Over the last week, I’ve been working my way cross-country towards the second highest mountain range in the world, Peru’s Cordillera Blanca – or the White Mountains.
The established route from Cajamarca loops west via the seaside city of Trujillo. But blog reports are never exactly enticing: the coastal road is said to be hot, barren, monotonous and for one infamous stretch, a touch sketchy.
On the whole, travel in South America is considerably safer than mainstream media – and other fear-mongerers – would have you believe. The town of Paijan, however, has carved itself a reputation as a black hole of deliquencia, where bandits prey on migrating bikers riding north or south – both leg-powered and motorised. Tactics vary. Like a stinger deployed in a high-speed car chase, one involves littering the road with tacks, before leaping out from the cover of sugar cane fields and stripping tourists of their modern day jewels – wallets, ipods, laptops and the like. It happens with enough frequency that local police even offer a free transportation service, depositing cyclists a few kilometres out of harms way.
Without puncture-proof Marathon Pluses at my disposal, I’ve instead been following other mountain-seeking cyclists, by making my way along the dirt tracks that wend their way through the gold mining districts of the Peruvian highlands. This in turn linked me neatly with the Canyon del Pato – a fabled stretch of road that tunnels its way, in true Middle Earthean fashion, to the Cordillera Blanca.
The roads are quiet. The views are superb. And it’s safe too…
I’ll be spending the next couple of weeks in and around this area, as my mum is coming out to visit, bearing gifts of healing marmite for me, and replacement parts for Ogre. Setting down shallow roots also means I’ll get a chance to explore the singletrack that laces through the Cordillera Blanca…
On the outskirts of Cajabamba, terracotta tile-making was in full swing.
And traditional brick making too, lying out like giant pieces of lego in the sun.
The bruisers of the road.
Heading home after market day.
Another fresh trout feast at Laguna Sausacocha, on the approach to Huamacucho. The juice was so thick you could stand a spoon in it.
My character abode in Huamachuco, where I decided to rest up for half a day. I’d planned to research the route ahead online – but the signal was down, leaving me to mooch about this strange mining town for a few hours.
The corridor was just ride enough for my handlebars. Squeezing my bike into my room required a three-point turn.
Go faster faring on one of the Bajaj rickshaws that buzz around town, like annoying hornets.
Back up in the peace and quiet of the high elevations. Again, I heard that phrase: Mas arriba, no hay nada. Solo silencio. ‘There’s nothing else further on. Just silence.’ Peru is a noisy nation, which is perhaps part of the reason why a lack of it is treated with distrust…
There are two routes to Mollepata, a town I was aiming for. One runs the gauntlet through a string of gold mine villages, the other strikes high, up in the silencio… A little later in the day, and this lake would have made the perfect camping spot.
Had I had a fishing rod, I might even have caught myself some dinner…
4100m. Getting up there again.
I took a road peeled off higher still, away from one of the many gold mines pockmark these hills.
This one was looser and rougher, and I bounced my way round one ridge after the next.
I couldn’t quite understand the details, but this white, powdered lime – cal, I think it was called – is added to the coca leaves chewed by locals. I was told it was strictly for ‘men’.
I’d planned on staying high up in the mountains and emerging in Mollepata, but ended up being sucked down this grassy chute into the bowels of the Comarsa gold mine.
Beyond the mine, I was invited to camp behind this sprawling, mansion of a dirt brick house. Using traditional techniques, it was built by the community in two months.
Children, both shy and gregarious, ran amok and met my arrival with much glee.
They followed me about…
… tripping on shoe laces as they vied for attention.
They also insisted that I photograph all the animals in their kingdom – pigs, goats, chickens and cows.
Finally, I escaped their clutches and took to the road, enjoying the morning sun.
I’m a sucker for those green doors and faded, sun bleached walls.
Moyebamba, a picture-perfect interlude along a road inches thick in dust.
About ready for a scrub… Like me.
The surprisingly well-stocked store in Yeguada. Note super juicy tangerines.
Bags of coco leaves, at 10 sol each, chewed until teeth are green and eyes are bloodshot…
Idyllic rural settings – with so much dirt road potential.
Peru shuts down on Sundays and the settlement of Mollepata, where I’d planned to resupply, was like a ghost town.
From there, the road plummeted downwards to the Tablacacha river, before drunkenly zig-zagging straight back up on the other side to Pallasca.
However, to avoid the need for this herculean effort, an alternative route exists closer to the valley floor. The caveat? It’s currently minus a few crucial bridges…
I figured I’d give it a go, so set about following a rough dirt road, peppered with goathead thorns, that rippled its way along the mountainside. Far below lay the river that I’d need to ford several times.
The first crossing was easy enough, barely thigh high, from where a parched, cracked-dry track continued along the river bed.
Then the track came to an abrupt, potentially hazardous stop on a precariously high lip; the road ahead had literally been washed away by a landslide.
The river here far deeper. Leaving my bike, I attempted to cross it first and establish the best way through, only to lose my footing – thankfully, after a few frantic moments of flailing about, I was able to haul myself back out onto land. A little shaken and feeling very alone, I camped the night, readying myself for a second attempt in the morning. It was then that I realised I’d have to follow the very edge of the river, clinging to the rockface, rather than trying to cross it directly. It was waist-high in places, and the current was stronger than I’d have liked.
To help, I used a rope I’d spotted to deposit my kit beyond the water’s edge – meaning I just had to manhandle my unladen bike through the river. Thankfully, the final crossing was far more straightforward.
To my relief, the track continued on the other side was in far better condition. There, I was invited for breakfast by a group of local gold panners – a feast of bread, soup, sweetcorn and tangerines, which I gulped down hungrily. Various miners set up seasonal homes in this remote valley; the going rate for gold here is a 100 sol a gram – about $38.
