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Cuenca, Ecuador to Huaraz, Perú (Part 1 of 2)

posted Nov 20, 2010, 2:38 PM by Paul Gareau   [ updated Nov 20, 2010, 3:02 PM ]
Hi all! I know it's been a really long time since my last blog post, and I'm actually taking an extra day off just to get it up to date. I'm in Huaraz, Peru at the moment. I got to the area about twelve days ago, and I've spent six days hiking in the incredible Cordillera Blanca, one day with a stomach bug, a day on my bike between towns, a day getting to the start of my hike, and now three days taking care of some "business" in Huaraz. But, first thing's first, and I have a lot of catching up to do...

As I said in my last blog post, Phil and Manu had arrived in Cuenca the night before I was planning to leave. I decided to hang around an extra day and head out with them since we all were planning on riding the same route. We ended up riding together for three weeks, from Cuenca, Ecuador to Leimebamba, Peru. Our first section took us from Cuenca to Bagua Grande in Peru, for a total of thirteen days of continuous riding, and a new record for me. We spent three and a half days riding from Cuenca to Loja, which was a challenging, but paved section of road that passed from high páramo to a hot cañon near Oña. There was little traffic on the road, but it was extremely hilly and we began to measure our daily progress in terms of total elevation gained, rather than distance covered. Our average total climbing per day was around 4500 feet according to Phil's altimeter. Other than in the town of Saraguro, I wasn't aware of any hotels during this section, and we camped each night. It was good getting back into the routine of camping, since that made it possible to ride as far or as long as we wanted without having to plan our day around arriving in a town with a hotel. Nothing was too remarkable along this section, although Saraguro was an interesting little town with an indiginous population that wears a significant amount of black clothing. 

We had rain half way through the day we hoped to arrive in Vilcabamba, and ended up staying in a hotel in Loja. The next day we arrived in Vilcabamba, a popular place for travellers that must also appeal to american retirees, since there seemed to be many of them around. I probably would have taken a day off there, but not for any particular reason, and since Phil and Manu wanted to keep riding we headed out the next day. 

The pavement ended shortly after Vilcabamba, but unfortunately the hills continued. At one point it was possible to see the entire road stretching out before us, climbing into the mountains ahead. A common heartbreaking moment for cyclists along this route comes a little later down the road, when it appears that you've reached the top of the climb only to get another view where the road continues upward into the distance. 

Along this section of road we continued to camp each night. Our first campsite after Vilcabamba was at a small river and parking lot for the construction vehicles being used in the area. I made the mistake of buying 5 liters of water (~10 lbs) toward the end of the day, which I had to carry on my bike up a particularly steep section of road. It turned out that we could have just used the water from the river for our drinking and cleaning, but unfortunately, you can never be sure what's ahead.

Among the towns we passed through was Palanda, a small colonial-style village, where we stopped to buy some food and drinks. The store there had corn muffins, which I haven't noticed in Latin America, and it was a great treat. Phil and Manu stocked up by buying a dozen or so of them, and as we ate, a few kids from the town stood around, just quietly staring at us. Gringos must be an uncommon site in that area. 

We had a great downhill through a desert-like landscape to the border crossing town of Las Balsas. It's a small place and we had heard stories of other cyclists having to track down the border crossing guard in order to leave the country. Luckily they were in the office when we arrived and we went through the painless exit process before crossing the bridge into Peru.

On the Peruvian side of the border the process was still fairly simple, except we had to first get a document from immigration, then walk to the police station to get it stamped and signed, then return to immigration. Phil, Manu and I all got 120 days on our stamp and there were no entry or exit fees to pay. 

The place to exchange currency was also a restaurant, so I changed enough of my Ecuadorian currency (they use the US dollar) to get to the next town with an ATM. Since they didn't have exact change for me, I ended up getting a bunch of Peruvian Nuevo Soles and a free candy bar.

