Cajamarca, Peru

How many days in a row can you say “This was my favorite day in Peru so far!”?  Apparently at least 4.  Last time I updated from Leimebamba I had spent another day riding along the Utcubamba valley.  That was favorite day 1.


A break to stop and watch a house being built.  I was told the method is called cajon, presumably for the wooden box frame that is used as a mold to tamp a mixture of mud and straw layer by layer.


In Leimebamba I bought a plastic sack at the corner store and filled it with about 3/4 of my stuff, including tent, sleeping bag, extra food and clothes, etc.  I sent it on to Cajamarca on a bus.


Then began the 18 mile climb up to 12,000 feet.  Once again, very quiet road through wide open pastures.


A break before getting to the top in anticipation of the pass and the beginning of a 36 mile ride down at least 8,000 feet.


Looking back at the valley I had climbed out of.


And then the windy Calla Calla pass, some maps say Abra Barro Negro (Black Clay Pass).  No black clay but a huge trash heap (I didn’t take a picture) to spoil the first view of the Marañon River valley.


Layers and layers of mountains, and such large distances you couldn’t actually see the river at the bottom.


Just the road finding its way down.


Stopped plenty of times on the way down to take pictures, rest the hands from holding the brakes, and to take off my jacket that I had donned many thousand feet higher.  Finally at the bottom I arrive on the outskirts of Las Balsas where irrigation is used to grow a large variety of fruits.  Later that evening I would have a refresco made from star fruit.


Balsas is the town at the bottom of the valley, and aside from growing fruit, I can’t imagine living down here.  Hot and grimy.  I was covered in a layer of sweat and dust and just wanted to clean up a little, but the water service had “just” been cut.  OK, no problem, I’ll wash up in the stream flowing through town like everyone else. Shampoo packets and toilet paper was strewn about the banks of the stream, and I didn’t really feel any cleaner after rinsing off.  But what about the bathroom situation I asked the lady renting the room, I was told to find somewhere at the river.


For dinner, a plate of fried yucca and eggs, too tired to wait for the main dish that still hadn’t been prepared for the night.  I also asked the lady if she would be able to pack me a lunch the following morning.  She said she would have it ready to go by 8am.  Sanitation issues aside, this was the end of favorite day 2, I had never biked 35 miles downhill with hardly a few pedal strokes.

Crossing the Marañon for the second time, the first was near Bellavista on a boat.


A gentle ride along the river for a mile, then the climb started.


Views of the river came and went as the road wound in and out of side valleys on its way up.


The switchbacks were incredible!  Not once did I curse the Peruvian road engineers (unlike Costa Rica and Panama sometimes).  The condition of the road was pretty rough but at least the gradients were bearable.  Towards the afternoon the clouds rolled in and provided some nice shade.  My packed lunch of rice, plantains and eggs saved the day.

Untitled W Untitled

A view on Google Maps of the road down and up the valley (usually the detail isn’t that great but someone has made a point of showing this piece of work off!).

View Larger Map

View Larger Map

Finally, 28 miles later (and about 4.5 hours of pedaling later), the top, and a short descent into Celendin.  A very long day, but without baggage weighing me down, a very enjoyable one.  Thus was favorite day 3.

Kilometer 293

I thought about taking a day off but wanted to catch up with Greg and Dylan in Cajamarca.  I knew the 65 miles would be much easier than the past several days.  So I slept in and didn’t get going until after 10am.  The ride out of Celendin was quiet except for the town where I stopped for lunch.  I think for the first time on this trip I walked into an eatery and despite getting the usual stares from everyone (it is impossible to stare and chew at the same time!!), I was enthusiastically motioned over to an empty seat with three people eating lunch.  Unexpectedly outgoing folks, usually I’ll get approached by people in the street to ask me questions, but to be asked to join a table is rather unusual.

It was market day, lots going on including campaign posters being passed out to the locals.  Notice the hat the women wear.  Not sure what it is called but it is quite typical in the area.

Campaign Season

The road rolls over the 30 miles from Celendin finally reaching another beautiful pass.

Abra Loma del Indio

After a downhill to Encañada, there was sweet blessed pavement!  Late in the afternoon, just over 20 miles to go with a nice tailwind and the subtle whhhhhirr of the studded mountain bike tires on the smooth new road.

While biking in Chicago, especially on the lake shore path, I’d often have impromptu races with other cyclists.  A cyclist overtakes you, so you step it up and trail him, a signal that the chase is on. If possible, maybe overtake him.  This back and forth might repeat itself several times.  No words exchanged, and generally in good fun.  No clear winner, just a chance to give each other a reason to go that much faster.  But out on the highways or dirt roads the past year, running into another cyclist like this hadn’t happened, until I met Luis.

Just out of Encañada there was a gentle uphill, and up ahead I noticed another cyclist.  I could see him turn around every so often, and the closer I got, I could tell he was keeping tabs on me as I slowly gained on him.  And so of course I had to give him a run for his money!  Finally the road leveled out and I changed gears and greeted him with a “Buenas tardes” on the way by.  It wasn’t until I overtook him that I realized it was a kid giving me a run for my money!

I slowed down a little and asked where he was biking to, he said Cajamarca, still 20 miles away, so decided to ride with him the rest of the way.  He was very shy, but did ask me a few questions like whether I was a priest and what my country looked like.  He had biked the mostly uphill earlier that day, and was now on his way back.  I was a little surprised a 13 year old would be out biking so far, but from what I could get out of him, he was just biking for the sake of biking.  Good enough reason for me!  I could tell he was running ragged after the chase, so I shared some water and gave his bike a much needed dose of WD40.


And so we flew down the hill into the next valley, and he guided me through Baños del Inca and into Cajamarca.  Excellent way to end off favorite day 4.

