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To Tarma, I Did It My Way
Our bikes had been stored overnight in the “secure” parking lot at the back of the hotel. Ben discovered that someone had snipped the zip ties and taken his empty small camera case that was attached to the handlebars. It was an inexpensive little case, but one that has been through many adventures with us. Ben had left it on the bike each night, zipped open to show that there was nothing inside. This was the first thing that someone had stolen from us in Peru, and the discovery was a bit disheartening.
We attached our luggage to the bikes, surrounded by the booming melodies of “Lady in Red” and “I Want to Know What Love Is.”
Our initial route today was to take us to the small village of Tápuc, at an elevation of about 12,000 feet in the Andes mountains. However, we had covered more miles than anticipated yesterday and would probably reach Tápuc before lunch; so we decided to extend our route further south to the city of Tarma.
The new plan was to ride a paved road south about 25 miles before branching off on a dirt road that would wind us up 6000 feet to Tápuc. My map showed a thin red line that would then take us south from Tápuc to the large mining city of Cerro de Pasco. We had reviewed our maps and discussed our route in detail with Guy at breakfast.
As we left Huánuco, we saw a painted sign for Koko Giles, the city’s mayor, promoting himself as “clever.”
Giles must be clever indeed. Just a few weeks before our arrival, a tape was revealed to the public in which Giles admitted that he had paid money to election officials to win the 2006 mayoral election. However, that tape had been in the hands of prosecutors since 2008, who unexplainably have failed to press any charges against him to date.
Our dirt road turn-off was supposed to be at the town of Ambo. There are not a lot of road signs in Peru. We stopped at this junction to ask if this was Ambo, and if the dirt road (veering off to the right) would take us to Tápuc.
Yes to both questions! Off we went!
Our road climbed gradually, curving gently for miles along the side of a long valley. Ben and I stopped to admire the blue roofs of the village below:
While we were stopped, an older man popped out of a small downhill trail behind us. He paused with a smile beside our bikes. We exchanged basic greetings and learned that he lived in the village below. We talked for a few minutes, although his accent was difficult for us to understand (as I’m sure ours was for him!).
Some buildings that we passed:
This looked as if it had once been someone’s grand home:
I wouldn’t want to cross this sketchy bridge every day:
The top of this tall plant was stretched across the road to form an arch:
It looked like a century plant that we had seen during our travels in Mexico City this past spring.
This structure looked like a school; on the front was a painting of a man and the date of October 8th.
I did some research upon returning home and discovered that the man was Great Admiral Miguel Grau Seminary, who was revered as a skilled and compassionate captain in Peru’s navy in the 1800’s. He is most famous for his bravery during the War of the Pacific (when Chile invaded Peru), and he died on October 8, 1879, during a battle in that war. Peruvians voted him “Peruvian of the Millennium” in the year 2000.
We passed a mama sheep and her bleating baby:
The road tracked along the river Huertas:
Someone was camped on the far hillside in a small blue tent:
The sides of the valley grew more narrow, and we crossed over the river on this bridge:
The colors of this hacienda blended into the hillside:
A fire was burning in the terraced fields:
We reached the town of Yanahuanca, at an elevation of 10,500 feet.
We stopped briefly near this giant hand statue.
Guy said that we had passed Tápuc a few miles back—a small group of about 6 houses along the road. I was surprised to hear this, as my map indicated that Tápuc was still up ahead--we needed to make a sharp left turn and continue climbing in elevation another 10 miles or so. When I mentioned this to Guy, however, he cut me off with a loud, abrupt “No!” Then he took off up the hill, through the narrow streets of Yanahuanca.
Ben and I followed. We saw the tail end of his bike disappear to the right at the top of the hill, but he was nowhere in sight when we turned the corner. I rode down the street, but had no way of knowing if Guy had turned right or left at the next intersection. We returned to a spot near the top of the hill and consulted our map. We also asked several people the way to Tápuc; they all pointed down the street, in the opposite direction from where Guy had gone. One very friendly young woman came over and said that she was from Tápuc, and she would be happy to take us there. We thanked her, but declined.
We figured that Guy would eventually discover that he had gone the wrong way, so we waited for him to come back.
Yanahuanca seemed like a very pleasant place, and we even spotted Mickey Mouse here:
The women we saw were all dressed in contemporary clothing—no hats or wool skirts.
Guy finally emerged from around a corner, riding towards us. We pointed in the direction that we were supposed to go, and I said, “Tápuc is that way!” He roared past us with a curt nod, without even pausing.
The narrow dirt road continued upward, providing us with some amazing views of the terraced valley below.
