If you’re thinking of riding Peru, this is a detailed how-to notes from our experiences.
Northern Peru from La Balsa to Pedro Ruis – Hwy 5N – 260km
If you’re crossing from Ecuador, the ribbon of pavement that magically appears across the river on the Peruvian side may seem like a mirage for weary eyes. However, it is real. Welcome to Peru.
From the La Balsa border crossing, it is about 6km to the next town of Namballe where you get a bigger selection of hospedajes and hostels rather than the crappy two overpriced ones at the border. From Namballe, it’s just over 40km to San Ignacio through coffee plantation and banana tree covered hills where the road winds around mountains to connect all the littlee villages perched on top of the mountains or down by a river. After San Ignacio, the road turns to gravel for about 25km for a brief uphill and then all the way downhill to the river as they are in the middle of construction. At the river, it is a different world from the cold mountain heights in Ecuador – it is hot…and flat! There is not much in terms of services and towns but there are periodic juice and fruit stands, which are a delightful respite from the heat. The riverside riding has many opportunities for camping. The first village that we encountered with some basic supplies and eateries was Perico, about 55km from San Ignacio, and the next was Tamborapa about 17 km after Perico.
There is a shortcut via Bellavista and skipping Jaen. It was a 18km dirt road stretch, 7km to Bellavista and then 3km to the river on a beautiful, quiet backcountry ride through rice paddies that was generally downhill. At the Rio Maranon, there is a little wooden boat ferry that charges 1 sol per person and 1 sol for the bike and runs on demand. 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 this shortcut knocks off 43km! You’re back on the paved highway about 24km from Bagua Grande through isolated desert covered hills.
As a note, ATMs are only found in San Ignacio, Jaen, Bagua Grande, Chachapoyas, Celendin and Cajamarca on this stretch. We found that ATMs in the smaller cities (San Ignacio and Bagua Grande in our experience) were often out of money. However, due to a bit of a mad dash around the two cities where we finally found working ATMs, we were able to skip Jaen and Chachapoyas (the city is an unnecessary climb when the river road is much nicer).
After Bagua Grande, the road continues on a wide river valley covered with rice paddies (very scenic riding between the rice fields) and then the valley narrows into a canyon with high rocky cliffs covered with nesting birds including sqawking parrots! It is a very gentle uphill climb that is hardly noticable until the last approx 20km into Pedro Ruis where there is a more marked climb. However, it is so beautiful riding through the jungle and there are many waterfalls in the area. Pedro Ruis is a busy junction town with many hotels and restaurants.
Pedro Ruis to Leyembamba – Hyw 8B – 120km
From Pedro Luis, it was about 17km until the turn-off to San Pablo along a very peaceful river road as the high limestone mountains loomed on either side. The ride is flat.
Side trip to Gocta Falls
Gocta Falls is the third highest waterfall in the world and is cheap and easy to visit. You can reach it from Cocachimba or San Pablo. Cocachimba is an easier ride up with a shorter steep section and the town has more hospedajes. However, the hike to Gocta Falls is harder and less scenic and goes directly to the bottom of the falls. San Pablo is much higher with 6.4km of sheer up from the highway. We flagged down a truck heading up there and the family kindly gave us a lift up the steep, dirt switchbacks. San Pablo is a sleepy village that you can walk across in two minutes. We found the only hospedaje in town, a restaurant that has some beds upstairs. We bargined the room for 10 sols per night for a couple nights. Set meals with soup, drink and main dish was for 4 sols. You can also camp in the main square. From San Pablo, it is a relatively flat and very scenic hike to Gocta Falls.
It is 4km to the junction where it is 120m to an amazing lookout (perfect spot for lunch) of the whole falls in all its glory. You can continue down this trail to the bottom of the falls. Also at the junction is 1.8km to the base of the first tier of the waterfall. The water falls with such force here. In all, it’s 11.6km round-trip from San Pablo to the base of the first tier of the waterfalls. Clearly marked trail and rest stations that looked very nice for camping in actually. 10 sols entrance for the falls which is payable in San Pablo.
After San Pablo, you continue to ride along the beautiful river canyon. There are two hills but otherwise lovely and flat. About 20km after San Pablo (and about 10km before Chachapoyas) the road splits with the road to Chachapoyas climbing up to the city and an amazing quiet, single lane road following the river.
