Existing Member?


Namballe to Cajamarca, Peru

PERU | Thursday, 8 April 2010 | Views [4607] | Comments [4]

La Frontera to the highland city of Cajamarca, in Northern Peru

6/3/10 to 25/3/10          645 km and thousands metres of climbing and descending!

We entered into Peru via La Balsa and entered a whole new world by the time we reached the first pueblo of Namballe. We were quite low around 600m to 700m in the hot and tropical lowlands. Adobe and straw brick buildings dominated the countryside of coffee and banana plants, coffee was laid out to dry in the sun in every village, and the people were obviously more rural in nature than on the Ecuadorian side.

Anyone considering riding this route into Peru should definitely give it a go. It was fairly tough with the climbing especially the steep gradients in Ecuador, and 40 to 50km was a big day for us averaging around 1500m of climbing per day. But very quiet with traffic, beautiful mountain scenery, good dirt roads (for the most part), friendly hospitality and a super quiet tranquil border crossing to ease into Peru.

The dirt roads continued to San Ignacio with another good climb in between and passing through more coffee country, where we were generously given fresh bananas and other fruit from people on the side of the road, and always told to stop, and ’descansen!’, ‘rest here a little before riding on...’. They don’t see that many cyclists passing through this way and our impressions of the people early on in Peru were extremely positive.

Crossing the Rio Marañon via Bellavista cut-off (a good tip for other cyclists)

After San Ignacio the landscape changed from coffee plantations to terraced green rice paddies (amazingly after the amount of rice we have eaten in latin america, this was the first time we saw rice being grown on our trip!) and we took the dirt road cut-off via Bellavista that led us down to the Rio Marañon, our lowest point for this part of Peru.

The road turned into a narrow dirt track and then ended abruptly at the fast flowing brown waters of the river. As we had heard there was a small lancha waiting, hanging treacherously in the torrent we were about to cross. For 1 sol 50 centimos (60 cents) for each of us and our bikes they wheeled our loaded bikes on via a plank. In Mexico they would have squeezed us for the maximum price and unloaded all our bikes, but here 1.50 nothing more, and bikes wheeled on bags and all.

The motor only kicked in half way across as we were being swept downstream, then it powered us across to the other bank.

Relieved to arrive at the other side we were in the department of Amazonas... and surprisingly rather than riding into a jungle like it’s name suggested we rode into a hot, windy, desert scene of cactus and red rock similar to Utah or Arizona.

We had cut-off maybe 50 kilometres or more by taking this dirt road - ‘lancha’ option and avoided the busy centre of Jaen in the process. Arriving into Bagua Grande was some sort of a culture shock, hundreds of motor taxis, the noise, the dirty air and the heat, and an uncomfortable nights sleep in a hot fan-less noisy hospedaje. A nice place to get out of quickly the next morning.

Rio Utcubamba canyon ride, and tropical parrots

Even though we had climbed back up to above 1000m from the heat of Bagua Grande to Pedro Ruiz, this area was still referred to as the border with the jungle or ‘la frontera con la selva’, and as such we were accompanied almost the whole day by the sound of noisy green parrots feeding in the river valley forest, and nesting in the high rocky cliffs of the Rio Utcubamba valley.

Unfortunately for us, this stretch while spectacular with the scenery, was plagued with road works and constant stoppages and just as we got a good rythm going on the climb, we would be stopped again for another 10 or 15 minutes. As such we arrived into Pedro Ruiz quite late after 68km just before the heavens opened for the daily wet season downpour.

After a much needed rest day in Pedro Ruiz (our first since leaving Vilcabamba in Ecuador with Ian) at a friendly cheap family run hospedaje enthusiastically painted with scenes of colourful macaws, waterfalls and ancient ruins by the owner/painter/radio dj, we loaded up on fresh fruit and vegetables from the local market, we continued up the spectacular Utcubmamba river valley, the grand canyon of Peru so far! As the rock walls dotted with green agave and cactus closed in around us and the raging river and huge folded mountains of coloured rock rose into the blue sky above us, we felt so insignificant in the whole scheme of things, dwarfed in the canyon by the awesome surroundings.

At times when the valley narrowed the road was carved out of the rock with amazing tunnels and huge overhangs to ride under, while at other times it felt like riding our bikes through the grand canyon in Arizona, craning our necks looking up at the mountains 2000m above us with their rocky bluffs and folded layers of different geological deposits.

