Epic Northern Peru from the border to Cajamarca

Our ride through the epic northern Peruvian landscapes

Our ride through the epic northern Peruvian landscapes

La Balsa border crossing on the Peruvian side

La Balsa border crossing on the Peruvian side

After our muddy exit from Ecuador, we had about two weeks to ride about 650km through northern Peru to Cajamarca where we would catch a bus to Lima to meet up with Bryan’s parents for a few weeks. Many cyclists opt for the La Balsa border crossing into Peru because of the fantastic riding on the Peruvian side through dramatic river canyons and Andean mountain ranges and also to avoid the more dangerous Peruvian coast. In northern Peru, we went through so many environments that would switch dramatically. From the border to San Ignacio, about 50km, it was lush mountains covered with coffee plantations interspersed with green leafy banana plants. Little villages spread out on the mountainous landscape with a few tin roofs reflecting in the sun like silvery decorations on a rumpled green blanket. Villages were perched high up on top of mountains or down by the rushing river and the road rose and descended to connect all of the small settlements.

 

Found David, a master of making empanadas, rolling out hundreds of these tasty fried dough pockets from his little modest home just before the climb into Nuevo Esperanza before San Ignacio. We were starving and David came to the rescue

Found David, a master of making empanadas, rolling out hundreds of these tasty fried dough pockets from his little modest home just before the climb into Nuevo Esperanza before San Ignacio. We were starving and David came to the rescue

After San Ignacio, it was a 20km descent on a dirt road in the process of becoming paved down to the river. The world changed to green rice paddies filled with water and the road was flat as it winded by the river side. We had dropped a lot of elevation and it was now extremely hot in the sun. It was very remote and until Perico village where we spent the night, villages seemed to consist of a couple homes and delicious fruit stand selling sweet pineapples, oranges and bananas. Perico was a little bigger, which meant having a store, a few restaurants and a couple more houses, but it was still a very small place. We camped along the river. It was an amazing afternoon chatting with local villagers down at the river who were really friendly and curious about us, swimming in the river and watching people fish by throwing nets into the water or with an innertube floating down the rapids. We watched the stars come out at night and the trees came alive with fireflies. The fireflies looked like shooting stars right above our tent. Magical!

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We crossed 11,000km as we crossed the Maranon river.

Woohoo! 11,000km ridden from home!

Woohoo! 11,000km ridden from home!

Instead of going all the way into Jaen, which was a busy city slightly out of the way, we took the dirt road to Bellavista and then crossed the Maranon river in a little boat. It was 7km to Bellavista where we had lunch and then 3km to the river on a beautiful, quiet backcountry ride through rice paddies and tall mango trees. At the river, we met up with a Peruvian family visiting from Lima and hung out with them under a palapa and swimming in the river. We then crossed the river on a little wooden boat that also fit two motorcycles in addition to our loaded bikes. On the other side, it was 8km to the highway, first a steep section right after the river and then leveled out past an oil refinery. It was 18km on the shortcut versus 61km via Jaen so we knocked off 43km! We got back on the paved highway about 24km from Bagua Grande and decided to push it all the way.

Bryan birdwatching for the parrots in the rocky cliffs

Bryan birdwatching for the parrots in the rocky cliffs

The world changed again and it became a stretch of remote desert hills with a black ribbon of road descending through it. The cactuses and emptyness reminded me so much of the deserts of Baja California. Right before Bagua Grande, it became palm trees and rice paddies again as the road once again rejoined a river. Bagua Grande, like San Ignacio, is a bit of a tuk-tuk (a three wheeled motorcycle contraption with a row of seating behind the driver) frenzy where there are bright lights and life happening everywhere but every store seems to have the same few food and household items and bank ATMs work a quarter of the time. I can never actully seem to find what I’m looking for. We spent a night in Bagua Grande getting some stuff from the market, grabbing what seemed to be the last money from an ATM in the whole town (went to all the ATMs in the town – no money. At the last one, we could only draw out 700 sols even though the machine said a limit of 1000 sols. After our withdrawl, the machine said it was out of service), and sending a quick email to our parents, we headed back out to the countryside.

The river valley narrowed into a scenic canyon as the world changed once again. The high cliff walls were covered with holes nested by thousands of birds. There were brilliant green parrots squaking as they flew in pairs. They were hard to spot at first but when we realized what to look for and connected the squaking to parrots, they were everywhere.

