Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Back Door Into Northern Peru: Vilcabamba, Ecuador – Caraz, Peru (2nd - 24th August '11)

At the end of our stay in Ecuador we took the dirt road south from Vilcabamba to the border of Peru. We left behind the asphalt not long after Vilcabamba and our last few days in Ecuador were on steep (up to 16 %) gravel slopes, up and down the mountains. It was some very enjoyable riding though – we had joined up with Jurgen, our German friend we first met cycling in the Yukon (more than a year ago!) and our days were filled with cycle gossip (its amazing how much we actually have to gossip about), made-up games (though we quickly discovered that eye-spy in Spanish is not that much of a challenge when our vocabulary is so limited!) and finding great places to camp.
We managed to camp outside churches, abandoned schools, volleyball courts and inside a municipal building that the people in town smashed a window to get into – we were a little concerned that we were breaking into the government offices but the town assured us that it was no problem, they had simply locked the keys inside.
 These last days in Ecuador we met lots of friendly people – including a large family of children who were absolutely thrilled when we camped next to their house. We played volleyball and soccer with them, they “helped” us put up our tents and cook our dinner and when we woke in the morning they were all sitting patiently in front of our tent waiting for us to provide their morning's entertainment.
We crossed into Peru just south of Zumba, at Chonta/La Balsa, the most chilled border crossing I have done – we had to tear our immigration officer away from his karaoke machine to fill out our paperwork. After we had passed over the bridge and entered Peru we found that the Peruvian road engineers are a little more considerate to poor cyclists - the gravel was a little less bone-shaking and the road gradients were a lot kinder – though it did mean that the climbs were suddenly a lot longer... ups and downs of more than 50kms is quite normal in Peru!
Arriving in Peru we slowly dropped in altitude, the landscape started to get more lush and green and the weather grew more sultry, until on our third day in Peru we were in the “Amazonia” area, sweltering in the heat and riding along a flat road through a valley of irrigated rice paddies and palm-trees. The road also turned to asphalt and after the super-steep rocky climbs that we had come through we could enjoy the ease of smooth cycling. We hadn't experienced 'flat' for a long time and it was a nice change for a couple of days.. though of course it couldnt' last too long, and after a few days we left the main road at Pedro Ruiz to head west on a dirt road through a very pretty parrot-filled canyon along the Rio Utcubamba– slowly climbing our way back up into the mountains.
On the way from the Amazonia up into the northern mountains we passed by Kuelap, an old Chachapoyan ruin, that was worth a day off to do a 3-hour hike from the town of Tingo up to the site's impressive perch overlooking the surrounding mountains. In Tingo we also met an English/Polish couple cycling north to south, and we could happily pick their brain about the next part of our route. We didn't have that much info on the back roads that we were going to take in the next week or so as we didn't know many cyclists that had done this route but Sywlia and Matthew had just come from there... they left us with the less than satisfying information that we were headed for “the hardest roads that they had done in Peru” and that one of our next downhill sections (60km long) was worse than 'The Worlds Most Dangerous Road' – sandy, narrow and with steep dop-offs on the side. Hmmm reassuring.
However, while the roads deteriorated as we headed back into the mountains the scenery certainly proved diverse. As we passed through the mountains we would go from green dairy farming areas in the mountainous areas all the way down to arid desert landscapes in the canyons. One chilly mountain night we warmed ourselves by a fire with a friendly campesino family (who insisted that we camp in their potato barn as our tent would be too cold) and the next night we were camped down in the desert with the fly open, watching the stars above us in the warm, dry air. Winding our way through these mountains meant some impressive ascents and descents – one memorable progression was a 30km climb, followed by a 60km descent and then straight back up into a 45km climb!
After all this climbing we were looking forward to some time off in Cajamarca, a nice laidback colonial town, where we spent our time eating our way through the streets and markets. We had heard lots of great things about the food of Peru but up until Cajamarca we had struggled to even find much to eat in the small towns that we had passed through. In these towns it was difficult to determine which houses were also shops and we had spent a lot of time peering into darkened doorways to see if they had any food for sale. Cajamarca was heaven though, we discovered a glorious array of streetfood, fried goodness and enough sweet things to load our bodies up with sugar for the next part of the rough roads through the mountains ahead. Our other present to our bodies after all their hardwork through the mountains was calling in at the hotsprings of Banos del Inca to have a wallow in the blissfully warm waters.
We tore ourselves away from the hot springs and fried things of Cajamarca and headed off again through the mountains, generally south, winding our way through some smaller roads and tracks to try and connect up with Huaraz and the Cordillera Blanca. This involved about a week of climbing up and down mountains. As we got further south the roads deteriorated until we were on some tough sandy/rocky roads that switchbacked up and down mountainslopes, from farming areas and small villages up high, down to arid and desert landscape in the bottom of the valleys. We passed through small villages and met some lovely Peruvians, including a couple of cyclists (Alex and Eduardo) who rode and chatted with us for a while and an Evangelical pastor who invited us in for lunch and then blessed us and our journey – which must have worked as we ended up with a big long stretch of nice, easy riding on bitumen that we weren't expecting!
Tired legs from climbing, cramped hands from braking on the long downhills and completely covered in dust from camping in the desert we were happy when we reached a flat section of road through a canyon along a river. Pretty landscape and fairly good roads -including 30kms of bitumen! However, after a too-short period we were out of the canyon and back on bone-shuddering gravel roads, and a gentle climb up through the desert and into the Canyon del Pato with its multiple tunnels (where we had to strap on lights and head into the darkness, hoping for no cars as we attempted to ride in pitchblack, on rough roads). Eventually we popped out into the Calleyon de Huaylas, a pretty valley that runs alongside the beautiful Cordillera Blanca with its impressive snowy peaks hovering in the background. We were pretty worn-out from lots of rough roads and mountain riding and we were filthy from head to toe. Our poor bikes hadn't faired much better during our last few weeks of riding. Norma and Betty had bolts shaken loose, racks broken and were making lots of strange noises. We were very ready for a good rest and clean-up in the chilled little town of Caraz.
While the back roads through Northern Peru were not alwasy easy, all the hard work of the last few weeks was definitely worth it - passing through a creased landscape of mountains and rivers, deserts and forests with great views, quiet roads, little villages.. what more could you ask for!