Cajamarca was quite a shock after the small towns I’d been in the past few weeks.  Traffic circles, tons of combis, TRAFFIC LIGHTS!!!  Joggers and a couple lycra clad cyclists (a first so far in Peru).  And so I was glad that I already had the name and address of the hotel that Greg and Dylan were at, looking for a place to stay in a large town is often frustrating process.

It was great to run into Greg and Dylan, I hadn’t seen them in over a month when we parted ways in Ecuador.  But our route has been the same for the past few weeks,only I was a few days behind, so it we had plenty of notes to compare and stories to tell.  I spent the day wandering around, eating, and finding the bus company office to pick up my bag.  That I’ve hauled so much junk from Alaska makes me feel rather foolish, I’m definitely going to look into sending a bunch ahead to Trujillo tomorrow.

Market Eats

Tips for Cyclists

The magic numbers are 396, 336, 293 and 232.  The climb out of Leimebamba ends at km marker 396, Balsas is at km 336. The climb out of Balsas ends at 293.  Leaving Balsas there is a clear flowing stream crossing the road several times from about miles 9 thru 12.  At about miles 12 and 13 there are two restaurants (about halfway up the climb).  After this no real water sources but lots of small settlements where you might ask for some in a pinch.

Celendin is at about km 280, and the road out of Celendin flattens out several times, but finally tops out at km 232 before a downhill to Encañada at km 211.  Lunch can be found in the town about 32 km from Celendin.  Pavement starts just outside Encañada, a very gentle climb then finally another drop down to Baños del Inca and Cajamarca.

Don’t know about doing this west to east.  There were a few restaurants further down the valley on what would be a 60km climb the other way.  Also, a few side streams crossing the road but I don’t remember kms.  Probably doable in 2 days.

Locals say the rainy season starts in September or October.  Blogs of folks who’ve done it in the rainy season make it sound a little rough once the roads turn to mud!

13 comments to Cajamarca, Peru

  • Matt, it is hard to imagine having you when merely an infant sitting in my lap for a couple hours during a staff meeting at Alondra 8. I sent info to your folks about the family biking from Alaska to South America but discovered that you had already been in touch with them. Their twins, about ten or so, and their parents shared three bikes, one a double (tendem or whatever they call them). As for me, I’ll settle for your blogs and pix which are great. But I can hardly imagine what experiences you are having. Thanks for all the communications you are sending. It is a joy to follow your journey. Dan and Barb

  • PS I have no idea what a “tendem” is. Shoulda been “tandem” maybe? Dan

  • Hi Matt, a truly impressive ride; well done. I hope you have remained in Cajamarca to rest. I went the reverse direction by bus back in February and loved it. I also cycled extensively around Cajamarca. The guys you saw in lycra were probably my friends from the bike shop near the cemetery. Either ride or take moto, (2 soles), towards Avenida La Paz and stop at the cemetery – they have a small shop which is open except lunch times just on the bend past the cemetery on the opposite side – look for a white walled house. Ask for Richard, Richard Alvarez Goicochea on Facebook and say you know Alan for England – they will be very friendly and helpful. Also, Vicky Vilca in the tourist office is a great help and will give good advice. Have a look at the cycling moments in my blog if you have time.

    Lokk me up if you come to London, Enjoy the ride, Alan Malarkey

  • Dad & Mom

    Dear Matthew, Once again, exquisite writing and photography. Mrs. Hill would weep for joy. Carry on!! Love, Dad and Mom

    • Chris Hill

      Hi Matt, I met your parents on Saturday at GG memorial ceremony for Susan Mayer and they told me about this AMAZING adventure that you are doing. So I took a look for myself – and WOW! I am super impressed by your stamina, courage, enthusiasm, fantastic optimism AND brilliant writing and photos. I will follow the rest of your journey with excitement. Yes I’m weeping for joy!! Good luck for the rest of your odyssey, it is really an inspiration to read your blog…Chris Hill ….Cuídate mucho!

  • Susan McCausland

    Hey Matt that cajon building technique is called a cob house. Matt helped build one in new mexico for a friend. very labor intensive. But they formed bricks with straw, water and dirt/clay mix then stacked them and thumbed seams together. The technique of the peruvians looks better to me.

  • Kate Anderson

    Still enjoying reading your blog, I’ve gotten caught reading a few times at work and when I do I always tell my co-workers what you are up to! We’re all so impressed and a bit jealous of the gorgeous scenery! Praying you will continue on healthy and safe!

  • hey matt que tal estuvo el quezo(how’s the cheese) still have any of that great cafe geeze and the butter all that’s missing is the mini crusty pan here’s my pick for a quick munchie mini crusty bun buttered piece of cheese & a slab of bocadillo (brick of guava paste) that’s what they call it in Colombia thanx for the great stories & pics Kelly

  • Charlene

    Matt … my friend Lissette is going to visit her parents in Lima for the next 3 weeks – let me know if you want to contact them. Thankfully we can enjoy the pan am trip vicariously – I can’t imagine how you’re doing this. Love you, Charlene


    Matt! Just wanted to say that it’s amazing you’ve done so much already travelling now into Peru! Currently I’m in Hong Kong doing some travelling of my own, but certainly not as adventurous as yourself! Miss you mate!

  • ron boi

    Matt, Fantastic,,,,,,,,,Photos, and all that you put down on the keyboard. Star fruit is the best. Fried Bananas is good also,,,,,,,,, I am very pleased for you that your adventure is touching so many people.

    Travel well my friend, ron

  • Barb Maki

    Matt, Sorry you got sick. At least you and Greg take turns. I am enjoying your writing and blog as well as my son Greg’s. He is posting away right now, waiting for your arrival.

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