Cliffs sometimes hung right over the road. Light green hanging moss swayed in the breeze from rocks and trees as the landscape became more lush. We ascended back up to cloud forest area and the trees were full of birds and butterflies. The canyon walls were steep as we winded through a seeming labrinyth of mountains beside the rushing river. There were a lot of waterfalls today including the beautiful cascada right beside the aptly named Puente Cascada.

Puente Cascada - a relatively small waterfall in this area of cloud forests and steep river canyons

Puente Cascada – a relatively small waterfall in this area of cloud forests and steep river canyons

Dramatic river canyon road

Dramatic river canyon road

After turning towards Chachapoyas at the Pedro Ruis junction, it was about 18km to the turn-off to San Pablo village (6.4km dirt road off the highway and up, up, up) where we took a day off to hike up to Gocta falls, the third tallest waterfall in the world with a 771m drop. From San Pablo, it is 5.8km (one way) scenic hike first through banana and coffee farms and then along rocky cliffs covered in bromilads and finally through a dense cloud forest to the falls. Along the way, there are scenic views over the valley and some rock paintings. I always find it so amazing to travel by rock paintings because it means people have been travelling this route for a long time. The trail is well marked, often paved with stones and with rest shelters at scenic places. Near the bowl end of the valley, we could see so many waterfalls tumbling down the steep green slope. The falls was amazing and an incredible display of power with all of the water crashing down. As we got closer to the falls, there was so much wind blowing at us from the power of the crashing water. We got soaked from the spray and then walking away from the falls realized that the rain had started. As we looked back at the end of the valley, there seemed to be noticably more waterfalls and the pre-existing ones were flowing with more crash and bang. It was a long, cold hike back but it was beautiful to see all those waterfalls birth into existence after a rainstorm.

From San Pablo, we rode along the quiet, beautiful and flat riverside road to Tingo Viejo just over 50km away. Tingo is basically a collection of three hospedajes, a couple restaurants, a police station and a fruit stand on the road. It is also the trailhead for a 8.94km hike up to the citadel of Kuelap up at 3000m on top of a mountain. Tingo Viejo is down by the Rio Utcabamba at 1790m making the hike a gain of 1210m in elevation! Kuelap is an ancient city on top of a mountain with the ruins of over 500 circular stone homes, huge inverted stone temples, strong walls all the way around the city with dramatic and ultra defensible key hole entrances. Kuelap was settled by people of the Chachapoyas culture between 800-1400 CE and is huge at about 7 hecares in area. Hiking the 9km up the mountain to get here, I could understand how this city flourished. Who would hike an army up it and if someone did, they would be way too tired to fight! The site is only partially excavated so part of the city features round stone rings of the old homes while others are still under earth with stones peaking out in the tangle of roots. The tall trees are covered in brilliant red bromiliads and the setting of the city is beautifully dramatic on the top of the mountain with steep misty mountains all around.

We rose from 1790m at Tingo to 2200m at Leyembamba as we rode through the quiet river valley. We had delicious fruit for breakfast but unfortunately, it burns off quickly and there was little until Leyembamba. By the time we got to Leyembamba around 1pm, we were running off of willpower and the promise of lunch in town. Unfortunately, our picture snapshots of maps and map my ride program were ambiguous and we had thought that Leyembamba and Balsas was a lot closer than it really was. Instead of 30km to Leyembamba, it was actually closer to 50km and Balsas about 90km from that. The silver lining is that Leyembamba is a very quaint town and easy to spend time there. Its church on the main square is made from stones with two rock towers. The streets harken back to colonial times with terracotta tile roofs and wooden beams, not dressed up for tourism but because that is how it is. Also a highlight of Leyembamba is its museum 2.5km outside of town which holds the mummies found in the funerary homes on the Lake of the Condors. These mummies represent over a thousand years of ancestors as the Chachapoya culture flourished in this area from before the rise of the Incas to past European colonization.

Road out of Leyembamba - not for those scared of heights!

Road out of Leyembamba – not for those scared of heights!