At the junction to the city of Chachapoyas, the beautiful new paved road ended, but a smooth gravel road carried us back down to the river which we followed until the small pueblo of el Tingo which lies at the foot of the ancient pre-Incan ruins of Kuelap.

So for the 13th of March, Anna’s 30th birthday we celebrated by hiking up the 1200m climb from El Tingo to the ruins of Kuelap... We hiked up a muddy trail past cactus and mesquite in the river valley and up through spectacular andean scenery looking out over folded rock bluffs topped with green cultivated fields and patches of remnant cloud forest. Not a bad way to step into the 30’s for the girl!

Kuelap and the Chachapoyans, the ‘people of the clouds’

The Chachapoyans were a civilisation that dominated the vast area of cloud forest and mountainous region surrounding present day Chachapoyas between 800AD until around 1470 AD when they were conquered by the Inca...and as such were known as ‘people of the clouds’. Kuelap was a large fortified mountain citadel, spectacularly located on top of a craggy limestone ridge, and is the most impressive of the hundreds of Chachapoyan ruins scattered throughout the cloudforest region of northern Peru.

The main entry gate into Kuelap - one of three deep and very narrow gates that forced invading forces into single file which could be easily picked off from the high walls above. Amazing stonework with impenetrable 6 to 12 metre high walls built on a craggy limestone summit affording views of the surrounding valleys.

A reconstructed tall thatched circular house in what must have been the residential area of the citadel with many of these irregular circular structures complete with funerary space below the floor for Grandma and Grandpa! It is for this reason that the archeologists know that these ruins were pre-Incan. They think maybe up to 3500 people lived here during it’s prime days.

One thing that we noticed was how these structures appeared to blend in with the natural aesthetics of the site, the natural limestone foundations, the circular structures, thatched roofs, curved meandering walls etc...all constructed with the natural features and materials of the site in mind. Much more so than the current day architecture, building and planning in latin america!

Carved serpent motifs in the stonework

Check out this for an oversized retaining wall!!! View of the curved stonework along the length of the main defensive wall of the fort, it is so large and constructed with so much stone that it appears like it is part of the natural rock when viewed from a distance.

We celebrated Anna’s 30th birthday that night with a nice pasta and pesto cooked on the camp stove sitting on a rickety wooden verandah of our hospedaje under the light of our headlamps..simple and definitely low-key, just the way the girl likes it for her birthdays!

Sickness again in Leymebamba!!!

Since arriving in Peru we had been taking the same precautions about water and food as we had in Ecuador and previously Colombia too. Naively asking the locals if ‘el agua es potable?’, (‘is the water safe for drinking?’) and if they said ‘si’ or ‘yes then we wouldn’t worry about treating it. Well it finally caught up with us in Leymebamba, that maybe we should have always treated the water, or not drank the fresh juices from the market? Anna had been complaining of a bloated stomach and cramps for a few days, but when we were leaving Leymebamba with the prospect of some of the toughest riding days ahead of us, she was unable to go on. So unfortunately we had to say a rushed goodbye to Ian, our cycling companion for over 2 weeks as he pushed on towards Cajamarca and we turned our noses back to Leymebamba for treatment and rest.

What ensued was a bit of a farce and a typical example of the kind of medical treatment common in latin america. After visiting the doctor to see if maybe he could just do a ‘poop’ test to see what was going on inside and maybe she could self-treat with some antibiotics, she was straight away admitted into hospital by an inexperienced first year doctor who feared that maybe she had appendicitis and put her on a drip with some very strong IV antibiotics as a precaution. Here they don’t test for anything, they just treat with a very strong dose of antibiotics, and they wonder why they have a problem with resistance! She was kept in hospital all day until 10pm when the doctor finally returned (3 hours late!) after a long lunch and who knows what else. Finally I was able to get her back to our nice and cheap (12 soles = US$4.50) family run hospedaje ‘La Casita’ run by Rosita and with a few days rest and her own medical treatment, she was in much better shape to continue.

