Despite online warnings to the contrary, exiting Ecuador and entering Peru at La Balsa was straightforward. I was granted the maximum 183 days in Peru, which will be more than enough to reach Bolivia. After taking five hours to complete the last 28 km of dirt road in Ecuador, it was a relief to rejoin asphalt on the Peruvian side of the river.
My first three weeks here in Peru’s northern highlands have taken me through some extraordinary scenery, almost always on paved roads (of varying quality) which have been quiet or very quiet. This quietness probably will not last, so I have been making the most of it and listening to long and absorbing audiobooks.
I tend to feel like an alien in villages, not just here but everywhere. Nevertheless, people have mostly been very nice. Several times I’ve been given fruit, bread, and refuge. While being honked at drives me potty, I’m sure it is meant to be friendly. Here are some little snippet anecdotes to give a sense of my time here so far.
North of San Ignacio a chap in a bread-delivery tuk-tuk (moto-taxi) pulled over to chat to me. Thinking I might buy some bread from him I asked if he had any onboard, at which he promptly gave me a bag of sweet rolls as a gift.
In San Ignacio, on my way back from stocking up at a coffee cooperative, I spied a cycle tourist with a cat sitting atop his panniers. If I should happen to find a little kitten, I won’t be able to resist giving this a try!
I quickly discovered a new favourite fruit (lúcuma), popular in smoothies and ice cream, which can best be described as a pale orange-fleshed avocado that tastes of maple syrup.
In three weeks I have only seen one serious local cyclist. He accosted me one afternoon and pretty much insisted I stay the night at his house. This entailed sleeping in his younger son’s bunk bed at the foot of the parents’ bed, while the two brothers slept together on the top bunk. I didn’t sleep well, but only because I had put on my tracksuit as a defence against mosquitoes, and was absolutely melting. Judging by his visitors’ book, this happens fairly often! While I appreciated the warm welcome to Peru, such an intimate domestic experience is not really my cup of tea if I’m honest.
The next day while waiting for a little ferry across the Marañón River, a conversation with two women regarding my gender resulted – inexplicably – in one of them showing me her extremely lovely left boob. She also bought me a packet of crisps. The perfect micromance?
Every day I am rushed at by barking, snarling dogs as I pass people’s homes. In the Utcubamba Valley near Pedro Ruiz, for example, I was rushed at by four of the six dogs outside one very crude rural home. It is baffling why Peruvians have such aggressive dogs, and why they allow them to attack cyclists. Since I can neither avoid nor prevent these encounters I am going to have to find a psychological solution, as the rage and terror are not good for my mental health.
The dog thing is particularly odd given how friendly people are. For example a man in his late 70s, on seeing me photographing the collection of vintage bicycles outside his house, invited me into his eccentric garden where we chatted for a while about my dad’s collection of found-objects from the beach at Milford on Sea, and he gave me some bananas.
Hiking to Peru’s tallest falls I had to cross some dicey fresh landslides where the local community was in process of making the trail safe again. I had the falls to myself and was able to do my morning meditation in peace.
In my first Peruvian city, Chachapoyas, I got a taste of the variety and sophistication of Peruvian cuisine. I am going to enjoy that aspect of this country very much! I also tried my first ever Pisco sours, one classic and one infused with coca leaves. In one hipster café I was amused to find everybody doing some colouring-in! There were a handful of gringo tourists in and around Chachapoyas, but almost all foreign tourism in Peru happens in the south.
While I was in Chachapoyas there was a changeover of two tenants at Sydner Road. Fingers crossed the new household will be more stable as it is stressful trying to manage changeovers from so far away.
Next I visited Kuélap, the “Machu Picchu of northern Peru”, accessed via Peru’s first cable car. Very memorable, and how great to be able to camp for free at the ticket office. Two loquacious five-year-olds took great interest in my tent and kit and asked for how many years I would be camping in their village.
In Leymebamba I asked if I could camp in the Plaza de Armas and was told no, but the doorway of the church would be fine. In the morning I was visited by a shiny-shoed police apprentice who described the area’s many attractions and asked me to fill-in his “foreign friend” form. At Leymebamba Museum I stared in amazement at their collection of well-preserved human and animal mummies.
The journey from Leymebamba to Cajamarca involved two long, but not steep climbs to 3600 m and a 65 km descent to 800 m. These are serious altitude changes! In terms of temperature, it seems my preference is to be between 2000 and 3000 m above sea level. Lower than that and it’s unpleasantly hot and insecty.
After the Calla Calla pass I was hosted in a storeroom/telephone cabin of a very poor hamlet, where I was given some leftover potatoes to eat and everybody crowded into the room to watch me cooking my packet soup for supper. It seemed appropriate to leave a small donation as I left early in the morning to roll downhill for several hours to the valley floor before beginning the long climb back up the other side.
Spending the night camping at an isolated shop/restaurant, I was again interrogated about my kit, this time by an eight-year-old. I quite enjoy talking to children for a while, although they tend to be unable to explain concepts using different words if I don’t understand something, which is frustrating for them I think. Her 16-year-old uncle will go to university in Chiclayo to study gastronomy, but has never been to Lima. I was a bit horrified when a car-load stopped to buy beer at the shop; it was clear the driver was already drunk.
In Celendin I had my first caldo verde, a lovely herby soup containing egg, potatoes, and local cheese, and an extremely good and enormous vegetable lasagna! I also tried an interesting hot beverage from a street vendor which had the texture of runny snot and which the gathered locals assured me ‘cures everything’.
For my last night of this stretch I finally wild camped. I thought nobody knew I was there, until the silhouettes of three enormous indigenous hats suddenly appeared above a line of aloe vera plants and a male voice said good evening. When I explained my intention to move on in the morning they seemed satisfied and disappeared. I love wild camping!
Cajamarca is a university city of 200,000 people in a valley at 2750 m. I’m suffering from my second chest infection since the ayahuasca retreat as well as a heavy cold, so I have mostly been staying inside my Airbnb, drinking coffee and tea, catching up with 15 close peeps and falling in love with a minuscule kitten.
The next fifth of Peru will, amongst other things, take me through Duck Canyon, with its unpaved road and 35 one-lane tunnels eek, and through the Huascarán national park, famed for its several jagged, snow-capped peaks over 6000 m. If I can get a better waterproof jacket in Huaraz I may go up and over one of the passes within the park. That reminds me, May to November is the dry season in the Peruvian Andes, so I hopefully won’t have too much rain to contend with from now on.