Hello from Leymebamba in the quiet valley of the Uctubamba river. Unfortunately no pictures for now, will have to wait till better internet connection.
After two rest days in San Ignacio, back on the dirt road. Except it would only last 33 more miles, then the pavement began! It was nice for a change, the last 150 miles from just past Vilcabamba, Ecuador were all rough dirt/gravel/rock/potholed road. I made it to Bellavista, about 68 miles from San Ignacio. Not once that day did I use my little chainring (lowest gears)!!! I can’t even remember when the last time this happened, definitely not Ecuador, probably not in Colombia or Central America. Bellavista was near the Marañon River, I don’t think I was more than 800m (2,600 feet) in altitude, so it was a rather warm night compared to the past week. The whole area has a lot of rice growing, probably the only time I’ve seen this on the trip. And it is good too! I’m not sure what kind they grow, but it is some of the best I’ve had, with a nice and chewy consistency.
From Bellavista, a short ride to the River Marañon where a small boat shuttles motorcyles and passengers to the other side. This is a shortcut that avoids going through Jaen. Some more dirt road riding, but it is nice and flat. Then back on the main highway through Bagua Grande, a big and bustling town, I’m glad I’ve timed it right and don’t have to spend a night here.
Here I stop at a rather large restaurant, and ask if they have Coke (I see a bottle on the big banner with the menu), and if it is helado (ice cold), “yes” I’m told. My plate of rice and eggs comes and the young guy runs out, most likely to the store next door and comes back with Coke. It is barely above room temperature (which happens to be rather warm). “Sorry, anything colder? This is barely cold”,”No, this is helado”,”I’m sorry, it is barely cold, I was hoping for something really, really, ice cold”,”Sorry, we don’t have anything helado”.”OK, this will do, thanks”.
From Bagua Grande the road follows the Utcubamba river to Pedro Ruiz. Nothing like my last experience biking along a road supposedly in a river valley (as it appeared from a bad map) was in Ecuador, where I gave up and took a bus for 50 miles, since the road pretty much kept climbing up to the ridges above and then back down to the river. The ride to Pedro Ruiz was not too bad, with a few good climbs the last 20 miles during the day. At about 61 miles that day, about 130 miles in two days, which is much more than I’d done in any two days the past several weeks.
From Pedro Ruiz the paved road keeps going along the Utcubamba River for 24 miles, where there is a turn off for Chachapoyas, 9 miles and a couple thousand feet higher. I had hoped not to have to do the climb, but was running low on cash and still hadn’t found an ATM that would take my card. I could have in Bagua Grande, but feel so conspicuous riding up to an ATM on a main thoroughfare and taking out cash, makes me feel too much of a target. So up to Chachapoyas it was. The town had just finished a week of celebration of sorts, so I had to hunt around a little for a place to stay.
The next day I didn’t leave until early in the afternoon, I knew I had an easy day ahead. First down the 9 miles of pavement I had done the day before. Then back in the Utcubamba river valley, the road turns to dirt again. But it is mostly flat and I got to Tingo in no time. Tingo is the turnoff for the road (~38km) that heads up to the Kuelap ruins, and also the start of the hiking route (~10km). So I found a little hospedaje where I could spend the night and leave my stuff the next day while I visited Kuelap.
I woke up early and was on the trail by 7:30. I was kind of dreading the hike which would gain 4,000 feet in elevation, I knew it would be worth it, but was expecting something very strenuous. The sun was out, but very little humidity meant it was a much easier hike than ones I’d done in Central America. I really enjoyed the hike, a great channce to clear my mind and not think about riding a bike. The river disapeared into the valley below and the trail approached a plateau with a small village with plots of crops surrounding it. From here Kuelap came into view, still a ways up, and stopped me in my tracks. A huge walled fortress built on the top of a narrow ridge, built by the Chachapoyans around a thousand years ago.
There were a couple tour groups, but the ruins were big enough that I could wander around and admire the site mostly on my own (it gets but a few percent of the visitors Machu Pichu does). Kuelap is a settlement surrounded by huge impenetrable walls all around with only 3 narrow entrances. Once inside, save from a few rectangular structures, all the buildings are circular. One can only assume the society was so advanced that they knew that this way the dogs wouldn’t pee in the corners! I walked near some of the guides giving tours, but don’t remember much of the interesting facts. There are a few active digs and restoration sites where workers are reconstructing parts of the walls.
Even without the ruins, the hike itself would be worth it for the incredible views of the area. That I could find a shady tree to eat an orange and contemplate what the place would have been a thousand years ago made it a great day. I waited in the parking lot and got a ride back down to Tingo. I find downhills too rough on the knees and muscles rarely used when cycling. I got a ride with three nice women from Lima who were roadtripping around the area. That afternoon I spent a while talking with Luis, the retired school teacher who runs the hospedaje. I had taken a walk up the small river that had flooded several times in the nineties and brought lots of mud and rocks with it.
