Cajamarca turns out to be a pleasant surprise. Its relaxed vibes and pretty centro historico, combined with mostly dry weather with mild temperatures, make for many nice day- and nighttime walks. As always during stays in bigger cities, I eat my body weight in chocolate and try many “different” restaurants in order to break from the “pollo y arroz” diet.
Considered equatorial, but still perched at 2700m above sea level, Cajamarca was settled more than 2000 years ago and is nowadays often called the capital of the Northern Andes. Just like many of my favourite cities in South America so far, it seats in a flat basin surrounded by pretty mountains, offering many nice view points across the city. I walk to the most famous one, on top Santa Apolonia Hill, more than once to enjoy the wonderful scenery. The colonial style Spanish churches, six of them in total, are beautifully lit during the night.
Feeling rested and having taken care of the usual tasks (do my laundry, edit some photos, write a blog post and re-supply, not specifically in that order), I am ready to hit the road again. While Sarah and Rapha opt for a more northerly and busier road for the first part of the journey to Huamachuco, I choose to follow the bikepacking route via Jesus and Cachachi. While powering along the first long climb of the route, big dark rainy clouds gather over Cajamarca behind me. I keep hoping that they will head west and spare me but inevitably around 3 PM the rain catches up with me and forces me to hide in an empty shepherd’s hut for a whole hour. Once the deluge has passed, I hop on the bike again to continue the ascent to the 3980m pass in a thick fog. Luckily, just as I reach the top, the clouds dissipate, offering (as always) stunning views of the surrounding mountains.
After a quiet and fairly warm night at the top (with full 4G phone reception, thanks to three huge antennas on a nearby peak), I start the long descent towards the Río Cajamarca Valley, passing through tiny villages and many kids on their way to school. Some of them, girls mainly, seem absolutely petrified at the sight of a gringo on wheels and actually run away as I approach. The boys are more curious, asking questions and running alongside me. I re-join the main 3N road near Malcas and, after a night in Cajabamba and an uneventful day of riding, arrive in Huamachuco, where I am once again reunited with Sarah and Rapha. Wanting to save some money, we decide to look for a three-bed room and check in a dirty little hostel near the main square. Little do we know that the place is situated above or near a disco, with people screaming and fighting just below our window until the early hours of the morning. No need to say we barely slept.
The three of us leave together the next morning, turning off the main road onto the 115 towards the Huangacocha and Larga lakes. Being a bit lighter and having bigger tires than my two Belgian companions means I am significantly faster. But I take regular breaks to takes photos or soak in the scenery and wait for them to catch up. Some time later, having detoured quickly to Laguna Huangacocha and re-joined the main dirt-road, I wait and wait for Sarah and Rapha to arrive. After more than one hour of waiting, I conclude that something must have happened, which means they have either had to stop or turn around, so I decide to carry on on my own. I am to find out later that Sarah had forgotten an important piece of kit back at the disco-hotel and had decided to hitch a ride back to Huamachuco to pick it up. In the afternoon I get caught in yet another rain-storm, just as I am leaving the beautiful Lagunas Largas. After powering through the rain for more than one hour, I finally give in and hide in a tiny coal mine. The rain stops long enough that evening for me to clear the first pass of the road and set up camp near the top of the second. The next day offers some more stunning views of this wild part of the Andes, especially in the warm morning light. Leaving another 4000+ pass behind me, I join road 118 for a long, very steep at first and very rocky (at which point I am so grateful for my three-inch tires) downhill all the way to the tiny village of Mollepampa, where I have a basic lunch and buy some snacks. The route continues down, passing through Mollepata, where one can get a first glimpse of the impressive switchbacks leading back up the flank of the mountain on the other side of the Tablachaca Valley. I reach the bottom of the valley around 3PM, having dropped a mighty 2000m in the process and knowing that I have to climb 1000m straight back up along those switchbacks to get to the hill-perched village of Pallasca. I reach it just before dusk, exhausted but proud, check in the only open hotel I can find, and treat myself to a delicious pizza. A pizzeria in such a tiny village, I hear you ask? Well, as it turns out, the priest of the village’s parish is from Italy and taught some of the local folk how to prepare some of his native cuisine.
