There is only so much sitting about doing nothing one can do, so after a few days of relaxing in Huanchaco, we were getting itchy feet to do something productive. What better way to relieve our pent-up energy than to go off and visit another ruin, but this time the ruin is a huge Pre-Inca, mud-brick complex from the Chimu Empire. The largest pre-hispanic mud complex in the whole of the Americas, the structures cover 7.7 square miles, with the centre temples at the heart hidden behind huge hefty walls. Built around 850 AD, it grew in importance and strength until the Empire was conquered by the Incans in 1450 AD.
Now, the mud structures of the central temple areas have been uncovered, while much of the rest of the city still lay hidden, shrouded in huge sand dunes swept from the coast. It must be the sand which has preserved so much, keeping some of the most intricate mouldings and friezes covered until archaeologists started to dig up the dunes. In an odd kind of way, it felt more like we were in Morocco than Peru.
After we had ticked the ‘culture’ box at Chan Chan, we were ready to move on, so with our musketeering friend PJ, we set off together north-eastwards back in-land, leaving the sun and sea behind us but looking forward to some amazing mountain scenery and cloud rainforest. Apparently, according to a motorcycle friend we’d met is Cusco, the ‘best road in the whole of South America’ was coming up…. How exciting!
Two days later after a pretty unremarkable first days ride then a frankly horrendous ride the second day through roadworks after roadworks, we were pretty fed up… Where’s this amazing road…? Perhaps it’s amazing because it’s so bloody awful!?! Our overnight stop in the attractive town of Cajamarca was alright, granted. Especially since we didn’t get caught up in the aggressive riots that we later found out were apparently going on in the town, meaning other travellers and tourists were avoiding the area. Does that make us hard core?!
Riding up the hillside out of Celendin at 3.30pm on the second day, we were still waiting for the ‘amazing road’, when we bumped into Martin and Patrick on their way down. They had just come from the ‘amazing road’, so it did indeed exist. After a brief discussion about timescales and distances, we all realised that at that time in the afternoon, we weren’t going to reach our target destination of Leimebamba before dark, and Martin and Patrick weren’t going to reach Cajamarca either. At least we were prepared for an earlier stop, much to Chloe’s relief… riding with two boys instead of one really does mean stepping up the gears a few notches!
Up the hill out of Celedin it was clear that this was indeed the start of the amazing road… we peaked, turned a corner, and there it was – the stunning view was definitely a WOW moment that unfortunately photographs cannot do justice. The valley dropped away at our feet, then on the other side rose another mountain range, dappled in the sparkling afternoon light. We could trace the road up the other side, presumably the road to Leimebamba… glad we weren’t still planning on doing that tonight… After taking in the view, we wound our way down, dropping into the valley to the river where hopefully there would be somewhere we could stay for the night.
Arriving at the base of the valley, we trundled along the river for a while before coming across the small village of Balsas at a reasonable 5pm. The temperature had soared to sticky, humid heights despite the time of day, presumably because we were in the bottom of the valley in an environment similar to that of a furnace. Collapsing on benches on the tiny village square we caught our breath for a few minutes before splitting up to find accommodation and beer. Chris returned with the good news that there was indeed a room in the village that we could stay in for the night, although it has no toilet and we would have to relieve ourselves in the river. What…?! A room without toilet facilities – no way – is that even legal!?! Well, at least it had three beds, but that was literally it. A room, off a side street, with beds in it. Luckily Chloe then returned with beer and that made it all the more bearable. Meanwhile PJ was entertaining the children with his rope climbing abilities, scaling the tension cables to the substantial bridge over the river…. Boys! The hours began slipping away, and not really wanting to go into the room until absolutely necessary, we sat in the square sipping our beer and getting to know the locals until the late hours when it was clear the village bed-time was nigh.
In the end, it turned out there was a community toilet that we could use just by the bridge. But being charged 1 Sole by a horrible, grumpy man when we knew it was only meant to cost 50 cents, meant that later on that night Chloe took her custom elsewhere like the boys. In the morning, miraculously the lady now in charge of the toilet facility only charged 50 cents, and when questioned about the horrible man demanding 1 sole she was shocked and gave us back the 50 cents! Result! Okay, so 50 cents is no big deal, but it’s the principle of the thing, and people shouldn’t lie! After a swift breakfast outside the one eatery in the village, we got ourselves ready to tackle the ‘amazing road’ up the mountainside that would take us to Leimebamba and beyond, to Kuelap.
Well, it was certainly one of the best roads we have travelled so far. The rough road led us up the mountainside, twisting and turning in tune to the heavily vegetation-clad hillside. We started off sweltering in the heat in the valley, but after a couple of hours we were shivering within the damp swirling clouds that were blinding us from the vast view below of the valley and surrounding mountains… So this is why they call it the cloud rainforest! The road seemed endless. Weaving around the mountainside, climbing up and up until we really were in the rain clouds and the rain properly started, the earth road turning to mud.
