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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.