Then began a series of dwarfian tunnels over a long, gentle descent to the junction settlement of Chiquicara.
As I dropped back down in elevation, strange hybrid cacti appeared…
These spiked-clubs stood sentinel to either side…
All the while the river frothed below, sculpting a path through the valley over the many years.
Finally, it was time to begin working my way back up once more, as I headed into a sheer-sided valley, propelled by a strong tailwind.
That night I camped beside the overland truck of a British couple, Mark and Sarah, and was invited in for dinner – very pleasantly washed down with a glass of red wine!
Onwards and inwards. Plunging into yet another unlit tunnels, one of dozens on the road to Caraz.
Within, I played dodge the truck as they rumbled through, kicking up great clouds of dust.
Eventually I emerged into sunlight beyond the Canyon Del Pato, to glimpse the Cordillera Blanca in the distance… A haven for climbers, this range is well known for both its dramatic, shark-toothed profile, and the easy access it offers to its high peaks – compared to the likes of the Himalayas.
Chaotic, scruffy Huaraz is the centre of all things outdoorsy, including mountain biking. A key word in the local vocabulary is chaquinan – the Quechua for singletrack…
My new/old Deore XT front derailleur had even made it through the Peruvian postal system. Look at all that mud clearance (-:
Me ‘n Ogre, in mountain biking mode.
To a backdrop of craggy peaks, we dropped down into remote villages, where locals called out: Buenas tardes, gringo!
Techy climbs take on a whole different perspective at 3500m and more…
Following Incan pathways certainly adds some history to your singletrack.
And there’s plenty more to discover still… This area seems woven together with dirt roads and chaquinanes…
The need to know bit:
Route details coming soon…
In the meantime, Hotel San Marcos, off the main square in Cuaraz, is just 10 sol a basic room. There’s a nice courtyard and (slow) wifi there too.
In Huaraz, I’ve settled in at Jo’s Place, a wonderful ramshackle abode run by Englishman Jo and his Peruvian wife. Dorms are 15 sol, or you can camp, as I am, for 10 sol. The wifi signal is quick, there’s a kitchen, and bacon and eggs available for breakfast if you’re missing home…
For a guided mountain bike ride, singletrack and all, check out Mountain Bike Adventures. Owner Julio has been riding in this area for some 18 years, and knows its ins and outs better than anyone. He has Specialized full sussers for rent.
Julio also kindly agreed to receive some parcels sent to me from the UK, which by some miracle, survived a Peruvian postal strike to arrive intact.
Finally… Hanging out to dry. Back to new after a good scrub.
Whoa! That river crossing sounds intense. There is a lot to be said for bridges…
That little video on the Mountain Bike Adventures website is really nice, looks like a great place to explore.
There’s a whole lot of potential here. I’m excited to be spending some time in one place.
Bridges do have their uses. Touring cyclists tend to think of themselves as immortal. On that crossing, I wondered if I’d bitten off more than I could chew…
I think that great cycle tourer Nietzsche had something to say about that topic…
Btw, those pics of the cocoa leaves remind me of a story one rider told me about touring Bolivia… he decided to chew lots before a big ride to see if it would help. He said it felt amazing, he felt a surge of power and he covered 100 km over terrible roads with no problem at all. Then when he got to his guesthouse he realised he had left his panniers behind!
I think those are not coco but coca leaves…as in cocaine. They use them to cope with the altitude, so chewing them would definitely boost your climbing skills.
Yes, that’s what I meant to write. Thanks. The lime is the activator…
And by a funny coincidence (honestly, I don’t search for information on coca or related products), I was reading this blog post on the chemistry of coke, and why alkaline alters it… weirdly interesting: http://puffthemutantdragon.wordpress.com/2012/07/22/science-on-crack-the-chemistry-of-illegal-drugs-1/
Long-time reader, first time (?) commenter here…
Cass, your posts are a real treat. Every time. Inspirational. Thank you so much for the effort of putting them together.
I’ve always wanted to learn to longboard, but I think I’m kind of too old and wobbly now… You make it look as easy as cycling (-;
You’ve just got to get over that first 2 weeks or so of looking like a noob 😉
Your stories from the back-roads remind me of the time I spent on the bike in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and remind me also of the stark limitations of being on a longboard; you have to be very picky with road surfaces on the longboard, but not so on the bike 🙂
I never made it Tajikistan – the Pamir Highway is on the wishlist – but Kyrgyzstan is my all time favourite roughstuff touring destination.
Epic ride! The white powder was probably powdered lime which works as an activator, not that I’ve ever tried it though…
Yes – that’s exactly what it was. Thanks.
I’m sure more than one gringo has assumed its a purified form of the cocoa product and ended up with concrete lined sinuses…
Hey Cass…love the picture of Moyebamba…reminds me of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez magical realist town. My mental image of the town in the Chronicle of a Death Foretold is just like that. Have fun riding around Huaraz and I bet you can’t wait to see your Mum…stay safe.
Cass, Your photograph of ‘Cordillera Blanca in the distance’ is as restorative and beautiful an image as I’ve ever, ever seen. Cheers, M in Boulder
Fantastic adventure Cass, awesome route. I stayed at Jo’s also. That kitchen up in the tower is pretty sweet.
Joe and Vicky are really cool, and I love how each floor in the tower is not just a different colour from the outside, but completely different architecturally!
Love these sights from Peru. Fried trout? Yum. And freshly squeezed juice? My favorite! Your trips are making me so jealous!!!
Not tempted by the cuy then? (-;
eh, when you’ve had it once, you’ve had it enough! 🙂
AMAZING! This is just the blog to get my husband to venture out to non-English speaking countries with me!