Cuenca to Cajamarca Pt. 2: Into a Surprisingly Paved Peru

As I amble around the Americas on my bike a sense of time seldom enters my thoughts. So it’s been a bit of a new experience for me this last few months having places to be and times to be there. I can’t say this pressure is something I particularly enjoy but it’s been for a worthwhile cause. Time coerced me into quite a direct route south out of Colombia in the knowledge that I was going to be meeting my sister in Quito. And in the past few weeks Jo and I have taken the direct route south out of Cuenca towards the relaxed little border crossing at La Balsa. After meandering through Ecuador to Cuenca on whatever routes we chose time finally caught up with us. Jo has a job and had flights booked she couldn’t afford to miss. We had 650 miles (1,050 km) to make to reach Cajamarca in northern Peru with only time enough for one contingency day. Mechanical nightmares in Loja quickly took that day from us but miraculously four days later we were waking up in Namballe, Peru, with working bikes and excited at the start of a new country.

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Our first full day in Peru started on a fresh new paved highway… with no traffic

Once over the border I didn’t really know what to expect. The idea of Peru intimidated me. Despite it’s size and being steeped in history and culture, it’s far less wealthy than Ecuador, its people have a reputation for shouting ‘gringo’ at the slightest glimpse of a foreigner and they’re not renown for being the most outwardly welcoming. It is also home to an overwhelming amount of great dirt road routes. In my mind Peru always marked the true start of Andean riding but up until now it always seemed so far away. I really do have to pinch myself to convince myself… I’m in Peru.

Map - La Balsa to Leymebamba

Route from the Peruvian border south to Leymebamba…
click here to view the fully interactive map and elevation profile

La Balsa to Leymebamba Route elevation profile

The pristine stretch of new asphalt that greeted us at the Peruvian border smashed all my expectations of the rustic backwardness of Peru in comparison to its northern neighbor. After a tough day it was a welcome find but it threw my mind into a tumble. Should the asphalt continue then Jo and I could relax, our time pressures eased. But if it continued then I supposed that much of the soul would likely have been ripped out of the route I’d read about. Save for a stretch after San Ignacio (where road works are intensively underway) and a shortcut we took through Bellavista, the asphalt continued. Thus the second part of our ride through to Cajamarca was much smoother than I’d envisaged. Not only did we leave the dirt behind in the Ecuadorian side of the border, we also left the sharp ascents, instead riding a mellow course into Peru alongside the Rio Chinchipe and then Rio Utcubamba. Hugging this second waterway for over two days our route navigated through some dramatic and picturesque valleys before hiking up to the town of Leymebamba and the start of another chapter. Here is the story of our first five days in a new country…

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Waking up in Namballe I find myself looking out over a typically Latin American town

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Namballe is a town under construction as they set about paving their streets

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After the steep Ecuadorian dirt roads to the border the smooth pavement of Peru makes climbing seem effortless

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Our roadside lunch brings in a surprise guest… Ian, a motorcycle tourist from Victoria, Canada

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Ian’s energy is infectious… he delights in proudly displaying his huge laminated map of… the wrong country!

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After a relaxed first days Peruvian riding evening drops us into San Ignacio

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In Peru I’m once again back in the land of the mototaxi, they swarm all over San Ignacio and join us on the dirt road out of town

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Not far out of San Ignacio our path is blocked by the start of some serious road construction

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We eventually make it through and descend down to the Rio Chinchipe… but the road remains a building site that eventually turns to sealed gravel and then 33 miles (53 km) from San Ignacio finally to pavement

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A nice stretch of relaxing packed dirt?

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No! A busy stretch of road between construction sites

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During another roadside lunch our new Canadian friend Ian passes us again… this time he can’t resist swinging his leg over Shermy

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Shortly after lunch Ian takes off ahead of us… but he’s soon back brandishing two cold pineapple juices for two hot, dusty and extremely appreciative cyclists

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This time Ian rides with us for a little while before leaving for good. He’s shocked by the constant shouts of ‘Gringo!’ directed at us, the sound of his motorcycle usually insulates him from such annoyances

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As we move down the valley more and more paddy fields appear and the surrounding high-points take on a canyonesque character

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The kids of Tamborapa are fascinated by our arrival… we take the only big room in town and make ourselves at home

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The next morning we head out into light rain and find ourselves speeding through yet more paddy fields

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It’s fascinating to watch the paddy fields get worked…. water tractors

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Eventually we turn off the highway onto some dusty dirt. After persuading some private security guards to let us pass we rattle through Santa Cruz and Bellavista down to the Rio Maranon

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After a short wait a lancha appears. they effortlessly load a motorcycle and our bikes before taking us across

Into Peru - Jo4b

On the other side of the river we cut through some thick vegetation before…

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… things get remarkably arid

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On the way back to the highway we pass a small military base…

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… and a petro-chemical works…

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… before a very straight stretch of gravel road delivers us back onto asphalt

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Unimpressed by the delights of Bagua Grande, we eat cake, stock up with supplies and carry on riding… we’re now accompanying the Rio Utcubamba

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On our way through Naranjitos we stop and ask the Police about hotels. There are none and after casting an eye over the area for potential camp spots we move on. Just out of town we’re chased down by one of the Policemen on a motocycle. He assures us the next 10 km of road are dangerous and we should return to sleep by the Police station. Assuming he has a good camp spot in mind we follow him back to town. There is absolutely nowhere good to camp and the area is thick with mosquitoes who feast royally on all parts of our bodies forcing us into full waterproofs in the sweltering heat. After cooking up an uncomfortable meal outside the Police station…

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… we move across the road and pitch up behind a restaurant. The site stinks and is rife with biting insects but it’s the best available. One of the worst camp spots I’ve ever had

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Next morning we’re back out onto the highway as quick as possible and don’t look back

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It’s not long before the valley sides close in and the scenery gains a dramatic edge

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Although not too busy, we find ourselves dealing with more traffic than we’ve seen for a while… so it’s a blessing when we encounter an overturned lorry completely blocking the carriageway

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Punctuated by a stealthy night in the tent our valley riding continues…

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… on and on…

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… until despite it’s beauty we’re both willing it to end

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Flattish paved road through steep valley is a nice idea in theory but in practice it gets a bit boring… we end up trying to make our own fun

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Eventually we cross the river and climb up into the charming little town of Leymebamba…

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… where we find a good cheap room in Hospedaje La Casita, resupply with food and rest up in preparation for the next days climb

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