Down Through A Cloud Layer

Written July 21, 2016

I lied a bit when I left you last, or at least got ahead of myself.  Rather than heading directly onto the adventurous roads I described, we needed to ride further north through the mountainous farm country north of Huamanchuco in Peru, which means high but only moderately steep slopes, where corn and grain are grown, cattle roam, and horses find an ideal home.  Peruvian farmland means adobe houses all around, thick walls of mud and straw, with roofs of corrugated metal, or clay tiles.  The bricks and tiles were made locally everywhere we went, and it was common to see hundreds of adobe bricks laid out on the ground to dry.  Nearby, the curved slabs of clay roof tiles lay in long rows to dry, leaning one against the other like dominoes.  Black smoke would pour out of the wood-fueled kilns where the roof tiles were fired.

We left Huamanchuco and rolled north along a narrow paved road toward Baños del Incas, where we had made an Airbnb reservation at an old hacienda.  Our ride was really enjoyable that day, as it rolled along through beautiful and varying farmland and small towns and villages.  Around lunchtime, we were riding through the streets of Cajabamba, a moderate sized town, and Jalene spotted a sign for a café that somehow pulled her in.  We ended up having a terrific lunch of sandwiches and some of the best hot chocolate I’ve had yet.  Jalene also indicated that her latte was outstanding, and she loved it.  So when in Cajabamba, stop at San Vicente Sandwicheria Criolla, and have yourself a real treat.

After Cajabamba, the road opened up onto a two-lane again, and we made tracks through somewhat drier country, rising into a semi-desert terrain of brush and grasses, and we found ourselves climbing and falling through fun switchbacks and wraparound roads.  On afternoons like these, I often find myself wishing I could magically transport some of my sportbike friends here, so they could see it for themselves.  I think there would be some emigration south, or at least some serious vacation time booked.  Bring extra tires and brake pads.

In Baños del Incas, named for very old thermal baths used by the locals for centuries, we found our way to an old hacienda outside of town.  We were ushered inside the thick walls into a green grassy courtyard with leafy trees providing shady areas.  The welcoming rooms surrounding the courtyard were built along the outer wall.  Ours was large and comfortable, with rippled wood floors obviously laid down long ago.  The ceiling was of wood beams, crossed by bamboo slats, upon which were laid the roofing tiles visible to us from below, open to airflow.  We had the use of the kitchen, and the family invited us to breakfast with them in the large, formal dining room.  There was also a long, open living room, where one could relax and imagine the ladies and gentlemen in all their finery, entertaining guests a hundred years ago.  That’s how long this hacienda had been in the family of our hostess Rosario, and she and her husband made us feel welcome and comfortable in their home.  Out back, of course, were the horses and cattle, and we were treated to freshly separated cream each morning for Jay’s coffee and our hot harina de avena, or oatmeal.  Nothing like it.

People down here are incredibly helpful, and will go to great lengths to try to take care of you.  For example, Jalene and I decided to go into nearby Cajamarca from the hacienda to hit a cash machine and then have a nice dinner.  We wanted to just take a taxi, but our hosts would not hear of this, so Rosario’s husband drove us into Cajamarca, and dropped us at a restaurant of his approval.  To make sure we would make it back safely, he talked to a friend in an office next door to the restaurant, and gave specific written instructions that we would need a taxi to take us back, and here was the address, etc.  We were then told that when we finished dinner, we were to come back here and that a taxi would take us home, etc.  How we made it all the way down through Central America to here, heaven only knows.

After reluctantly departing Rosario’s family and Baños del Incas, it was time to head for the area where we had been told we could see the Peruvian mummies, and the associated cliffside sarcophagi and the ruins of ancient dwellings.  We rode northeast to the jumping-off point of Celendin.  The road that day was not difficult, a paved two-laner, but we did cross over a high pass that had us adding a layer under our riding gear.  Eventually we dropped down again into warm air, and a valley containing the town opened before us.  Celendin is a very cool town, with a great vibe and very nice people.  It’s sits in an area like the cupped palm of a hand, but with the valley dropping away steeply on one side where the river exits and falls away.  We found a fairly new, comfortable hostel on a corner of the main square, where other moto-travelers have stayed and recommended.  Wi-fi was not so hot, but the water in the shower was.

