Waking up from my tranquil riverside abode at the Rumiwilco campground in Vilcabamba, it was hard to motivate. I’d had 3 fantastic days there, including a sweet 40th birthday celebration (see previous post). But at long last it was time to exit Ecuador, and enter the famed dirt madness of Peru. I’d heard lore of the amazing vistas, intense terrain, and fantastic people for many months from Northbound travelers, and now I was just a few hundred thousand pedal strokes away! Not able to find any particular dirt routes through the northernmost part of Peru, I’d be sticking to pavement for the first week or so until reaching the city of Cajamarca. From there things would get a little rougher…
Crossing the Rio Chamba one last time from my Vilcabamba campground, I felt awake, clear, and ready for what this next leg of the journey would bring. The words “ama hoy” (love today) inscribed at the foot of the bridge felt like a personal invitation to do just that. On this day it wasn’t hard.
The final 150km from Vilcabamba to the Peruvian border might perhaps be paved? No worries. After all the rough riding of the Trans Ecuador MTB route, I was okay with a little bit of the fast and smooth stuff. But as I would soon find out, it wouldn’t be easy just because it was paved. This was not flat prairie land to say the least, with every raging decent sandwiched between heart pounding climbs.
Within hours of leaving Vilcabamba I caught up with the French couple Bruno and Lorraine who helped usher me into my 40’s. We’d later pause in the next town and meet up with 4 other members of the Cuenca crew. Nice to have the community feeling continue for the day!
Crossing through PN Podocarpus, I really really wanted to see a spectacled bear (also known as Andean bears). I’d been hearing of them ever since Colombia. Unfortunately the only glimpse I’d get would be this one.
The gorgeous bright flora fully accounted for the lack of big fluffy fauna for which I’d been searching.
After clearing two high passes, the road plummeted out of the cool high country and into a grand valley with all its heat and humidity.
Hillsides transitioned from rich and verdant to goopy brown mud. Clearly the land wasn’t as stable as this home’s builders had hoped, as its corner precariously hovered over a 50 foot precipice.
That very mud meandered its way across the highway at various points. The following morning during a long sweltering climb, I hit a mudslide approximately 150m across, covering the highway completely. It was just shallow enough that the high-clearance trucks seemed to pass through with minimal challenge. Not so with a bicycle traveling uphill. I shouldered the Ogrus to keep the drivetrain mud-free and slopped my way through these miniature Swamps of Sadness (with a few obscenities thrown in at times for good measure).
The smooth flowing pavement gave way to surprisingly consistent dirt roads as I slowly undulated the endless hillsides, climbing and dropping at steep grades with no flat ground in sight. The border just never seeming to arrive soon enough…
… Until it did! Crossing a short bridge, I reached the immigration office just before sunset. A quick stamp and I was on the saddle in search of slumber. I managed to reach the first town across the Peruvian border, Namballe, just as the light began to fade. With the minimal cash I’d managed to exchange at customs I quickly found a cheap hotel room, dragged the bike with me up the stairs, and dragged myself under the covers to enjoy some well-earned rest.
From the moment of entry into Peru these political murals appeared, advertisements for the region’s gubernatorial race. But to me, these signs were all grand welcoming banners and I’ll tell you why: Many months ago I decided to try using my middle name when introducing myself to new people. First off, I’ve never really LOVED my first name. As a teenager I fantasized about changing my name to Xavier many times, as Scott always seemed to lack more interest than it did syllables. But over time I grew to accept my first name as “the way things are”. But here I am, riding my bike around the world. I can be whoever I want to be when meeting new people. So why not at least play with a different name? My middle name is Gregory. Translate that into Spanish and you have Gregorio. Regal, ain’t it? Take the common nickname of Gregorio and you have Goyo. So many people along my path know me simply as Goyo, only getting a clue to my namesake duality through Facebook and social media. So when I started seeing the signs, “GOYO 2016” and “Goyo para Presidente”, it felt pretty damn welcoming. Not bad for the first few days of my 5th decade on Earth.
The following day, I rolled out early. I was aiming for the northernmost city along my route, Jaen, and it was about 150km with some solid hills. While on route, I began taking in the subtle distinctions in Peruvian culture from its Ecuadorean counterpart. For example, Peruvians seem to have a creative way to keep the sun from damaging their cars’ interiors.
Then there were the moot-taxis. Way more interesting than any I’d seen up North.
As a side topic. I’ve been progressively getting into podcasts and audio books in recent months. During this stretch I was listening to The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. It’s a fantastic book, packed with wisdom for how short and simple it is. I would suggest it to anyone curious about the ways they prolong their own suffering in life. While listening to this and other inspiring audio I have begun to record my thoughts, responses and insights. It has become all to common of an experience that while riding through the silent whispers of nature I think of something “important” and try to remind myself to remember to write it down later.