Museo de Leymebamba

In 1996 some andean campesinos discovered six ‘chullpas’ or ancient burial towers on a rocky ledge spectacularly situated high above a laguna in cloudforest terrain south-east from Leymebamba. 219 mummies from the Chachapoyas culture from around 1450 - 1500AD were recovered from that rock ledge of Laguna de Los Condores and are all being studies now at the Museum of Leymebamba. We met some female radiographers from Australia, New Zealand and Ireland who were working with some Phd students and staff showing them how to x-ray the mummies and develop the film on site, so they can study the mummies without opening up the casings. They had found mummies containing mums with young babies in the same shroud, and they were always in the same ‘hyperflexion’ position (knees up to chest and arms in front of the face) wrapped up in a ‘shroud’ of cotton. Preserved in this position the actual mummies appeared very small, like the size of a young child.

One of the mummies from the ‘Lagunas de Los Condores’ on display in a ‘shroud’ of cotton material with facial features stitched on...

Rio Marinon ‘a grand canyon to cross’

The next stretch from Leymebamba to Cajamarca included our biggest climb, descent and climb yet in the Andes, up to 3600m, then down to 980m and then back up to 3100m.

The 60 km continuous descent from ‘Black Mud Pass’ at 3600m took us nearly four hours of riding time to drop 2600m of elevation, but at good gradients and sweeping corners we enjoyed the longest sustained dirt downhill of our trip...! We just couldn’t help but think we were about to pay big time for this on the way back up!

Anna contemplating the 2000 plus metre climb on the other side out from the desert canyon of the Rio Marañon.

You can make out the Rio Marañon all the way down there... and our road making it’s way through the desert back up into the mountains and the clouds

The heat down at Balsas at the Rio Marañon wasn’t as bad as we had expected, in fact the rain had actually followed us all the way down but as soon as we started climbing out the other side through a desert landscape of cactus, wild donkeys and spiny plants the sun came out and we cooked as we climbed in the late morning sun.

It was then that the dreaded tummy bugs hit for me with a complete loss of energy and then some explosive diarrea in the heat of the climb.

Lacking the energy needed to go on and with a mere 1000m climb ahead of us, we ended up camping at the midway point above a farmers creek bed with the next stretch of climbing zig-zagging it’s way up the mountain above our camp.

The next morning we were both a bit more full of energy and tackled the final 1000m to the top at 3100m including those long but not so steep switch-back climbs.

It was here that we met Peter and Miriam (a dutch couple driving the Americas in their French Camper) for the third time on our trip, the first time in Baja California, then in Quilotoa, Ecuador and now in northern Peru. Unfortunately for them they had a run in with a cliff the day before when they lost traction on the clay roads and kissed the wall... better than the other option, off the edge!

Morning tea with a view back of the switchbacks from where we had come from our camp

At times the climbing road narrowed and hugged the black cliffs with a precipitous drop to the right, hence why Anna is riding through the clouds on the left...following that truck!

Here she is feeling a bit more confident, out of the clouds and getting closer to the summit.


After the pass at 3100m we rolled down into Celendin and into the first cheap looking hospedaje ‘Hospedaje Ebe Nezer’ and got a huge room with 3 beds, enough space to hang up our wet tent, sleeping mats and gear for only 10 soles (US$3.80) and best of all a restaurant in the courtyard with a trained chef who specialised in ‘tamales’, ‘humitas’ and ‘juanes’. As a result we learned how to make some good local specialties and ate plenty of them as well of course, a nice break from the mundane latin american culinary world of ‘comida vegetariana = rice, beans and a fried egg’ we have experienced so far.

‘Humitas’ are made of ground fresh corn, stuffed with a crumbly white cheese and then steamed in the corn husks for a couple of hours.

‘Juanes’ (traditionally from the jungle areas of Amazonas) quickly became our favourite with ground up Yuca, flavoured with some sort of stock and oil, stuffed with cheese, kalamata olives, boiled egg and chicken (if you like some dead bird in your ‘Juane!’), very rich but delicious. I think we ate four each in our first afternoon sitting!

Vegetarian ‘Juane’ especially prepared for Anna

Celendin itself was a hustling, bustling, rural indigenous market town that didn’t blink an eyelid and carried on ‘business as usual’ as we spent another day of recovery from our stomach bugs. The fashion in Celendin was very interesting - big straw sombreros are in in these parts of the highlands. Scrawny cowboys in dirty denim wandered the streets in groups with a drunken swagger wearing comically oversized sombreros looking like cartoon characters. The women too also wore the tall oversized sombreros (great sun protection for working out in the fields we figure) along with a woven skirt over the top of 1980’s style school tracksuit pants with white sneakers and sports socks...interesting and very flattering indeed!

