a couple from the U.K. They planned the same route leaving on the same day.
The road from Abancay to connect to the official start of the bikepacking route in Santa Rosa was of perfect tarmac. The road gently meandered next to an emerald green river through the Rio Lambrama canyon. With already quite impressive views and traffic lower than expected, everything went smoothly.
The first evening we found a beautiful place to pitch our tent. We shared this wonderful evening with Don & Jo. We took a swim in the river, relaxed a bit and had dinner under a full moon.
From Santa Rosa the asphalt becomes an easy rideable dirt road. It is a gradual climb to Antabamba with low traffic. Some stretches are of less quality but nothing real bad. Unfortunately, Pim had a puncture, probably from some thorns laying around at the riverside camp the previous night. We continued cycling to the next village, Piscoya, where we had a chat with the locals.
They suggested we could camp on the soccer field next to the school. Unfortunately, the schoolteacher just left, and being a Friday closed the gates of the main entrance. Being a Friday afternoon, half of the village was drunk so we decided to continue cycling down to find a better camp spot. It was getting dark though, so we looked for an emergency camp.
Together with the English couple we decided it would be best to pitch our tent on someone’s property. While we were setting up camp in the dark, the farmer saw some lights and came down to see who was on his land. It turned out to be a memorable evening and set the tone for all the friendly and hospitable people we met on this trip. The farmer, Sergio, was mostly curious about all our gear, especially the stove. We made conversation with him for a few hours whilst eating and sharing our food and hot drinks.
The next day we arrived in Antabamba. Riding towards this town, you have incredible views on some spectacular pre-Incan terraces. It is amazing to see how whole mountainsides are reshaped for agriculture. More incredible is that they are still in use today. Antabamba is a nice mountain town with some hotels and all the shops you need. We stayed one night at Hostal Alfaro because we met the owner, Marcus, upon arrival. He being a cycling fanatic was delighted with our stay. The next day though, we moved to hostal Milagros. It is a better-equipped hostel with Wi-Fi and a restaurant. We can recommend the grilled chicken and fried potatoes. It is the best we had in all of South America so far! Because Nienke got pretty sick (not from the chicken) for three days and had to wait for recovery, we had to say goodbye to Don & Jo.
Cycling over 5000m pass – Antabamba to Huacullo
Nienke eventually got better after a few days. We left Antabamba and headed for ‘El silencio’, the pampa. Road conditions were still ok and so were the gradients. As we were making good headway, a pick-up truck with mining personnel passed by and stopped to make chitchat and photo’s.
They told us they were there because of a new mine opening soon. People from the mining company were driving around to inform the locals on the new mines and the possible impacts of it. They were handing out leaflets trying to educate the people about nature and the environment. The irony…
Late in the afternoon, we reached our planned camping spot next to a small lake. The next morning, a farmer came to us for a chat. Apparently we were not the only cyclists that picked this lake to camp. The English couple camped here as well a few days earlier and he pointed different places where people had pitched their tents. He even brought us breakfast oats and potatoes. We couldn’t refuse his offer, – or better said – he didn’t leave until we finished his food. Although super friendly, with Nienke being really ill a few days earlier, it was a bit difficult to finish the breakfast.
With the day ahead, the extra fuel was actually welcome. The plan was to get as far as possible to make life easier the next day, where the 5000m pass was awaiting. As we passed the first bump, a 4500m pass, the landscape opened up with some amazing views. We were surrounded by volcanic formations and little lagunas. It was a glimpse of what we could expect for the next few days.
The roads were still of quite good conditions, however, the gradients definitely got steeper. After the next climb to 4800m, there were quite a few steep sections. Because of this, loose gravel, rocks, ‘slick’ tires, and simply a shortage of breath due to the altitude, we were forced to hike-a-bike more than we’ve ever done before. Surprisingly, it was less of a struggle than we had anticipated. We quickly calculated we could do 2 km/h with hike-a-biking.
The hike a biking continued the next day as made our way to the 5000m pass. The road conditions didn’t change as did the gradients. Some sections of kilometers were 10% average so we put our head down and pushed the bike quite a bit.
The weather was not on our side today, hail was thrown at us. Exactly on the day that we had to pass the first 5000 meter pass. Just before we crossed the 5000 meter pass, a thick layer of thunder clouds was approaching. Lightning was at a distance of not even 1 km from us. Thunder roared through the mountains.
The storm was just on the other side of the pass so we parked our bikes, walked down a 100 meter and sheltered in a ditch from hail and lightning. We crossed our fingers the storm would move in the opposite direction of where we were heading to. After half an hour we felt it was safe again to cross the pass. We hurried down to the next village Huacullo where we found a safe haven in a basic hospedaje. We enjoyed a nice hot meal in one of the small restaurants and went to bed early. Satisfied, tired and proud to have made it so far we had a fantastic night’s rest.
Remoteness on the Altiplano ‘El Silencio’
We were invited to stay in Huacullo for the alpaca festival the next day. The Peruvians always find a reason to have yet another fiesta. Although the promise of hundreds of colorfully dressed up alpacas was tempting, we decide to push on towards ‘El Silencio’, the pampa. Our bikes were loaded with provisions from Huacullo, there are a few well-stocked shops, we made our way to Culipampa. The thunderclouds were nowhere to be seen and the weather forecast said clear blue skies for another three days.
