Cajamarca, an unexpected mountain bike Mecca of northern Peru, and where I found myself regrouping before my final stretch to the Ecuadorian border. A place where locals hitch rides up over 4000m to descend the shepherds walking tracks back down into town for a cold beer. A place where you can be working on your bike and locals still hi-five your chain-oiled hands because you’re into bikes – you are one of them. I was staying at a hostel run by a local mountain biker who made me and Tina feel more than welcome in his two-wheeled sanctuary. I decided to take a day in the city to make some repairs to the bike and do my much-needed washing. Cue a chilled out day filled with hi-fives from cycling locals calling into the hostel to hang-out and share their latest GoPro footage from their last ride.
My bike had taken a battering since leaving Huaraz, so a thorough clean and oiling was much needed. The front derailleur had been sticking since Lima, refusing to shift down to my smallest chainring despite my best attempts at cleaning. A lot of soap suds followed by half a can of WD-40 later, it was working a lot better.
The next day I put it to the test, climbing back up to the sullen skies sat atop the neighbouring mountains. Rain set in for the afternoon, meaning my bike was once again jammed up with mud as I slowly made my way up the choppy roads that flank the national park there. It just rained, and rained. I stopped to take cover for half an hour in a tiny roadside cafe where I an English-speaking Geologist who talked me into try the local delicacy of Cuy (a guinea pig). I can’t say it is something that I would run back to try again but I sure as hell wasn’t running back out into the rain right away. Eventually I did, making it a few more kilometres to a nearby town as the deluge stepped up again. With not long until dark, I found a spot under the eves of a local school by the main road, where I decided to spend the night. It was Saturday, so I didn’t have to worry about classes starting the next day. I happily pitched my tent outside the front of one of the classrooms, safely out of the rain for the night. Until the wind started blowing in my direction…
The next morning I had an awesome descent into Bambamarca before, in classic Peru style, climbing what I had just descended to make it over the next ridge line. At the top the rain came down again, soaking me when I least wanted it. The descent was consequently a real cold one, made only worse by the fact I’d opted not to wear my waterproof trousers thinking ‘it would blow over’. My waterproof socks were now brimming with water, acting like a pool that sloshed from side to side around each switchback. After 10 minutes descending as fast as I dared, I had punched down through the cloud line where the sun shone and the road was dry. It was bizarre. I pulled up to the first cafe I found, completely drenched and cold, whilst people were happily wandering around in t-shirts, wondering where the Narnia’s cupboard I had just emerged out of was located. To emphasise my cold-induced irritability, I emptied out two medium-sized rivers from each my socks onto the road and the people at the cafe started laughing. Where on earth had this guy come from? I hung my socks to dry in the sun on the top tube of my bike, before ordering some food from the caf.
Of course it soon started to chuck it down with rain here too. Leaving me with the unenviable task of a 1000m dirt track climb over the next ridge, if I wanted to continue for the day. I decided I didn’t, instead rolling into the town of Chota. Definitely not a tourist destination, I grabbed myself a cheap hostel on the plaza and found ‘Gringo’s’, an aptly named ‘Polleria’ or chicken restaurant for my dinner. It seemed too perfect to eat anywhere else and the smiling locals, who I caught taking photos of me eating there, seemed to also enjoy the joke.
I usually hate ending a day early but the next morning, donning my freshly dried kit in the morning sun, I knew I’d made the right decision. The climb was tough but beautiful. Being a B-road, the main traffic bypassed around the climb, leaving me to revel in three hours of uninterrupted uphill riding, looking out at the ever diminishing town I’d left in the distance. The locals beamed toothy grins as they walked their horses up the same track, enjoying the same views as the probably do everyday. All the local Peruvians wear these leather top hats and colourful clothes. I often feel like I am riding back in time cycling through their small villages, but judging by how welcoming they all are, it seems to be a real happy time to be in. The quaint mud huts and women spinning llama wool by the roadside, leathery skin and eyes that have seen it all. The scene has become something that I love about the country – it has genuine character. Their culture is unique, yet relatable to someone from the UK. They live simple lives, love music, food, booze, dancing and the community. They are hardy people yet still show emotion. Their sometimes stoic faces cracking into smiles as the seemingly omnipresent brass band break into song for the hundredth time that day, or when they hear me try speak in pigeon Spanish. Writing this I realise that I have fallen in love with country, and that it will certainly be one that I come back to cycle in future years.
Those three hours climbing, although tough, were a lot fun. I continued along the dirt track for the next few hours before reaching the next town for a late lunch. Whilst descending, my waterproof trousers (which I had stored on the back of my bike to make things easier for me should it chuck it down with rain on a decent again) had fallen off the back of my bike. I thought of the 10-odd kilometers I had just descended on the dirt track and how many cars had gone by, decided it was a no go and begrudgingly rode onwards. As I climbed back out of this town, I rode back into thick cloud for a few hours up what looked like it would be another wet descent. The cloud was so thick I switched my lights on to negotiate the loose dirt track. I was excited to find that miraculously, at the very top of the climb, the road turned to smooth tarmac for the descent. I couldn’t believe it. The bike gods were somehow watching down on me through the thick cloud, making me a very happy bunny. I sped down the road until reaching a tiny roadside village where I treated myself to a hostel for the night.