Side trip to Kuelap
Tingo Viejo is 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! The first couple km were by the rushing jade colour river with cabbage patches and other farms all around it. After that it steeply rose for the next five kilometres as switchbacks brought us up over the mountainside. The trail is steep but well built with five rest huts along the path. 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. The really neat part about Kuelap is that there are fewer visitors and much of it is unexavated so you can see both the pre and after excavation of the city. For now, the trail is completely free but we have heard Kuelap being “the next Machu Picchu” so this many change in the future. 15 sols entrance but if you have a student card, it’s only 8 sols. Tingo Viejo has some cheap basic accommodation.
After Tingo, there is about 50km until Leyembamba with gentle ups and down alongside the river. There is an overall climb of about 400m from 1790m at Tingo to 2200m at Leyembamba but what was really the challenge for us was the headwind in this section. I didn’t read about headwinds in any other blogs so this might have just been a unique occurance. Leyembamba is a really quaint colonial mountain town and has an awesome muesum 2.5km walk away. The museum is 15 sols and it is 5 sols each way by tuk tuk if you choose.
Leyembamba to Cajamarca – 255km – Hwy 8B
The road out of Leyembamba goes continuously up for the first 30km rising out of the river valley and bisecting the mountain range to the next river valley. The road out of Leyembamba and actually all the way until 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. However, it is a quiet road and most traffic on it is used to being cautious. After about 30km of continuous but steady climbing without being ever too steep, you reach Calla Calla pass at 3672m to where you begin an epic 60km descent Balsas at 870m. At Balsas, I recommend camping at the river because the hospedajes are very basic and pricey for what they’re offering. It’s also very hot (drastic change from the top of the pass) and balmy with mosquitos and you would get a much better sleep in the mesh protection of your tent rather than the open window of a hospedaje room.
Start your climb EARLY the next day because the sun is unrelenting and it’s a 2200m climb back up to 3097m on the other side of the river. El Limon is 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) 23km (21km from the bridge) from Balsas. The total climb is about 50km and there is a little store at the top where you can buy some snacks and chocolates. From the top, it is about 12km descent into Celendin, the largest city since Chachapoyas…or if you were like us and skipped Chachapoyas, then since Bagua Grande. There are hotels, restaurants, markets, and ATMs!
From the top of the mountain before Celendin, the road becomes two lanes again (one lane in each direction) and then it becomes a four lane highway after Celendin.
From Celendin, it is 70km until the next town of Encanada over two passes. It climbs tabout another 1000m but the climb was more gradual than previous rides. It is 50km of climbing until the second pass, which began a 20km descent into Encanada. Most of the ride is over 3000m in elevation, climbing up and over 3600m for the second pass.
After Encanada, there is a little very gradual uphill section but for the most part, it is downhill the whole 33km to Cajamarca.
Side trip to Banos del Inca
0.50 sols each way for a collectivo from Cajamarca to the nearby town of Banos del Inca where it was 6 sols entrance to the pool. It was a little confusing and we ended up opting for the picina – the pool – which was a warm swimming pool with lots of locals doing laps. It was nice though, especially the hot showers. However, next time, I think I would get a private tub which probably would have been hotter. The Banos del Inca are known for having the last Incan emperor bathing in it after his long journey from modern day Cuenca where he defeated his half brother and won the civil war. Afterwards, he went to meet the Spanish in Cajamarca where he was captured.
We didn’t ride the central part of Peru as Bryan’s amazing parents came to visit us. We travelled with them from Lima to Cusco using a hop-on-hop-off bus. For more info on that portion of the trip and Peru Hop buses, check out my write-up here.
Southern Peru from Cusco to Agua Calientes before La Raya Pass – Hwy 3S – 175km
It is a gentle downhill ride out of Cusco in a lot of traffic. The urban sprawl went on for a while through all of Cusco and its suburbs but soon you’re released from its traffic and smog into a beautiful and fairly flat green valley. At around 30km into the day, there was a stretch of uphill about 2km long but otherwise, it’s flat until Urcos at about 50km into the day.