It never happens. Ever.
So I have now learned to keep my phone easily accessible with audio recorder app open, so I can grab those fleeting notions before they vanish. What will come of them has yet to be determined…
Around mid-day, I was surprised to come across a familiar sight but in a new environment. Vicky and Neil, two cyclists from Britain and Ireland respectively, were cooking lunch by the roadside. I’d met them in Quito a couple of months back and never expected to cross paths again. Yet here they were! The beauty of riding paved roads from time to time — that’s where all the other cyclists are! Over the course of that one day on the paved road, I crossed 3 other touring cyclists, all heading Northbound. Two were quite friendly, while one solo female rider blew by me without even a nod. Always odd when there is normally such strong camaraderie amongst cycle tourists… More on that in a minute.
Continuing the hard push for Jaen, I crossed some large rice fields. Interesting to watch how the workers planted and “tilled” the soil with what looked like hand-driven paddle-boats of sorts.
Upon reaching the outskirts of Jaen, a local mountain biker caught up to me during a climb and offered to escort me to the local bike shop where the owner was known for hosting incoming bike tourists. Upon arriving there, I saw Gin and Michelle, two Canadian cyclists I’d met back in Cuenca, accompanied by that very female cyclist who ignored me a little earlier! They’d oddly arrived by van. Turns out that female cyclist had crashed just after I saw her, badly enough to have lost consciousness. I instantly went into Wilderness First Responder mode and deduced she’d certainly undergone a significant concussion, and strongly suggested she go to a hospital. Luckily the bike shop owner knew a local doc, and I joined her as interpreter to reach the only neurology clinic in the city. After reading the catscan results, the doc suggested she spend the night in the clinic for her own safety. Feeling she was in good hands I returned to the shop to share the news and ask the owner to hold onto her bike for a day or two. Great guy. While there, multiple other bike travelers showed up, including my now old backpacking friends Dang and Dean! The community grows…
After a lovely reunion breakfast with Dang and Dean, I rolled out into the mid-morning heat to make some distance. They’d be taking a more direct route to the town of Catamarca while I’d be taking a more roundabout path. The heat of the day was a motivation killer. We somehow managed to spend the next 3 hours deliberating about making any progress that day eventually convincing each other to push on, at least for a few kilometers. I made it for about 4 hours before entering a small town and finding a hotel with a fan. Heat is not my friend.
More rice fields. More heat.
After a morning of piercing sun and dry heat, the road began to climb up a mountain valley. Every tiny breeze was a welcome solace. Luckily the views were stunning. These were the mere foothills of mountains to come!
Peruvian roads. When climbing a narrow valley with insufficient room for the roadway between the cliffside and the river, you dig UNDER the cliff. A little harrowing to look up and wonder how stable those rocks really are…
A few more hours of pavement led to my first detour — to reach the Cascada Gocta, arguably the 3rd tallest waterfall in the world. I landed in the small town of Cocachimba by twilight, and was invited to camp on the front stoop of the police station so as to avoid the impending evening showers. Unfortunately the police were having some sort of regional meeting that night in which all the lights were blaring for hours with lots of cops commenting and giggling at the sight of this random gringo’s tent placed just by their front door. Realizing I’d not be sleeping during the event, I decided to step out and socialize. It was nice actually, I got the lowdown on Peruvian politics, on current events (which included the recent story of another tourist who’d just fallen from the top of the waterfall due to an overly risky attempt at a “selfie”). Good thing I’m not a really big selfie fan.
I woke up early and after a quick bite set out for the hike up to the cascades ($10Sol entrance fee, visible off in the distance in the above photo). I followed the roller coaster trail up and down through jungle and bush, with beautiful peekaboo views of the enormous cascades throughout.
Upon arrival at the base of the enormous waterfall, I noticed the wind had picked up. Not until I got within meters of the intense water showers did I realize that the wind was actually from the the waterfall itself! The water was falling from so high and such high volume (note the tiny people on the trail for scale) that it created an enormous gusting gale which nearly blew me off balance more than once on the slippery mossy rocks. The misting waters were being carried back UP the steep scree slope, away from the falls, enough so that there were small streams carrying that same water back down the hillside. What a powerful experience. Looking up at the shear 1800’ drop of the lower falls, I counted how long it took a torrent of water to reach the base — at least 8 seconds. That’s enough time to say, “fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu,” (breath) “uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu,” (breath), “uuuuuuuuck!” (if one had fallen from the falls as that poor selfie-taker had). I chose not to climb up to that high ledge. Looking up at the gorgeous falling waters was plenty for me.
One of the countless and curiously shaped spider webs lining the cascades trail.