I was to do some serious descending the following morning, pretty much riding the first 60-odd kilometres all downhill. It began getting noticeably warmer until I pretty much bottomed out in the city of Jaen. It felt like those days riding through South East Asia all over again. Days I thought I would have a few months to wait for – until reaching central America. A few sweaty hours drew me within 100 kilometres of the Ecuadorian border, and to a tiny roadside village. There was a small river running over the road before you entered and I gunned it to cruise through the shallow running water with my feet in the air like a child. A van was parked on the left-hand see of the river so I kept to my lane on the right as I breached the water at high speed. A couple of meters in my bike shot out from under me, myself and it sliding through the water the whole way to the other side.
Onlookers watched this whole thing unfold with an air of inevitability. The road was slightly sloped and covered in a layer of slime. The place where that van was parked (the owner was washing it in the stream) was the only non-sloped section of road, and as I watched, soaking and a little cut up at the roadside, every motorbike would cross lanes to ride through that section of the river. If you know, you know. I have ridden through many of these road / rivers and never come across this before, but having gone arse over tit at high speed in front of a small crowd of genuinely concerned locals, I knew I wouldn’t forget it. Somehow my phone was still working and nothing on the bike was broken, so I couldn’t really moan. Whilst riding through the village a man ushered me to stop, asking me if I’d like to stay at his place with his family. Being soaked in some not so fresh river water, I happily obliged. Milton and his wife, Daisy, and two boys, showed me kindly to the shower in the corner of their tiny one room house, before having dinner together. It turned out that Milton frequently invites tourers back to his house, and I flicked through his guestbook stretching back eight years before writing my own entry.
Looking back through the pages was really amazing. Reading entries from British tourers riding through here nearly a decade ago, reminded me of reading through those old blogs that help set my wheels in motion on this trip. I imagined them riding through these same roads, experiencing the same views and climbs that I just had, but I couldn’t help but wonder where they were now. Most likely an office somewhere back home, wherever they now were, I would bet on them remembering this tiny town of Perico and Milton. I knew I soon too would be an old entry in this book, with other eager eyed tourers thinking the same thing. Soon, but not just yet, there are still plenty more miles to New York.
Another day, another climb. It was nice to ride up 1300m out of the worst of the heat, through San Ignacio and up to the top of the climb. The border was very close now, just at the bottom of this winding road. I lapped up the last of the days sun, basking like a lizard in its warmth whilst the cooling flow of air rushed over me. The descent was incredible, the view of the tree-covered mountains stretching away in every direction, sensational. I stopped for a while, legs dangling off a small rock face at the side of the road, just taking it all in. This had been a real special six weeks of the trip. Not just the cycling, the experience of the country, the people I’d met, friends I’d made and dirt roads I’d fallen head of heels for (in every sense). I felt a twinge of sadness crossing the border in the pissing rain the following morning, but there was an incentive to push on with the next 200km – I was meeting my cousin in Loja.
Crossing the border, the smooth tarmac of Peru turned to a muddy track that had been softened by the heavy rain. My wheels indented the surface, making riding the unbearably steep gradients real hard work. The first section of road consisted of three incredibly steep 450m climbs. After each summit I was getting cramp in my forearms from clutching the brakes so hard as I skidded my way down the other side, just to do it all again. It was seriously slow going, and after meeting a Spanish tourer coming the opposite direction who told me he had been pushing his bike for two days, I was starting to get concerned. After only managing 25km’s in 4 hours, I pulled into the town of Zumba exhausted. There were no nearby towns so I decided to call it a day here.
There was more of the same the next morning, lots of landslides had pushed tonnes of mud over the road. At one point I had to push through shin-high gloopy mud that looked like spillage from Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Thankfully it wasn’t long until the road became sealed again and I could ride the climbs without too many problems. That night I stopped in a village just before a particularly large climb, where I asked at the church in the plaza whether I could camp in their garden. To my surprise, I was answered in English by a Polish priest who ushered me to a small room with a bed. He said many cyclists had stayed here before, before showing me to the outdoor shower and wishing me all the best before his council meeting that evening.
I was happy to get a great sleep in at the church before a morning of solid climbing again, where I met two other bike packers after a fun descent. They told me about a route running through the country called the trans-ecuador, and said it was incredible. We traded details and swapped a few pins on our maps before going our separate ways. I knocked over another climb before stopping in a town called Vilcabamba, just as the rain came down. The hostel I rolled up to was cheap, but as I found out, the roof leaked. Luckily for me, it only soaked the bed next to mine so I slept without any problems. I’d received a message from my cousin Rhodri, saying his flight had been delayed, meaning he had missed his connection and now would be with me three days later than initially planned. I looked up the local hostels and found a cheap spot in a beautiful manor house overlooking the town. With three nights booked in there, I cycled up the hill to the house where I planned on chilling out. The place was stunning, and I spent my time between half day hikes around the local mountains with their golden retriever – Bamboo – and catching up on writing.
The weather was incredible on the second day, so I set about a reasonably exposed ridge walk for a few hours, where I later found out had been the location of a few robberies as you couldn’t escape of a thing ridge too easily. After a few hours I lost the trail and followed a few goat tracks before having to do some slightly sketchy descending on all fours and then bush whacking. After a good 10 minutes pushing through bushes, I came to a small clearing where I found two French guys having a picnic. ‘Ah so you also got lost’ one of them said to me laughing. After that we teamed up trying to weave our way back to the main road, where we ended up emerging in a local cemetery. After walking into town, we organised to all hang out for a few beers that evening. They’d been on the road for a year and a half, driving and backpacking around South America. We had real nice evening chatting away, and it amused me to think I’d just met these guys in some bushes on the mountain that day.
The next was to be my final solo ride for possibly the whole trip. Of course it involved another big morning of climbing before descending down into the city of Loja. Today my cousin was arriving by bus, and a whole new phase of the trip was about to begin.