Thursday, 21 August 2014

From the mountains to the coast and to a back water border crossing

By Mark

After a long day’s ride crossing over the Cordillera Blanca the previous day we decided it was time for some warmer weather, so we were headed for the coast. We had one main intention outside just wanting to be warm for a change; Sanne’s tyres were now balding on the rear and the front and with now some 30,000km’s it was due for a change. We were headed for the big city of Trujillo on the coast where we had heard we had a good chance of finding tyres, however since every other place we had been to in Peru had nothing we were not holding our breath.

The ride there even without finding tyres was worth every minute of it. The road we took is known as the ‘Tunnel Road’ which has about 30-40 tunnels that have been carved out of the mountains. It is also one of the most dangerous roads we have ridden. In this case it is not the Peruvian drivers who make it dangerous but the road itself. The condition is quite good but when you have a nice layer of small marble type rocks that cover over the hard asphalt surface it makes for some sketchy riding, not something you want to have to concentrate on when you have many one-way only tunnels that you cannot see through to the other side and when outside the tunnels you have crazy drops off the side of the road into the gorges below with a torrent of water flowing hard you would not stand a chance of surviving, all things said, it was a great ride and when riding in these sorts of conditions - it makes you feel alive! 

It took us a long time to head down this road, firstly leaving too late, stopping to take numerous photos and of course stopping for a good long lunch break. This used up a good chunk of the day so we decided to have an easy day and not make it to the coast, the sun was shining, the weather was warmer now we had dropped down low into the valleys and we had a great day enjoying the changing scenery with some of it reminding me of northern Argentina and the passes we had taken over the Andes in the South. As the valley opened up, the landscape took on a lush green look from all the farming that was being done on the river banks. This was the opportunity we were looking for -  a great bush camp and I found a great spot. Right on the edge of the river with the perfect spot on sand to put the tent, a few bushes for hiding us out of sight and a tree for shade and a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains, what more could you want? Well a cold beer would have gone down a treat but that would have to wait.

The following day saw us ride into Trujillo and with little signage and no map of the city we had fun trying to navigate our way around the city, the best thing was there is no shortage of taxis and traffic lights so we found ourselves constantly asking the taxi drivers for directions. I finally managed to find a bike store up a side road and slipped inside to enquire about tyres expecting to hear the usual ‘no hay’ (don’t have) but to my surprise they had what I was looking for: a new set of Pirelli’s for Sanne and at a nice low cost of $120 for the two tyres. When I walked out Sanne was very happy to see what her baby would be getting fitted that afternoon!

Just north of Trujillo is a surfing village by the name of Huanchaco. This was our destination. We had barely spent any time on the coast all the way up through Peru so now I wanted a piece of the action and with some nice waves to throw into the mix, I was chuffed. First job though was to change the tyres, Sanne had the job of changing the front and I drew the short straw and had to do the rear. My love for changing tyres has not grown more fondly over the years and when I get right into the middle of changing the tyres I wonder why the hell I don’t just pay some other poor bloke to do the job! Well after only just a little swearing this time I got it fitted but who needs to put them back on the bike when you are not going anywhere the next day. So we headed to the beach but not before a quick stop at the shop for a few cold beers to take with us to watch the sunset. When I say sunset I mean watching the sky go dark. All along the Peruvian coastline, well actually when you get between 30 to 50 km’s away the entire sky becomes hazy, hiding the glare of the daytime sun. So we enjoyed the beer and hoped for a good day to follow.

We were in luck and after getting Sanne’s bike back together I hit the beach! I got myself a body board for the day and went about destroying myself in the waves. It was the first time in many many years I have been out for a good surf and this day was turning out to be a good one. I had a short break for some lunch to recharge my batteries before heading back out for an afternoon surf. By the time I was done for the day, I wished that I had just stayed in after lunch. I was a mess, I could barely walk after being pounded into submission time and again out in the surf but I loved every moment of it, just not the next day when I struggled to get out of bed. Yes, I finally now realise how out of shape I am.

After my frolic in the waves and Sanne happy to be warmer again where else to go but back into the mountain. This time headed for Cajamarca. This city is well known to be the end for the Incas and where the Spanish killed the last reigning Inca Atahualpa. After a long day riding up steep mountain sides with deathly drops, stopping in small villages and chatting with locals, some which were a little drunk but very friendly giving us some free pineapples to take with us we decided to call it a day about 30km’s outside Cajamarca where I found an outstanding place for a wild camp. Nothing better then camping in the nature and when there is no one around, well there was this one guy that wondered back to his motorbike with a shotgun parked not that far from where we were camped but it was all good.

