This might be the point where the really good stuff begins…
And, for that matter, the big climbs. This relatively short segment from Leymebamba to Cajamarca – just a few hundred kilometres – has managed to squeeze in a 30km climb, followed swiftly by a 60km descent, answered immediately by a 45km climb.
There were more passes still, but by then, my climbing calibration had been reset, and they felt like mere blips…
Leaving Leymebamba to start the first big climb to Cajamarca.
The villages on the way up to Calla Calla pass were showcases in traditional building techniques, using packed earth and straw.
This house was being built as I passed, its earth walls pounded down enthusiastically by no 6. The technique is called cajon, after the wooden boxes that provide the shape of the structure. It will take 20 days to complete, and was being built communally by a family for a son who was just married.
Ubercool design on a village school. The full message above it read: Con la Continuadad Educativa. Ganas Tu. Ganas El Peru. With further education, you will gain, and so will Peru.
In fact, this kid was on his way to school. I asked him what his horse was called, but it had no name. So I told him by bike was called Ogre, and he smiled.
Traditional techniques to work the land, too.
The wind’s picking up. Must be getting close…
Long climbs are a real mind game. My aim was to keep to a steady 10km/hr and pause every hour for 10 minutes – enough to refuel and keep the furnace going, but not enough to cool down. In fact, when I reached the top, after a few hours of riding, I saw that my average speed was exactly that… Note well worn Ergon grips…
There’s little to match the elation of cresting a pass, especially with views like this. There wasn’t another soul to be seen. I took some time to soak it all up, munching down an early lunch.
Then began a 60km descent. Yes, you read that right. A noodle of a road wrapped around the valley, dropping all the way from 3600m to a mere 850m, with barely a pedal stroke in between.
Welcome to Peru (-:
Look closely, and you can see the scratch of road that climbs all the way back out, after hitting the valley floor and crossing the Rio Marañón.
Layer upon layer of crumpled mountains poked out the distance, like prehistoric spines. Two hours later, and still dropping…
Finally, I was down at the valley floor, where the village of La Balsa was overwhelmingly hot and clammy. The main commodity here was cold drinks, beer and coconuts. There were also mounds of wonderful, juicy and ripe mangos, for just half a Sol each – that’s about 20c.
It was bosque seco – a desert – on the other side of the bridge; I felt like I was back in the American South West. I pushed on a little to gain some altitude, hoping for a cooling breeze to temper the brittle-dry setting.
My spot, in a clearing amongst cacti.
Strange, hermit crab-like snails had found their homes in trees that looked like Palo Verdes, a species I’d last seen in Arizona.
The next morning, I embarked on the climb – a distance of 45km from the river, down at 850m, to the top of the pass, up at 3100m.
Roads never looks as rough as they feels, right? Trust me, this was one bumpy. And then there was the heat. I kept to 8km/hr, but it was a hard graft. Divide 45 by 8, and you get a lot of hours.
Hawk eyes scan the mountains for clues as to where the road might lead – some houses, a scratch on the hillside, a distant bus. A bus… what’s to stop my hand reaching out to flag one down, and being done with it all. It could all be so easy… I’m suddenly aware how ridiculous I must seem to its passengers. I mean, why?
Is it just ego that keeps me pedalling? A blunt, stubborn refusal to accept ‘defeat’? Or admitting it to others?
I believe I keep riding because cycling is the only constant – and it’s this that gives me mental strength and structure. Take it away, and I wouldn’t know when to ride and when not to. At what point would I stop? When would I push through and when should do I bail? Sometimes options only confuse matters.
So I try to relax and let my mind settle. Find a calm space. Persistent thoughts clatter around and around, like loose coins in a washing machine. But that’s ok, it’s part of the process. When things are good, spinning the pedals feels peaceful and meditative. Why stop? When they’re not, it’s an infernal, tortuous struggle, and I find an excuse to pause on every curve.
Regardless, the minutes go by, and so do the hours. I try not to look down at my cycle computer, but my eyes are drawn magnetically to it; checking my speed, appraising my average, constantly updating a string of numbers in my mind. Calculating and recalculating.
Finally, there’s an hour to go. I’ve crossed the hallowed line where arrival is inevitable. Then, half an hour left. Twenty minutes. I can see the last few switchbacks, the crest of the pass, the cell phone tower that promises it won’t be a false summit. A bus passes me and I smile, happy to be engulfed briefly in dust.
