Cajamarca was a pleasant surprise. Its relaxed vibes and pretty centro historico made for many nice walks. As always during stays I bigger cities, I ate my body weight in chocolate and tried many “different” restaurants in order to break from the pollo y arroz diet. I also met up more than once with Sarah and Raphaël, who were staying in a different guesthouse.
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 felt ready to hit the road again. While Sarah and Rapha opted for a more northerly and busier road for the first part of the journey to Huamachuco, I chose to follow the bikepacking route via Jesus and Cachachi. While powering along the first long climb of the route, big dark rainy clouds gathered over Cajamarca behind me. I kept hoping that they would head west and spare me but inevitably around 3PM the rain caught up with me and forced me to hide in an empty shepherd’s hut for a whole hour. Once the deluge had passed, I hopped on the bike again to continue the ascent to the 3980m pass in a thick fog. Luckily just as I reached the top the clouds dissipated, 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 started 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, seemed absolutely petrified at the sight of a gringo on wheels and actually ran away as I approached. The boys were more curious, asking questions and running alongside me. I re-joined the main 3N road near Malcas and after a night in Cajabamba and an uneventful day of riding arrived in Huamachuco, where I was once again reunited with Sarah and Rapha. Wanting to save some money, we decided to look for a three-bed room and checked in a dirty little hostal near the main square. Little did we know that the place was situated above or near a disco, which meant people screaming and fighting just below our window until the early hours of the morning and very little shut-eye.
The three of us left 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, I was faster than them but took regular breaks to wait for them to catch up. Having detoured quickly to Laguna Huangacocha and re-joined the main dirt-road, I waited and waited for Sarah and Rapha to arrive. After more than one hour of waiting, I concluded that something must have happened, which meant they had had to stop, or that maybe they had decided to turn around, so I decided to carry-on on my own. I was 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 got caught in yet another rain-storm, just as I was leaving the beautiful Lagunas Largas. After powering through the rain for more than one hour, I finally gave in and hid in a tiny coal mine. The rain stopped long enough that evening for me to clear the first pass of the road and setup camp near the top of the second. The next day offered some more stunning views of this wild part of the Andes, especially in the warm morning light. Leaving another 4000+ pass behind me, I joined road 118 for a long, very steep at first and very rocky (at which point I was so grateful for my three-inch tires) downhill all the way to the tiny village of Mollepampa, where I had a basic lunch and bought some snacks. The route continued down, passing through Mollepata, where one could get a first glimpse of the impressive switchbacks leading back up the flank of the mountain of the other side of the Tablachaca Valley. I reached the bottom of the valley around 3PM, having dropped a mighty 2000m in the process and knowing that I had to climb 1000m straight back up along those switchbacks to reach the hill-perched village of Pallasca. I reached it just before dusk, exhausted but proud, checked in the only open hotel I could find and treated 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.
For the following days I then chose to take the high route via the Lagunas Pusaccocha and Tuctubamba in order to reach the Cañón del Pato in the south. I left my hotel on a sunny and hot morning and followed 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 reached Huandoval, where I had lunch and a quick rest before starting the climb towards Laguna Pusaccocha. The first part of the climb was ridable, but after having taken a dip in some deserted hot pools by the side the track, I was left with no energy and had to push my bike until the road flattened 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 “climbed steadily – but never very steeply”… 🙂 I reached the first Laguna Pusaccocha (there are eight of them lying in a row from west to east) around 5PM and found a sheltered camping spot behind a wall between the first and second lake. To the west a warm orange sun was slowly setting while to the east dark clouds were gathering. After a quick waist-deep dip in the lake and the usual pasta-tuna-tomato sauce dinner I fell asleep quickly, exhausted from the afternoon’s pushing.
I was woken up in the middle of the night by strong winds and the sound of rain on the tent. The rain stopped briefly in the morning, seemingly on purpose to let me pack up my stuff and get going, but resumed after one hour. What followed was the most miserable day of the entire trip. Wet and cold, slowed down by a strong head wind, I pushed on past Lake Tuctubamba until I reached 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 obstructed 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, especially since it normally offers the first real views of the Cordillera Blanca to the east. I saw some white alright, but nothing else…
Once on the other side of the flat pass, the rain finally stopped, and I descended at high speed towards the Corongo, where I couldn’t wait to have a hot shower and a warm meal. I found a nice little family-run hospedaje and was given a cute little room with a pleasant scent of wood. Feeling sorry for me, the señora in charge offered me a plate of rice and potatoes and a hot cup of tea, which I devoured and drank on the spot. Corongo is a sleepy but delightful little village, which I spent the rest of the day exploring. I felt like I could have spent an extra day there, but the next morning the sky was blue and the sun shining brightly, so I decided to make the best of the improved weather and make some progress towards Huaraz.
One of the worst days of the trip ended up being followed by one of the best. Once outside Corongo I could finally catch sight of the first snowy peaks of the Cordillera Blanca, even though most of them were still hidden behind high clouds. I descended lower and lower into the beautiful Manta Valley, first on a dirt road and then zigzagging along a smooth tarmac pista. The ride was exhilarating, a combination of speed, tight corners and beautiful landscapes, my cheeks were hurting from the smiling. And yet the best was still to come! Trees gave place to low bushes, which in turn gave place to small shrubs, until suddenly after La Pampa all vegetation had gone, leaving the mountains completely naked. In front of me laid 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 felt surreal, hard for my simple mind to grasp. The lower I got the harder the wind blew. It came 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 loved every second of this downhill to the bottom of the Corridor of Huaylas and it will remain one of the highlights of my trip.
Having dropped from 3400m down to 1000m, I headed south east, following the Río Santa upstream and gently gaining altitude again, until the village of Huallanca, where I spent the night. During dinner I was joined by a couple of señoras, two sisters who had travelled from Lima for their brother’s funeral. One of them was obviously drunk and made no secret that she found me to her taste. She spoke rather fast, meaning I could only understand half of what she was saying, but I caught the occasional “esos ojos azules” and “papacito”. All this seemed to amuse her sister very much, and they didn’t seem the least upset by the loss of their sibling…
The following day the 3N road took 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 made for an enjoyable morning. After a delightful lunchbreak at the Plaza de Armas in Caraz, where I tried every available flavour of ice-cream at every opened parlour (blueberry being my favourite), I continued climbing gently on the main road south-east towards Huaraz, enjoying a strong tail wind, but disliking the increasing traffic. Most minibuses and trucks were more than happy to squeeze in between me and incoming traffic, and an older man in his Lada almost hit my handlebar while approaching traffic lights. No need to say that I was 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 was time for a short rest before starting the crossing of the Cordillera Blanca!
To be continued…
More photos of Peru can be found here!