The Peru Great Divide

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Words: Axel Carion 

Special Mention: Jonas Deichmann

Images: Gavin Kaps 

Do you know that the Andes Mountain Range is the longest one in the world and the youngest? This is most likely one of the most terrific bikepacking experience if you are searching to explore remote tracks. Jonas Deichmann and I met virtually in South America and we both share a special link with this continent:

  • I have cycled twice the continent from Cartagena (Colombia) to Ushuaia (Argentina) including one Guinness World Record under 50 days.
  • Jonas owns the unassisted Panamerican world record SOLO (Alaska / Ushuaia) and we became friends after sharing a lot about long distance journeys.

We had shared a lot about our mutual experiences and attempting a world record together has always been on the radar. We came up with the idea to cross one Peru Great Divide as Jonas has been participating in almost all BikingMan races in 2019. An English couple has named the route which links the Cordillera Blanca to te Cusco region: the Peruvian Great Divide, in reference to the American Great Divide, the main mountain range of the United States running from north to south of the country. In 2018, I attempted to ride it with a gravel bike but failed because of a lack of training and wrong equipment choices for such a difficult challenge.

Picture a 1,900 km course with more than 90% of unpaved roads, 35 passes over 4,000m above sea level and 40,000m of elevation gain! Peru is special as one third of the entire country is made of mountains and super high-altitude peaks with countless passes above 4,000m. We decided to start the journey with Jonas from Cusco, the imperial capital city of the Inca Empire. No one had ever connected the Sierra Blanca where the Huascaran National Park is located and Cusco city. If high altitude is your quest, Peru is a dream location. There were 15 passes above 4,500m, 3 above 4,900m and 35 peaks above 4,000m. We have spent 16 days almost constantly cycling above 4,000m. Traveling light with the minimum kit was a major goal as well as bringing the right bike configuration. I was riding “Riddler” 2.4” tires on a monster gravel Open WIDE frame and 27,5” wheels.

On dirt roads and poor oxygen level, it took us sometimes more than 12 hours to ride 120 kilometers. Challenges such as finding hotels and restaurants were stressing a lot the “world record” pace we decided to settle since the start. Staying properly hydrated and fueled with carbo-hydrates food are the key and high altitude can turn your brain nuts as the thirst feeling can disappear. I had investigated previous adventurers’ blogs and all of them rode this route with super loaded touring bikes or mountain bike gears. Jonas and I wanted to go fast, and we were carrying less than 20 kg of total kit (bike included). With a touring bike it would have taken us between 1 to 3 months!

We were carrying extremely limited camping gear and targeted every day to reach a low altitude base camp (below 3,500m). Peru was unexpectedly cold in 2019 and we experienced freezing temperatures (-15°C) where getting the support of villagers was crucial to sleep between walls.

The extreme conditions we encountered (weather, terrain, remoteness) couldn’t take away the far-out factor felt of this route. It has been the most incredible bikepacking expedition we had ever completed in our lives. Oxygen is rare in Peru, but beauty is overwhelming, among the landscapes you cross and the people you meet. The country is a cycling gem with so many different types of landscapes (high altitude lakes, waterfalls, glaciers, snow-capped mountains, gigantic valleys) and raw colors that only one can find in the Andes. The people added a special flavor to the exploration as we have met on the road numerous supporters waiving hands as we rode along or hosting us during a freezing night after a late arrival and multiple bonk due to poor fueling.

The route we followed is part of the UNESCO Qhapaq ñan, known as the royal road network, built by the Incas. It is an enormous human-built road network that used to link Colombia to Southern Chile with trails and tracks. We felt privileged to ride these tracks and honored to discover the typical Peruvian lifestyle of these remote areas. The Peru Divide is not open to everyone. It cost you a lot physically and mentally but scarcely in your cyclist’s life you will experience such a raw feeling of unexplored territories.

Note: The bikingman adventure series that I have been organizing for 3 years, has one stage in Peru: the incadivide race. In 2020 the course will be focused around Cusco region and will be inspired by some sections that we rode with Jonas during the Peru Divide expedition.

Full route :

Axel Strava profile :

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