Koronas del Incas

Jalene’s birthday is three days from now – what to do?  We’re hanging out in Cusco, planning our route into Bolivia, and getting over the cold that both of us have caught.  Fortunately it’s high and dry here, so head colds don’t last long.  Skin cracks, throats parch, and your sinuses and lungs always feel a bit on the leathery side at this altitude.  Cusco is just over on the dry western side of the Andes, and you roll out of here to the southeast onto the high Altiplano as you approach Lago Titicaca.  Yesterday afternoon was spent opening up the valve cover on my bike and installing an updated decompression lever on the exhaust cam, which helped cure my bike’s high-altitude cold-start issue.  I’m getting to the point where any paved area is all the shop I need to do engine surgery.  Still, what I’d give for my garage and proper tools…

But back to our journey through northern Peru.  After we left Chachapoyas we rode north a short ways and found our way up a mountainside to the village of Cocachimba.  From our hostel window we could gaze out at the 771-meter high Gocta waterfall.  Strangely, while many people know of this spectacle, we only encountered a few other tourists coming to see it.  The dirt road up to the village is not hard, and so I wondered why there were not more people there.  The waterfall itself is amazing, descending in two steps down into a large pool that you can hike to and swim in.

Now it was time to turn east and then south again.  We had been at altitude in the Andes for quite some time, and were anxious to change our surroundings, and so headed for the Amazonia.  Our path took us to Moyobamba, where we took a 3-day break to soak up some warmth and relax.  We found a very comfortable and inexpensive hostel near the square (as always), and enjoyed some time getting to know an American PhD student working with the local indigenous people to develop the market for an alternative vanilla species grown locally.  I had no idea that vanilla was a species of orchid, and that there are many species that produce the vanilla pod.  The hard part is getting a new species recognized and approved by the regulatory agencies in importing countries.

This is a place with a tremendous variety of orchids, and as we dropped in elevation going east, the desert of the high mountains gave way to lush, wet jungle.  We continued east until we reached Yurimaguas, literally the end of the road, at least the road for things with wheels.  There, one finds a harbor on the big Rio Huallaga, where river boats of all kinds pull up to the bank, serving as truck and bus on the watery highway that continues into Amazonia.  One can hop on a boat here – look at the board on each vessel advertising where they are going and when – and head deep downriver.  In a few days, you could be at Iquitos, a fair-sized city still in Peru where only boats and planes go, or continue on until the river joins into the Amazon itself before flowing east to Brazil.  The noisy “docks” where the boats pull up to the bank is an interesting area to watch, with everything loaded and unloaded by hand, using long ramps and slides.  Large things, even vehicles, are wrestled off onto the bank and driven up the rocky, muddy ramps to the street level.  Bags of rice, fruit, cement, and whatever are sent sliding down long planks covered with tarps, and only once did I see one go off the side.  It reminded me of tales of the Mississippi from long ago.

We have many photos of the long, long canoes that ply the river, carrying people and cargo up and down the river locally.  Some are covered, seat four abreast with an aisle down the middle, and over 20 meters long.  As we rode along the river southward, we could see them moving along through vast areas of farmland and jungle, and in the little towns where the road found the river again, we saw shops with “Yamaha” and Suzuki” over the door, but inside there were only outboard supplies – this area was totally focused on river travel.  This is also timber country, and we were pleasantly surprised when we looked in a chainsaw shop and spotted Oregon brand chains for sale.  I asked the guy at the counter what chains the locals preferred for cutting the hardwood trees here, and he pointed at the Oregon brand boxes.

As we were riding south through the area known as the Mountagnia, that flat band of jungle near the base of the Andes, we found the roads varying between good pavement, bad pavement, and good rock roads.  The good rock roads are much better than the bad paved roads, mainly because a bad paved road has sharp-edged potholes that can bend rims and break your teeth.  It tends to happen in areas where rocks fall down onto the road and punch holes in the asphalt, after which trucks and buses destroy it.  Sometimes it lasts a hundred yards, sometimes it lasts 100 miles.  We are always much happier when the asphalt ends completely and we’re on dirt and rocks, it’s much easier to ride on.  Sometimes when we choose our routes we make choices based on the road surface, especially if there is more than one way to get there.  Google maps will often have enough resolution that I can zoom in and actually see the road surface.

