Pressing Pause

We arrive in Huaraz intending to stay a day, just long enough for a visit to a bike shop. Three days later we’re still here. Four days, five. It’s not a place we want to stay, but we can’t go. We’re trapped by weary, dirty, worn out intestines, taking turns on the sofa. This isn’t the first time and we can’t see an end in sight. Visits to the doctor produce the same results: a prescription for antibiotics and a prescription for probiotics. This is a short term solution with long term consequences. Good health is the most important thing. Without it, nothing else is possible. 

We look at the map and we look at our options. We talk. And then talk some more.  All this time we have been chasing summer, forgetting that we really enjoy all the seasons, missing fall colors, winter snow and seasonal eating. 

My mother sends an email. Her tomatoes are just starting to come in. Every year she has at least 30 plants. She’s putting by broccoli, green beans and cauliflower. The allure of fall in New England is strong. Wanting to fill our bodies with fresh food and clean water, we decide to go help. 

Spinning Through Silence 

We zig and zag in and out of mototaxis, leaving the hustle and bustle of Cajamarca during a holiday behind. At the turn off to Jesus we find Genevieve and Michel. They are following the paved road to San Marcos and Cajabamba. We’re going to Jesus and up and over the mountains on dirt. I consider trying to convince them to join us, but with skinny tires, they will be happier sticking to the pavement. 

Spinning my pedals, I go up, seeking solitude and silence. The road deteriorates, turning to loose, deep gravel. I put on music and keep churning. We load up on water, wanting to sleep in the paramo tonight. At the pass, there’s a hidden flat space perfect for stealth camping. The wind is a whisper and we eat dinner as the sun sets. The stars twinkle on and we drink tea. There’s the southern cross on one side, and the big dipper, just across, on the opposite horizon. The north star is gone. Silence permeates. 

After Cachachi the road improves. We eat second breakfast and move on, past the parades of people out to celebrate Peruvian Independence.

Photo by Tyndall Ellis.

The road goes down down down. We pass empty adobe houses and a car rolling along, on three tires and one rim. I wonder if they will make it to the bottom. 
We hit the main road and spin on hot pavement through the valley. A woman buys us ice cream in exchange for a photo with her son. Perhaps I should use bribery when trying to take photos of the people here. 

In Cajabamba the festivities are in full swing. Children wearing sequined green outfits dance in the street. Others wear traditional dance and move to a different tune. A boy dressed as Jesus stares enviously at Tyndall’s beard, stroking his own fake, temporary one. 

Fancy cakes are for sale and we get a week’s worth of sugar in two slices, knowing we won’t find sweets this good for a long time. 

We buy a 16 Sole synthetic blanket made in China, worried about cold nights at high altitude. It’s not as nice as the felted wool ones for sale from Cuzco, but it’s packable and stylish.

Through the mountains past Cajabamba we go. The road to Curgus is a bit of a mess. I think about our skinny tired friends who came before us. The deep silt sucks on my tires. At the end of the valley, the shortest, steepest climb I have seen in Peru waits. It’s not even long. At the top, a señora cheers me on, her silver toothed smile flashing in the sun. 

In Curgus we try and fill our bags with two days of food. Tuna, bananas, and…? It’s tough. Calorie dense, packable foods are hard to find. The lady at the tienda laughs at our hodge podge of booty, and wonders where we’re going. 

At the bottom of the canyon there’s a hotel and hot spring. Instead of paying for a smelly room with noisy neighbors we find an abandoned pool and make it our own for the night. 

Up past Sarin we go. I really can’t belive there are roads here. Who uses them? Loggers and miners, it turns out, and people on foot with burros. Motos, too. 
Stands of eucalyptus line the road, obscuring my view. The tall straight trees are being harvested and trucked off the mountain. The mountains are being pilaged for their wealth hidden inside. 
The wind blows and the racing clouds spit rain. We set up our tent in an old stock shelter. As darkness falls the sky clears. The stars wink on, in time with the headlamps of the miners on the mountain across the way. Their jackhammers echo through the valley, punctuated by an occasional dynamite blast. 