The first town of any size in Peru, San Ignacio, ended up being quite a bit farther than my map led us to believe. Toward the end of the day we reached a small village where we spotted a volleyball court that would be a good place to set up our tents. We stopped to ask some locals where we could camp, saying we only needed a small flat spot for our tents. The possibility of us camping on the volleyball court never seemed to cross their minds, so finally we suggested it as a option and they gladly offered it to us. While we cooked dinner, the whole village gathered around to watch, hardly saying anything. Two woman from the village gave us some platanos (big bananas) that we friend up after dinner and later, as we were setting up our tents, one of the men from the village offered to let us sleep in his house. We packed up our tents again and moved into the house, where his family and a few others continued to stare at us until we finally zipped up our sleeping bags and said goodnight.

It rained all night, so we were fortunate to be indoors, but the road turned into an impassible bog of mud and it wasn't long before we were forced to remove our fenders and push our bikes. Even pushing proved to be a challenge and some nice Peruvians helped out by pushing our bikes with us. After we thought the worst was over, we stopped to clean our bikes, pushed them again up an incredibly steep hill, and were faced with more mud on the next road. It wasn't quite as bad and I went ahead. I later found out Phil and Manu had been towed by a motorcycle and I wished I had stayed behind.

We arrived in San Ignacio that night and had our first hotel since Cuenca. The next day we got back on pavement and camped just beyond the small town of Tamborapa. In the morning of the next day we crossed paths with three of six French cyclists who are riding around the world. We stopped and chatted for a bit, then continued down the road to Bagua Grande, which wasn't a very appealing city, but seemed like a good place to take a break after our thirteen days of riding.

One of the advantages of riding as a group is that you can split up to check out different hotels. Manu watched the bikes as Phil and I went to about a dozen hotels to get prices. We compared notes afterwards and stayed at the very nice Universo hotel, which was reasonably priced and significantly better than the other places we had seen.

That night while we were returning to the hotel after doing some shopping, I stopped at the curb whil Phil and Manu ran across the street. While I was standing there a motorcycle drove by very close to me and the passenger made a lame attempt to grab my fanny pack as they passed. He obviously couldn't and they continued driving away. So far, that was the closest I have come to being robbed during this trip.

We continued following the mostly flat roads along the Rio Utcubamba all the way to Leimebamba. It was great riding on dirt roads, which never strayed too far from the river. There are enough things to see in the area that I think I could have spent a month there if I wanted to see everything. Unfortunately, almost nothing is easy to get to, and while the 3rd largest waterfall in the world was relatively close, we weren't interested enough to do the 6 hour round-trip hike to see it. 

The night we arrived in Tingo, I was looking for hotels when my deraileur somehow was pulled into my spokes and completely destroyed. I thought my only option was to take a bus, but Phil and Manu had been carrying a spare that they kindly lent me. I had been carrying a spare from Oregon to Colombia, but what I had thought was a ridiculously short day led me to dump a bunch of "unnecessary" stuff, including my spare deraileur, into the hotel wastebasket. I later found out that I had made decent progress that day, and the person who showed me where I was on the map was wrong. I wrote about the experience in my blog for that section, which Phil and Manu had read, and which led to them decide to KEEP a spare deraileur. So in that strange twist of fate, I was saved this time around.

In the town of Tingo we planned to take a day off to see the ruins of Kuelap. Phil and Manu were both sick our first day there, so I decided to spend the day seeing the area, and the next day we would all go to the ruins. I did a little hiking on the trails that the locals use to get around, and later rode my bike up to the town of Magdelena, which was nicer than I expected. I met some kids on a donkey on the way down from town and talked to them a bit and showed them the pictures I was taking of them. They seemed to get a kick out of seeing the pictures.

Manu still wasn't feeling 100% the next day, so Phil and I walked up to Nuevo Tingo (created after most of Tingo was destroyed in a flood) and waited for a car to take us to the ruins. Eventually a tour group drove by in a van, and we paid a discounted rate to join them. The 37 km drive took quite a while, and strangely the hiking trail to the ruins from Tingo is only about 5km. The roundabout route taken by the road is the only way to avoid what would be an impossibly steep climb for cars.

The ruins themselves were nice enough. There is little left of most of the buildings, and only one has been reconstructed, albeit porly, and is already cracking. The most significant structure is the huge wall that surrounded the city, and the long corridor that was used to enter the city.