All around Tingo are lots of abandoned houses, most without roofs. I can only assume that these caved in or were used in construction of Tingo Nuevo, located a couple miles up the hill. Tingo Nuevo was built after most of the buildings further down in the valley were no longer inhabitable. Luis regretted the division that has arisen in the community now that it is split between new and old Tingo, he feels like the government aid to the area went mostly to the new town. His property was spared major damage, so he decided to stay put and open the hospedaje. With his own funds, Luis has built a concrete wall several feet high in front of his buildings in hopes of being protected from the next big flood, and also put in reinforcement along the banks of the river.
Aside from getting cash in Chachapoyas, my biggest find was some excellent coffee. At Cafe Fusiones I saw they had whole beans for sale, and they said they could also grind them there. I’m usually given blank stares when I ask for “whole beans, but can you grind them for me”. It doesn’t matter how good your beans are, if they were ground more than a few days ago, you are missing out. But the lady at the shop (an angel, to be sure) knew what was up. They roast the coffee in small batches in a clay pot. And she had a grinder that she could adjust to a coarse grind, which works much better in my filter.
Now, fresh roasted and fresh ground can also mean nothing. But the batch of beans I got is easily the best coffee of this trip. After buying the beans I kept having to smell the bag and its sweet goodness, eagerly anticipating the cup I’d make the next morning. Now, good smelling coffee can also mean nothing. But this coffee is simply amazing, it tastes like a luscious chocolate cake and is so smooth, hardly bitter like most of the charred beans and instant coffee I’ve had the past year.
I’m not just imagining this folks!! When I made the coffee this morning, Luis mentioned that it smelled really good, and he gladly accepted a cup. I said “Congrats, this amazing coffee is from your country”. He commented that Antonio Raimondi, an Italian who explored Peru in the mid-1800s said that Peru was “A bum sitting on a throne of gold”, in reference to the vast untapped natural riches of the country (though I’m not sure at what point in history coffee was cultivated in Peru).
The ride today was my favortie of Peru so far. The road closely followed the river and no more than a dozen cars drove by. I haven’t felt this sort of calmness in a while. The heat and arid landscape reminds me of being in the bottom of Urique canyon in Mexico. All along the valley most of the houses are built of adobe bricks, packed mud and clay shingle roofs. I passed by an unfinished building being worked on, I was tempted to stop and ask if I could apply for an internship. I’d love to learn how to make a house without concrete and rebar.
I’m in Leimabamba, a nice little town. By now the Utcubamba river is crystal clear, as it has been since somewhere after Pedro Ruiz. I’ve been headed upstream, so now it is but a small trickle compared to when I first saw it a few days ago.
From here begins what I might describe as two rather ridiculous days. An 18 mile climb up from to 2,250 m (7,400 feet) to 3680 m (12,000 feet), and then a 2,600 m (8,500 feet) descent over the course of over 30 miles back to the Marañon River. For most cyclists on a trip like mine this is the longest continuous downhill by a long shot. But here is the kicker. From the bottom of the valley the road heads back up about at least another 2,000 m (6,600 feet) over the course of 25 miles!
I’ve been a little anxious about the climb, but the past few days have settled down by making the decision to ship most of my bags and equipment ahead to Cajamarca with the bus company (other cyclists have done this and say it is reliable and safe, lets hope so). So just this evening I did the following: dump out ALL my bags, and make a pile of things I’d need for the next 3 days, basically my stove and cookpot (am not going to let this fresh coffee go to waste), some breakfast supplies, some snacks, a change of clothes, basic tools and some raingear. Everything else, including tent, sleeping pad and bag, I’ve packed into a potato sack.
And it is really, really heavy, and big and bulky (I will look like a fool carrying it a block to the office tomorrow). I know how heavy it is because I carry my loaded bike up stairs and ride it up hills all the time. But when you make yourself pack just the essentials, and try to lift a big bag with all the rest, you start to wonder exactly how much is too much, and the extra wear and tear on your muscles, joints and bike.
So this will be a nice experiment in light travelling, what cyclists might refer to as “credit card touring”, except I won’t be using my credit card, but staying in cheap lodging, and eating lunch and/or dinner at an eatery, as I have been doing since I got to Peru.
From here I’ll be out of touch for at least 48 hours until I get to Celendin. I hear the scenery is spectacular, I think I’ll enjoy it a whole lot more without so much weight.
Tips for cyclist:
There is a sign for Bellavista on the left of the main hwy, it is about a 5 mile ride on dirt road to get there. There is an unmarked guesthouse on big main square.
Tons of hospedajes in Bagua Grande. Also think I saw an ATM from the bank that takes Mastercard/Cirrus, but didn’t stop to verify. Pedro Ruiz only has a Banco National ATM (Visa only), and impossibly slow internet.
Chachapoyas was nice but nothing special. Good market, ATMs, lots of tourist operators, cool weather. A couple vegetarian restaurants. But from Pedro Ruiz easy enough to make it to Tingo in one day.
In Tingo, I stayed at hospedaje Leon. Don’t know what the other one is like. I quite enjoyed getting to know Luis who along with his wife, runs the hospedaje.
When you hike to Kuelap, you arrive on the east side of the ruins, where there is no longer a working ticket booth. I had to hike the mile down to the parking lot and back up. Do the hike early enough in the day so you can find a ride down when you are done.