Thanks to round-the-world motorbikers Bernd and Heidi for creating these route profiles – which are handy on this rollercoaster stretch.
Bernd and Heidi were heading north, so for bikers rolling south, you’ll need to read these jagged profiles from right to left…
Note too that this route goes via Jaen, which you don’t need to do on a bicycle – details below – if you stock up with cash at the border. I’m not always good at jotting down distance tallies, so let me know if they’re wrong.
Oh, and you can click on the images to make them bigger to download if need be.
On a bicycle, this is a day’s ride. The pavement runs for 36 kilometres after Vilcabamba, inching forward every year. Even with heavy rain, the dirt here is rideable. The gloopy section to Palanda is a gentle descent. It would be tougher the other way round.
From Valladolid, it’s a potential 15km of gloop, descending gently, as you head south to Polanda, with a few more kilometres to negotiate on the other side. Then the dirt gets much more compact, exchanging mud for steep climbs and descents. Zumba lies roughly at km 34/35 on the profile. The final stretch from La Balsa to Namballe in Peru is pretty flat.
From Namballe, there’s a steady climb to San Ignacio, which lies roughly at 107km on the profile. The first 20kms were fine for me, conditions-wise. The next 25kms were the problem, if there’s rain. There’s a descent from San Ignacio on hardpack dirt, which is rain-friendly – before an easy ride by the river, potholed at times. Note that Heidi and Bernd travelled via Jaen. Cyclists can shortcut this by peeling off onto dirt towards Bella Vista 11kms before Jaen, and hopping on a boat for 1.5 Sol. This then spits you out on pavement 24kms or so from Bagua Grande. I later noticed a dirt road alternative on the other side of the river to Bagua Grande, if you can handle the heat down low…
It’s a steady – and very gentle for the most part – climb from Bagua Grande to Pedro Real (65kms) before an equally easy 40km stretch to Chachapoyas junction. All of this is paved. The route profile shows two spikes to the left. One is to a 800m+ waterfall, which I didn’t take, and the other to Chachapoyas, which I also bypassed. Then it’s an easy 23kms or so on dirt to Tingo, from where you can hike up to Kuelap ruins. From Tingo to Leymebamba, the gentle dirt climbing continues to Leimebamba.
A steady 30km climb to the 3600m pass of Calla Calla awaits, before a 60km plummet down to a lowly 850m on the other side, at the sweaty settlement of Las Balsas. The road is rougher from here, climbing up 45kms to the next pass (3100m) before Cedellin (2500m). The terrain then feels more rolling than the profile suggests, before you crest a pass (3750m), leading into a descent to Cajamarca (2750m). Surfaces are rough in places, and work is ongoing for 20kms north of Celendin – bicycles can pass through, but other traffic has to detour round to Sucre between 7am and 6pm. The last 35kms or so, from the town of Encanada, are paved.
Just in case that’s not an information overload, here’s how I broke down the journey:
Vilcabamba to Palanda (guesthouse)
Palanda to La Balsa (border post camping), 79km
La Balsa (midday start due to depressing downpour) to Tamborapa (camping at Guardia Civil)
Tamborapa to Salao (restaurant camping, though better spots further up the valley), 98km
Beyond Bagua Grande to Tingo (restaurant camping), 107km
Hike up and down to Kuelap (restaurant camping), 18km round trip
It took me 2 hours up to the ruins walking briskly and not stopping, and 1.5 hours down. Officially you need a guide, I tagged onto a group (thanks Quinten, Jane and Rob!). 15 Sol entry.
Tingo to Leimebamba (Guesthouse, short day), 48km, plus 10km to and fro from Museo Leymebamba
Museo Leimebamba, with it’s incredible collection of cocooned mummies, is open 10.30am to 4.30pm, and is 5km past Leimebamba. Uphill, of course! 15 Sol entry.
Leimebamba to 5km beyond La Balsa (camping), 98km
Beyond La Balsa to 20km beyond Celendin (camping), 76km
Beyond Celendin to Cajamarca (hotel), 85km
More info on this stretch to be found over at Tom and Sarah’s blog, here.