17 July 2014

Cajamarca to Carhuaz: up and down to the Cordillera Blanca

It´s been over a month since we entered Perú through the quiet crossing at La Balsa, and what an exciting time we have had! Cajamarca provided us with some homely comforts, excellent cheese, fast internet and a new rim for Lucy´s back wheel. But with the dry season clock ticking in the Northern Highlands of Perú, the road ahead to the infamous Cordillera Blanca (the second highest mountain range after the Himalayas!) beckoned.

With a new revised schedule due to Alberto´s family´s visit in a few weeks time, we chose a quiet route that would avoid the busier main roads heading South, but still allowed decent progress through the Andes. Below is the story of the eleven days of great riding that, best told with some pictures...

After the very poor perfomance of Lucy´s Mavic XM719 (theoretically a "tough touring rim"), and even poorer response from Rose Bikes, we decided it was safest to have the rim replaced. Kawasaki Bikes in Cajamarca did an excellent job and fitted a brand new Mavic X221 (sadly, no other options available) in no time. 
We got a kick out of going through a town named after Alberto´s dad
After a few flat km out of Cajamarca, we hit the town of Jesús in full swing with its weekly market, and soon the switchbacks that took us up to 4000 m. Our enjoyment of the climb was marred by tiny flying super-midges which swarmed on us every time we stopped, and unlike their Scottish counterparts they were not put off by a bit of wind.


At 3800 m we called it a day. A friendly farmer named Santos and his wife let us camp in their land, enjoying views that extended all the way to Cajamarca. We had a lively chat with Santos, who insisted on calling Alberto gringo as if it were his Actual name - "Gringo, aquí no pasa nada, pueden dormir con confianza" and "sabe Gringo, quiero vender mis tierras e ir a vivir abajito, a Jesús" and so on...

After topping up at 4000 m the following morning, we descended towards the town of Cachachi. 

Quiet roads on the way to Cachachi, always with a beautiful backdrop
We spent the night in colonial Cajabamba.

Accommodation in Cajabamba on a Saturday night was expensive for our budget and all we could find was this tatty hospedaje (Hospedaje Bolivar). We hesitated whether to take out our camping mats...

The countryside South of Cajabamba was delightful, despite what the name of the area may otherwise imply

The 3N to Huamachuco was so quiet we sometimes wondered whether we were on the right road

This trip is also a culinary experience for us - here the infamous peruvian gelatina, sometimes served as a refresco in your regular $2 almuerzo.
The arrival into Huamachuco  (3100 m) involved a dusty and busy dirt road, full of obras. However, the town itself, was really pleasant and had another nice Andean backdrop.

Churros filled with manjar blanco (dulce de leche). Hard to resist, at S/.1 

It appears the Contereras have set up all sorts of business in Perú. Those bloody conquistadores...
Huamachuco had one of the best markets of our trip, where we sampled more yummy Peruvian foods, including tasty olives from the Ica region, in the South.

Unfortunately though, many mountains areas of Perú have been wiped out by Canadian-owned gold-silver-copper mines

Taking the dirt roads off the main 3N road to Trujillo we were soon back in the beautiful countryside we´ve come to enjoy in Perú

At 3900 m we found an amazing camp, with views of the Cordillera Blanca, 150 km further to the South and a week´s riding away for us
And in the morning, the first nevados we have seen in Perú...but we could never figure out which ones they exactly were

 
Despite looking fancy in their front, most Peruvian houses are still built in adobe

Wildlife is not abundant in the Peruvian highlands, but there´s always lots of cattle. Here, heading down to Angasmarca
Locals told us Angasmarca was an small pueblito so we thought about asking to camp there...

But then we were hit with reality - the town has grown exponentially in the last few years due to a new mine opening up. The infrastructure hasn´t caught up with the influx of people and even the church was not being cared for. So we asked the police, who lent us a comfy mattress to sleep in the comisario´s (superintendent) office
After some more climbing out of Angasmarca, we reached Mollebamba, where we had a much needed almuerzo. A local indigenous woman assured us our bikes would be safe outside - "quemamos a los ladrones vivos en la plaza - we burn the thieves alive in the plaza".
I am not sure what you would call this sort of business, but they seem to have it all: injections, treatment, sutures, blood pressure, diagnostics, play station, and hospedaje, 24 hours a day!


