Sunday, August 16, 2015

Northern Peru: Heat, Pre-Inca Ruins, and Big Hills. August 9-17

San Ignacio-Bellavista-Bagua Grande-Pedro Ruiz-Tingo Viejo-Kuelap-Leymebamba-Balsas-Celendín-Cajamarca

Leaving San Ignacio, we had an exhilarating descent down to a big river. Canyon riding was on the agenda, hundreds of miles of it. Though it's not really possible to rush through a section on a bike, at least the same way that motor vehicles do, we were so excited for central and southern Peru that northern Peru, with its heat and lesser mountains (though still pretty big, as we would soon find), was not a place we were going to stay awhile. We were thankful for the flat pavement. Still, the lowland heat made it tough, and we pushed ourselves to make some distance in the cool morning, maintaining an even speed while pedaling by rice paddies and more wide-open space than I thought existed in the Andes.
A rice paddy in a scorching desert
In the afternoon, after lunch, the sun really turned it up a notch. We took a dirt road to Bellavista, avoiding the city of Jaen, and stopped early to take shelter from the insufferable heat and avoid Sunday afternoon rural drunkenness. Our quiet hospedaje with a fan and cold shower seemed like heaven.

We got on the road early again the next morning, applying our hot weather strategy of eating a quick snack rather than breakfast, which would come later. We soon found ourselves at the muddy Rio Marañon and crossed in a little motorboat. The whole scene–the wide river, crumbling canyon walls, a little motorboat–reminded us of the Rio Magdalena near in Colombia. Like with the Magdalena, we would end up crossing the Marañon numerous times.

Is this Peru or northern Colombia?

There was a tiny shack at the junction with the main road that turned out to be a restaurant, so we ate a greasy breakfast there: rice and eggs, of course, with yucca. The temperature soared soon after, and even with our continuing relatively flat road and a long lunch break in the shade, we found ourselves sapped of all motivation. The only reason we pushed on under the afternoon sun was to make the next day better. We were already going up gradually; just a few more miles to cooler air! We were in a new canyon now, the road sharing the narrow floor with the rushing Rio Utcubamba.

Roadside restaurant

Tomorrow´s dinner, probably

Around 5:30, having ascended to cool enough weather to camp, we found a little spot out of sight of the road, did some bike maintenance, ate a filling dinner, and fell asleep to the sound of the river.

Wild camping for the win! Not a single dog, person, car, donkey, or rooster, woke us up last night, and we hit the road feeling refreshed. Soon we reached the town of Pedro Ruiz, where a restaurant served us massive portions of rice and yucca with Peruvian tortillas, basically fried omelets. It was the most expensive meal we had had in Peru by far (20 soles for both, roughly US$6), but it left us feeling energized for hours.

The road continued to parallel the Rio Utcubamba on its winding journey deep in the canyon it had been carving for millions of years. In parts the sheer walls reminded us of Zion, in Utah, only with thousands of tropical bromeliads clinging to the red rock. In other parts there was hardly enough room for the road and the river, so the road engineers had to get creative. 

The day was rainy and cool, a welcome change from the heat of the day before, and with the unchanging scenery and relatively easy riding, our minds wandered. We came up with some slogans for our trip:

• Bikes and Backpacks: providing exercise for your dog
• Bikes and Backpacks: giving the locals something to stare at
• Bikes and Backpacks: unintentionally making "backpackers" feel unadventurous
• Bikes and Backpacks: supporting every bakery in town
• Bikes and Backpacks: appreciating chairs a little bit more since 2014

There's not much to do or see in the little village of Tingo Viejo, but it gets some tourism for its location at the start of the walking trail to Kuelap, a pre-Incan fortress. We ended up there for the night, staying in a clean but barebones hospedaje for 20 soles (US $6.50). The owner, a sweet little lady named Maria, told us we could use her kitchen, which turned out to be simply an open fire.

We took a day off the bikes to check out the ruins of Kuelap, and though the weather didn't cooperate, we enjoyed the beautiful hike and the impressive site, which is well-restored and among Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca as one of our guidebook's highlights of Peru. Even with all that, no one was trying to sell us chotchkes, no guide was required, and we were one of only two groups at the whole place.