We rode south , and spent nights in towns with names like Juanjui, Tocache, and Tingo Maria.  Finally, at Huanuco, we turned west again and headed back up into the Andes, our goal being to see the Cordillera Blanca with its glaciers and ice fields.  It would take us two days to get to Huaraz, which sits in the valley below the mountain range.  The road rose quickly, and just as quickly deteriorated to a maze of potholes, rocks, and small patches of the road that once was.  Our speed dropped to about 20 mph as we weaved and dodged obstacles and holes, working our way up through switchbacks, trucks, buses, and what-have-you.  We finally topped out in the afternoon at Koronas del Incas, the Crown of the Incas, a spectacular series of rock towers on the mountaintop above.  The pass topped out at 4100 meters, and we took a break on the grass beside the road and soaked in the scenery.  Glen Cochrane, from Australia came by on his Triumph, and we had a nice chat and story-swap.  Glen has been traveling for three years now and filled us in a bit on the area around where we were going.  After a while it was time to ride, and as went descended the clouds closed in and the rain began, coming down harder and harder as we worked our way further east.  Finally, in La Union, we found a clean, cheap place and threw in the towel for the day, muddy and wet and tired, but happy with the progress we’d made.  Some kind of festival was going on, so the streets were noisy and crowded.  We found a place for Chifa, a kind of cross between Chinese and Peruvian food, which is usually a good choice when you have no idea, and are tired and hungry.

When we left La Union in the morning, the road changed quickly for the better, and soon we found ourselves back on good pavement, becoming two-lane once we reached Huansala.  Neither one of us could quite remember when the last time we’d seen a yellow line was.  Now the road rose up quickly, and we climbed to 4,700 meters over Abra Yanashalla, a high pass where nothing but brown grass and bare rock is seen, with jagged peaks and glaciers above you.  We dropped down into a broad valley, looping around and around, and the road passed frigid streams with llamas along the banks and in the fields.  Soon we turned north, and the land opened out onto high, rolling plains, with the snow-covered peaks of the Cordillera Blanca in the background behind.  This was a new and different kind of country to us, and while the huge bowls of brown grass reminded us of Wyoming at times, the round corrals surrounded by dry-stack stone walls that had been there for ages, and the herds of llamas quietly grazing with their brightly-dressed Peruvian shepherds always nearby under the high mountains beyond told us we were far from home.  The air was thin and cold, and we were glad to have good gear to ride in, and heated grips and jacket liners.

We reached Huaraz, a high mountain city at 3100 meters, and checked in at Jo’s Place, a hostel that let us pitch our tent in the grassy courtyard with others, and we enjoyed a nice cross between camping and hotel room.  Hot showers just a few steps out of your tent, near freezing temps a night, intense sun filled days, and fascinating travelers with whom we swapped stories.  Huaraz was a unique city, where we found a creperia run by a guy from France, excellent wood-fired Peruvian pizza, and views of the snow-covered peaks rising above the buildings everywhere you walked.  Plenty of tourists were around, as this is a popular and challenging place for hikers, trekkers, and mountain climbers.

While in Huaraz, I took a ride up to a nearby pass which tops out at the highest tunnel in South America at over 4,800 meters, Tunel Punto Olimpica.  The old road over the top still exists, and of course when I reached the tunnel, I turned left onto the dirt switchbacks leading over the pass above.  Sadly, the old road was badly washed out in one spot not far from the top, and I chose to stop just below 5,000 meters.  On the way back down to the tunnel, I lost the front end in some big loose rocks, no harm, but then got to experience picking up the bike at almost 16,000 feet of elevation.  It was a bit of work, but the cyclists going over the top were doing the real work, wow!  They loved it when I pointed to my GPS and they could see their elevation.  But the scary part was when I entered the seemingly safe tunnel to see the other side.  This is a major highway, two lanes and perfect pavement and the tunnel is 1.3 km straight through.  I swung in behind a car, which proved fortunate for me.  While enjoying the sparkling lights off the icicled rock ceiling, I saw brake lights come on in front of me and slowed to a stop behind.  My front tire slid a bit on wet ice that I didn’t know was there, and then I saw the two-foot deep ice barrier on the road ahead that had fallen from the ceiling moments before.  It looked like crushed rock on a railroad bed from wall to wall, tons of ice about 2 feet deep and maybe 100 feet to the far side.  Cars and trucks came to a stop in both directions, and the glare made seeing extremely difficult.  A big SUV, first in line coming at me, smashed through it and blocked others while I turned the bike around.  I elected to take the safe way back out rather than trying to push through the deep chunks of wet ice.  I never did get to thank the SUV driver that was probably my lifesaver in that wet, slick, glare-filled tunnel with traffic piling up.  I was disappointed at being twice-thwarted to get to the other side, but happy at being able to ride away with some great photos from way up high.

Sometimes it’s best to just accept what we are given, and on a trip like this, that sure is a lot to be thankful for.

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Head over to our South America Gallery to peruse the photos + take a gander at this video from Jalene sharing how this trip is teaching her to Live with More Heart.