Digging into Peruvian Dirt: Cajamarca to Huaraz

7/24/2016.

Cajamarca, Peru.

I’d been riding within Peru for around 2 weeks, and despite the famed dirt routes throughout the country most of my riding thus far had been on paved roads. It was at last time to shift the scales and hit some of the rough dirt routes I’d heard so much about. Somehow I was fighting yet another cold as I rolled out of Cajamarca, so the going would be extra rough trying to maintain my strength at the high Andean altitudes as I hacked my way through oxygen access. But as I’ve always approached sickness on this journey: I could be sick while stuck in a hotel room for a couple days or sick while riding through wilderness for a week. I choose wilderness. Every time. 

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Rolling out of the busy central plaza in Catamarca, I stocked up with a bit of cheese, a bit of delicious chocolate pudding brownie balls, and made my way to the first climb up and out of the nearby town of Jesús.  

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Roadkill is a reality, all the world over. But as I approached this cute young puppy sullenly sitting aside what I assume must have been his mama, I found myself overtaken by grief. He looked up at me with those big rounded eyes, almost seeming to ask me “why?”. So often in Latin America I have rolled by canine corpses in various stages of decay, left largely untouched from their location of demise unless dragged a few feet to stop blocking the roadway. As a die hard dog lover it makes me so sad and angry to see how dogs are treated in so many countries South of the US border. On the other I am forced to consider the unjust significance I place on a dead dog over that of a rodent, bird, reptile or even a cat that met a similar end. I do not wish to desensitize myself, but have noticed I give more consideration to all animals killed by traffic than I used to. 

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 The dry and dusty streets of Jesús are a far cry from Cajamarca’s metropolitan maintenance. I felt like I was back home where I wanted to be, in the small towns with kind people living simple lives. 

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While climbing up out of the hot, dry lowlands around Cajamarca I passed the common sight of a locals soccer game. Water doesn’t come easy to these parts, and certainly will not be wasted trying to make a yellow field look green. The hue still feels a bit odd to me every time I see it however.

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As the afternoon pressed on the lone dirt road continued to climb, presenting increasingly inspired views around every corner. 

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The common site of stone wall fences delineating cattle herding areas has become quite common, and has a surprisingly less intense impact on the sense of “being in nature” than do their wire, wood or other metal counterparts.  While I know these are often not only indigenous lands but people using the resources that are free and available to them for establishing their land boundaries, it feels more connected, more grounded. 

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Reaching the climb’s apex in the late afternoon light, I tossed on a wind jacket and bombed down into the next valley…

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Arriving into Cacachi in the late afternoon, I’d not realized exactly HOW late it was. The lone dirt road dropped me right in front of the town police station, perched uphill from the its center. A uniformed officer called me over, waving and yelling… I was a bit nervous. Turned out he was just REALLY friendly and wanted to say hello! Police Chief Jose informed me that it was indeed not just late afternoon, but the sun would be setting in exactly 18 minutes. “You might want to stay here, there’s plenty of open space to camp on the grass behind the station.” I chose to take his advice, but within moments he scratched that first offer and gave up his own bedroom in the station for me to have a bed that night!!

Yeah. That actually happened.

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Amazing. Once I was settled he walked me through town, proudly introducing me to many locals. I felt like royalty, except with a healthy helping of getting some laughs for being the gargantuan gringo (Peruvians are much shorter than I am by and large). We wandered into an unsigned doorway, the town eatery, where we were given soup and bread for dinner. Evidently it’s hard to get good poultry, beef or even beans around here, so it’s a pretty carb-heavy diet out of necessity. I was just happy to have a warm bowl of soup.

Over dinner, Jose explained the phenomenon I’d been experiencing in which young rural children would run away and hide behind doors and walls when I approached by bike. I guess there is a rumor, still active in many communities, that gringos will come to small towns and kidnap young children in order to steal their organs. I guess this was not entirely imaginary in years past, but certainly not a common practice these days. I believe it’s more like a ghost story/superstition at this point. Either way, I guess my gringo reputation precedes me! 

He also explained the origins of arroz a la cubana (Cuban rice, a local dish in which a large pile of rice is served with a fried egg on top and some fried plantains around it). Evidently the Cuban immigrants upon arrival into Lima were very very poor and that was often the only meal they could afford. It became a “thing”. Then there was the origin of the Chinese fried rice dish, known as “chaufa” in Peru. Supposedly chaufa in Chinese means something like, “I want some rice”, hence the evolution of Chinese rice dishes in Peru. 