Side trip to Andahuaylillas Church
At around 40km out of Cusco, we got to a little unassuming Andean country town with adobe brick walls and cobblestone streets. However, Andahuaylillas hides a hidden gem – a beautiful church known as the Sistine Chapel of the Americas. Set in a leafy, tranquil central square, the colonial Jesuit church is incredible. Every inch of the cathedral is painted from all the rafters to all the walls. The ornate carved and gold painted alterpieces have beautiful paintings in them. Entrance is 15 sols. No pictures (flash or no flash) allowed but entrance includes a CD with a tour of the church and a photo archive. Around the corner is a great little place for lunch with set menu at 5 sols.
After Urcos, the ride becomes and overall uphill but it is very gradual. The hills aren’t hard but we took them slow after spending all the time off our bikes. Many people spend at least a week or two in and around the Cusco area since there is so much to see. Give yourself a little extra patience and time in this section since you’re probably starting up again after some time off and in high elevations over 3600m! Though it’s an overall up, the road is fairly flat until about 10km after Sicuani (big busy city, crazy rickshaw filled market, has hotels and services but no need to stop here unless you need to) when you really start climbing into the mountains up to La Raya Pass
Side trip to Agua Calientes
11km before the pass is the La Raya hotsprings right beside the road. There is a sign marked Agua Calientes and you can also see the cars and buses parked on the side of the road. There is a bunch of ladies selling cheese and other goodies and a restaurant on site. You can camp there or a room at their very basic hospedaje was 25 sols for the both of us including entrance to the hot springs. If you just want entrance to the springs, it is 5 sols per person. There are three main pools and a half a dozen more little side pools. The hot pool is HOT which is great since it can get really cold up here at such high elevations at night. The hot springs are 24 hours and the nights are quiet. If you’re camping, I would be careful with your stuff since it can get quite busy during the day.
Agua Calientes at La Raya Pass to Puno – Hwy 3S – 225km
After Agua Calientes, it is a steady uphill at HIGH elevations (4000m plus) for 11km up to the highest part of La Raya pass at 4335m and then downhill for the next 20km leveling off for the next 10 km into Santa Rosa at 3800m. After Santa Rosa is 40km of flat riding to Ayaviri, with only a little rise up to 3925m elevation. If you’re lucky, I’ve heard of cyclists flying across the flat Altiplano with a tailwind, making it 150-170km in one day to Juliaca. We unfortunately had a strong headwind in late October making it quite a fight of a ride.
In my opinion, there is no reason to push it to Juliaca. The plus side of Juliaca is there is a new casa de ciclistas there run by Giovanni. However, Juliaca is a terrible city in all other aspects. We were welcomed into the city by garbage strewn everywhere on the side of the road and dead dogs everywhere. In a 100m stretch, there was three dead dogs in varied forms of decay and swishedness on the road and one dog limping by. Watch out puppy! Dangerous place for you! No one cleans the dead dogs off the street so they just get run over and over and rot away until they’re just a puddle of fur on the road. Getting a little closer to the center, there is a massive construction project with on the plus side, a seperated bike lane on the side! The bike lane is a ribbon of pavement on dusty unpaved streets on every side through a very industrial looking part of the city. Unfortunately, the order of operations seem to be messed up as there are people painting the concrete benches on the side of the bike lane and walking path while the highway is a giant, chaotic construction project halted at a standstill. The bike path ends in a chaotic gravel pit with traffic criss-crossing at multiple different angles. As cyclists, we have to cross them all. Then, you’re in the market area of the city which is a crazy dirt road that is more bumpy and terrible with fist-sized stones sticking out of the dirt and potholes than many of the dirt roads we have ridden in the whole trip. This terrible road claimed Bryan’s back rack which cracked with all of the bumpyness. Then, woohoo, road! But…not to get too excited too fast, it is a chaotic mess of traffic as there doesn’t seem to be any bypass and all the traffic that goes to Puno crowds its way down the narrow mainstreet in downtown Juliaca. Buses and minivans have their doors open with person screaming out at bystanders, calling out their destination and stopping eratically to let people on and off. Cycle rickshaws dart between traffic and the various stands on the sides of the road. There are stands of all different kinds from fresh squeezed juice to making keys right on the spot. Just as we were leaving the city, there was a mini van that had falled through one of the cracked concrete gutter covers and its whole wheel disappeared under the road. It is 44km from Juliaca to Puno and the highway out of Juliaca was straight with a nice shoulder but all along the sides was covered in garbage from dead sheep to big bags of stinky stale grease. It was like riding through 30km of garbage dump. The last 10km or so, we were in the hills around Lake Titicaca where we got a little wet snow!
