02 July 2014

La Balsa to Cajamarca: Easing our way into the Peruvian Andes

Immediately upon crossing into Peru we were treated to paved roads, clear skies, and gentle gradients. Having lost a few hours to the border agent's shenanigans, we cycled the 7km to the first town in Peru, Namballe, and spent the night there. The people of Namballe were quite friendly and we enjoyed an evening of trying our first food in Peru (delicious) and seeing what was available in the shops here.

The route out of Ecuador via La Balsa with its mud and rain is the place where brakepads (and rims) go to die.  More than ever before, we regretted the decision about not having mechanical disc brakes on our bikes - lesson learnt!
Namballe was a chilled out town
We reached San Ignacio the next day and decided to have an early stop, still getting the lay of the land in Peruvian towns. In the market, we were delighted to find a new type of cheese, Queso Suizo (though it has virtually nothing in common with what we would call Swiss Cheese), with good flavour and a bit more maturity. Last time we enjoyed a cheese of this type was back in Colombia with the Queso Paipa.

This area of Peru is a coffee-growing region. We wonder if Peruvian coffee will one day be as famous as that from other parts of South America
New country means new kinds of beers to try. The Cusqueña Negra is quite good!
Leaving San Ignacio we were surprised by 30 km of unpaved road, as this section is supposedly all paved. It turns out they are re-paving it, so have torn up all the asphalt in the meantime. Soon enough we hit pavement again and rode through coffee farms and thick vegetation to Tamborapa, where we had heard that many cyclists had camped with the police. We found the police engrossed in a World Cup match but they assured us that we could camp in the field next to their building. Our hopes for a quiet night were dashed, however, when just as we were getting into the tents the visiting circus started blasting its 20 second advertisement (Tres soles, tres soles, tres soles pagan los niños! Cinco soles pagan los adultos!) on repeat for approximately two hours. 
We enjoyed riding the smooth and gentle 5N into the Northern Highlands of Peru
After Tamborapa, we made the decision to shortcut around the city of Jaen, onto dirt roads to cross the Rio Marañon in a small boat. By this time the early morning clouds had cleared away and we were in for an afternoon of hot riding. Just a few kilometers out of Bagua Grande, Alberto had a puncture due to his rim tape shifting and a spoke poking through – of course we only realised this after puncturing a second inner tube in the process of repair. It was a frustrating job, especially in the heat, and we decided to call it a day when we got to Bagua Grande shortly afterwards.

Four bikes, one motorcycle, and associated passengers all made it across in one trip. Expect 2 soles charge for bike and rider! (Photo courtesy of Marc and Noemie)

Here we approach the river Utcubamba´s canyon - a nice introduction to Perú´s scenic roads

 In Bagua Grande our search for a bike shop gave us the perfect excuse to take a mototaxi ride, which we had been curious about since they suddenly became ubiquitous as soon as we crossed the border. The owner of the local bike workshop was very friendly and told us about many touring cyclists who have stopped in for various reasons – despite it not being a particularly well-stocked shop he clearly knew his stuff and even mentioned how cool the idea of the Rohloff is.

The mototaxi rules in Peruvian towns - here we are in our first ride in Bagua Grande (photo courtesy of Marc and Noemie)
The scenery out of Bagua Grande was stunning, riding through a canyon with a river alongside us, and climbing so gently as to be almost unnoticeable. Taking the turnoff for the 8B in the town of Pedro Ruiz, we knew we would be passing close to the Gocta waterfall, Peru's highest, and decided it sounded like a good place to camp. Even though everyone assured us it was close, no one could give us any real information about how far it was. We finally spotted the turnoff for the village of Cocachimba, and after a short but steep dirt road climb, we arrived in town to views of the falls. 

Canyon riding (Photo courtesy of Marc and Noemie)
The worker selling tickets to the falls seemed to be familiar with touring cyclists' needs – he pointed out where we could camp and where the public toilets were before we could even ask! The Gocta waterfall was only “discovered” by the “authorities” in 2005 – but it is ranked sometimes as the fifth highest in the world.
Camping with a view of Peru´s highest waterfall (~771 m)
The following morning, we said goodbye to Marc and Noemie after more than a month of great company. We had decided to take the walk to the falls while they pressed on with a slightly tighter schedule for their time in Peru. It was a pleasant walk, and doing it in the early morning meant we had the trail mostly to ourselves, but being dry season the falls were not as impressive as they could be.
Being dry season, the waterfalls did not look as impressive as they would in the rainy season
We both woke up the next morning feeling a bit off, but decided we could handle a day of gentle climbing to Tingo Viejo. It helped that the road was amongst the most beautiful we have ridden, following the river Utcubamba through its canyon. We had decided to skip the extra climb up to Chachapoyas, reasoning that we had seen plenty of colonial towns already on our trip and would be sure to see plenty more.