It’s always brilliant to spend time with a local, ask questions, learn about the culture. Jose was a kind and generous educator.

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I awoke at 5am, just before sunrise, to eat and pack in order to get a jump on the day’s riding. Jose emerged from the other room just in time to say goodbye and thank him for his fantastic hospitality.

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As the morning light broke, I began a fantastic 4500’ descent into a long valley.

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At one point I noticed the main road wound tortuously to the left while a much rougher rocky track seemed to cut its corners, directly heading down the canyon. This road quickly faded into a narrow single track for about 1500’ of the descent. So sweet. rocky, twisty, steep. I love touring on a mountain bike!!!

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After passing through the nondescript town of Cajabamba, I neared my day’s end goal of Huamachuco. A small city nested in the distant mountains, I’d find groceries and fresh food there. Continuing a paved climb through the afternoon I reached Huamachuco and stuffed my stomach with Chifa, my new favorite Peruvian cuisine. A peculiar attempt at Chinese food that typically involves fried rice with soy sauce and some chopped meat, the poor man’s dish called chaufa. Next: find a cheap hotel for the night if available. I was amazed by the disorganization of many of the hotel staff I encountered. One young man at the desk said the owner was out and he couldn’t rent the room for a few more hours. Then there was the woman at another who couldn’t find the key to open the front gate (the only way into or out of the entire building, thus she was currently locked IN)… perhaps a slight fire hazard, never mind the inability to actually open a door to let me into the hotel! I settled on the cheapest option at $5 USD for a simple bed and bike storage.

Another early wake up to get “breakfast” in the city market — I try to avoid making any assumptions about how things are in a new country/culture, at least until I see certain clear and present patterns. One such pattern has surfaced for me, with respect to breakfast. Let me be clear that a good breakfast is by far my favorite meal of the day. Colombia was all about amazing breakfasts: Some sort of chicken or beef stew to start, orange juice plus coffee and/or hot chocolate to drink, then the main course was usually some cut of meat, eggs however you liked them rice, and fried plantains. They were always huge and wonderful with minimal exceptions. Fast forward to this morning’s Peruvian market. When you see breakfast advertised in Peru, it’s generally some sort of juice or heated quinoa drink. No multiple courses. No coffee. I sat at a cafe in the market and the closest thing I could find to an energizing breakfast was an egg sandwich… and it was just that. Only that. A fried egg placed within a piece of bread. No seasoning, cheese, or sauce. So yeah, Peru seems not to be all about hearty breakfasts. I’ll have to make due… 3 of those egg sandwiches plus an instant coffee and I was on my way. 

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Took the “easy” winding road out of Huamachuco to avoid some potentially challenging hike-a-bike-esque grades in a more direct route. It climbed into some stunning scenery and as the road got a little rougher so did the number of vehicles decrease. By the time I reached the high open mountain plains with their gorgeous lakes, I’d not seen a car in hours.  

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Lots of these tiny little caves all around here off of the dirt road. I crawled into one for about 20 feet but the insects, solitude and claustrophobic tendencies got the better of me. 

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I paused by a random lake with a 3-4000’ cliff hanging over it’s far shore. The temperature was balmy with a gentle breeze. There were no annoying bugs to speak of in that moment (a surprising relief for the area). I was over a bluff from the road, so totally alone regardless of any potential passing vehicles. It was the perfect spot to eat my lunch and take in the silence. I looked up at that big gorgeous cliffy mountain and for a few moments thought, “maybe I’ll just stop here and climb that thing all afternoon…” 

As I stared at the rock face considering a route upward, I realized something crucial: I didn’t really WANT to climb up it. I just thought it would be a cool thing to do. But what this inspired moment by this inspiring lake inspired in me was the opportunity I had to STOP pushing my body hard for a few moments and just … feel. Feel the subtle nature around me. Feel how I am feeling in my life right now. Remember that these soulful moments of solitude are a huge part of what this whole journey and choice to be journeying is all about. Not just doing endless cool outdoor activities but appreciating the rapture of silent nature. So I did. I almost did spend the night there in that perfect little lakeside spot, unfortunately I’d not planned to stop so soon and not packed enough food for the night. Lesson (re)learned there: ALWAYS carry at LEAST one day of extra food, to have the freedom to invest in places like these. With a deep breath I absorbed the lesson and moved onward. 