Looking back at Yanahuanca, we could see the river and the road that we had traveled on earlier:
Across the valley, we could see a town high above the crop terraces:
(I inadvertently switched the camera settings, so these photos have a blue tint to them.)
Ben rounded a hairpin corner and saw Guy stopped at a junction; then Guy took off without waiting for Ben to reach him. The junction sign indicated that Guy had chosen the route that led directly to Cerro de Pasco, instead of taking a left turn uphill toward Tápuc.
Here is the sign, which was directed at people coming down the road from Tápuc.
At this point, I was feeling frustrated with Guy. I didn’t like the way he had shouted “No!” at me, and I didn’t like the fact that he had now chosen a route that skipped Tápuc altogether.
Ben and I stopped at the junction and discussed what to do. We decided to continue to Tápuc. But we couldn’t just turn left and leave Guy to wonder what happened to us. Ben took off to track him down.
It was very peaceful on the mountain.
Nearby was a building with big words painted on the side (saying that the town requests Abel Romualdo, and also mentioning irrigation canals). There was a man sitting in the doorway.
I thought that the building was a store, but the man told me that it was his home and that he had lived in this house for a long time. He was extremely soft spoken. He had never heard of the United States, nor had he heard of Mexico or Columbia. He nodded shyly when I asked if I could take a photo.
Soon a large woman came walking down the Tápuc road, with a dog and herd of sheep.
She came up to me with a big smile and asked if that was my motorcycle. She seemed to think that it was very funny that I was riding a bike. She spoke very quickly, and I did not understand most of what she said. But we both shared a lot of smiles, and she exuded happiness. Then she continued on her way.
Another woman came up to me and took my hand. Her own hands were dry, like soft paper, sandwiching my own. She was quite old and very thin, and her head with a hat didn’t even reach the top of my shoulder. She was full of smiles and warmth, and we talked about my motorcycle and how beautiful the mountains were.
Our lovely conversation was interrupted by Ben riding up, solo.
Ben explained that he had encountered Guy at a roadblock, where a construction crew was doing some finish work in clearing a small landslide. Guy had his helmet off and was next to a small taxi, the same taxi that had almost pushed us off the road near Yanahuanca.
Ben: “The road to Tápuc was at that last junction.”
Guy: “This road is a short cut to Cerro de Pasco.”
Ben: “Well, that may be true, but we wanted to go to Tápuc.”
Guy had then turned to the taxi driver and asked if the road back at the junction led to Tápuc and whether there was a road from Tápuc to Cerro de Pasco. (Ben had been surprised, as Guy had told us never to ask taxi drivers for directions because their information was unreliable.) The taxi driver nodded his head and said yes, the road went over the mountain to Cerro de Pasco; his words were accompanied by hand motions indicating a vehicle going up a mountain and down the other side.
Then a young woman in the back seat of the taxi had said something to the taxi driver that Ben couldn’t quite hear. The taxi driver had then turned to Guy and shook his head saying repeatedly that the road was “muy peligroso” (very dangerous). Whereupon Guy had turned to Ben and said, “The road’s too dangerous.”
Ben: “Yeah, but the taxi driver says it’s passable. He says it’s dangerous, but he’s in a taxi, and we’re on dirt bikes. I’m willing to take a chance that we can get through.”
Guy had said nothing; he had just stood and looked at Ben.
Ben then had said, “We’re going to Tápuc.” He turned around and rode off, back to me.
As Ben finished his explanation to me, Guy arrived. I walked over to his bike.
Me: “The way to Tápuc is up there!” (pointing at the road to my left)
Guy: “This road is a short cut to Cerro de Pasco.”
Me: “If we had wanted to take a short cut, we would have taken the highway! We made it clear all along, even before this trip began, that we really wanted to ride to Tápuc. I tried to tell you back there that we hadn’t reached it yet, but you didn’t listen. I didn’t appreciate you yelling ‘No’ at me--that was completely dismissive and unacceptable.”
Guy denied that he had said “No” to me, and added that the bridge on the short-cut road would only be open for one hour, from noon until 1:00 p.m. (this was new--and suspect--information, as he hadn’t mentioned anything about a bridge to Ben at the roadblock). Guy then said that if we couldn’t make it past Tápuc, we would be stuck overnight in Yanahuanco. (This was not true, as we could simply retrace our route to the highway and continue from there.)
I realized that trying to reason with Guy was not going to be productive. It was clear that any lingering fragments of Guy’s “this is your tour” attitude (which he had verbalized at the start of this trip) had dissolved into the high-altitude air.