Comic book cowboys and cowgirls of Celendin

Big sombreros are in, in Celendin!

Then just a lazy double pass of 3200m and then 3700m to cross between Celendin and Cajamarca on more rocky but good dirt roads. Not a lonely road for us with kids joining us on their bikes and others running out to greet us from the local schools.

Very much dairy farming country too, donkeys and horses loaded up with metal milk jugs on their way to the ‘centro de enfriamento de leche’, (milk processing plants) at various places along the route.

Cajamarca... Atahaulpa y Los Banos del Inca

By the time we reached Cajamarca we felt we had deserved a little break with the hard stretch of climbing as well as our stomach problems (hopefully) behind us, and the tough six days or so ahead of us to Trujillo via the backroads and Haumachuco.

We soaked our bones at the thermal baths of ‘Los Banos del Inca’, 6km east of town just as Atahualpa the Incan King had been bathing his war wounds fresh from the civil war with his brother Huascar, and was camped at the natural thermal springs when Pizarro and his Spanish troops arrived in Cajamarca on November 15, 1532.

El Bano del Inca - ‘the bath of the Inca’, we opted for a bath in the newer bath complex to this one dating back to the Incan empire and Atahualpa!

Atahualpa was tricked into a meeting in the main plaza with the spanish and ordered most of his troops to remain outside, only entering the plaza with 6000 men armed with slings and hand axes. When Atahualpa refused to take the bible offered to him by a spanish friar, throwing it to the ground (maybe he just didn’t understand it in spanish?), the spanish attacked and massacred over 6000 indigenous people and captured Atahualpa.

Atahualpa in the ‘El Cuarto de Rescate’, after realising the Spanish lust for gold and silver indicating to Pizarro how high he would fill the ransom chamber with gold and silver in return for his release.

‘El Cuarto de Rescate’, Cajamarca - the ‘ransom room’ to be filled with gold and silver, although it ended up being the room that Atahualpa was detained in before his execution.

Even after the ransom of 6000kg of gold and 12000kg of silver had been paid the Spanish were still paranoid about the possibility of an attack. On July 26 1533 Atahualpa was led out to the plaza to be burned at the stake, and at the last minute accepted baptism (he was given the name ‘Francisco Atahualpa’) in return for a quicker death of strangulation and he was hung. Nice work Pizarro!

Just a little bit of history for you on the conquest of the Incan Empire by the Spanish. I’m sure there’ll be more to come further into Peru...!


(ps. to other cyclists - if anyone wants more info on this route into Peru feel free to email us and we’ll send more details, or check out the route descriptions of the Hobobikers at www.hobobiker.com it’s well worth the pain ‘vale la pena’, trust us!)

Tags: peru



Dear Anna & Ali thanks very much for this report, very interesting with fantastic pictures. Again , I take my hat of for your endurance, you must be proud for achieving this, it is beyond comprehention if you have not been there yourself.
I compare this with my experiences at sea, if one has not experienced it, you don't
know. Good health and goodluck for the remainder of your trip, and may God bless you both. Love from Sophie and Robert.

  Robert Rutten Apr 10, 2010 10:39 AM


hola ana, esta lindo el paisaje y hermosos viajes
les deseo suerte y exitos , ojala todo les salga bien en toda la travesia
de latinoamerica...........

  jose emilio talva Apr 11, 2010 12:48 AM


WOW! Great pictures, must have been a great ride. I suspect you are going up to Huaraz next by the hydroelectric road and Canyon del Pato, and you are sure to enjoy that too. Give my regards to Lucho.


  Graham Haigh Apr 11, 2010 4:27 AM


Hey thefuegoproject,

We really like your story and decided to feature it this week on the WorldNomads Adventures homepage so that others can enjoy your biking journey too.

Happy Travels!
World Nomads

  World Nomads Apr 12, 2010 2:02 PM

Add your comments

(If you have a travel question, get your Answers here)

In order to avoid spam on these blogs, please enter the code you see in the image. Comments identified as spam will be deleted.

About thefuegoproject

Somewhere under a rainbow...afternoon thunderstorms on the slope

Follow Me

Where I've been


Photo Galleries


My trip journals

See all my tags 



Travel Answers about Peru

Do you have a travel question? Ask other World Nomads.