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I climbed up up up though gorgeous vistas to get a view of an enormous mine across the valley. It was the entire top of a large mountain. I reflected on how uninspired I’ve often been when encountering archeological ruins and manmade sites, but somehow seeing the enormity of this mine touched me. It was of course not the same “wow, it’s amazing what an indigenous culture could do with no machinery so long ago” kind of thinking. Much more along the lines of, “Holy shit we have the power to destroy an entire mountain just in search of some semi-precious metals…. we are destroying the world” kind of thinking. However, it was quite captivating nonetheless. I realized I might actually go out of my way to see other huge mines in the future if given the option. Perhaps out of some masochistic inspiration to keep my eyes open to damage we are doing. 

Just over the summit of the big climb, the road got VERY rocky. Generally rounded-ish rocks but definitely slow going with very careful choice of line so as to avoid crashing or breaking my bike. This went on for quite a while as the the road steeply wound down a large valley. I mistakenly followed my gpx route at one point which led me off the ‘main’ road and onto a defunct rocky mining road. I was stopped by a huge landslide of boulders which had completely blocked the road. Not wanting to turn back to the last junction I began dragging my bike through the boulders to the road on the other side, when… PSS..WOOOOOOOFFFF!” I leapt into the air to dodge what I assumed was a venomous snake hissing at me. Of course I’d not seen any such snakes since entering South America, but what else could have made that sound?? Oh shit. My tire. One of the boulders had cleanly made mince meat of my rear tire sidewall, a 1” slice had let the air out loudly and rapidly. It was getting late, so I got to work repairing it.

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 Rolling around the next bluff the route took me onto progressively less and less trodden roads, from the very rocky road I’d been traveling to overgrown grassy road (still with its fair share of rocks!). 

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 At least it provided a view of yet another enormous and disturbing mine. This one was at least twice the size of the previous one.

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 —  I kept waiting for the big fun long descent, but the route kept rounding a corner then climbing up some other valley. Finally I got my descent. Unfortunately not super fun as it was steep and densely rocky. Slow going as I dove down a steep canyon. At the bottom I realized that despite my hopes of arriving in Mollebamba by mid afternoon it was now 5:30 and the rocky road crossed a small river to then begin a long, loose rocky, 700’ climb over a ridge. I walked up most of the climb, riding in short sections until pushed off the bike by rocks or steep grade. Topping out from this extra surprise climb, I darted downhill in search of a campsite. No way would I make it to Mollebamba now. I camped in a small canyon next to a deserted airport on a hillside. Nice spot actually! But exhausted. 

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Big long curvy paved descent down to the river. Amazing to see how roads are built into these sheer cliff hillsides. 

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Peruvian for street cleaning machines: Men with branches for brooms, sweeping there way through the hot morning sun. 

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 Stopping at the river to filter some water, I began the LONG climb that would take me from 7000’ up to nearly 15,000’. I wouldn’t get through it in a day but I’d see how far I’d make it. 

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 As my climb wound through seemingly endless switchbacks in the late afternoon light, I noticed a shepherd family taking a trail directly up crossing all the roads. It didn’t SEEM that steep or difficult from where I stood, so I figured I’d save time riding the shorter, direct route…

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Not so. The Inca trail they’d been walking (known around here as “chaquiñán”) would prove to be a steep rocky staircase. I returned to the road after hiking up a wall for a half hour.

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It was time to camp. But there had been ZERO flat ground for the last 2 hours of climbing. Where would I sleep? I didn’t know, but I had confidence that I’d either wear myself out so much that it wouldn’t matter if I were at all comfortable, or I’d manage to get lucky with a campsite. Both ended up becoming true. 

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Took an offshoot road up to a nearly 15,000’ pass. Beautiful huge valleys with long rocky roads. Lots of bouncing. 

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Lots of tiny rural stone walled ranches.

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Lots of gorgeousness. 

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LOTS.

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So THAT’S why there was no car traffic on that road!!

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Down another long river valley, just hot enough for all the fucking sand flies to surround and chase me. My legs got completely attacked. I raced up the far mountainside after a river crossing in hopes of climbing above sand fly altitude, whatever that would be.  

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Made it up part of the next climb, through the small hamlet of Sicsibamba and as the sun began to set, I set out in search of flat ground for my tent. I got stopped just at the edge of town by a group of guys drinking some home-made fermented rice drink, and of course spiking it with caña (distilled sugar cane liquor). They offered me a drink and I agreed. I was too tired, dehydrated and hungry to say no to anything. Soon I was having a shot to chase the rice drink…

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 Then out came the coca leaves. I took a couple mouthfulls and was shown how to add the activating powder to it to make it work better. Soon we were all taking photos and laughing, and one of the men told me I’d be staying in his house that night as it was getting late. I wholeheartedly agreed. 