More precipitous road overhangs….
Tingo Nuevo, the gateway town for riding up to the famed Incan ruins of Kuelap. Over early dinner, I considered why I was planning to climb the extra 1000 vertical meters just to see some ruins, then have to descend back down the way I came for a 70km round trip. I’ve never been deeply inspired by ruins and archaeology. Various experiences in Mexico and Central America taught me this. So why was I planning to see these ruins? I couldn’t find an answer, so decided to scratch the plan in search of more natural beauty. Upon the suggestion of a local, I walked into the center of the town square under a large veranda to set up my tent. Little did I know this park was the main passage of a whole host of locals taking shortcuts across the town square. I spent the next 2 hours trying to get to sleep while hearing people walking by my tent, loudly conversing about “the gringo camped out there.” Needless to say I didn’t sleep particularly well.
Despite the non-ruinous visit to Tingo Nuevo I did manage to run into some other bikers there. First Liz and Tyndall, two backpackers from Anchorage whom I’d med back in Cuenca and were part of the birthday posse. Then Jesse and Jacob, who almost mystically had started back in the states only about 6 months prior and yet were already down here. Needless to say we were on very different missions. Nonetheless I rode with Jesse and Jacob out of the following town for a couple of days, always nice to share the paved sections with other riders, especially when MAJOR climbs are involved.
Hence my introduction to Peruvian bike touring, and how it dwarfs most other mountain riding North of here. Out of Leymebamba we had a moderate 4500’ climb up to this high pass at around 12,000’, followed by a 9000’ descent into the canyon, followed by a 7000’ climb to get back out of the canyon on the far side. Needless to say the daily kilometers drop significantly in terrain such as this!
The descent was glorious. 60km without a pedal stroke. But a certain requirement to keep the speed in check as many of the hairpin turns were above enormous sheer drops.
Jesse, Jacob and I began the climb out of the canyon together that afternoon. We made it about 1/2 way up and camped in the empty basketball court of El Limon. Since Jesse is using a hammock for a tent, he got super lucky that this basketball court doubled as a paved soccer field. The goal posts supported his rig perfectly!
No, it was not a race. Just a morning greeting for a moment with a kind farmer.
Still a ways to go out of that darn canyon.
Amazed to see a tarantula so far South and at 11,000’ elevation. It perched so peacefully atop my trusty machete blade.
During the blazing descent off the canyon’s far side, I passed a funny town where all the houses were typically weathered with simple tin roofs and faded paint. Yet, accompanying each was a fancy bathroom structure with water tank and fresh paint. Was there some government program to renovate the human waste management system here? Nobody around to ask, guess I’ll never know.
What I did realize is that for some bathrooms just don’t come at the right time. I saw this lady in the distance shrug her shoulder sack and quickly almost fall to the pavement. I rushed toward her, assuming she was in some form of distress and might need help… Nope. Just poppin’ a squat on the highway. Definitely an awkward moment of realization as I approached. Camera was subsequently unsheathed rather surreptitiously….
Final night camping out before reaching the major city and pausing point of Cajamarca. I enjoyed a shivery night accompanied by full moon.
Cajamarca is, by comparison to my experience of silence in Northern Peru, a “real” city. Huge town square bustling with foot (and paw) traffic, a fleet of shoe shiners adorned in green uniforms lining the walkways. I spent the day running errands. As opposed to typical practice stateside, people in Latin America keep their stuff as long as possible, repairing it until it is beyond capacity for repair. As such, I’ve followed suit in many ways. Torn shirts and pants get sewn. Holes worn into fabrics get patched. My most recent need for a fix were my bike shoes. Holes had been forming along the sides for many kilometers. But with 15 minutes the shoe repair man fixed the holes with hand-made leather patches, coving the outsides with material perfectly matching the preexistent mesh they came with. All for about $3USD. Good as new!
Exploring the town during a rest day, I came across this gorgeous staircase up to a small church. Great overlook of the city for tourists and locals alike.
All in all it had been a lovely introduction to the steep and relentless grades, gorgeous vistas and kind people of Peru. Now it was time to dig into the dirt. I’d found a route in my online searches that would carry me through some of the lesser traveled back roads and trails in my trajectory toward the outdoor mecca of Huaraz and the famed Cordillera Blanca. Stay tuned!
Where I Rode:
Day 1: Vilcabamba to Palanda
Day 2: Palanda to Namballe (across the Peruvian border)
Day 3: Palanda to Jaen
Day 4: Jaen to Bagua Grande
Day 5: BG to Cascadas Gocta
Day 6: Gocta to Tingo Nuevo
Day 7: TG to Lemebamba
Day 8: Leymebamba to El Limon
Day 9: El Limon to Encañada
Day 10: Encañada to Cajamarca