It’s been almost a month since I’ve entered Peru through the small border crossing of La Balsa, but these first four weeks have been so full-on that only now during much needed rest days in Huaraz do I have time to catch up on my blog writing. Let’s see if I can still remember what happened…

After a fairly painless immigration control, during which my COVID vaccination status was checked and my passport stamped, and after exchanging the rest of my US-dollars for Peruvian Soles, I rolled into Peru, excited at the prospect of discovering a new country. I had a quick lunch in Namballe and then started the long climb out of the village in the afternoon heat, passing many coffee and cocoa plantations and many small villages with coffee beans drying in the sun on the ground. I pushed all the way to San Ignacio, arriving in the lively town at dusk and quickly finding a cheap hospedaje for the night.

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A long downhill the next day led me to and through my first proper flat stretch of the trip, following Río Chinchipe downstream for many kilometres until the road veered away after Perico. It suddenly felt like I had been transported to South East Asia, as I was unexpectedly surrounded by lush-green rice paddies and passing many small stalls selling coconut and sugar cane juice. The humidity was also a lot more intense at this lower altitude (550 meters above sea level). I honestly hadn’t imagined that I would encounter this kind of scenery en route, naively expecting Peru to consist solely of snow-capped mountains and world-famous Inca ruins. What a pleasant surprise!

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Following a very enjoyable night in San Agustín, with the surrounding rice fields and mountains basking in the wonderful evening light, I left the main 5N road and headed east towards Río Marañón. After crossing the second longest river of the Amazonas region on a small boat in El Valor and cycling through cactus-covered fields, I re-joined the 5N road and decided to try my first ceviche for lunch in Bagua Grande. It was excellent, but I would come to regret it later that day! I continued eastwards in the midday heat, feeling the sun burning my skin to a crisp, no matter how much suncream I was applying. The road now followed Río Utcubamba upstream and quite abruptly entered a deep valley, with impressive high mountains surrounding me on both sides. Forty kilometres after Bagua Grande a flood that had destroyed 200 meters of the road back in 2009 required everyone to take a detour uphill to El Aserradero and back down to the river, something that I had hoped I could avoid by taking a small track along the riverbank marked on my map. Unfortunately, some construction workers let me know that there was no way through at the bottom, since that little road didn’t actually exist. I had no choice but to do the detour and the extra climbing. Once our side of the queue had been let through and all the fast traffic had overtaken me, I was left with the heavy trucks making their way up steadily in their lowest gear, just slow enough for me to grab hold of one and let it do the work. I felt quite chuffed about sparing my legs the steep uphill, the downside being that by the time I got to the top I was covered in white dust from head to toe. Luckily, a few kilometres later back on the main road, I stumbled upon a little waterfall which felt like heaven in the afternoon heat and work marvelously as an impromptu shower. Later in the evening, as I was approaching my planned camping spot for the night, a bespectacled blond gringette (my female version of the gringo) jumped out from behind a huge fig tree and waved me over. This was the moment I met Sarah and Raphaël, a Belgian couple cycle-touring through South America after having already covered most of Europe and Africa, and with whom I was going to spend quite some time from that moment on. Seeing that we were headed in the same direction, and once again deciding that we didn’t hate each other, we agreed to camp and then continue cycling together. Remember the ceviche from earlier? Well as soon as my tent was up that night, on the football field right next to a remote road-side restaurant called La Leyenda, my stomach abruptly gave me a thirty second notice to find a toilet or else. This, unfortunately, continued for most of the night and left me in a dreadfully weak state by the time morning came. I covered the remaining fifteen kilometres to Pedro Ruiz at a shamefully slow pace but luckily found a charming little hostal in the town-centre where I decided to take a rest day, until my stomach recovered.

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Feeling better the next day, I decided to go visit the Yumbilla Falls, after having talked to a local outdoor aficionado who had sworn to me that these were much nicer than the far more touristic Gocta Falls. Just as I was about to leave at 1PM, the dark clouds that had been hovering overhead all morning finally decided to release their water content… At 3PM the sun came out again and despite the relatively late hour, I decided on a whim to cycle up the 16 km to the falls. Such was my luck that after two thirds of the way the sky turned black again and it started raining some more. I continued cycling for a while until I became to cold and hid under a small wooden roof guarding the entrance of a private field. After 45min the rain eased up enough for me to cycle the last 5km to the trailhead, where I locked up my bicycle. I reached the impressive Yumbilla Falls, the fifth tallest in the world at a height of 896m, with just enough daylight remaining to be able to enjoy the view. I returned to my bike once again under heavy rainfalls and rode the whole downhill back to Pedro Ruiz in the dark with nothing but the light of my head-lamp, arriving back at my hostal completely drenched, much to the relief of the hostal’s dueña, who was about to report me missing to the police…

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I left Pedro Ruiz on the 28th of July, Peru’s Independence Day. In every corner of the Utubamba valley locals were busy hanging up festive decorations and Peruvian flags. Somewhere along the way I came across an older Peruvian woman seemingly struggling to raise a long wooden pole with the national flag attached at the end of it. She gestured to me, asking for help. She seemed delighted once I had straightened the pole and attached it to the house, and asked me to take some pictures of her for her son (which I had to send right away per WhatsApp!). Back on the road, I unfortunately had to skip the pre-Incan archaeological complex of Kuélap, closed since the beginning of April after heavy rains caused landslides in some sectors of the fortress and some walls collapsed. I reached Leymebamba, at the end of the Utcubamba River valley, just before nightfall and was reunited with Sarah and Rapha, who had had to take an extra rest day since Rapha felt feverish.

