Route: Loja (Ecuador) -> Cajamarca
We spent our final days in Ecuador winding through the dirt roads of the Amazon region towards a border crossing so small that many Ecuadorians we met did not know of its existence. On our way, we encountered multiple landslides that backed up cars for hours that we could just wiggle our way through. Camping was spectacular, with flat, quiet spots overlooking the mountains we had climbed. One day, we came across the elusive Furry Puss Caterpillar, an adorable fluffy kitten-like beast with poisonous spines who had recently found fame across the US for resembling Donald Trump’s hair.
We regularly reached heights of over 3,000m and would then drop back down to almost sea level in order to cross a river, just to go straight back up again. People in the villages that we passed often gave us bananas for lunch, giving us the strength to make the next hill. Whilst taking a rest in the surprisingly tranquil town of Zumba, where local children let their dinosaur toys climb our bikes, we experienced our first earthquake!
Crossing the border, we missed both checkpoints as they were so small and had to go back to search for them. On arriving for the second time on the Peruvian side, we were directed to a small shack that looked a bit like a festival first aid tent. The conversation immediately went to what vaccinations we had, rather than where our passports were or how long we were visiting Peru. On finding out that Jan didn’t have Yellow Fever, a vaccine was pulled out of the cool-box and into Jan’s arm it went. No hesitation, no explanation! A bargain, since in Europe it would have been £50!
We continued onto the small town of Nambelle, enjoying the first paved road we had been on for quite some time. The next day was filled with confusion, later explained by the fact that it was Good Friday and we had no idea. No shops or restaurants were open in the morning and so we were short on food. We pushed on and arrived in the small town of San Ignacio in the afternoon, where again everywhere was closed. On taking money out of an ATM, it swallowed our card and we were sent to the police station to ask for it back. Once there we were told we would have to wait until Monday and so we retreated, hungry, to wait out the weekend. Monday rolled around and we joined the around-the-block queue to wait to get into the bank. When we eventually asked about our card, we were told that a different business handled the ATM and the card would have been cut in half. We put it down to experience and made our way out of the town. Many rivers crossed the road, one of which was where the road was on an extreme angle and covered in moss – swoosh, Jan went down and 2 seconds later down went Lucy. We wish we had a photo.
The next day was Jan’s birthday! We woke up in one of our most basic hospedajes to date, with no electricity or running water. Lucy made a birthday breakfast of porridge on our stove on the floor and we set off for the biggest town in the Amazonas – Jaen. There we stayed in a lovely hostal, ate lots of delicious food and spent time with Miguel and his family who helped us fix our bicycles. Every day there was a funeral procession, with costumes, cheerleaders and brass bands.
When leaving Jaen, on the brilliant advice of Miguel, we got adventurous and, instead of following the main road, we followed a small road which ended at a river where we were met by a boat. Getting the bikes on and off was a bit of a challenge, and on arriving at the other side we were dropped in a forest and told the road is 3km in that direction!
We found the road again and began climbing. The day after Bagua Grande, we arrived at a family run restaurant beside a field that we were told we could camp on. We set up camp, played volleyball with the family and Jan played ukelele for the kids.
Setting off early, we made our way to Gocta falls, the 5th highest waterfall in the world. We arrived in the early afternoon and decided to just walk the four hour round trip immediately. It was beautiful, although at one point a torrential downpour drenched both us and our tuna sandwiches. We camped in the garden of a lovely family, including Maurice the cat and a very talkative parrot.
When we left the next day, a family called us over and gave us tangerines for the journey. Our legs were in no fit state after the cycle-hike-cycle and we set up camp in the afternoon in the garden of a restaurant with a huge guard dog that just wanted to be our friend. When we went into the tent at night you could just see his gigantic shadow looming outside, whimpering to be let in for a cuddle. After refusal on our part, he instead settled on slobbering over Lucy’s cycling shorts while contentedly chewing on her toothbrush.
After resting our legs for a day in Leymebamba, we were off again, climbing up one of the many slow winding roads that characterise Peru. Our destination may only be 3km as the crow flies but, once we put it into maps, we realise it is actually 25km, back and forth across the mountainside.
At midday, we came across a ‘road closed’ sign, in the middle of the very quiet, empty road. We were just cycling around it when someone came running out to tell us that the sign was correct, and the road would be closed until 1 pm. We got out our sandwiches and waited. 1 pm came and went and we asked to go, only to be told that we had to wait for the cars to come in the other direction first. A bus full of people arrived travelling in our direction who were very amused by our bicycles, and all took it upon themselves to argue with the road worker that we should be allowed through as we were only small. They were told it would be another 3 hours! We passed the time talking about our journey, Peruvian politics and Hitler. Eventually, after everyone else had been arguing our case for quite some time, we were allowed through and were the only ones on the road. We don’t think that the other cars got through that day as the newly laid tarmac was still wet.
As the mist rolled in, we set up camp at a school. When wild camping we always worry about where to get water but luckily there were 15 taps for us to choose from and a pig to eat our compost!
It was difficult to wake up the next day as karaoke, from one of only 3 houses in the village, had kept us up most of the night! When we did get going, it was a lot of climbing to reach the chilly top at 3,600m. Coming down, we realised the need for the new tarmac on the other side – we were cycling through thick mud.
The downhill seemed to go on forever, as we wound down and down over the next four hours. We reached Las Balsas and the small family run campo next to the river and it felt like we were in a different world – off came all the layers and on went the suncream.
Going back up the other side of the mountain the next day may have been our most impressive yet – we cycled from 800m at the river to 3,200m where we were above the clouds we had seen that morning. At the top, the sides were so steep and we found it much scarier than Colombia’s “death road”. On the way, we met Manuel, who ran out of his house to say hello and give us cups of tea.
Thinking about where to camp the next night, we helped a family carry their bags to their home and asked if we could camp nearby. Jan asked Lucy if she thought they lived in the basic storage room. Lucy jokingly replied that they were probably asking the same thing about our tent. Sure enough, the mother soon came over to ask us if we were okay if we would be sleeping in the tent and what we would do if it rained. We assured her that the tent was waterproof but she insisted that she had better bring us some soup!
At last, we arrived in Cajamarca to stay with Herbert, a lovely WarmShowers host who lets cyclists stay in his hostel for free! There we came up with a plan to cheat and skip the next 500km by bus in order to make it out of Peru within the 3 months on our visas. We stuffed the bikes in the boot, boarded the bus and in less than 24 hours, we arrived in Huaraz. Famous for its incredible hikes, the town was the most touristy place we had visited in Peru so far. An abundance of shops, restaurants and trekking options was a welcome change. We spent the next few days blending in with the backpackers, making friends, drinking beers and playing pool! Together with our new found friends Ashley and Joe, we took the opportunity to hike to Laguna 69 and were overwhelmed at the blue water and the huge glacier.
After the hike, we rested our legs and prepared for the next stretch back on the bikes. It would take us into the rural mountains of central Peru on dirt roads across more than 50 4,000m passes. We were ready for the next challenge –
The Peru Divide…