Calla Calla pass

Calla Calla pass

After Leyembamba, the road dramatically changed from riding alongside rivers to a switchback party as it bisected river canyons and climbed back into the tall Andes. It continuously went up for the first 30km rising out of the river valley and bisecting the mountain range before desending for 60km into the next river valley. The approximately 150km stretch from Leyembamba to Celendin is not a ride for anyone scared of heights. It is a one laned road – not single lane for each direction but just a single lane in total for all traffic making it a thrilling ride around blind hairpin turns on the side of the mountain with a steep cliff right off the edge of the road. The road clung alongside the mountainside cliffs with the lane narrowing even more on especially precarious cliffs. The views were deadly scenic – drop dead gorgeous but you had to stay focused on the road because the edges come up fast and you need to be alert to cars coming head-on after a blind curve. However, this was a road made for cycling – quiet, scenic and exciting. Not much traffic on this road.

Deadly scenic! Breathtaking views descending into Balsas

Deadly scenic! Breathtaking views descending into Balsas

Riding into the sunset on the way down, down, down

Riding into the sunset on the way down, down, down

We decended to Balsas at the bottom of the Rio Maranon river valley – a hot and balmy oasis of palm and mango trees in the otherwise landscape of cactuses. We lost over 2000m in elevation from Calla Calla pass at 3672m to Balsas at 870m and immediately gained most of that again on our ride up the other side. The next day, we were out of the door by 6:30am which we needed since it gets really hot in the beating sun in the desert environment of Balsas at such a low elevation. The ride started with a gentle climb through desert hills where green parrots camouflaged well in green cactuses. Who would have thought it?

Can you spot the parrots? They have red heads and are perched on top of most cactus branch arms

Can you spot the parrots? They have red heads and are perched on top of most cactus branch arms

It was a stark environment but so beautiful bathed in dawn’s glow. We saw giant tarantulas and centipedes on the road and lizards skittering in the rocks as we passed by.

Beautiful river riding just after the bridge from Balsas

Beautiful river riding just after the bridge from Balsas

 

A gentle start climbing through a desert valley back into the high, misty, cold mountains

A gentle start climbing through a desert valley back into the high, misty, cold mountains

The road then turned into farm and pasture land as we climbed into bowl shaped valley, sloping down towards the river and surrounded by steep mountains. We made it to El Limon for lunch, the only settlement of any size (has two restaurants rather than just a couple homes, a farm patch, a couple chickens and perhaps some cows and pigs) in our ride after 23km of uphill riding from Balsas. After Limon, the road zigzagged straight up the cliff mountainside. It took us the rest of the day on the gravity defying road. At some points, I would hug the inner side of the road as the narrow road dropped off in a cliff right at the edge of the pavement. I’m not scared of heights (just scared of falling) but riding so close to the cliff’s edge is unnerving. We were both really tired by the time we made it to the top at around 5pm after almost 50km of relentless uphill. The grades never seemed terrible with all of the switchbacking that took us from one end of the valley to the other and back again. However, the uphill never stops. It rained at the top while we gorged on chocolates at a little shop before descending about 12km into Celendin. In the morning, I looked up to the tower ontop of the mountain just lit by the sun at dawn from the main street in Balsas. Over 10 hours later, I am standing by the tower looking down at Balsas, the river and the mountains becoming misty with rain. It has been an incredible climb – from 870m to 3097m – around 2200m! That’s the most we’ve ever climbed in one day!

Up, up, up! The climb after El Limon up to the mountain before Celendin

Up, up, up! The climb after El Limon up to the mountain before Celendin

Animal market in Celendin

Animal market in Celendin

From Celendin, there was another 1000m climb up over two passes over about 50km before a 20km cold descent into Encanada. Most of the ride is over 3000m in elevation, climbing up and over 3600m for the second pass. The wind had a definite chill to it but the landscape was starkly beautiful with stone walls lacing over mountainsides marking off pastures. We got to Encanada at the end of a political rally and the small town was chaotic in celebration. The next day, we triumphantly rode the last 33km into Cajamarca where we explored the old historical center and relaxed in the hotsprings at Banos del Inca. The last Incan emperor bathing in the Banos after his long journey from modern day Cuenca (Southern Ecuador) where he defeated his half brother and won the civil war. Afterwards, he went to meet the Spanish in Cajamarca where he was captured. There are some intricately carved facades on the churches around the central Plaza de Armas. One of these cathedrals has a room that that the Spanish conquisadors made the last Incan emperor, Althulupa, fill with gold for his ransom. Althulupa filled the room twice but the Spanish excuted him anyways.

Though in a much different scale, Cajamarca also marks a change for us as well. We made it to Cajamarca on Sept 29 to catch our overnight bus to Lima on Sept 30 where we were meeting up with Pat and Bill for a three week family vacation starting on Oct 1.

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