A good start prospect to cycle on El Silencio. The Peruvians call these scarcely populated regions on the pampa ‘El Silencio’ for apparent reasons. Except for the rattling of our panniers and a small gust of wind every now and then, no sounds were to be heard. Alpacas, llamas, vicunas, viscachas, and a few shepherds were all who we encountered. We cycled along the lake Wansuqucha, the source of the Cotahuasi river and the ‘start’ of the Cotahuasi canyon. With the high passes and steep climbs behind us, it was such a relaxed ride. In fact, it was such a relaxed ride, we completely missed a turn to the right.
Once we realized, we backtracked and saw the small dirt road we overlooked. The road was quite sandy and rocky at places and looked like a 4×4 track. It wasn’t hard to overlook this one. We descended on a rough stretch with hairpins into a beautiful valley. The perfect camping spot for the night.
A Quechua woman came by, curious who we were and what we were doing. At least, that’s what we made out of it, as she didn’t speak a word Spanish. We gave her some Oreo cookies as a gift and she offered us some coca leaves. We think she invited us to stay in her house but we declined with big smiles. We rather sleep in the tent.
We continued down the valley following a river to the point we crossed it. The river crossing was just after a weird little settlement. It was completely walled, with locked gates, it had a small school, there was an electricity tower standing in the middle of it, and there was no one around. We didn’t know what to make of it, and there was no one there to ask. So, we cycled around and continued.
On the other side of the next pass, yet another one, the landscape and geology changed. Solidified volcanic ash turned into wonderful geological formations because of years of erosion. There is a downside to this upside though. The roads were covered with sand-like volcanic ash, which meant tough going. Even downhill.
A long downhill and a few difficult but shorter climbs later we arrived in the ancient stone house village of Chincaylappa where we found a very basic homestay. It was clean though and the beds were reasonably comfortable. At the local tiendita we bought some ‘gaseosas’ and ordered ‘arroz con huevos’. Every time we eat a simple meal like rice with fried eggs and fried onions we are surprised how well it tastes after a hard day of riding. So was the case. It was delicious!
Cycling down the deepest canyon of the world
From the town of Chincaylappa, the Cotahuasi canyon takes on the form of what a proper canyon should look like. With pre-Incan terraces on both sides of the canyon, we were channeled deeper and deeper into the canyon. The steep walls of the canyon were getting higher and higher and huge Puya Raimondi’s, giant plants that only grown in Peru and Bolivia, grew alongside the road.
On our touring bikes, we had some trouble with the loose rocks and bad road conditions. Descending down roads like these is actually quite an ordeal. It demands the utmost concentration because every little pebble can cause the front or rear wheel to slip away. With a possible dramatic fall as a result. Even with the surroundings being as beautiful as they were, fun is not a word to describe a descent like this.
Although on the map the cones and canyons route looked like one gradual descent from Chincaylappa, it was definitely not. There were quite a few nasty climbs with one serious climb of 550 meters vertical gain. By midday, we began the ascend. Because we had dropped down around a 1000m vertical meters, temperatures were much higher than the weeks before.
More so than the gradients, it was actually the temperature that made for slow going. We just weren’t used to it anymore. As we got to about half way, temperatures were bearable again and the road improved. It was a relief to make good grounds on the second part of this unexpected difficult climb.
Tired as we were, we decided to call it a day around halfway the afternoon. We headed for the town of Puyca, a friendly mountain village with some basic hotels and restaurants. The hostel where we checked in, even had a proper hot shower. Of course with some typical Peruvian home decoration of tarpaulin on the walls and ceiling. But still, a hot shower! It had been a week since our last shower. On top of that, there were a few very well-stocked shops, so we treated ourselves on lots of chocolate and other goodies.
Well rested and clean, we continued the descent towards Cotahuasi. An actual town, with all its luxuries, fresh food, wifi and a proper rest. Up to Alca everything was smooth sailing. Roads are of okayish condition so before we knew it we ordered soup in one of the restaurants there.
This town really reminded us of Colombia. The climate was moderate and warm, we saw palm trees, lots of fruit, and the houses were colorful. Around the central square were restaurants, shops, and hostels. People were sitting outside drinking coffee and chatting. Even a Peruvian cowboy on a horse paraded by. It made us a little bit nostalgic about Colombia.
We were expecting an easy last 25 kilometers downhill from Alca but were devastated to find a washboard road with horrible headwinds to boot. What was supposed to be all smiling faces down to Cotahuasi, was actually a grumpy ride. Until we finally hit tarmac.
A measly five kilometer climb on tarmac was everything that separated us from a rest day, a hot shower, comfortable bed and all the fresh food we could eat. We checked in at Hatun Wasi, a very comfortable and affordable hotel, where we found Don & Jo relaxing in the garden.
End of part one of the Cones and Canyons route. Part two is described in a separate blog. For any questions about the route, road conditions, shops, camping spots, and so on, don’t hesitate to leave contact us.
Useful info for Cones and Canyons
- Road conditions on the cones and canyons: It is all dirt road from Santa Rosa untill the last few kilometers to Cotohuasi. On the descent from Chincaylappa, to Cotohuasi the road has some rocky parts. 10 km of washboard between Alca and Cotohuasi
- There are no ATMs on the Cones and Canyons route. But you can exchange dollars at the bank in Antabamba and Cotohuasi. In Cotohuasi you can withdraw money with VISA or mastercard at the shop next to the police station (Multired sign).
- Water is readily available throughout the route.
- Well stocked shops can be found in Santa Rosa, Antabamba, Huacullo, Culipampa, Puyca and Alca and Cotohuasi
- It took us 10 cycling days to cycle from Abancay to Cotohuasi.
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