And then I’m there, at the exact place that has occupied my thoughts so obsessively; feeling the wind blow stronger, drying the sweat from my back. I look out into the beyond, taking time to acknowledge and appreciate this moment, understanding every ripple in the land that has got me here.
Just a brief moment of clarity, but one to savour.
A climb is a climb. But it’s a whole lot easier with a light bike…
The main square a Celendín, where I’d planned to spend the night. In the end, I chowed down some lunch, ate a mango, bought a stack of biscuits and pushed on another 25kms. I rode until darkness had fallen, rolling out my sleeping mat under the awning of an abandoned house. I must have climbed over 3000m that day…
This is an area’s that’s been hitting the international headlines, thanks to recent, violent demonstrations against the anticipated opening of a new, US-owned gold mine. Five people were killed just last week. This stencil reads: Water Yes. Gold No. Two lakes, sacred to some, will have to be drained as part of the project and there is fear of contamination to the ground water. Although mining has brought prosperity to Cajamarca, this wealth hasn’t filtered throughout the district, and is blamed for social tension to the area.
Early the next morning, I bought breakfast from an elderly lady, waiting by the roadside for the milk truck to take her back to her village. It was just what I was after: a mango and a two bananas, with an avocado for a lunchtime sandwich.
Stooped over from age and a lifetime of toils, she had a well-creased, time-worn face. I didn’t dare ask for a photo – but was comfortable snapping her wonderful hat. Tall and broad, I hadn’t seen this style of stylish sombrero in other places.
As I was closing in on cresting the next pass – up at 3750m – I cycled by one of the many crews improving the road. A restaurant had been set up up for workers rotating round this year long project, and I was invited in by Raul – who turned out to be a keen cyclist. He’d even biked all around Peru, and his bicycle was set up for touring, with a rack and panniers. Fully versed in a cyclist’s needs, he sat me down before giant platter of rice, chicken and potatoes, along with jam sandwiches, coffee and sweet apple tea.
The descent down to Cajamarca on the other side of the pass was rough, woven with watersnakes and pocked with deep rutts. On a light 29er, pinch flats seem less of an issue, so taking the time to adjust air pressure really helped smooth out the ride. In fact, I’ve been running my tyres with far less pressure than I used to, helping the wheels float over uneven surfaces.
Before too long, I was dropping down into Encanada, following a donkey rider down the shortcut into town.
In places it was steep, back of the saddle stuff. As I popped out in the centre of town, my arrival was met with incredulous stares – I might have been an apparition. Spot the gringito!
The mean streets of Encanada.
Luckily for me, it was market day, and everyone was out and about, hats and all.
One for every member of the family. They even come in baby sizes. I’d have loved to have seen the market from above; a myriad of hats bobbing around.
Fresh vegetables and fruit spilled out onto the street. I wandered and fed.
My new favourite snack are these puffed wheat shells, at half a sol a bag – about 20c.
This wasn’t my road, but I wished it was…
From there, it was an easy pavement ride to Cajamarca – a city of characterful backstreets, just the kind I love to explore.
Other than mining, Cajamarca is known for its dairy products. Even though I’m officially lactose-free, this queso mantecoso tasted particularly buttery and delicious, with fresh brown rolls from the market.
Napping on the job.
I’d been given the phone number of Alex, an elite road cyclist, who helped me track down the tool I need to remove my GXP bottom bracket. It’s been in dire need of attention for the last week, squeaking and creaking feebly.
Luckily, it turned out it didn’t need replacing just yet. But Alex deftly popped out the sealed bearing cartridges, giving them a good clean and adding grease to eek some more life from them.
The ramshackle accommodation I tracked down, Hotel Plaza, had an impressive inner balcony.
For 6 dollars, I settled into a room with a Plaza de Armas view, a tiny TV (complete with a channel showing old episodes of Dexter), and a teddy bear tethered to a cable by my bedside. A perfect place to spend a couple of days, kick back and relax… Incidentally, this picture came out looking a little 70s-postcard in colour. Which kind of suits Cajamarca…
The need to know bit:
There’s plenty of water to be found on the climb out from Las Balsas, starting from 15km up. At 20km, on the fringes of Limon, there’s a restaurant with a well stocked shop.
Works is currently being carried out on the 20km stretch north of Celendín. It’s closed during the day to traffic, but not to bicycles, though you’ll have to weave your way through some heavy machinery.
Pavement starts at Ensenada, around 30kms from Cajamarca.
A route profile can be found here.