The sky is blue bird this morning, and the first climb comes easy. 

Photo by Tyndall Ellis.

We descend past a stunning blue lake and old abandoned mine sites into Pamapas, playing tag with a man hauling cow skins in a moto taxi on the way. He has to stop to cool his motor on the uphills. We do, too. 

From Conchucos we climb, following the horse trail from town. An old Inca trail weaves in and out, and man goes down on his horse, cell phone in hand. 
It’s some of the best high altitude riding we have had. Even Tyndall is moved enough to grab the camera and start taking photos. And then, we come around a corner and get our first glimpse of the Blancas. Imposing mountains with snowy bits showing here and there and a hanging glacier or two. I wonder if these glaciers are melting as rapidly as Alaska’s. 

Laundry day.

We pass the high point, find the main road (again) and cruise down, only hindered by a small landslide and one questionable bridge. 

Photo by Tyndall Ellis.

We camp above Sihaus, avoiding the fray of humans for one night. 
From town, we go down more, back into a warm, dry canyon. I plug in for the climb, listening to episodes of More Perfect on the way up. I’m intrigued by the ins and outs of the Supreme Court. You should be, too.

At the top, there’s a small town. I’m gifted a bag of tostados and chochos. Up through the valley we climb, passing some of the friendliest people on the way. Offers of food follow us. Everyone wears felted wool hats, calling them something we roughly translate to “ears of wool”. A group of men with pick axes and shovels work to get the rocks out of the road. It’s a futile endeavor.

I’m drawn down by the prospect of a shower and a big plate of Chifa in Pomabamba. We make it just before dark and find everything a dirty, hungry biker could want.

Two short days later and we’re in Huascarán National Park, camped below Llanganuco Pass that will take us up 4700 meters, through the Cordillera Blancas and out the other side. 

Where we rode: Cajamarca – Cachachi – Cajabamba – Curgos – Sarin – Conchucos – Sihaus – Pomabamba – Llumpa – Yanama – Yungay 



We restocked in Curgos for the ride to Conchucos, but could have easily done so in Sarin instead. 

To find the abandoned hot spring, go past the hotel at El Eden. You will see a rickety old foot bridge. Go check it out, I don’t recommend crossing it though. From the edge of the bridge, look down. You will see a straw hut and a heart shaped pool. The pool was full and flowing when we arrived.  

The Northern Highlands

At the bakery we meet a cyclist from Sao Palo. Last night, one from California. There’s only a couple ways to the border between Peru and Ecuador and this is one of them. 

We leave San Ignacio and some how manage the 108 kilometers to Bellavista. The road is downhill and almost flat in some spots. I don’t know the last time we covered this many kilometers in one day. Mexico, perhaps.

In the cool morning air we descend to the river. Within minutes, we’re across for two Soles each. 

There’s a gap in the mountains here, a wide open valley baking in the sun. I can see the mountains and the clouds on the other side. We just have to get there. Stopping for watermelon and coconuts whenever we can, we slowly make our way to the other side. Rice, sugar cane, bananas, piñas, it’s all grown here. 

The canyon sinches down and we go up. The river is a boulder garden. Rocks and pour overs at every bend. I get the willies just looking at all the obstacles. 

The canyon narrows and opens up again. The river is lazy, blue green water floating by. The road is lined with fruit stands. What’s not to like? 

Scott shows up in Nuevo Tingo late in the day. It feels good to see a friend again. We ride to Leymebamba, solving all the world’s problems on the way. 
In Leymebamba we stay a day. 

I ask the señor at the hotel about laundry. I spied a machine in a  upstairs corner. He says after I wash it by hand, I can use his spinner. His spinner is a full on fancy Samsung washing machine. I ask why he doesn’t use the machine for everything. He says it takes too much time. I smile and nod, but inside I am raising an eyebrow. Tyndall’s mom once said that the washing machine freed women. All along our route I find myself agreeing with her over and over again. 