After travelling for a year with two (flexible – so they don’t break in accidents!) side mirrors, Chloe managed to break both of them off in the space of a few hours. First one when she dropped the bike trying to get off the bike without the side-stand down, (because the side stand was broken!). And the second incident was due to an idiot of a lorry driver careering around the corner on the wrong side of the road and nearly crashing into her. Fortunately Chloe managed to throw herself and her bike into the ditch, thus breaking the other remaining mirror. Doh!
At this point the rain started to get heavier and the road slipper. Cautiously we continued along the mountainside, not being able to see much because of the now torrential rain in our faces and streaming down our visors. Eventually we started descending, even more cautiously so we didn’t slip and slide too much on the perpetual corners, and still fearing the crazy lorry drivers. Breaking through the cloud and being greeted by sun again was sheer delight! Dropping down into the valley we began warming up and drying off as we gently made our way into beautiful Liemabamba just in time for lunch! Unfortunately we weren’t able to stay in Leimebamba because the Boys needed to ‘make progress’, so after lunch we set off again to reach Kuelap and more pre-Inca ruins before nightfall.
Weary but determined to make it up yet another winding hillside, we finally pitched up at Kuelap at 4.30pm, just as it started to rain again. Parking up, we paid our fee and trudged towards the massive cliff top fortress that is Kuelap. The impressive stone fortress houses at least 400 small, round buildings that make up the walled city of the Chachapoyas people. Built in 600-700 AD, it was occupied until approximately 1550 AD, of the early Colonial era.
Surprisingly, the on-and-off rain made the fortress seem more exotic, unkempt and wild. Once inside the fortress walls, the vegetation crawling over the crumbling walls and the lamas munching the grass made us think of long-lost cities and early explorers. This is what Machu Picchu would have been like when it was re-discovered by Bingham.
By the time we were back at the bikes the darkness was setting in and the rain had picked up again. We had aimed to get to the bottom of the mountain to the main town where we could stay the night – about a one hour ride, but this time Chloe put her foot down – ‘ No boys, I am not riding in the dark and the rain just to get down a stupid mountain when I’m sure there will be a perfectly good hostel to stay in on the way down!’ – So we made our slow progress down the hill, passing hamlet after hamlet without any sign of a hostel, until eventually, two popped up at once. The deciding factor between them was that one had hot water and the other didn’t, and right at that moment, wet, bedraggled and grumpy, a hot shower was a necessity!
Next morning, the sun was out, we had an easy day planned and all was good! A lovely ride alongside the river and up another hillside brought us to the town of Chachapoyas for an early lunch and some necessary bike repairs. Finding a mechanic’s who managed the out-sourcing of welding, glass fibre repairs and careful gluing, we landed on our feet! Chloe’s side-stand, side mirrors and cracked windshield all got fixed in the space of hour.
Fully repaired and smiling, we set off on the short ride to Cocachimba, only to find that five minutes into the journey the heavens opened and another downpour ensued. So much for a nice easy relaxing afternoon ride. Slipping and sliding our way up and down muddy tracks we got ourselves to Cocachima without too much hassle and only one wrong turn. Setting ourselves up in a lovely little hostel with a cute puppy, we dried off, sorted ourselves out with a few beers and relaxed under shelter from the sporadic tropical rain storms.
Fully prepared the next day, ponchos in hand, stove and ingredients for lunch packed, we mounted our steeds and rode our way on mule-back to within a mile of Gocta Waterfall. Somehow we had persuaded PJ that riding there would be a good idea, although to be fair, I don’t think he actually agreed to it, but Chris booked them anyway! What had been romantically sold to us as a horse trek, turned out to be being led on three mules at slower than walking pace. But we were thankful on the way back when two hours of steep slopes down turned into tough climbs up on the way back!
Getting to Gocta, the mules could only go so far, so we skipped along the last mile, passing those who were struggling after their two hours on foot. As it turned out, we were among the first group who arrived, just before the rain started (again), so we were able to admire the unspoilt view before people started picking their way over to the falls. Setting up camp, we made ourselves a delicious pasta, pesto and chilli lunch, keenly overlooked by some random dog.
Gocta falls has two drop pools, measuring 771m high from top to bottom, and is the 5th highest free-leaping waterfall in the World after Angel Falls in Venezuela, Tugela Falls in South Africa and a couple of long unpronounceable-named falls in Norway. (Sorry Therese!)
Leaving Gocta and Cocachima behind us, we started to make our push for the border, the heat increasing and the landscape changing as we sped northwards through the lowland tropics. Only a major river crossing and a nasty noisy hostel in San Ignacio stood between us and Ecuador.