After Mollebamba, we enjoyed an 1500 m spectacular descent down to the river valley. The switchbacks were so tight that we could see each other as if from the air

The descent gave us a front-row view of the climb up the other side, and we started to feel desperate to avoid it
Despite having read advice against doing the "river road" on various blogs and being told the road was impassable by most locals, a man in Mollepata assured us it was doable "sin problema" on a bike, so we hit the river and turned right before the climb...then followed the river for 2 hours and only clocked up 10 km. On the bright side, it was a beautiful road..
But it´s not being maintained, so there were some landslides to scramble over
And then hit a barrier. On the other side, the trail became a tiny singletrack, difficult to walk with a loaded bike, and with a steep cliff on the right.  There were still two river crossings ahead of us that we were also unsure of, so we decided to turn back. We set up camp, only to realise that the area was covered in tiny, tent- and mattress-puncturing, thorns. We packed up as the sun set and prepared ourselves  for a three hour push in the dark to get back to the main road.
Luckily though, we found another camp spot without the thorns and enjoyed and amazing view of the Canyon in the morning, before retracing our steps to the main road

The switchbacks we had wanted to avoid the previous day were actually not as bad as they looked.
Eventually we topped up at Pallasca (3130 m). On the way up we had been told that two cycle tourers where just half an hour ahead of us...It turned out French cyclists Marion and Virgile had been literally following our Marathon Mondial tracks from Jesús, took a few shortcuts, and arrived in Pallasca before us. 
So the following morning we joined forces and started the crazy descent from 3200 m down to 500 m

Rim brakes have the great disadvantage of overheating on prolonged descents, but in return they provide the best excuse for stopping to take pictures
These descents have to be taken carefully, but will remain in our minds for a long time

At 1000 m, and below, things get dryer and hotter, so we try to ride fast to keep the air flowing. Virgile follows my tiny 26 inch wheel on the last stretch towards Chuquiquira.

After a late almuerzo, we leave Chuquiquira headed back into the mountains, and soon find an idyllic riverside camp spot, with no mosquitos

At 500 m and in the dry season, things get indeed very dry. Pegging was a bit difficult, until we found that the seams were somewhat softer...and provide the perfect anchorage in preparation for a windy night

Sunset colors

In the morning we made progress towards the Cañón del Pato, and enjoyed more amazing views. 
There´s not much on the 3N on the way to Huallanca...but then we found a roadside shop selling gigantic paltas (aguacates or avocados, in Perú). Virgile happily exhibiting this 1.5 kg avocado, which was plenty to feed the four of us 

As night fell upon us, we found yet another perfect campsite, with a full moon
The road was quiet most of the time, but became incredibly dusty when the trucks zoomed past us
Then we entered the famour Cañón del Pato and its thirty-something tunnels. We were glad to be doing this stretch on a Sunday morning with less traffic, as the idea of meeting a truck inside one of these is terrifying!
After so many days waiting to see the Cordillera Blanca, in the town of Caraz we get a glimpse of the first big nevados. On the left the Huandoy(s) (6360 m) and on the right the Huascarán Sur (6768m, the highest mountain of Perú)

Caraz has a reputation for good ice-creams, so we had three, each

View of the Huascaran(es) from the main road Caraz-Huaraz. The top of these two mountains is more than 4000 m above where this photo was taken, yet less than 12 km on a straight line.
Dinner at our camp in the football field in the small town of Ranahirca provided a nice backdrop - the Huascaran Norte (left) and Sur (right) with an interesting cloud on top

Continuing South towards Carhuaz, we get to enjoy these incredible landscapes

The quiet town of Carhuaz will be our base for the next two weeks of exploration of the Cordillera, on two wheels and on foot.

Route notes:
- Cajamarca to Huamachuco: We took the dirt roads via Jesus and Cachachi. Near the top of the climb (and also on the other side of the summit) the road surface is quite poor with loose rocks, otherwise the road is in relatively good condition. From Cachachi we descended to the main, paved road (3N) which was very quiet through Cajabamba and Huamachuco.
- Huamachuco to Pallasca: This section is notoriously hard to navigate, with many unsigned dirt roads. We missed the best shortcut, 9km out of Huamachuco, and took the next one which comes at 36km, signed for San Simon mine. From there the road took us directly to Cachicadan (bypassing Santiago de Chuco) and we followed the main dirt road from there. Distances on the main dirt road between towns are as follows: Cachicadan to Angasmarca: 27km. Angasmarca to Mollebamba: 21km. Mollebamba to Pallasca: 30km.
- Pallasca to Carhuaz: The route on the 3N is straightforward. The descent from Pallasca is paved, apart from a few sections near the top. From Chuquicara the road is unpaved. In the Cañon del Pato, the road is somewhat paved, but with a layer of lose sand and stones  overtop. Real pavement starts again about 10km after the first tunnel, and the road steadily gets busier as you head south, with plenty of questionable driving to beware of.