As the crow flies, it’s less than 70km to Cajamarca. As the road winds, it’s over 200. I have heard that the climbs are long and gradual in Peru, the descents the same. It’s true. We descend 2,700 meters over 60km. 

At the bottom is an oven. I bake. The heat is alarming. Mango trees are everywhere. Cold coconuts aplenty. We have good intentions to eat lunch and regain our beloved elevation in the shady afternoon hours. It turns out the road builders have other plans for us. 
From two German overlanders we learn that the road up and out is closed. It is open from 6:00-7:00 am and 6:00-7:00 pm everyday. Construction workers are blowing things up. We cannot pass. I embrace the heat, buy a kilo of mangos, a Sole worth of bananas and fill all my water bottles. We’ll try again in the morning. 

The full moon keeps me wide eyed all night. Just as it is dipping down, the roosters sound their alarm. The air is cooler. We climb in the early morning light, watching the canyon come alive with color. 

The sun catches us and I take frequent breaks, hiding in diminishing patches of shade. 
Shouts of gringo follow us in Peru, more so than anywhere else. I feel like a bear in Denali, with bus loads of tourists stopping to peer out at me.

Seven hours later we reach the top. 

After tuna sandwiches, we descend to Celendin then make our way to Cajamarca. There we eat our way through town, replenishing calories lost.

These mountains don’t mess around. 
Where we went: San Ignacio – Bellavista – Pedro Ruiz – Nuevo Tingo – Leymebamba – Balsas – Celendine – Cajamarca 

The launcha after Bellavista runs from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm. 

Near as we can tell, the road closure at Balsas is permanent for the time being. It is also open 1:30-2:30 pm, but then you would be climbing in the hottest part of the day. The campestre just across the bridge and down river 400 meters offers camping on donation. She has bathrooms, showers and lots of flat space. 

Pedaling for Perú

We arrive in Cuenca to find Joe and Dean and Dang and Scott. Our first stop is for a new rear derrailleur. Mine is old and the spring doesn’t spring right anymore. Between a broken shifter, a worn out drivetrain and now this, it’s been ages since I have had all my gears. Now I do, at 50% off. Perfecto. 

A day and a half in Cuenca is enough. The six of us leave town together, riding through the hills to Tarqui and the PanAm. 

The paved miles click by fast with company and ice cream stops. Mid afternoon, our six becomes eight. It’s a regular bike gang. Five tents fill the volleyball court in Jarata. 

On the descent into Loja three dogs chase Joe. He’s going so fast they slam on the brakes, skidding and rolling over in the road. Dogs zero, Joe one. I laugh. My ears pop.

For one night our group grows to 12 in Vilcabamba. We cook and eat and drink and laugh, celebrating Scott’s birthday whether he wants to or not. We’re a mobile mass on 24 wheels. 

The hills roll to the border. 

Landslides cover the road. Fresh dirt fills my nostrils. 

A warning about the heat ahead has us leaving Zumba early. But then I lolly gag, hoping if I stop enough our friends will catch up. They don’t. I pedal on. 

Coffee and cacao dry in the road. Political ads cover buildings. Mototaxis are of a tougher breed here. 

The power surges on and off in San Ignacio, but the bakery has coconut macaroons and the Chinese food fills our empty bellies. 

Welcome to Perú.

Where we rode: Cuenca – Jarata – Saraguro – Loja – Vilcabamba – Palanda – Zumba – San Ignacio 

We stayed at the Casa de Cyclistas in Loja. Pablo started it two months ago. It’s located at 04-56 Bolivar y Quito. His phone number is 593984763441.

It’s all paved in Ecuador until Bellavista. Without rain, the road is hard packed dirt. In Perú, pavement again.