The hardest thing to do as a bicycle adventurist is to turn around and go back down the same road you’ve just ridden up. Inclement weather, bad roads, long steep climbs and mechanical mishaps all offer their own unique and exciting challenges, but they are not hard. Turning around is hard, it’s like an admission of defeat. U-turn’s are an absolute last resort saved for when a challenge becomes a folly. I’ve done it once before, on my terrifying first day in Mexico when an RV chased me down and told me the back road I was on was too dangerous. And it’s just happened again, here in Cajamarca province Peru. This time, like the last time, a reaction to the threat of violence and robbery.
One of my main motivations in the way I cycle is to move through landscapes and communities as untouched by tourism as possible. I want to see normal people in normal communities do what they do and live how they live. Tourism often sanitises and criminalises, it pollutes and dilutes, bringing the curse of pre-conception to those both in and out of the fishbowl. To have the people who’s lives I pass through be as interested in me as I am in them is the goal. To lay tyre tracks where they’ve not been laid before is the adventure. Put all these things together and it’s almost inevitable that I’ll end up riding the types of terrain I enjoy on the types of road I love. These are all reasons why I travel by bike. My bicycle gives me the freedom to reach those people and grace those landscapes. The route I plotted south from Cajamarca down to Huaraz promised all these things, but at what price?
In the space of four days I rode out of Cajamarca (the city), up and down a fair few hills, through plenty of interested communities, turned around, found a cheeky little dirt road and then arrived back in the place I started. This was never the intention, I was supposed to be heading south. Hours of studying Google Earth, maps and whatever other information was available led me to conceive of an exciting route. It was to take me up some big climbs and down into some deep valleys, through small towns and river communities. To the best of my knowledge it hadn’t been ridden before. So I gathered myself together made a few (but not enough) inquiries as to the areas safety and cycled out.
I now know why my chosen route hadn’t been cycled before. The area is riddled with banditos and ladrones (robbers). Things started well. Having left the main road from Cajamarca towards the coast I climbed up to the small town of Asuncion. A charming little community I found myself being picked up by a local television crew and thrust in front of a camera. Meetings with the district Mayor and countless photos taken with numerous people all mushroomed from the excited stir of my arrival. They don’t get many tourists in Asuncion, but they want them. My job was to act as poster boy in photos they plan to use to attract more ‘gringo’s’. Think they might have been barking up the wrong tree with that one! Still, the whole experience was a lot of fun and I rode out buzzing at the news that nobody had ever seen a cycle tourist pass through town.
The road climbed, the afternoon rains came and after nearly a month off the bike, my energy levels dropped. Having passed through the small community of Vista Alegre I got chatting to a bunch of teenagers and everything changed. They seemed convinced that after my route passed trough the town of Cospan I’d be in great (and possibly grave) danger. Lots of crime hungry folks with guns and knives apparently. Not what I wanted to hear so I retreated to their village to get some more mature opinions. They’d never had a tourist in town before so the people came out to see what I was all about. I was assured that there was room for me to sleep in a community building and as I waited for it to be opened I held court with half the village. As the hours passed and people recounted stories of muggings and assaults it became clear that the danger up ahead was more than mere here say. Still, I’ve learnt to trust my intuition and so decided to persevere as far as the next sizable town, Cospan and assess the situation from there.
I never made it to Cospan. As I spun up and away from Vista Alegre more and more people reminded me that it was peligroso (dangerous) up ahead. Any seeds of concern I had then blossomed into a huge tree on encountering a couple of Ronderos from Cospan. Although there is Police presence in Asuncion and Cospan, they don’t patrol the countryside in between those towns. Some of the Police have also been known to have associations with robbers who work the rural roads rendering vast areas as good as lawless. This has left the people of smaller communities to form bands to protect themselves. Thus every community has its Ronda Campesina or Peasant Rounds. These are essentially vigilantes, autonomous bands of working-class men who patrol their communities. Such groups grew to prominence in the troubled 1980’s as a way of protecting the countryside from political insurgents. Today they take on the roll of rural policeman. It was in the offices of the Ronda Campesina that I slept in Vista Alegre.
The Cospan Ronderos I encountered would at first not let me pass. But with a bit of explanation and charm they softened and even started to open up about a few things. Their chief concern was that I was working for a mining company. Enormous foreign-owned mines litter Peru bringing in foreign workers, vice and considerable pollution. The people are right to be protective against these greedy organisations and their presence persists as an extremely emotive issue in Peru. Just recently Cajamarca was gripped by a storm of violent anti-mining protests. They blew up in late 2011 against the development of Newmont Mining’s enormous $5 billion Minas Conga copper and gold mine. The issue took over the national agenda and escalated through 2012 when several people were killed. It was the threat to water supplies that stirred so much opposition, a threat that was ultimately deemed enough to cancel the mining project. But such cases have made people suspicious of outsiders. Why else would I want to cycle through mountainous countryside if it wasn’t for the desire to rape it of its resources?!?
Conversations with the Cospan Ronderos convinced me it was time to turn around. My plan of reaching Cospan and asking the Police about the situation beyond town seemed fool hardy in the knowledge that the force harbored a few bad apples prone to tipping off the robbers. So I about turned and sped downhill to Asuncion. People in Asuncion were curious about my return but understood once I’d explained. They confirmed that the route was indeed dangerous. Why they hadn’t told me that the day before I will never know. Unable to unearth any information about tracks leading east onto another route south I was left with options of either heading towards the coast or returning to Cajamarca and the start of an alternative route. Finding the fun little dirt road route from Asuncion over two valleys to San Juan made my mind up for me and I settled on a return to Cajamarca.
It was undoubtedly a tough call having to abandon the route I had planned. If you’re interested you can examine what I was going to ride through this link. Hopefully one day soon it’ll be safe enough to ride without a guide. I am disappointed about how things panned out but certainly not bitter. Riding in unpredictable countries like Peru is like mountaineering… you need to be alert, questioning and when the time comes, you need to know when to turn around.