We hung out in the square for a while and soaked up the sun, with our ice cream cones.  In Peru, the ice cream tends to be much softer and lighter, full of air, and you have to eat it really fast in the sun if you want to avoid disaster. For the more solid, dense stuff, get an ice cream bar from the freezer that’s in every little store, and you’ll be happier.  Dulcetto is my favorite, rich chocolate with peanut butter inside, usually 2 soles, about 66 cents.  Grab one, find a shady bench across the street in the square, and watch the world go by.  Dinnertime found us in the restaurant adjoining our hotel, and the owner came out and introduced herself in perfect English.  No surprise as she had lived in New Orleans for years.  This kind of thing has happened several times now in Peru, where suddenly someone will speak to us in perfect English, and we find that they have lived in the US or abroad for a time.  These meetings tend to be particularly valuable to us, as these people can quickly help us understand local customs, where to find things, or just tell us about our surroundings.

Celendin sits just west of the Rio Marañon, a very deep canyon that runs northward between the two parallel ranges that form the northern Peruvian Andes.  Our ride from Celendin to Leymabamba took us on a path directly crossing that canyon, and then continued over another high pass before dropping into a sheltered valley up in the Cordillera Central range.  As we reached the edge of the canyon, we found ourselves looking down through a cloud layer at what, from that point, looked like the descent to a valley floor visible to us some distance below.  We could see the road wrapping back and forth around steep terrain, forcing its way where it could.  It was obviously a very old path that had been widened again and again over time, and it was now wide enough for one truck to drive on, about 4 “giant steps” across.  The wind coming up the mountainside swept the clouds upwards around us.  We could see a bus slowly making its way down the road behind us some distance, and so we made our photo stops short so as not to get stuck behind the slow moving turtle.  We also admitted that if we were following that bus, we’d have to watch if it tumbled off the side of the road and crashed down thousands of feet below.  It was incredible to see that full-sized buses and trucks were coming down this narrow, steep lane, portions of which were often missing.  The photos will help explain, but they don’t capture the bad parts, where we did not want to stop on the bikes, even for a just a photo, for fear of someone coming around a blind corner and hitting us, or worse, knocking us over the edge.  As it turned out, traffic was very light on this amazing road and we were fine.

But where we looked down through holes in the cloud layer, and thought we could see how far down we were going, that was all an illusion.  We could only see to where the slope temporarily flattened out a bit, and the road left our view.  It turns out that we rode switchbacks down for about an hour, dropping from one hanging valley to another, seemingly without end.  Once we got below the cloud layer, an immense canyon opened out for us, and only then did we realize how far down below us the river was.  As we descended more than 2,000 meters, the air began thin and cold, with winds that carried fog up to us, but changed surprisingly quickly to hot and thick and dry.  Just before we reached the river, we were stopped at a barricade, where we were told the road would not be open again for an hour due to blasting operations.  While in line, we had a nice chat with a botanist from one of the Peruvian universities, who was engaged in studies of the local flora with assistance of some other universities in the US.  We had a great discussion on the merits of collaborative research, and how it enables funding from our National Science Foundation for work in Peru.  For a while there came a light rain, but it was so hot that none of us took notice other than to comment that it felt good.

Finally the barrier was lifted, and we found ourselves along the Rio Marañon on a road hacked into the cliff, eventually turning to cross a bridge and enter the town of Balsas, just a few streets along the riverbank.  In the hot canyon-bottom, we cooled off in the shade of a few trees and got some water back into ourselves.  Leaving Balsas, we did a little dirt-biking along the river bank where they detoured us, and then we were once again on pavement.  For a short time we rode along a tributary through irrigated fruit trees, and then once again it was up into the dry desert surroundings as we rose out of the canyon, climbing for mile after mile, seemingly forever, to find ourselves once again high in the Andes.  This time we climbed right up into the clouds, finally topping out at 3,600 meters (11,800’) in fog and rain before descending into the steep-sided valley where the town of Leymabamba is found.  It was here that we found our first mummies.

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