We were back on our bikes the next day and rode to Leimebamba, where Phil was sick again. There was rain the next morning, and there was a big pass ahead, so I stayed in town. The next day Phil wasn't good enough for the pass and they stayed behind. 

The climb was about 4500 feet on dirt roads, and using my altimeter, I climbed about 1000 feet at a time between breaks. I made it to the top, and was half way down the other side when my trailer tire had a flat that my slime tube couldn't fix. It was raining and getting dark by that time and I tried to patch it quickly so I could find a camp site. There was a small restaurant just beyond where I had my flat and I stopped to see if I could camp there. The whole experience was incredibly frustrating, and I should have just rode on. First a girl said there was a guesthouse and went to talk to someone, presumably to see if I could stay there. Then, after doing so, she just walked by me to the kitchen without saying anything. After another confusing conversation with a guy there, I found out that there was a guesthouse, but it was occupied and that I could sleep on the floor of the restaurant. The whole thing could have been so simple, but as Phil, Manu and I had been learning, Peruvians tend to make things as complicated as possible. The only person who could restore my respect for the people of the area was a cute little boy who helped me with my things while I was cooking dinner, and the next morning as I was packing up.

From the top of the pass the day before, to the town of Balsas, there was a 30+ mile downhill that I'm sure was the longest of my trip. There were some great views along the descent, although it was usually pretty cloudy or foggy. I reached the bottom of the hill by around 11:30 in the morning and had an early "almuerzo" (set lunch) and did some shopping before starting the climb on the other side. The temperature in the valley was significantly warmer than it had been at higher altitudes and I found a great campsite after about 1000 feet of climbing, but I didn't have enough water to spend the night there, and had to continue onward. After climbing a bit more to what I had hoped was the top, I still couldn't see my next town (Celendin) and when I saw a flat area that still gave me some privacy, I decided to camp. 

The next day I got some water from a small waterfall on the side of the road and continued climbing to what I thought MUST have been Celendin, although it was much smaller than I had expected. I learned that the huge, nearly vertical mountain ahead of me with a zig-zagging, switchback road was where I had to go to get to Celendin, and I stayed in the first town just long enough for lunch and a short rest. The climb to the top took me about 5 hours with frequent picture stops. First there was a thunderstorm that dropped a little hail on me, but that didn't last and I rode in good weather with a great view of the passing storm in the valley I had come from that morning. On the last switchback before reaching the top was probably the most incredible view I have ever seen. The view was beyond huge and as I looked from left to right there was a rain storm that created a rainbow that seemed to shoot out of the top of a mountain. A little farther to my right was a beam of light created by the setting sun shining between the ridge I was crossing and the clouds overhead. The beam landed on the otherwise dark mountains across the valley from me, revealing through shadows the amazing texture of the terrain. A bit farther to the right of that was more rain, which I could see coming right out of orange clouds over a gray, rocky mountain. As if that wasn't enough, as I was crossing the pass into an amazing pink sunset, the silloughettes of half a dozen indiginous kids ran across the road ahead of me. The rest of my descent into Celendin was after the sunset, and the road was only illuminated by the pink clouds that remained overhead. There was also an incredibly good smell from some of the plants along the side of the road. All of this, combined with the natural high of a long, hard day created an incredible and unforgettable experience. 

Just as amazing as the views and storms was the road itself. It was as if the engineers had decided that the road would not only never exceed a certain grade, but that it would also remain at that grade at all costs. This created an easy to climb, but wildly meandering road that seemed to rarely be going in the direction I wanted. I couldn't decide if I loved it or hated it, but I definitely had to respect the work of the engineers who created it. I also learned that I haven't been gone long enough to stop thinking about things from a programmer's point of view, and I spent most of the climb thinking about how I'd write a program to create the best route over similarly complicated terrain. I decided that it would be a pretty hard thing to do. :)

I decided to take a day off in Celendin, mostly to get my blog up to date (obviously that didn't happen!), but the hostal with internet that I wanted to stay at had been relocated and was only one room and without internet. I got some other things done though, including shopping, fixing my damaged trailer tire, and going online briefly at a cyber cafe. 

To be continued...