Arriving in Tingo Viejo, with Alberto still feeling ill, we checked into a cheap hospedaje and got ready for a few days of rest, more antibiotics, and lots of liquids. We had an above average social life in Tingo, meeting Gary, a from the UK headed North, and Markus, a German hiker.

Although we skipped riding to Chachapoyas, we had to make a run to the ATM there after staying longer in Tingo than planned. It was a pleasant enough town and we were glad to have the chance to see it. Here, the market.

When Alberto had improved, we spent a day visiting the impressive ruins of Kuelap, built by the Chachapoyas people who were later conquered by the Incas (and then later the Spaniards).
Only about 15% of the site has been properly excavated so far
After so many days off the bikes, we were ready to get started again for what is rumored to be one of the best roads in Peru, headed towards Cajamarca. True to its reputation, the road our first day out of Tingo was spectacular, continuing along the Utcubamba River until Leymebamba and then introducing us to our first classic Peruvian switchbacked climb. Midway up the climb we had decided to call it a day and were looking for places to camp. We stopped in the small settlement of Ishbingo to ask about options. 

More great riverside riding

Climbing through the mountain up from Leymebamba
Alberto spoke to some older women who told him we could continue ten minutes up the road where there was another village with space for us. Meanwhile Lucy fell into conversation with some local kids. Eleven year old Mery told Lucy she wanted us to stay at her house – but her parents weren´t around so we decided it was best to head to the other village. There, we were showed the grassy spot where cyclists have camped before, but just as we were getting the tent out, we noticed Mery running towards us. Her mother had just arrived home and had told her to come collect us and bring us back to stay with them. She had run about two kilometers uphill to find us, in flip-flops. You can´t reject an offer that comes from an 11 year old girl who has just run up a mountain!

So we backtracked to Mery´s house, a simple construction of adobe with earthen floors and no running water. The whole family was really welcoming, cooking us dinner and breakfast even though we insisted it wasn´t necessary, and we enjoyed talking with them about life in our respective countries. It was an incredibly humbling experience to have a family with so little share so freely with us. 

Five year old Anita taught us how to eat sugar cane
Getting ready for bed in Mery´s house - the ladder leads to the room where the family sleeps
The following morning after saying our goodbyes, we continued up the climb. The weather had shifted and we had fog and rain, which meant we missed out on the views, but as soon as we summited the pass and started down the other side the vistas opened up and we saw for the first time the Peruvian Andes stretching out in all directions.

Rush hour on Peru´s route 8B looks a bit different
The name of the pass translates as ¨Shut up, Shut up¨

First views of the proper Andes in Peru. We´ll be descending to the river you can see below for quite a while...
From the top of the pass at 3600m we lost 2700m in altitude over the course of round 60km, with barely a pedal stroke. It was late afternoon when we reached the river crossing at Balsas so we decided to stay there, even though it was incredibly hot down at 900m. Although we had low expectations of the town, in the end we found it quite pleasant, and enjoyed the chance to see the contrast between life in the high mountains and the low river valley.

Descending was slow thanks to the narrow, winding road with precipitous drops. Still, we feel safer on bikes than in any other vehicle

Many towns in Peru have these signs declaring the end of illiteracy. Not sure if the irony is intentional.

Isn´t it brilliant that the women of Balsas close their businesses for an hour to go play volleyball on the village´s main street?

An early wake up and a great sunrise just as we leave Balsas at 6 am...to find a shop selling amazing local mangos, the first since our time in Colombia
We woke up at 4am the following morning, in hopes of escaping the low altitudes before the sun got too high in the sky. It was hot anyway, but not desperately so, and things did cool off as we climbed. From Balsas we faced a 2,200 m climb straight up the mountainside with more of the classic Peruvian swtichbacks. Arriving at the top after 6.5 hours of riding time (and ten hours on the road) we were stunned that we could still see Balsas directly below us.

In Perú, we found many unattended businesses, including this desperately needed restaurant on the climb up from Balsas. Perhaps the poster on the left provides an explanation? ("God is the owner of this business")
Climbing with a view of the switchbacks we´re headed towards

About to round the corner of the last switchback, looking back on what we´ve climbed

The clearing in the trees on the far side of the river is Balsas, 2200m below us!

Clear views always help with a big a climb

It would have been simple to descend the 10km into Celendin, but we decided instead to camp in the small town at the summit, the better aid our acclimatization and our daily budget. But overnight, Lucy had to leave the tent to vomit twice, and in the morning was still not feeling well. Luckily, it was a 30 minute downhill zip to Celendin where we could check into a hospedaje for the day for her to rest up.