One of the hundreds of circular dwellings

Skilled rock art

Guidebooks tell you the ruin is set in cloud forest, but the only cloud forest is at the site itself. Everything surrounding it is farmland.
Colorful bromeliads abounded

A reconstructed thatched roof
One of many colorful flowers we saw on the hike up

Tam and I feel like we're in pretty good biking shape. Unfortunately, our giant leg muscles seem to be unable to do anything else. The 20 km hike to Kuelap left us limping with soreness. Even more unfortunate was the fact that our road was still going up. After a quick lunch and resupply in Leymebamba, we left the gradual river canyon behind and started to climb more steeply. This being Peru, land of well-graded switchbacks, it was pretty manageable, just long. And with our sore legs, we weren't going anywhere fast. A podcast helped take our mind off the physical discomfort (TED Radio Hour is wonderfully thought-provoking), and gradually we climbed into the alpine zone, finding a camp spot in a pasture as night fell.

Beginning the climb up

Leymebamba in the valley below

Beautiful stars from our pasture at 11,000 feet. The shapes on the lower right are half of my handlebars and a bottle cage.

We woke to frost on the ground. With reluctance, because it was cold outside and we knew what was ahead, we climbed out of the cozy tent and started climbing again. What was ahead was the big dip in this elevation profile:

9,000 feet down, 9,000 feet straight back up.

Coming over the pass, we began our 65 kilometer downhill in cold fog. 
The name of the pass means ¨Shut up, shut up¨
Gradually a view of the next valley came into focus, a beautiful vista that kept our eyes occupied for the next few hours. That's not such a good thing when your road is very narrow with tons of blind curves and a cliff on one side, but it all turned out okay. The cars deal with the abundance of blind curves by honking maniacally as they approach the curve at twice the speed limit. We simply did our best to watch, listen, and take the curves slowly.

The descent to Balsas, an amazing road

Numerous hours later we rolled into the town of Balsas at 2,800 feet of elevation along the Rio Marañon. With no more than a few pedals, we had descended from frigid clouds to a scorching desert, from shivering to sweating profusely. Even though we're not big fans of hot weather, there was some good news: Balsas is home to tons of mango trees! We stocked up for later and got some lunch in town.

Starting the climb up from the river
The most important things we did to prepare for the enormous climb were to soak our shirts in the river, which kept us cool until late in the day, and turn on another podcast (This American Life taught us all about contemporary school desegregation in St Louis). We made it to about 6,500 feet before setting up camp in a field.

The river below, the road where we just were, and, in the direct center of the picture, a long switchback that we had come down earlier that day.

You know you're doing a big climb when it takes multiple days. Though we were tired the next morning, the mountain beckoned and up we went. As we powered up the switchbacks, the view got better and better, and hours later, looking down from the top, we could see none other than Balsas over a vertical mile below.

Tough to keep our eyes on the road!

Clouds in the distance

There´s Balsas waaaaay below, that whitish spot by the river in the bottom center of photo.
A downhill brought us to Celendin, where a quick stop at the market and a leisurely lunch led us to our next climb. Despite our ever-sorer legs, we powered up that one, too. By 4:30 we were spent and set up in a pasture.

With aching bodies but only 70 km to Cajamarca, we took to the road under patchy morning clouds. The roadside in this whole area is peppered with various signs saying ¨Care for your environment,¨ ¨Don´t hurt the plants and animals,¨ that kind of thing. The signs seem a bit out of place, as every last bit of the natural environment has been obliterated by pastures and farmland, but at least someone, somewhere, is thinking about conservation. My favorite sign: ¨Washing cars in the rivers is prohibited.¨ Not five minutes after passing that sign, we came upon... you guessed it, some guys washing their truck in a river!

Every house is covered with political advertisements. This one seems to be aimed at the local style. Even tiny old ladies wear those huge hats.

While eating breakfast, we were visited by this beautiful hummingbird, a Shining Sunbeam. Yes, that´s its common name, Shining Sunbeam.

Winding our way mostly downhill past millions of barking dogs and the hectic streets of a little town with a crowded market, we entered Cajamarca before lunch and found a place to stay at the central plaza. Then we set off to find some food for our next few weeks of biking. Not usually being big fans of massive supermarkets, we recognize begrudgingly that having things labeled and all in one place makes finding what you want much easier when traveling. Peru only seems to do little stores and farmer´s-market style markets, but we had heard that there´s a supermarket in Cajamarca. Before getting there, however, we checked out the local market, and somehow found everything we wanted! 