I told him that if he didn’t want to go to Tápuc, for whatever reason, that was fine, but Ben and I were going. I walked over to my bike and put on my helmet.
Guy then had the audacity to say to Ben, "We never discussed going to Tápuc." (I am glad, in retrospect, that I didn't hear this exchange. It might have been "the last straw" for me.)
Ben said, "We discussed Tápuc, and we're going to Tápuc."
I started my bike, gave a nod to Ben, and turned up the road towards Tápuc. Ben was close behind.
The road was glorious! However, I have to admit that it took a few moments to shake away the negative thoughts about Guy and concentrate on the absolutely amazing scenery all around me. I didn’t stop to take any photos, but Ben snapped this one of two little pigs:
We passed through two small villages. Here are two photos of the pretty town of Rocco.
Finally, we arrived at the entrance to Tápuc:
The road continued along the very top of the mountain ridge.
Looking down, off to one side:
I looked forward and could see the end of the mountain top, and the road disappearing over the edge. I had that exhilarated feeling that one gets while cresting the first hill of a roller coaster. Where did the road go? As I got closer to the end of the mountain top, I saw that the road dropped down and curved sharply to the right, swinging around in a big “U” to the side.
We could see the main part of Tápuc stretched out in the distance.
We rode through the narrow streets, full of brown adobe buildings, until we saw a group of men sitting on a step. We stopped and asked how to get to Cerro de Pasco. One man came over and said the best way was to go back the way we had come. We laughed and said we wanted to continue forward, and asked if it was possible to ride over the mountain. The man said yes, with motorcycles there would be no problem, you could do it. He explained that we needed to go about 10 minutes to the town of Villabamba, and then head up to the right—he clarified that we were not to head down the hill in Villabamba, as that was not the way. Only up to the right. We looked over at the three other men on the steps; they were nodding their heads, and, in complete unison, they all raised their right arms and made an upward-to-the-right swooshing motion with their hands. (It still makes me laugh to think of the synchronicity.)
Guy had followed us to Tápuc, stopping about 15 feet behind us. We looked behind and found him talking to another man, who was making pointing directions in the air.
Earlier today, I had thought that we would stop in Tápuc for lunch. However, given the circumstances with Guy, Ben and I decided to just keep going.
We left Tápuc behind, winding down the mountain a short distance and then back up again. We reached Villabamba, where the main dirt road curved down the hill, and a smaller dirt road branched off to the right at a slight upward slope. This was it!
The ride over the mountain was exhilarating! It went up and up and up. The road was bumpy, rocky, rutty, and wet. My motorcycle performed beautifully, doing everything that I required of it. What fun!
A view of the road down below:
We crested the mountain pass, and started down the other side. There were a few farm houses with animals on the surrounding hills:
Ben and I stopped to admire the view and eat an energy bar, as it was past lunch time. Guy motored by us without pausing. We briefly discussed what we should do about the tense situation with him. Guy obviously was upset, and it was also clear that he didn’t think that he had done anything to apologize for. I didn’t want ugly tension to mar the rest of the trip—we only had two more days left. I suggested that I give him a “peace offering” of an energy bar when I saw him next; if he accepted it, then that might indicate that he was willing to put this incident behind him.
As we were talking, a small white taxi came wobbling down the road from the direction that we were heading. It stopped next to us, and we could see four men inside. We exchanged greetings, and the men asked us where we were going. They indicated with their hands that the road we had just covered was extremely bumpy, and they added that it was dangerous. They couldn't believe that we were riding motorcycles on it. We said, “Yes, and it was very fun!” They laughed and shook their heads. They then said that the road up ahead of us (from where they had just come) was much better, not so bumpy. We waved goodbye, and they continued down the road. After 30 feet, however, the car stopped, and the four men started getting out. We thought that perhaps they were going to visit a nearby farmhouse. Then one of the men held up a camera and asked if they could take a photo with me. We said, “Yes! Of course!”
Ben offered to take the photo, and he snapped one with our camera too:
We continued onward. Here is a horse in a corral built with stones:
The dark sky ahead meant certain rain:
To our right were the high plains, with jagged mountain peaks in the distance:
The rain started and soon turned to hail. We came to a junction, and Ben stopped to put on his rain jacket. I could see Guy riding down the grassy slope in front of a nearby house (presumably to ask for directions). As I rode over to him, the hail and rain gave us a brief reprieve.
Guy said that he thought the right direction was to continue straight ahead. As we were sitting there waiting for Ben, I dug out an energy bar from my pack and offered it to Guy. He took it.
