CORDILLERA BLANCA

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Ever since our service at the Toyota garage in Cusco we’ve developed something of screech in one of our back brakes, and traversing the Andes is not a great place to develop a brake screech when you descend 2000 metres in a few turns of the wheel. So, before leaving Tarma we visit the local ‘brake expert’, a wizened fellow who shares a well-disorganised compound with a lot of other wizened fellows. ‘Experts in chaos’ might be a more fitting title for this lot. Things do not bode well from the beginning, for each time he jacks up the back of the car, before he can get to the problem brake, it has sunk back down on its wheels. A second jack appears with more success. The second worry is that I have to show him how to dismantle the brake drum…when it comes to this we always know we’re in trouble. He takes one look at the brake pads and asks the age of the vehicle. When we tell him it’s 2 years old he throws up his hands and declares ‘It’s brand new. How can they´re be a problem!’

After Tarma our route leads us passed the silver mining town of Cerro de Pasco, which at an altitude of 4300 metres declares itself the highest town in the world. It’s certainly the ugliest town in the world. From here we descend steeply down towards the Amazon. The lower reaches of this valley, and the road leading out into the Amazon, is becoming a major cocaine producing region and certain villages are only worth visiting in the company of a battalion of soldiers. Armed hold-ups are not uncommon, though we don’t need to worry about this because, after a pleasant night by the river, the road ahead is blocked by demonstrators protesting about having to pay the high toll for using the road. For a while we negotiate the rocks, trees, broken bottles, burnt tyres and savage thorn bushes all laid in the road, until we reach Ambo, where it is well and truly blocked by the chanting crowd. When the truckers start to clear out, and we’re told someone has already been killed, we turn around sharpish and climb back to the highest, ugliest town in the world. From here we take a spectacular, albeit bone-jarring ride down to the coast, arriving on the outskirts of Lima, a city we’d never wanted to come to. Quite a diversion, but hey! this is Peru. It takes us a couple of days, several passes and a lot of brake screeching to get ourselves back to the Cordillera Blanca and the village of Chavin de Huantar, where we thankfully manage to miss the bull fight.

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The Chavin are considered one of the oldest major cultures in Peru (1000 BC to 300 BC) and we pass the morning wandering over the ruins and through the myriad of tunnels. Continuing down the Conchucos Valley we pass through Huari, a town known for its prodigious consumption of cats. The coming of the annual Fiesta de los Gatos has the local cat population heading for the hills. Those unlucky enough not to make it end up as miche broaster, or roasted cat. What a strange place this is!

Christine emerging from a Chavin tunnel system
Christine emerging from a Chavin tunnel system

In the Conchucos Valley, on these narrow mountain tracks, time has pretty much stood still…until a great big bus roars up behind you and rudely blows its horn.

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Chacas is the last village before ascending the road up to Punto Olimpica Pass.

Plaza de Armas, Chacas
Plaza de Armas, Chacas

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Heading to the Punta Olimpica Pass (4680)
Heading to the Punta Olimpica Pass (4680 metres)
Punta Olimpica Pass
Punta Olimpica Pass

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At Yungay we drive up the mountain to the Llanganuco Mountain Lodge, which is owned and operated by the 38 year old Charlie Good. Charlie was an accountant at Arthur Anderson, though packed it in after the Enron affair and now, along with his three Rhodesian Ridgebacks, welcomes hikers and climbers to his lodge at 3600 metres, at the foot of Cerro Huandoy and Cerro Huascaran, Peru’s highest mountain (6768 metres). This is a remote climbing region, not to be undertaken lightly. Eight climbers have been lost this year. It was in this region, a hundred kilometres or so to the south where Joe Simpson famously survived ‘the cutting of the rope’ incident.

Cerro Huandoy (6395 metres)
Cerro huandoy (6395 metres)
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