With all our food shopping and a few other small errands done, we´re going to take tomorrow as a much-needed rest and route planning day. 

The view from our balcony in Cajamarca. At $13 a night, we splurged a bit.

Route Notes:
San Ignacio to Bellavista: all paved (as of this year), mostly with a shoulder. The route is pretty flat, hot, boring, and with more traffic than we usually like but nothing out of control.
We bypassed Jaen with a left at the town of Shanango -- the town and the turn are both signed -- and followed the dirt to Bellavista. There are a few little hospedajes there and some tiny stores.

Bellavista to Tingo Viejo: Ask for the desvio to the river, and people will point you in the right direction. There's a bakery at the turn. We heard from people in town that boats run every day from roughly 8 am to roughly 6 pm. We arrived slightly earlier than 8, and a guy took us across for S2.50 each with the bikes. I think the going rate is 1 sol per person and 1 per bike, but whatever.
Bellavista to the river is bumpy dirt. Part of the return to the main road on the other side is paved, with a small bit of loose rocks and the rest being smooth dirt. The highway from there is all paved, usually with a shoulder. Bagua Grande has some hotels and small stores, but we were unable to find any type of supermarket. Pedro Ruiz is smaller but still has some hotels and restaurants as well.

We wild camped about 10-15 km before Pedro Ruiz near a cluster of houses called Tialanco in Open Maps. It was a nice spot, which might be hard to come by in the canyon. There is a big open dirt space on the left with a giant tree and a school on the far end. Some policemen told us we could camp behind the tree, which would have been okay, but just towards the river there's a short descent to a flat bench. It's rocky, but we landscaped a bit and ended up with a flat spot out of sight and with the river to drown out road noise.

We didn't see any reason to go to Chachapoyas, and after the junction the road gets narrower, flatter, and less trafficked. About 5 or 6 km after the junction is a Recreo Campestre on the left – and another soon after on the right – with a flat, grassy area for camping. The Gocta Waterfall (770 m) is in the area, but we did not visit it. See here for info on getting to the waterfall and more great route notes.

Kuelap: Tingo Viejo, along the main road to Leymebamba, is where the well-marked trail leaves from the main road. It's 9 km each way and gains 1,200 m, ending up at 3,000 m at Kuelap. There is a brushy stream about halfway up where you might be able to get water, and food and drinks are sold at the top. The entrance fee is 15 soles per person. There is also a 37 km road that goes up; a taxi costs around S150, or you might be able to catch a colectivo from Tingo Nuevo. Peru's first cable car is currently being built from Tingo Nuevo up to Kuelap, and it is projected to triple the number of visitors when it's finished.
The hiking trail to Kuelap

Tingo to Cajamarca: more river riding to Leymebamba, lots of small villages. Ask for stores; there are some, but they're unlabeled. Leymebamba is a calm place with some stores and restaurants and an extraordinary amount of hospedajes for its small size. Big climb up after Leymebamba, big descent to Balsas (small stores, restaurant), big climb up to Celendin. There are ample water sources on the way up (at least the first half) and a small town, Limon, on the way but slightly off the main road.

Celendin has an easy-to-navigate market with a lot of variety, as well as some banks. After that the road widens and traffic increases slightly but stays manageable all the way to Cajamarca, where there's a bike path on the last bit into the city. In Cajamarca, the supermarket is at the El Quinde Shopping Plaza on the northeast side of town. We didn´t end up going, however, because we found everything we were looking for around the central plaza, the Plaza de Armas. The local mercado is wonderful and is located at Amazonas and Apurimac, about two blocks northwest of the plaza. We also found a mini market with some supermarket-type items on Amalia Puga about a half block west of the plaza. Our base was a spacious room at the Hostal Plaza, which, for 35 soles, is seemingly the cheapest thing around, though there are tons more hostels on Apurimac. There are two bike shops a few blocks northeast from the plaza on Del Batan, Repuestos de Bicicleta and Robert Bike. Neither had brand-name components, but I was able to find what I was looking for.

The whole region covered in this post

1 comment:

  1. Danny, what is your Peru plan? Will you be coming by Lake Titicaca? I'm in Puno! COME VISIT ME!