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What awaited us were two days of cycling along the very scenic 08B route, with a long climb up to 3600m over the the Calla Calla pass, followed by a huge 60km downhill into the deep Marañón River valley, dropping a mighty 2750m of altitude in the process, and another long climb back up to the Abra Gelig saddle at 3130m before finally arriving in the town of Celedin. The three of us left early and made steady progress along the winding but never steep road in green alpine scenery. The last two kilometres of the climb took place in heavy fog, completely obstructing the surrounding views. Feeling that it might start raining, I covered up with all my waterproof gear at the top of the pass. A good intuition in the end, since a violent rainstorm hit us as soon as we started rolling downhill, leaving Sarah and Rapha completely drenched and frozen. As soon as the sky cleared and the view opened up in front of us, all our feelings of discomfort were quickly forgotten: The landscape was simply breath-taking, with a long panoramic views of rugged arid mountain ranges and green oases far below us. We were in awe and stopping what felt like every hundred meters to take pictures. The contrast between the two sides of the mountain range couldn’t have been starker. As much as the eastern side had made me think of the European Alps, with cow-grazed grasslands and milk-producing farms, the western side was baren and arid, very much reminding me of the Pamirs in Tajikistan…

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The downhill took us the most part of the afternoon, and we arrived in the tiny oasis wind-swept village of Balsas, along the Marañón river in a thick forest of mango trees, just before nightfall. A group of Belgian travellers had told to me in Yumbilla about a restaurant with a swimming pool where one could relax and cool down. After finding it on Google Maps, we crossed the bridge and cycled over to it, and the owner agreed to let us camp by the pool. After a dip in the water and a delicious dinner at the restaurant, we fell asleep in our tents looking at the stars (having left the rainfly in the panniers this time). What a perfect day. Definitely the highlight of the entire trip so far for me.

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The next day started just as awesomely as the previous one had ended. We started the long 45km climb in beautiful morning light, surrounded by green cacti and yellowish mountains and kept stopping for pictures. I was so happy to finally have some “models” to spice-up my photos, and didn’t hesitate to let Sarita and Rapha get ahead of me so that I could compose my photos with them. Our leg felt tired though, and the going got harder and slower as the temperature increased during the day. The road also became narrower and narrower the closer we got to the saddle, leading to some close overtaking manoeuvres from the local drivers. We reached the saddle around 5PM and were surprised by the number of local tourists enjoying the view there. I suddenly had a bad feeling about Celendin, which was soon confirmed when we realised that every single hotel in the town was full due to a combination of Independence Day and patron saint celebrations. Luckily we ended up finding a camping spot at the Bomberos and spent the evening enjoying the festivities while bathing in the dense Peruvian crowd.

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An uneventful day of riding then took us to the tiny village of Encañada, with a lovely little market place and an enjoyable quiet atmosphere. So much so that Sarah and Rapha decided that we should spend the night there, even though the village didn’t have any official accommodation. The two of them set about trying to find somewhere to stay, and locals suggested we ask at the parish. We were however told that the place was being renovated, so two Italian handymen jumped in a van and told us to follow them until the next village of Polloc, where we were put up in a much bigger and much nicer parish, the Virgen del Rosario de Polloc Sanctuary, led by an Italian priest. The complex also hosts the Don Bosco technical school, which trains young people for 5 years in the art of woodcarving, weaving, sewing, mosaic and stained-glass techniques and carpentry. The school graduates actually helped renovate the institution’s premises, with amazing results. Every inch of wall is covered with tiles creating stunning mosaics (one of them looking very much like a young Stromae) and the wooden structures are beautiful crafted. We felt very lucky indeed to have had the opportunity to discover and stay in this beautiful place. I don’t think we would have even realised it existed and just passed it otherwise…

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We arrived in Baños del Inca around lunchtime on a Saturday, a town famous for its hot springs and for the fact that it was Atahualpa’s (the last Inca Emperor) favourite place to bathe and chill… Whilst debating whether we should ourselves jump in one of the many (albeit overcrowded) baths, we were approached by a gringo with a mean looking dog on a leash, who turned out to be from Belgium as well (the gringo, not the dog). He in turn took us to a nearby restaurant run by Josselin, a Frenchman with a very eventful background, who has been living in Peru for many years. Josselin took us under his wing, telling us his life story, cooking us a fresh ceviche, taking us on his fascinating early-morning food-market round and even letting us sleep in his wonderfully cosy countryside house. I think he was simply happy to be around other French speakers and glad that we spent time playing with his young daughter. We spent a day and a half with him before saying thank-you, good-bye and cycling the last 10 kilometres to Cajamarca, where it was time for another well-earned break!

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To be continued…

More photos of Peru can be found here!

The route:

Download file: La Balsa - Cajamarca.gpx