Huayraccasa + Ocucaje (Ica), Peru – The world’s highest drivable pass?

From 5,000 to 0 (m). Or from 16,400 to 0 (ft). It’s not recommended the other way round. To be exact we drive from 3.150 m / 10,335 ft to the 5.059 m /16,600 ft high Huayraccasa pass and back to the Pan Am close to sea level. If the Abra Huayraccasa is really 5.059 m /16,600 ft high and if it’s really the highest drivable pass in the world – opinions differ in this point. Faultless altitude determining is still a problem in our age. Altimeters have to be calibrated at a known point (e.g. sea level). The weather mustn’t change during the ascent, since analogue and digital altimeters are controlled by air pressure. Even most modern GPS devices don’t necessarily deliver exact readings. Depending on the amount of received satellites the elevation details can differ for several dozens of metres, even if precise coordinate fixing is possible with few satellites only. The pass is definitely more than 5,000 m /16,400 ft high, and in case it is the highest, we drive over just to be on the safe side to have made it.

We first follow the very narrow road glued to the mountain to Santa Inés, whose pavement just creates the feeling of being able to fall more civilized into the depth. At the pretty lakes Lago Orcochocha and Laguna Choclococha we head to Huancavélica (Peru’s poorest town), before a sign points right to Huachocolpa. From here on it becomes narrow, wet and muddy, but a semi-trailer driving ahead and another one oncoming a few hundred metres away tune us positive. The two trucks constantly approach, ignoring turn-outs, until they face each other – senseless, brainless. To express it carefully: Peruvian drivers aren’t the smartest. Foresight is a kind of unknown thing. On of the truckers is desperately shunting in the muddy ditch, nearly slipping, and miraculously makes his way out again afterwards.

The crew of the oncoming lorry gesticulates we shall turn round. After few kilometres we reach the summit where a mining company kindly put a sign (S 13°04’34.7’’ W 75°01’38.0’’). We didn’t shoot all our photos yet as the semi-truck that has been in front of us returns the opposite direction, shouting that the road is closed. Anyhow, we only wanted to get to the pass. We head back, but take from Santa Inés the eastern route via Pilpichaca (asphalt, wide) back to the main road Pisco-Ayacucho and then again to the Pan-Americana close to Pisco.

This route isn’t that spectacular as the way there, though entertaining. Like everywhere in the mountains we share the road with varied livestock herds with cows, horses, donkeys, goats, sheep, and pigs. Some of them just stroll alone, sometimes a cattle drover stays on the other side of the road in a safe distance from his herd waiting for the car driver to resolve the difficulty.

In elevations between 5,000 m / 16,500 ft to 4,000 m / 13,000 ft camelids graze. Wild vicuñas nimbly zoom off, but the domesticated long-legged llamas and the stump-legged wool providing alpacas can run surprisingly fast if they purse their thick lips and stretch their head on this oddly long neck forward. They wear coloured bows on the ears as a tagging to whom they belong. In the same elevation Viscachas roar on rocky grounds looking for shelter in their burrows. The lively mammals belong to the Chinchilla family, can grow up to 40 cm / 16 in with a 20 cm / 8 in rolled up tail and are very cute. They look like marmots with a rabbit’s face and too long tail. Their soft fur is much sought-after.

Back to the Pan Am we pass the city of Ica (not too inviting). The oasis Huacachina nearly became a suburb of it. Surrounded by high sand dunes an underground river from the Andes surfaces and feeds a lake that nourishes a green palm tree oasis like in the Sahara. The culture shock isn’t a long time coming. Masses of people wend their way up the dunes, dune buggies with 20 seats rush with local and foreign tourists up and down the slopes, loud music booms from everywhere, and on the parking lot cars press panicking. We hardly found a space to turn round as we take flight.

The sun is setting and we hope to find the urgently needed overnight place in wine town Ocucaje, 30 Pan-American kilometres further south. Truck-stop-camping along the Pan Am is only for deaf persons. Ocucaje arouses a somewhat down-and-out impression. A policeman offers to stay the night in front of the police station. We decide to park behind the building where it is more levelled (S 14°20’46.3’’ W 75°40’16.9’’) and I let another policeman know. Nevertheless it knocks on our door only 15 minutes later, the Capitano himself. He asks us to follow him into his office with our passports and vehicle registration documents. There is no problem, he convinces us. We can camp there, and checks the documents just superficially. He doesn’t write down or copy anything. If we wanted to do any harm to the Peruvian president they probably wouldn’t remember us properly. The President is said to come tomorrow at 9 a.m. to Ocucaje to distribute donations. The village was stroke by several earthquakes, the last one six days ago. That explains the village’s bleak condition.

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