A man came down from the very humble house above us. He was holding a bag of coca leaves, and his bulging cheek indicating he was chewing some himself. He came up to us and said something that I couldn’t understand, holding open his small bag. His voice was very gentle. He repeated his statement and again held out his bag to me. I shook my head at the man, telling him “no thank you” in Spanish. Guy barely glanced at him, and said, “I don’t know what he’s saying; he’s speaking Quechua.” I said, “It seems that he’s offering us his coca leaves.” Guy just ignored the man.
As Ben rode up, the rain started again. Off we went:
We reached the edge of the city Cerro de Pasco, which is over 14,000 feet in elevation.
Here I am next to a large sculpture in the middle of a traffic circle:
In the center of the city is an open pit mine that measures over one mile across. We rode by the open pit and were so astounded that we had to park our bikes and walk over to peer inside.
We continued through the city, looking for a restaurant where we could have some lunch.
We found a place that served basic but very good food—fried chicken and French fries, with chicken and vegetable soup as an appetizer. Yum.
The owner’s small daughter kept coming up the stairs to look at me; she would sit down across the table from me, and then run back downstairs, only to repeat the process again and again. I gave her a French fry, and she smiled and ran downstairs with it.
After lunch, I went next door to the bakery to check out the desserts. There were two older women inside, waiting in line to buy some bread. They immediately smiled at me and took my hands, asking me where I was from and where I had traveled within Peru. They were very kind. Guy came in and treated Ben and I, as well as the restaurant owner’s daughter, to a cup of chocolate mousse.
Ben asked a man in the bakery what product was extracted from the mine, and the man answered, “lead.”
We later learned that the mines produce lead, zinc and silver. The 70,000 people in the surrounding neighborhoods suffer the consequences of lead dust, dynamite explosions, and toxic gases.
In 2006, the Civil Defense Institute in Peru concluded that 85% of the city’s housing should be deemed uninhabitable because of all the toxins, but people are still living there. There is a government plan in the works to relocate most of the residents to a nearby city, but the relocation project is expected to take between 15 and 20 years.
More than 80% of the children in certain Cerro de Pasco neighborhoods have blood lead levels that are higher than the limit set by the World Health Organization. In other neighborhoods, the number of children with excessive levels exceeds 90%. Chronic lead poisoning irreversibly damages neurological and reproductive systems, and causes anemia, high blood pressure and heart problems. Lead poisoning in children stunts growth, causes learning problems, and impedes proper mental development.
I really liked the people in Cerro de Pasco. They were warm and open—some of the most friendly that we had met in Peru. And I felt a connection to the miners because of my own grandfathers and uncles, who worked in the coal mines in Harlan County, Kentucky. I told the restaurant owner that I liked her city, and she said, “It’s pretty, isn’t it?” Yes, it was—and the beautiful people made it that way.
I asked the woman if I could have Ben take a photo of me with her and her daughter—here we are outside the restaurant:
We rode to the main plaza nearby, where there were huge sculptural hardhats, a mining cart, and a bronze miner:
Here I am between two hats:
The road leading south out of Cerro de Pasco deposited us on the main highway that ran through the high plains. We left the rain clouds behind.
At well above 13,000 feet, my bike ran relatively well, only bogging occasionally. However, I had to keep the throttle pinned on the highway or risk getting run over by the big trucks (I don’t remember the exact maximum speed--perhaps 80 kilometers per hour (50 mph)).
In the town of Huayre, the main plaza had a colorful monument dedicated to the aphrodisiac qualities of a plant called maca.
In the town of Junín, I stopped to buy some new AA batteries for my camera. I went into a small shop with two women spinning wool outside; one of the women stopped to help me. However, when I went to pay her, she said that my 5 sole coin was “falso” (fake). I had to go back to my bike and get more money that would pass her inspection.
Shortly after Junín, we left the highway behind and turned east onto a narrow road that wound down into a small valley. The town of San Pedro de Cajas was beautiful, and the road to get there was curvy and fun!
(Those clouds above the far mountains warned us of more rain to come.)
On the way down, we passed an unusual circular walled area:
I did some research when I returned home and found out that this was a salt water well known as Cachi Pozo. The site is at the base of a hill called Patamarca, where the first people to settle in this area lived. The well has been used since prehistoric times and contains two water holes.
Another view of San Pedro de Cajas, with sheep grazing on the hillside:
The town had a large sports arena:
In the main plaza, some boys were winding tops with string and then tossing them to make them spin.
