• Thursday , 21 September 2017
The Road Less Traveled: Northern Peru

The Road Less Traveled: Northern Peru

We had taken the road less traveled in our sojourn out of the Andes hoping to find warmer weather on the Pacific Coast. Before the trip I had daydreamed about one day finding myself at a fork in the road and flipping a coin as to which way to go. Well it doesn’t work the way the mind’s eye sees it.

The route we had chosen from Cajamarca to the beach at Huanchaco was thought to be paved, and it was, until we crested the pass sixty miles into our day. The GPS was running on fumes (lack of viable data on the region) and the map showed more than one dotted line leading out of the mountains from where we stood. After passing through the remote village of Contumaza we came to a fork in the road. Both tracks looked equally used and each of the maps we carried showed that the roads would connect to each in another fifty miles or so. With three hours of daylight left and 3,000 meters (9,000 feet) of elevation to lose, entirely on dirt switchbacks, and clinging to a near vertical mountainside. Pulling a coin from my pocked did not seem prudent. We had seen too many landslides and knew that driving until dark only to find the road impassable was a distinct possibility.

A typical road network in the rural mountains of Peru. Twisty, single-lane, and switchbacks galore, sometimes paved and sometimes not.

A typical road network in the rural mountains of Peru. Twisty, single-lane, and switchbacks galore, sometimes paved and sometimes not.

Shame on me for not waiting for Shannon to button up her trousers before the photo. She is now a pro at roadside trouser dropping, not like they have public restrooms out here, or any traffic.

Shame on me for not waiting for Shannon to button up her trousers before the photo. She is now a pro at roadside trouser dropping, not like they have public restrooms out here, or any traffic.

So we waited. The only sounds were the wind and the bugs in the trees. We argued a little to pass the time and both had a pee in the bushes. Finally a motorized vehicle could be heard lumbering up the mountain and we held our breaths hoping it was coming our way. Finally a mini-van taxi with passengers rounded the corner with no intention of stopping for us. Flapping my arms with a map in each hand I ran after the van yelling “hola, hola”. Once the driver realized I wasn’t looking for a ride he patiently waited for me to pose my question in broken Spanish. “Don’t go that way” was all he said and he pointed to the spur where our bikes were pointed. Choice made.

The road out was technical, little used, and treated us to vistas reserved for high-def television eye-candy at electronic stores. It was fantastic. Our good Peruvian friend, Milka sums it up in a text she sent Shannon after we told her where we were, “Gosh, Shannon, that is a non-traveled road!” The exclamation point was hers not ours.

The road on the distant mountainside is what we rode in on to see the Kuelap ruins. The dirt road was great until the rain started. Nothing like slippery mud and wheels inches from a sheer drop to pucker your sphincter.

The road on the distant mountainside is how we got to the Kuelap ruins. The dirt road was great until the rain started. Nothing like slippery mud and wheels inches from a sheer drop to pucker your sphincter.

Shannon and this wet and shivering pup had mutual love at first sight. I seriously think she was entertaining the idea of taking it with us on the bikes.

Shannon and this wet and shivering pup had mutual love at first sight. I seriously think she was entertaining the idea of taking it with us on the bikes.

Kuelap ruins, Northern Peru.

Kuelap ruins, Northern Peru.

Kuelap ruins, Northern Peru.

Kuelap ruins, Northern Peru.

Northern Peru has been like no other place we have seen on the trip so far. Since entering we have stayed in the Andes Mountains winding from one small town to the next on some of the twistiest roads we have ever seen. In a single day we would freeze at the passes, peel gear off as we descended, and cook in the desert heat of the valley bottoms.

No one was happy on this cold a rainy morning including the neighbors donkey. Leymebamba, Peru.

No one was happy on this cold and rainy morning including the neighbors donkey. Leymebamba, Peru.

Peruvian Andes rural gas station.

Peruvian Andes rural gas station.

The mountain passes are VERY chilly. We finally broke out the heated vests that plug into the bike's electrical system. So cozy, we are wondering why we didn't do this sooner.

The mountain passes are VERY chilly. We finally broke out the heated vests that plug into the bike’s electrical system. So cozy, we are wondering why we didn’t do this sooner.

None of our days have turned out as we planned. Road conditions and weather were not given their due and travel time is averaging double what we plan. We have seen a lot of rain but still have chosen to take the road less traveled. We have been rewarded with a side of Peru relatively untainted by tourism and far off the “gringo trail”.

Coming out of the clouds to warmer conditions in the middle elevations.

Coming out of the clouds to warmer conditions in the middle elevations.

Valley bottoms were dry and hot. It is quite an experience to see so many climates in a single day.

Valley bottoms were dry and hot. It is quite an experience to see so many climates in a single day.

Crossing a single valley took four hours. It felt like we were mice running on a wheel.

Crossing a single valley took four hours. It felt like we were mice running on a wheel.

Cow. Bovine Blanco.

Cow. Bovine Blanco.

The good road from Celendin to Cajamarca. Our easiest Peru ride yet because it was the only time the day turned out as planned.

The good road from Celendin to Cajamarca. Our easiest Peru ride yet because it was the only time the day turned out as planned.

Being from the Western United States we though we knew mountains but Peru has been a re-calibration. One day it took four hours to cross a single valley. Miles of switchbacks dropped us to a bridge crossing a river and then we crawled our way up the other side of the valley. As a crow flies we probably only went twenty miles but by road we went eighty miles over a spaghetti mess of twisted mountain track. Our relationship to the Andes has been made much more intimate by the harrowing roads etched onto mountainsides as well as by the constant interaction with friendly and curious Peruvians. The only downside so far are the Peruvian drivers. They are some of the most aggressive and reckless we have seen in Latin America. The roads are survivable as long as we remember to give way and take it slow and easy. We toot our horns a lot more than we used to so that everyone knows we are there. Riding the Peruvian Andes is the stuff of legend.

Shannon (in purple coat) snapping pics of the cathedral. Cajamarca, Peru.

Shannon (in purple coat) snapping pics of the cathedral. Cajamarca, Peru.

What does she see?

What does she see?

She sees this. Cajamarca, Peru.

She sees this. Cajamarca, Peru.

I thought Peruvians only ate potatoes and Guinea pigs, I was wrong. The food has been diverse and tasty and we are looking forward to the culinary epicenter of South America, Lima.

Finally out of the Andes and onto the coastal plain heading to the Pacific Ocean.

Finally out of the Andes and onto the coastal plain heading to the Pacific Ocean.

Along the Pacific it is a very dry desert with almost nothing growing. It won't get green again until we climb back into the mountains, but it is warm and comfy here on the coast. Huanchaco, Peru.

Along the Pacific it is a very dry desert with almost nothing growing. It won’t get green again until we climb back into the mountains, but it is warm and comfy here on the coast. Huanchaco, Peru.

This beachfront villa can be yours for a song. Huanchaco, Peru.

This beachfront villa can be yours for a song. Huanchaco, Peru.

Reed boats are still used by the local fisherman. They must be dried after use and only last a few months before becoming waterlogged.

Reed boats are still used by the local fisherman. They must be dried after use and only last a few months before becoming waterlogged.

The design of these boats is unchanged from ones depicted on 3,000 year old pottery found in the nearby Chan Chan ruins. If is isn't broken, don't fix it.

The design of these boats is unchanged from ones depicted on 3,000 year old pottery found in the nearby Chan Chan ruins. If is isn’t broken, don’t fix it.

Cool street mural. Huanchaco, Peru.

Cool street mural. Huanchaco, Peru.

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