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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Desert Beaches

Written July 20, 2016

With the slight nervousness we always feel when crossing into a new country, we approached the border into Peru.  We were stamped out of Ecuador with quick efficiency, and rode across the bridge over the Rio Macara.  Peruana Migracion stamped our passports with 183 days of time to see the country, after which we moved across the street and purchased the mandatory seguro (insurance) for the bikes.  After that it was up the road another 100 feet or so to the Aduana office to import the motos.  Sadly, the bikes were only given 90 days in Peru, even though I kind of begged, so that will be our limiting factor.  We took our time and made sure all the numbers were correct before signing the documents.  Friends have experienced trouble when exiting countries, especially Peru, because mistakes were made at entry, often simple typos, and so we are very careful about this.  Once we were satisfied, we rode south to continue our journey in the land of the Incas.

Peru was immediately different from Ecuador.  The coastal region dries out as you move south from the equator, and there is a fairly abrupt change in the border region.  On our route south, angling toward the Pacific, the land flattened and dried out drastically.  We were down in the coastal desert now, and in a much poorer country.  Visually, it looked much like northern Mexico deja vu.  Cactus, brush, sand and rocks.  Hot and dry.  Garbage was once again all around us.  But it was somehow liberating to be back in a place where things were simpler, choices in the little stores were fewer, road rules, or enforcement anyway, were nearly non-existent, and people just seemed happy in such a simple way.  Indeed, while having a flavor all its own, Peru has that old familiar loose feel and attitude, where most things are tolerated as long as we all get along.  Or don’t crash.

We stayed our first night in a little village called Chulucanas.  From here, we had a choice - go straight as an arrow across the Desierto de Sechura, or skirting inland along the base of the Andes.  The inland route seemed more interesting to us, a little windier and going through several towns along the way south toward Chiclayo.  Our route was desolate but quite beautiful, passing across great fields of sage-like brush, sometimes winding up and down to penetrate low hills sticking out from the mountains like troll’s toes.  There were places where water turned a valley green around us for a brief time, then we were back into the rock and sand that dominated.

Eroded pyramid at Sipan ruins.

We stayed at Chiclayo for 3 nights, after having been on the road daily since Vilcabamba.  I did a little work on the bikes (Jalene’s water pump is starting to leak coolant again), and we visited the site of the Sipan ruins and spectacular treasure excavated from the tombs there recently.  The treasure recovered and displayed now at the museum in Lambayeque rivals Tutankhamen’s, and is of finely crafted gold, silver, copper, and turquoise.  We rode out to the Sipan site itself and saw the eroded pyramids, which were made from adobe bricks.  Over several hundred years, the periodic El Niño/La Niña rain cycles had turned them into ordinary-looking worn-down desert hills, but when you inspect them closely the faint horizontal tracings of the rows of adobe become visible.  The excavation pits were still there, and they have recreated what was found in the pits, allowing you to see just how things were laid out in the tomb.  Well worth a visit if you are in the Chiclayo area.

After leaving Chiclayo, we headed south along the coast to an area recommended by an Ecuadorian friend, and we found our way across the flat, baked rocky sands to Chicama, a tiny surf village on Punto Malabrigo.  We were hot and tired after this day, and welcomed the cool breeze off the water.  We treated ourselves to a hotel costing more than our “limit,” but we struck a bargain and got a great deal on a really nice room for the night.  Our view was of the “Chicama surf spot,” which a friend in Oregon tells me is one of the longest left surf breaks in the world.  Indeed, one could sit and watch the waves continuously peeling, row after row, as they bent around the point and came toward the sandy shoreline.

Chicama surf spot and our treat for a night.

Waking up in Chicama was like waking up in Newport, our home in Oregon.  It was cold, the wind was blowing, and the sky was gray.  Who signed us up for this?  Breakfast was outside on the patio, not exactly what I was looking for, but we got fed with some great food and juice, packed up the bikes, and went inland just a bit before finding warmer air.  We were bound for the metropolis of Trujillo that day, and didn’t have far to go, so on the way we checked out some river valleys inland a little ways, and found incredibly dry, rocky plains between ridges where water comes down only during flood times.  We rode up a ways to get a feel for the country, over the sandy, rocky road leading literally “upriver” in the riverbed.   We could have continued if we wanted to and looped around into Trujillo from another way, but our hungry bellies won out and we went back down to the highway, where we ate at our typical little roadside restaurant stop for almuerzo, which is almost always a great lunch of soup, some chicken or pork, and maybe rice with yucca or platano, with a glass of fresh juice.  Usually it’s the equivalent of just 2 or 3 dollars, a heck of a deal for a good hot meal.