Celendin was a nice and friendly mid-size town before the last push to Cajamarca
 The next day Lucy was feeling better. We climbed for most of the day again, much more gently than the previous pass, and descended to the town of Encañada. We planned to stay in a hospedaje another night to let Lucy recover some more, but unbeknownst to us, the town was in the middle of its annual fiestas and all the hospedajes were full. So we cycled out of town and lucked upon a quiet church with a good awning to camp under.

The road from Celendín to Cajamarca had some entertainment for us: here the Saturday market at Cruz Conga. At 5000 soles (almost $2000) per head, we decided against getting our own dairy cow, but wouldn´t it be cool?

Luxury camping on the outskirts of Encañada
A day later we finally reached Cajamarca, where we settled in for a few days off in our first big city in Peru and began to plan our journey South to the Cordillera Blanca.

Moto-taxis keep getting more and more sofisticated since we arrived in Perú. Although buying one of these would definitely make our Andean climbs a lot easier, we decided to stick to the bikes...but maybe one day?

We loved wandering about in Cajamarca. Great dairy products, plenty of local foods, good markets, cheap almuerzos...what else does a cycle tourist want?

View of the historic town of Cajamarca from Santa Apolonia

Cajamarca was also the last stand of the Inca empire. The Ransom room (the only remaining ruin in town), though not particularly impressive, featured some nice Inca stonework

Cajamarca isn´t really that far from the coast...so Alberto went and tried his first Peruvian ceviche at the central market busiest stand - for less than $2.5 he got a ton of fried squid, marinated raw mackerel and octopus
Route notes:

- La Balsa to Tingo: it is now all paved since last year, except a 30 km section as you leave San Ignacio headed for Jaen. The roadworks are schedule to finish in March 2015. Be aware that they can hold you up for up to 1 hour! To avoid Jaen (where apparently there´s now a Casa de Ciclistas) take the dirt road and ask for the desvío to Bellavista. In Bellavista ask for the path to the Marañón river, where a small boat will take you across to the other side for 1 sol per passenger and 1 sol per bike. The dirt road then continues past a refinery, then re-joins the main road. Chachapoyas is the last place before Celendin to get cash from an ATM.

Getting to the Gocta waterfalls: The turnoffis about 20 km on the road from Pedro Ruiz to Chachapoyas, and can be accessed from San Pablo or Cocachimba. In Cocachimba there are a few basic hospedajes, a fancy one, and overpriced restaurants. You can camp and enjoy a fully equipped toilet (with a cold water shower!) in town. The entry to the waterfall is 10 soles and getting to the bottom and back will take about 3-4 hours. You can also walk to the middle section of the waterfall but that would take longer. We later learnt that the trail from San Pablo will take you to the middle section of the waterfall, on a flatter and more scenic path.

- Getting to Kuelap: The walking path (10km uphill) leaves from Tingo Viejo, on the main road. It is also possible to cycle to the ruins using the longer (app. 40-45km, 5-6 hours riding uphill) dirt road that the colectivos take.But we also learnt that a new, much more direct, road is built and about to open from Nogalcucho just 5 km past Tingo Viejo, which will take you up to the ruins in 13 steep km.If you are not planning on cycling or walking to the ruins, Tingo Nuevo provides a better chance of catching a collectivo in the morning, as well as more services. The hostal Tingo in Tingo Viejo was a good and budget place to base ourselves for 15 soles a night.

- Tingo to Cajamarca: the road is all paved, passes through small settlements and Leymebamba. Balsas, at the bottom of the valley, has a few restaurants and basic accommodation. Once you start going uphill, there´s a stream of water running parallel to the road, and a couple of restaurants in the town of Limón (22 km into the climb). At the top of the climb, just before the downhill to Celendín, there´s a small little shop selling nice fresh cheese and drinks.

In Cajamarca, we bargained a nice room with toilet and fast internet for 35 soles a night at the Hostal Plaza, in the main Plaza de Armas.


  1. What an amazing opportunity to be able to share a night with Mery and her family. It sounds like it was really special for everyone. I hope both of you have recovered from your illnesses and can enjoy the delicious looking food of Peru.

  2. We don´t let the illnesses stop us from enjoying the food! Yeah, our stay in Ishbingo will be one we remember for a long time.

  3. Indeed, still eating lots - now in the land of home made exotic icecreams that is Carhuaz! The generosity of the people we´ve met on the road really puts things in perspective...! Why don´t you two get some bikes-racks-panniers and come join for a little while? We can do the cooking with our fancy stove :)