Wednesday 4th October
The last ten days or so have been quite an adventure, and would probably make a superb tour on their own. Having just come back from a flight over the Nasca lines, it occurs to me that all sorts of things are best seen from afar. This short section has taken a few days to get into perspective; for the whole trip I expect it will take several weeks or months.
Peru is a long country (by UK standards). If we had ridden straight down the Pan-American Highway hugging the flat coastline we would have ridden over 2500 km by the time we crossed into Chile. We have taken a different route.
Peru has several broad regions of strikingly different landscapes. Along the coast is a sandy, arid plain stretching almost from the top to the bottom of the country. It could be considered a maritime desert bordering the Pacific Ocean, or alternatively as the biggest beach in the world! Not far inland, the foothills of the Andes rise sharply. The altitudes of towns and villages vary between 1000 and 4000 m. And from this elevation, the huge Andean mountains soar, magnificent and snow-covered, to heights well over 6000 m. To the east of these ranges lies the Amazon region; water falling here finds its way eventually to the Atlantic.
After one night on the Pacific coast in the north, complete with a swim in the Pacific, Pisco sours and fine seafood for dinner we headed inland rather than cross the featureless desert. Mark has written how we were heading for his contact’s base in Cajamarca, but found ourselves enjoying a death-defying road along the way. It was here I had my only truly scary moment of the whole trip, balancing on my bike right at the edge of the precipice while a large truck headed towards me and passed with mere inches to spare. But it wasn’t a sheer vertical drop at that point, more like 45 degrees so I would have bounced to the bottom rather than been in free-fall. Always look on the bright side.
As previously related, Ian and Tom had gone ahead having declined the day off-piste to Kuelap. They then headed down the mountains towards Lima in order to get a couple of issues sorted on their respective bikes. That was a week ago – we are all hoping that the bikes will be released from hospital today, and so we will meet up again shortly.
It was thus just Mark and I who spent a couple of days with the Peruvian cousin of Captain Jack Sparrow, aka Franco the bike guide, near Cajamarca. He was able to advise us on our continuing route down the Cordillera Blanca; it was entirely possible that he had forgotten a few details.
We wanted to ride up a locally world-famous road in the terrifyingly-named Canyon del Pato – Duck Canyon. At 520 km we thought this would be a fairly straightforward ride over two days – as advised by Franco. The first long part of the first day was fine – but very twisty (a good thing) so a bit slow. Then we got to the point where we had to turn left from a red road on the map to a joining yellow one. We nearly missed it, as the legend on the Michelin map of Peru describes yellow roads as “secondary road, paved”. The muddy track that appeared at the point the turning should be did not entirely live up to this description. Then it started to rain. It was about 3 pm, and our GPS devices reported that we had about 130 km to go to our intended destination for the night. Making an average speed of no more than 25 or 30 kph on the wet muddy and rocky track, we stopped as dusk fell having arrived at a hamlet with a Hospedaje (very cheap inn) after only 65 km, tired, and with a curious mixture of dejection and elation. We had survived an arduous ride in poor conditions, but had a lot to make up the following day.
Then came one of the best rides of the trip so far. After a good rest, we were up with the sun and set out in the sharp low light at 6.30 am, and by shortly after 9 o’clock we were back on track at our previously planned overnight stop, Pellasca, for breakfast. This early morning ride included the delight of seeing rural communities starting the new day, unmade roads that were somehow now fun after a night’s sleep, then the first of two exhilarating descents to the valley floor, this one on narrow but good quality tarmac. During this descent we could see a road etched into the sheer mountainside opposite. It didn’t look navigable, but navigate it we did.
I told before in a post from Alaska how we met some of the most courageous and inspirational people, including a solo female cyclist riding up the Dalton Highway. This is a similarly wild and remote area. The longitudinal distances may not be so great but the hills in the Andes are relentless and steep. Some of the climbs gain 3000 m or more without respite. They are relentless. So anyone cycling in the Andes has my utmost respect. Having two pairs of cyclists going in the other direction, we then came across Steffi, a German girl on a long descent from Pallasca having ridden up the same route as we had come that same morning. She was touring on her own, carrying a small dog that had adopted her a few days previously as well as all her luggage, camping gear, food and water. Steffi, it was a pleasure to meet you: you are a heroine!
Meeting some cyclists reminded us that in all our travels in Peru we have not encountered a single other adventure motorcyclist. We know there are a few out there (we met several on the Stahlratte) but what a difference this has been from North America, let alone Europe.
This descent took us to the Canyon del Pato, which turned out to be paved despite claims on the web and from Franco that it was not – by this time this came as no small relief to us and we made good time up to the centre of the Cordillera Blanca region, where we stayed at a marvellous and luxurious hotel built and run by a Frenchman, Bruno. We had no doubts that we deserved a treat, and enjoyed a decent bottle of Argentinian red and real coffee with breakfast! God bless the French.
So good was the good life here, under the immense summit of Copa Grande (6188 m) that we stayed two nights; the intervening day spent on glorious racetrack-like tarmac up to a col at 4500 m then down long and enjoyable gravel to Chavin de la Huantar, a pre-Inca temple complex built for ceremonies conducted by drug-fueled shamans and considered to be the mother of all ancient monuments in Peru.
From the high peaks of the Cordillera we looked at the map and decided it was time to cover some ground rather more quickly. After all, we are on a mission and this is not supposed to be a holiday! So back down the mountains, dropping over 4000 m in one glorious morning to sea level, then south through the endless beach desert to Nasca where this morning we flew over the geoglyphs. Clearer from a distance, this was a brilliant week of riding.