The river crossing was PJ’s idea. It was meant to be a brilliant short cut to avoid the city of Jaen, but which definitely turned into a long cut, probably setting us back a few hours, but adding a lot of anxiety, fear and fun into the mix! Half way along our ‘short cut’, the dusty road came to an abrupt end at the banks of a river that must have been at least 200m wide and fast flowing. There’s no way I’m riding across that… Help was apparently at hand in the form of a small wooden motorboat. As the ‘captain’ of the vessel was assuring us he could get our bikes across, Chris was having an anxiety attack, threatening to turn back, and PJ was jumping around on loopy juice chanting “excellent! my bike was made for this sh*t…!” A nervous Chloe was quietly watching the display on both parts, sensibly thinking, ‘I’d like to see him take someone else’s bike across first…’ And as if on cue, a local on a small motorbike turns up and they easily run the bike up a ramp and topple it into the boat… Easy as that apparently…!?!
Okay, first up, Chris. Because if his can get across, they all can! Stripped of its panniers to lighten the load, four full grown men heave Chris’s Dakar up the ramp and drop it into the boat while trying not to let it tip over the other side. And it’s in! Remarkable! Getting it out was another feat, but at least there wasn’t the danger of it crashing into the water. Another trip across got Chloe’s and PJ’s bikes across and then we were safe. Chris breathed a sigh of relief and vowed to curse PJ for the rest of the day!
A bit of a swim in the river and a spot of lunch set us on our way to San Ignacio, just 50km south of the Ecuadorian border. The hostel was horrendous, we hardly slept through the noise of banging doors and people screeching. Apparently they rented rooms by the hour. So it was that kind of hostel… nice! So understandably the next day we were a bit tired and grumpy and not up to facing 50km of road works up to the border, but what could we do.
Reaching the border by 10.30am, we’d made reasonable time, considering. Only to find that the border guards were on their mid-morning break and had gone AWOL. So we waited for over an hour before they decided to show up. In the meantime we’d been charged four times as much as was necessary for a couple of fried egg sandwiches and Chloe had got into a scuffle with the café owner. Through the Peruvian border control, it then took the ‘laid-back’ Ecuadorian official TWO HOURS to fill in the paper work for the bikes, by which time it was past 2pm. With Vilcabamba in our sights for that evenings lodgings, a mere four hours away, we knew we would be pushing it for daylight.
Alas, once on the bikes, we had only gone 100m before we were stopped by a policeman blocking the road, who informed us of a marching procession heading this way with a Virgin Mary, and that we couldn’t pass. We would have to wait until everyone was through which would be about two or three hours. Great! We have to wait for a plastic Virgin before we can get out of the goddamn place! After a brief argument with the policeman who was definitely not going to relent, we accepted our fate and returned to the border, among the locals preparing for the festivities. A dip in a river later, we sat and watched the Virgin being escorted down the street, before we legged it back to the bikes, kitted up and flew off before anyone could stop us!
Obviously we couldn’t make it to Vilcabamba, so ended up in the next town along, in an hostel with an Australian couple who we’d bumped into at the border festivities. So the next morning we woke up in Ecuador!
The next few days saw a change in temperature and climate generally. We really felt like we were in the tropics… the heat was stifling, sudden rain storms threatened to dampen our days, but the soon to follow blue skies and the ramshackled huts selling amazing food at the side of the road kept us happy! We covered 700km in just over two days, which in Peru had taken us over a week.
Most of the roads are slick and newly paved, except where they are building them, and the drivers actually drive on the correct side of the road which was a very welcome surprise! We decided to take the lowland jungle route, rather than the higher altitude Pan American highway, meaning we were passing small unsuspecting villages and farmsteads instead of fighting our way through industrial towns. But each village we passed they warned us to be careful in the area, and especially the next village! Fortunately, we didn’t run into any problems, apart from a whopping great spider in the middle of the road, which each of us in turn nearly ran over….
Once we reached Puyo, it was time to split up. We sat and had our last lunch together before PJ carried on north and we stayed put, ready to head into the Amazon for our jungle adventure!
Peru has been a joy, in short it has been the best riding by far and has thrown up in front of us the most incredible scenery, the most epic roads, high passes with even higher mountains. Glaciers, roaring rivers and such brilliant scenery! A real joy to ride through No.1 on Chris’ list of places to ride!
Paying 3 times as much for boat than the fare Chloe 0 v 1 Chris
Paying 4 times the price for egg sandwiches Chloe 0 v 1 Chris
Dropped and nearly lost camera in river Chloe 0 v 1 Chris
Badly throw led to camera being dropped Chloe 1 v 0 Chris
Broken parts on bike in one day Chloe 4 v 0 Chris