We arrived in Cajamarca early hoping to check straight into a room but that was not going to happen, we had to wait 2 hours for our room but it was well worth it. We had a large room overlooking the main plaza in town and what a great spot to sit and people watch. We have noticed the further you travel north in Peru the change in hats people wear, they have gone from being smallish, similar to the hats in Bolivia and what the Cholitas wear to these enormous wide brimmed hats with very high tops in the hats, they look very cool but on a small old Peruvian man they are hilarious being so over sized but cool all the same.
We spent a little time looking around but with our minds on Ecuador and getting North we didn’t hang around that long. There was another thermal baths just outside town and we stopped by to check it out, but after seeing the size of the queue to get in we thought better of it and hit the road after chatting to some cyclists from America who gave us a little heads up as to what we should expect of the road conditions in Southern Ecuador.

We were headed for Kuelap, a pre-Colombian citadel situated on a ridge overlooking the Utcubamba Valley in northern Peru, it is roughly 600 meters in length and 110 meters in width.  Radiocarbon dating samples show that construction of the structures started in the 6th century AD and occupied until the Early Colonial period (1532-1570). However, through the pre-Columbian, conquest and colonial periods there are only four brief references to Kuelap. In lieu of newly discovered documents, there exists no other testimony concerning the site until 1843. The site is impressive sitting high up on the ridge consisting of over 400 buildings and used to home approx. 3,000 people. The best thing about going to visit these old remains is that we didn’t have to do any stupid climb early in the morning to try and beat the hoards of tourists like at Machu Picchu. It is hard to compare this place to Machu Picchu, they are both quite different in style and in appearance and nothing can match the landscape of Machu Picchu. There are also families living right beside the remains in houses and working the land to survive. This would never happen at Machu Picchu. I enjoyed the place immensely, wondering around the perimeters and enjoying that it was a little less manicured and left as it was found. It was also great because there were not so many tourists. Here we found many more domestic tourists than foreigners.

After our little detour up the sketchy mountain roads and back, which we managed to survive, we headed onto Chachapoyas, a small town sitting up over a valley which is home to more ruins and no shortage of treks and waterfalls. After finding a place to sleep which took a while to find safe parking for the bikes we headed out to a vegetarian restaurant where we made friends with the young daughter of the chef. She was quite happy to sit and chat away to us even after her mother told her to leave us alone. As we got our food that didn’t stop her and she kept going telling us what her favourite food was and after asking her what her favourite subject was at school she replied with saying ‘my friends’? Well I guess she is the one who is the most social in her group. We did finally kind of get her to leave, this was after I took her very small pink scarf and beanie and put them on. The look of horror that came over her young face at the sight in front of her, some dirty gringo with knotted hair wearing her beanie and her scarf. She was not so keen on me after that and took it and put it away somewhere I couldn’t get to it until we finished our very cheap and very big meals and said goodbye.

We still had a few more miles to make it to the border so we stayed only one night and kept heading North through an ever changing landscape. All day we would see huge changes in the landscape from riding by rivers, winding our way through deep valleys to open rolling hills with a very dry hot and arid feel to finishing off the day in beautiful green cloud forests of San Ignacio, our last port of call in Peru. We found a quiet place to bunker down for the night, not always easy to find in Peru before heading to La Balsa, and the border of Ecuador. That afternoon like the previous we were befriended by another young  curious girl. We were sitting in the plaza taking in the day we had just had, enjoying a cold beer when the young girl starts approaching us, firstly hiding behind a post until she slowly builds enough courage to come talk to us. She went from being very shy to being BFF with Sanne after only five minutes. She even had Sanne running around and playing hide and seek.

We awoke the next day to rain and decided what’s one more day in Peru, so we had a chilled out day, I found myself wandering around getting many strange looks from the locals, it is a small town after all that sees only a small amount of tourists as it is a little out of the way for most backpackers all the while Sanne wrote and updated the blog. We awoke again to much the same weather as the day before and decided we should leave as we had heard that the weather is pretty much like this every day. We headed off for the border and took in as much as I could of what remained of Peru. After spending nearly three months in Bolivia and just five weeks in Peru, it felt like I could have stayed longer but we were so happy with what we had seen and all that we had experienced. Apart from the drivers what is not to love about Peru? The ever curious locals, rich and interesting cultures, fascinating landscapes from the jungles to the mountains to the sea.

The start of the tunnels

Thought this was a cool image hooning through one of the many tunnels

Towards the end of the road the valley closed right in around us

There was a big mix of tunnels, natural hand carved to these cement ones

Sanne chillin out after some lunch

Another day another great wild camp with a backdrop to match

Huanchaco beach

No shortage of Pelicans around here

Blue footed Boobie

Feeling buggered after an awesome day of catching waves

Our incredible ride to Cajamarca was full of great views including this one, and that is a sheer 200m+ drop on the left

Peru has it all when it comes to the best scenery and backdrops for riding

Love stopping in small non touristic villages and talking with the locals

Another free camp up in the mountains, bliss

The cool view from our room in Cajarmarca

Another view back towards town. See, just over there is our place

The latest in cooking equipment, the wheel barrow?

The Cathedral in the main square

 Beautiful by night

More deadly drops

Kuelap ruins in the north east of Peru


It is now home to Llamas

Would have been an incredible looking village back in the day

The short walking trail along the ridge looking back across the surrounding mountains

You know you are getting further north when you come across rice paddies

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