Notes for Cyclists (warning – the distances I include are always pretty rough!)
From Vilcabamba, Ecuador to Cajamarca, Peru
Steep, rough roads from just south of Vilcabamba (though they are currently paving some sections of the road just south of V!) to around 55km after San Ignacio in Peru. After Tamporapa we took the shortcut to Bagua Grande by crossing the Rio Maranon (and avoiding Jaen). Take the small gravel road turnoff to Bellavista (signposted), travel 12km to the river, then cross with the boatmen (1.5 soles pp), another 8ish kms over mainly gravel until you meet back up with the main road.
After Bagua Grande we turned off the main road at Pedro Ruiz to head towards Chachapoyas and then Cajamarca. After the turn-off it is back to dirt roads until Encanada, about 35kms(?) before Cajamarca ...
From Pedro Ruiz to Leimebamba you do some very gradual climbing – we hardly noticed that we were ascending. After Leimebamba there is a 30km ascent, then a 60km descent to Balsas, then a 45km climb up to the pass, then another 10km down to Celendin. The first 50kms out of Celendin is generally climbing, then lots of descending over the next 60ish kms to Cajamarca.
From Cajamarca to Caraz
The first section from Cajamarca until we turned off the main road is all asphalt (supposedly the whole road from Cajamarca to Trujillo has recently been asphalted).
We took the shortcut from just after Huamachuco across to Angasmarca – its a little hard to find. Some people we asked told us that it didn't exist (including the Carretera Policia!) and the only real directions we had was that we had to turnoff the main road before the big bridge over the river. The turnoff was about 8-9kms after leaving Huamachuco – a small gravel road up to the left out of a little village. Its easy to miss (there was a bus parked in front of it and we missed it and got down to the bridge -Puerte Yambabomba or something and had to ride back up the 500m or so). Just ask lots of (different) people for directions – you can ask for the road to Angasmarca, or the road to San Simeon (which is the mine part way along).
Its a dirt road but quite enjoyable through the grasslands. There are quite a few small tracks along the way – we just kept asking the locals the way, and I think most of the roads end up in Angasmarca. About 15kms in you skirt through the bottom of the mine and then climb up and around a summit. When you get to the cemetery (about 20ishkms off the main road) there are two forks. At the first one go left, at the second one (only a few metres past the cemetery) you have a choice – the track to the left is the 'main' track to Angasmarca that the trucks and collectivos go on. We got told by a few people that the track to the right was shorter so we took that one – but I'm not sure which is better! The track to the right was quite rough with lots of loose rocks; however, it was flatish for a while and then we had a big downhill, then the track improved tho' it climbed up and down again to the town of Cachicadon. You then take the track out of town up over a hill and then down to Angasmarca. It was about 46km from the turnoff of the main road out of Huamochuco to Cachicadon and then about another 27km to Angasmarca. From Angasmarca you head to Mollepata (about 30km) on some tough roads – a couple of steep sandy sections, and a bit of ascending and descending. From Mollepata there is a 10km drop down to the river, then a 20ish km climb up to Pallasca, then another 22ish km drop back to the river (this road was in pretty bad condition – they were doing roadworks on it which had made it even worse than what it was!), then ~62km alongside the river, through the canyon, which is all gradually downhill, on roads in much better condition, and the last 25kms are asphalt. Just before the small 'outpost' of Chiquicara, we turned off the road onto the gravel road heading east through the Canyon del Pato and onto Caraz, Huaraz etc. After Chiquicara it is about 93km of really bad dirt road, some washboard, lots of rocks, gradually climbing (tho' often with a tailwind). This section includes the Canyon del Pato, and there are lots of tunnels – some short but some long, and very dark! Then the last 25kms (after you leave the Canyon del Pato to Caraz) is asphalt.


  1. Wow you gals are so great! glad to hear you are well Southern Peru is wonderful and you should not miss Machu Picchu. Take care and travel safe
    Janet and Tom

  2. <3 you girls! Miss the cycling gossip for sure... Thanks for your breathtaking pictures, they keep us living the straight life sane

  3. Heard about you from Matthew and Sylvia, who we met in Tumbaco. Realised we'd also passed like ships in the night at Frida's place in Durango. And, that as we're also based in Fremantle, we should at least say hello!

    Just been round the Quilatoa loop and heading south.

    Thanks for posting route details, and hope we'll meet at some point. Even only to reminisce about bike travels when we're all back in Freo!

    Tom and Sarah