We only stayed one night in Trujillo.  We found ourselves in a crummy hotel and just didn’t like the feel of the town.  Later we found out that Huanchaco, just outside of Trujillo, was a much better place to stay, but our choice had been made, and so we packed up and headed inland to explore the northern Peruvian Andes.

After heading inland along the Rio Moche, it didn’t take long for the land to begin rising, and we found ourselves in green farmland along the bottom of a narrowing and steepening valley.  Beautiful, lush crops of potatoes, grains, and a little coffee grew alongside the road in small plots, and it took on almost a storybook feel to it as we were lifted through several small villages and the road snaked up and around like a roller-coaster.  We stopped to take a short break at a nice overlook, and a dog came barking up at us from a house just below.  With the steep drop-off, you could almost literally step out onto the roof of the house.  Soon a woman came up after the dog, and just as loud, whacking it with her cane and apologizing to the two gringos beside the road.  We had a pleasantly broken conversation with her.  She was a friendly, happy, comfortable person who was pleased to meet us, and let us get a photo with her and her lovely farmland valley.  Even if we only half knew what she was saying, it was obvious she was welcoming us into her land, and was pleased to meet us.  This is a place AND a face I’ll always remember.

Keith's roadside friend.

Soon we were high in the Andes again.  The air dried out, the land dried out, and it got cold.  We crossed a pass over 4,200 meters just two hours after leaving sea level, and found ourselves amidst huge mines, where they extracted gold, silver and copper.  Gigantic piles of mine tailings were around us at times.  But more often we were riding through starkly beautiful mountain tops covered with thin bunchgrasses and brush, no trees and little sign of rainfall.  The air was thin and cold and the wind never stopped.  Coal was piled outside some of the houses we passed.  Breathing was a purposeful exercise, getting what oxygen out of it that we could.  We endured this for couple of hours before coming into the town of Huamanchuco. 

As we came near the town, we were famished, so we stopped at a building that looked empty except for the chalkboard almuerzo sign out front.  We stopped and had a great meal of the usual soup, chicken and rice, skipped the salad, thanks, and a glass of juice.  A few other people were eating there, which was a good sign, and as usual, everyone was friendly.  The baños here were typical, in that they were clean enough, but one had to take a bucket and dip some water out of a barrel to flush the toilet, which was not plumbed to a water source.  The sink had cold water, and even some soap, which was great.  As is normal, no towel for your hands.  Bathrooms in more frequented places will almost always have the toilet working normally, but soap and towels are always hit or miss.  Seats on the toilet are sometimes not present, and hot water in the sink is very rare.

Huamanchuco is down in a bit of a valley and sheltered from the surrounding weather.  We found a great hotel with secure parking for the bikes across the street in the compound of a car repair place.  The décor of the hotel was unique, I must say, with color and flair, but you really have to go to the photos to grasp the “style.”  Still, it had hot water, so we were totally happy.

We had crossed over a significant divide in the mountains, and we saw this immediately in the people we were now surrounded with.  We found a unique culture here, with different clothes and especially different hats.  Now most all of the ladies wore a broad-brimmed hat with a tall center and flat or dished top, made of woven plant fiber, very distinctive and attractive.  Their hats were all nearly exactly the same, and a few of the men wore them too, but it was obvious that any lady worth her salt never left the house without that sombrero.  Over the next few days as we worked our way north, we continued to see that hat, but watched the style change from place to place.

So far, the trip in Peru had been a whirlwind of places and faces and varying climates, cultures, clothes, and food, and we had only been here about a week!  We decided to slow down our movement across the landscape, and so we chose a long valley to the north of us known for it’s Peruvian mummies and sarcophagi in the high cliffs and deep canyons.  As well, the roads were narrower and more broken, traversing extremely rugged canyons and mountains in a way we’d only seen in photographs before this.  Now we were planning on roads where we could literally fall thousands of feet if we went off the side, and where trucks or buses could not pass each other.  The trip was going to get really interesting.


Plenty of photos to see in our South American Gallery.