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As I was force-fed a steady flow of caña, his wife prepared a sheep’s blood and potato dish to bump up my energy for tomorrow’s ride. What a strange flavor! I couldn’t tell if I really liked it or not but out of respect I put in all away. The men continued to shove coca and caña in my face until I had to sternly decline. Each one had myriad questions to ask about me and my life. I had the same for them. They taught me some basic Quechua and I shared with them some English and a few Yiddish phrases for fun. It was a fantastic cultural and human experience, all because I decided to say yes to one little drink. I’d had another huge day and my body was starting to shut down. The man with the spare bed showed me to it and I was left to get some sleep. 

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 I Rolled out of my kind host’s place in Sicsibamba just as the morning light broke. Cold climbing but beautiful views. 

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Luxurious 2 story adobe abode. I’d live there in a heartbeat.

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A bit down the road a met a man who was making his adobe bricks in order to build his own house. He’d been building adobe houses all his life. He showed me the simple technique of packing the muddy dirt into vertical slots and then removing the slotted walls to let the brick dry in the mid-day sun. Simple. Amazing.

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Local family picking crops.

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Next to this tiny town was a miniature version of itself: the town cemetery but done in the same architectural style and colors as the town itself.

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The rocky roads never ceased. Up one 1000’ climb, back down to a river, then back up another 1500’ climb. Finally a fun single-track descent I found paralleled the road. Unfortunately I forgot that hot canyons beget cacti. Cacti spines and tubed tires don’t play well together. End of the day slow leaking flat tires are not my favorite. I stopped every few minutes to refill air so as to avoid a full tire change in the sandfly-filled evening. One final climb up to the tiny hamlet of Llumpa. 

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Climbing up out of LLumpa the next day, I get my first view of a snowy peak, part of Peru’s famed Cordillera Blanca, my destination…

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 The views get better…

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Not a bad spot to spend a night.

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Final climb to get over Paso Portachuelo. Looking back to the East at all the climbing I’d done to get here.

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Over Portachuelo pass the descending road was almost comical. The only way a driveable road can cover that much elevation in that short of a distance.

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LOTS of switchbacks.

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 The brilliant Llanganuco lakes. 

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Now that I was nearing the famed outdoor town of Huaraz, I found the downside to its fame: traffic. Everyone and their mother was here on vacation to see the lakes and brought all the dust up from the dry sandy road with them.

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Back down on the pavement as I rolled the final kilometers to Huaraz, I stared up at the absurdity of the enormous Cordillera Blanca.

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Always got to stop in the local ice cream shop. Fantastic.

It has been a packed week of travel to reach Huaraz. I’m hoping to take a few days to rest and recover here, maybe do some trekking and mountain biking before continuing South from here. For now a big bowl of chaufa and a long night’s sleep are in my immediate future! 

7 Responses

  1. Brian
    | Reply

    Scott – ha! Where did you get your route? It was similar to ours in almost every aspect – except you went through the mine on your way to Mollebamba, and you took a “shortcut” near San Miguel. I had been thinking about taking the mine route, but after seeing your pictures from that region, I’m glad we didn’t… though the other side that we took was also quite difficult. All your other pictures looked really familiar. Surprised you took that section skirting San Miguel – looked pretty minor on the map. Happy travels; I’m enjoying reading your posts.

    • Scott Pauker
      | Reply

      Hey Brian! The shortcuts in Peru have all the most fun terrain! I actually really liked the mine route. Glad I did it. In terms of route it was I believe a combination of looking at your route, the bikepacking.com Cajamarca to Caraz route, and personal sleuthing.

  2. John Pappanikou
    | Reply

    Unbelievable journy Scott! Great photos!

  3. Rick Beckel
    | Reply

    Hey Scott! Great reading your blog. I am currently on a tour myself, making my way down to Panama before flying home in March. I noticed that you are from Seattle – I will be living in the area from March to Sept, and I would love to get together if you are back at that time! I would love to bike in the Andes someday and it would be great to trade some stories.

    • Scott Pauker
      | Reply

      Hey Rick!

      Not sure when I’ll be back in Seattle yet, so likely I’ll miss you. But hit me up at hicamos@gmail.com and we’ll see!

  4. Montana
    | Reply

    Man, those are some impressive mountains. Also, killer campsite. Keep on keepin on.

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