The following days I choose to take the high route via the Lagunas Pusaccocha and Tuctubamba to reach the Cañón del Pato in the south. I leave my hotel on a sunny and hot morning and follow the main (dirt) road south of Pallasca, stopping many times to look back at the grand views of the village and the surrounding valleys and mountains. After crossing the quaint villages of Inaco and Huacaschuque, I reach Huandoval, where I have lunch and a quick rest before starting the climb towards Laguna Pusaccocha. The first part of the climb is ridable, but after blissful dip in some deserted hot pools by the side of the track, I am left with no energy and have to push my bike until the road flattens at the mouth of an impressive valley, past a beautiful pine-tree forest. Mark and Hanah must have been on steroids while taking this route, Mark writing in his blog that the track “climbs steadily – but never very steeply”… 😊 I reach the first Laguna Pusaccocha (there are eight of them lying in a row from west to east) around 5PM and find a sheltered camping spot behind a wall between the first and second lake. To the west, a warm orange sun is slowly setting, while to the east dark clouds are gathering. After a quick waist-deep dip in the lake and the usual pasta-tuna-tomato sauce dinner, I fall asleep quickly, exhausted from the afternoon’s pushing.
I am woken up in the middle of the night by strong winds and the sound of rain on the tent. The rain stops briefly in the morning, seemingly on purpose to let me pack up my stuff and get going, but resumes after one hour. What follows is the most miserable day of the entire trip. Wet and cold, slowed down by a strong headwind, I push on past Lake Tuctubamba until I reach the highest point of the route at 4430m, my wide tires more than once sliding sideways on the muddy road. The low rain-clouds completely obstruct the views around me, leaving me utterly disappointed and frustrated. I had been looking forward to that particular section of the route for many weeks, hoping for the first real views of the Cordillera Blanca to the east. I see some white alright, but nothing else…
Once on the other side of the flat pass, the rain finally stops, and I descend at high speed towards the Corongo, where I can’t wait to have a hot shower and a warm meal. I find a nice little family-run hospedaje and am given a cute little room with a pleasant scent of wood. Feeling sorry for me, the señora in charge offers me a plate of rice and potatoes and a hot cup of tea, which I devour and drink on the spot. Corongo is a sleepy but delightful little village, which I spend the rest of the day exploring. I feel like I could stay an extra day there, but the next morning the sky is blue and the sun shining brightly, so I decide to make the best of the improved weather and move on towards Huaraz.
One of the worst days of the trip ends up being followed by one of the best. Once outside Corongo, I can finally catch sight of the first snowy peaks of the Cordillera Blanca, even though most of them are still hidden behind high clouds. I descend lower and lower into the beautiful Manta Valley, first on a dirt road and then zigzagging along a smooth tarmac pista. The ride is exhilarating, a combination of speed, tight corners, and beautiful landscapes; my cheeks are hurting from smiling. And yet the best is still to come! Trees give place to low bushes, which in turn give place to small shrubs, until suddenly after La Pampa, all vegetation has gone, leaving the mountains completely naked. In front of me lies an incredibly arid landscape, the road cutting a sharp line through the rugged mountain flanks. A swirl of orange, red, and grey colours, sharp edges, smooth surfaces, deep crevasses, lights and shadows. A landscape so immense, rough, and dramatic that the whole scene feels surreal, hard for my simple mind to grasp. The lower I get, the harder the wind blows. It comes from the bottom of the valley, bouncing off the walls and almost knocking me off my bicycle and plunging me into the abyss below. I love every second of this downhill to the bottom of the Corridor of Huaylas, and it will remain for ever one of the highlights of my trip.
Having dropped from 3400m down to 1000m, I head southeast, following the Río Santa upstream and gently gaining altitude again until the village of Huallanca, where I spend the night. During dinner, I am joined by a couple of señoras, two sisters who have travelled from Lima for their brother’s funeral. One of them is obviously drunk and makes no secret that she finds me to her taste. She speaks rather fast, meaning I can only understand half of what she is saying, but I catch the occasional “esos ojos azules” and “papacito”. All this seems to amuse her sister very much, and they don’t seem the least upset by the loss of their sibling…
The following day the 3N road takes me through the famous (for cyclists at least) Cañón del Pato, a succession of 35 narrow tunnels starting directly after Huallanca. The Cañón, and the Corridor of Huaylas in general, separate the Cordillera Negra to the south from the Cordillera Blanca to the North. In some sections, the Cañón becomes so steep and narrow that only six metres separate the two mountain ranges. The impressive high mountain walls on each side of the river, some as high as 5000m, and the thrill of riding through the dark tunnels make for an enjoyable morning. After a delightful lunch break at the Plaza de Armas in Caraz, where I try every available flavour of ice-cream at every opened parlour (blueberry being my favourite), I continue climbing gently on the main road southeast towards Huaraz, enjoying a strong tailwind but disliking the increasing traffic. Most minibuses and trucks are more than happy to squeeze in between me and incoming traffic, and an older man in his Lada almost hits my handlebar while approaching traffic lights. No need to say that I am glad and relieved to finally arrive in Yungay, a small town at the foot of the Rocotopunta and Huandoy Mountains (5400m and 6395m respectively). It is time for a short rest before starting the crossing of the Cordillera Blanca!
To be continued…
More photos of Peru can be found here!