Peru’s Great Divide
Behind every rock, there is a mountain. Nowhere does this sentence mean more than in the Andes, the longest and youngest mountain range in the world.
This past summer, right before the 2019 Inca Divide, the German adventurer Jonas Deichmann and I headed to the Peruvian Andes with the aim of establishing the fastest time for cycling Peru’s Great Divide.
First scouted by an English couple who explored the area several years ago, Peru’s Great Divide is a 1,500 km stretch of high-altitude roads, most of which are unpaved and above 4,000 metres. We decided to add a 400-km unexplored section at the start, so we could begin in Cusco, the imperial city, and follow part of the UNESCO-protected Inca road network (named Qhapaq ñan in the Quechua language).
“Flight attendants prepare for take-off please”
Of all of our previous expeditions and record attempts, riding Peru’s Great Divide in record time was the toughest of all. We faced 1,900 km of mostly unpaved road, 35 passes over 4,000 metres, and 40,000 metres of elevation gain. Hypoxia became a part of our daily routine. High altitude sickness was a ghost that came to haunt us on our bikes. It took us 16 days to complete the feat!
At 4,000m, the air you breath is 50% poorer in oxygen. You start to lose your ability to speak. Your power meter numbers drop lower than your heartbeat. Such numbers are irrelevant there. Just keep going becomes your motto. On every turn of every descent, you face drops, sometimes over 2,000 metres. There are more switchbacks than you could ever dream of. One mistake at 65 km/h and the game would be over.
Our accommodations were wild, if not absent. Places to refuel were scarce, which forced us sometimes to knock on doors to ask for help. The Peruvian people we met on the road were extremely kind. The friendliness of the Andean people constrasts with the roughness of the weather and terrain in the mountains where they make their homes. -15°C at night is bearable if you bivy around a friendly campfire with alpacas!
The tracks we followed used to be travelled by Inca runners who were born and raised to carry messages across the empire. “The Chaskis” were the emperor’s human telegraph system. They could transport a message over 3,500 km in just under 12 days. Yes, we were slower. There wasn’t a single day that we did not pay tribute to those legendary runners. They ran across the Andes in flip-flops. We rode gravel bikes with down jackets. We had to show some respect.
Slowly, we became Chaskis riders, as we got closer to Conococha lake, which rests 4,200m above sea level near Huascaran National Park. Breathing deeply for 148 hours in the Andes burns your lungs and imbues you with memories you will never forget. Jonas didn’t sit still for more than two days; he went on to ride the entire 2019 Inca Divide. I won’t rest for too long either. I’m already working on maps, lusting for the next adventure…