The central church:
We continued along the wide valley and then dropped down a hillside:
The canyon walls were filled with cave openings, like this one:
There were small farms, with animal corrals and crop fields, beside the road:
I passed one rocky hill and did a double-take when my peripheral vision sensed that the white rocks were moving. It turns out that the “rocks” were sheep!
When I stopped to get a closer look at how the sheep blended into their rocky background, a shepherd came out of a nearby house and walked over to where I was sitting on the bike. He smiled and asked if I was going to “la gruta” (the cave). I wasn’t sure what cave he was talking about, but I told him that I had seen a lot of caves while riding through the canyon. We talked for a few minutes about his home and his sheep.
Continuing onward, Ben and I reached a clearing with a huge sign that read, “Huagapo, Welcome to the Biggest Cave in Southamerica!” This was the cave that the shepherd must have been referring to!
Evening was approaching, and the cave was closed, but we took some photos of the exterior.
Water was surging out of a small cave mouth:
To the left of the waterfall, we could see a large opening that appeared to be the cave entrance:
Guy didn't know anything about the cave. I did some research after returning home and discovered that the Huagapo cave is 1.3 miles long and is believed to have been formed 80 million years ago. The name “Huagapo” is Quechuan for “the cavern that cries”. Some people claim that the name is based on a story of how the women and children of Tarama culture took shelter in the cave during the time that Inca warriors were trying to invade and take over the land. The Incas won the war, and the women and children became trapped inside the cave when the entrance became blocked by a huge rock. According to the legend, you can still hear the screams of the women and children today. Another explanation for the name “Huagapo” is that the name reflects the dripping sounds from the continuous water leakages in the cave.
The road continued along a small river:
The land next to the river was planted with a variety of crops:
We soon reached the town of Palcamayo, and quickly found the central plaza:
On the edge of town was a field of beautiful flowers:
The next long stretch of narrow dirt road was very scenic, with agricultural fields on both sides.
A house up on a hill:
Some baskets had been left by the side of the road:
There were a handful of extremely aggressive taxi drivers in small cars who seemed to view this stretch as their own personal race course. They kicked up a lot of dust and were not fun to follow on a motorcycle. One taxi driver did his best to avoid being passed by me, swerving to block me whenever I found a safe passing area. After multiple attempts, I finally managed to get around him, with a maneuver that probably did not please him.
Before reaching the highway, we stopped by this church to allow us all to regroup.
Ben had pulled over to take photos back in the valley. While I was waiting for him to arrive, a taxi zipped by, coming within inches of the end of my handlebars, despite the wide road. Was that the taxi that I had passed earlier? My thoughts went to Ben, and his safety from this mad driver. I was so relieved when Ben’s bike rolled around the corner, and his smiling face came to a stop beside me.
Our dirt road soon intersected with the 2-lane paved highway, and we turned west toward the city of Tarma. Within minutes, the skies above us began pouring rain. Darkness was also falling. On the edge of Tarma, we stopped at a gas station to fill up. I whipped out my guidebook to check for possible hotels in town. Ben had scoped out the book last night and had already identified a good choice—clean with hot water and a good restaurant attached. A local motorcyclist at the station offered to lead us there. The traffic was intense, especially being sandwiched among all of the big trucks. Ben’s taillight was not working, so I made him ride in front of me. At times it was hard to see because the bright headlights from oncoming traffic would bounce blinding reflections off of my rain-drenched goggles.
We had to make a few turns in the darkness, and I don’t know if we would have found the hotel without the help of that wonderful motorcyclist. Ben offered him some money when we arrived, but he shook his head, saying that he was just glad he could help us. We shook hands, and he wished us a safe journey.
The hotel, “Las Portales,” was a true find. It was modern, clean and comfortable, with plenty of hot water and an up-scale restaurant that served exceptional food. The hotel manager was dining in the restaurant when we arrived and welcomed us warmly. He spoke fluent English and was very charming. He provided us each with a free drink that was a local favorite, similar to a pisco sour. (Guy unfortunately was not so friendly with the manager and made a disparaging remark about the drink, which I found embarrassing in light of our host's generosity and graciousness.) The manager also recommended the trout special, which turned out to be one of the best meals that I had in Peru.
Our waiter was a young man named Christian, who provided attentive service and also spoke excellent English. When I told him this, he replied, "And you speak excellent Spanish!" Ha! I definitely know the limitations of my Spanish, but I appreciated his kind words.
The manager tried to entice us to visit the hotel disco later tonight, but we laughingly declined. I had had a full day and slept soundly, without a single note of disco music wafting into my dreams.
<< Day 12:To Huánuco, Receipt of Blessings | Day 14: To Lima, Just Believe >>
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