I recommend enjoying the ride across the Altiplano from La Raya to Juliaca instead of making a mad dash since there are many beautiful spots to camp beside a winding river 30km before the city.
Puno is a touristy city but an easy place to spend an extra day. People come here to visit the Floating Islands.
Puno to Yunguyo – Hwy 3S – 134 km
It is really nice riding out of Puno for about 20km along the water and then the road cuts inland a bit and the sand on the road starts after Chucuito. They are sanding the road for construction and it is the worst for the 21km stretch between Acora and Ilave where it becomes a gravel road with piles of gravel on the side and big trucks flying down it. Traffic was way to heavy and driving way too fast for the conditions of the road. The road gets nice again near Ilave and then it’s about 15km to the bay with shimmery blue water and on the other side of the bay is Juli going up the hill.
Juli is a hidden gem. Calling itself “the little Rome of the Americas”, it has four grande cathedrals, a walk up to a lookout on the nearby hill and some of the most friendly people we’ve met. All cathedrals and walk to the lookout are free to visit. We stayed at a really sweet little family run hospedaje across from the municple market for 20 sols. It was very clean and cozy with shared bathrooms but the hottest doucha shower I’ve ever encountered.
From Juli, there is a 2.5km uphill 2.5km and then 5km of downhill. The ride is characterized by flat straightaways intersperced with a gentle hill every now and then. It was about 30km from Juli to the junction where we turned off the main highway to the highway towards Yunguyo, the last town before the border and Copacabana in Bolivia. It wasn’t an issue for us but if you overstayed your visa, you need to pay a small fine at the Banco de la Nacion in Yunguyo. From the junction, it was an overall 23km to the border. Yunguyo is only a couple kilometres from the border and has some hospedajes if you want to spend the night before crossing the border in the morning. As a note, Bolivian visas (free for Canadians but some other nationalities such as American need to pay) are normally only 30 days but we asked for a bit longer since we’re cycling and the border offical gave us 90 days no problem.
Site of note – Food Market
There is an amazing food market serving delicious fried trout just after the town of Pomata about 23km past Juli. Before Pomata is a headland where the waters are full of trout farms and the fried trout served at this little food market is super fresh. You can get a hearty full meal for 8 sols or if you just want the trout, you can bargin it for 5 sols. Stay on the bypass instead of going into Pomata town and it will be on your left if you’re riding south. It seems to be a local favorite as the sides of the highway fills up with cars, taxis, collectivos and even buses stopping here for lunch.
Site of note – Beautiful Beach
After the turn off at the junction to Yunguyo, you leave the water for a bit. Right after you crest over a hill back to the lake side about 12km before Yunguyo, there is a dirt path leading to the water – about 1km each way. The road tucks in behind the hill you just rode over and opens up to a beautiful beach with limestone cliffs and caves. The caves are impressive but unfortunately the depths of the caves have been used as a garbage dump in one and a washroom in the other. Still the beach is beautiful and full of locals taking a lunch break, drinking and swimming. It is a great spot for lunch but we were warned that it can get dangerous here at night.
La Balsas to Cajamarca, family vacation from Lima to Cusco, Cusco to Yunguyo
Sept 14, 2014 to Oct 31, 2014
This section consisted of 47 days
22 days for family vacation without cycling
Day 378 to 424 (of overall trip)
Total km travelled (cycling) – 1166.8 km
Daily average – 58.3 km per riding day
Number of rest days – 5 days
Route – Hwy5N from La Balsas to Pedro Ruis, Hwy 8B from Pedro Ruis to Cajamarca, Hwy 3S from Cusco to Lake Titicaca
Weather – 5 days partly cloudy, 3 day rain, 15 days sunny, 2 days sunny morning with drizzly, even bordering on wet snow in the afternoon
Accommodation – 21 nights hotel, 4 wildcamp