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To Pampas, So Close and Yet So Far
The sun was shining this morning, and the day was full of promise. We would be riding mostly dirt roads today, with a route that squiggled across our map, through tiny-dot towns that were not likely to be found in any guidebooks.
A view of our hotel courtyard in the town of Caraz:
Looking up over the hotel rooftop:
We had parked our motorcycles across the street in a secure courtyard connected to a home. The daughter, Paola, had rushed out to greet us the previous night with a big smile, eager to introduce herself and to shake hands. She was just as effervescent this morning. I asked if I could have a photo with her; she said yes, but I think that she was a bit unsure. Here we are:
When I showed her the photo on my digital screen, she got a bright smile and called out excitedly for her mother to come and look.
Before reaching the dirt roads today, we had a short stretch of pavement to cover. The scenery was lovely:
We passed a mine that appeared at first glance to be abandoned, but then we noticed the bicycle out front, as well as the man and white donkey with a cart (in the left corner).
This beautiful statue of a man holding out a dove was in an overgrown courtyard beside the road.
A dam project cut across the river below:
Here I am at the beginning of a very narrow and long canyon called Cañón del Pato (Duck Canyon).
This swinging bridge crossed over the river:
Here is Ben in front of another means to cross the river—a large basket that could be pulled over by a set of ropes.
A close-up of the basket:
The road sliced through rock on the left side of the canyon, and multiple tunnels had been carved through the stone. In the distance, we could see the dark entrance to one of the tunnels.
Some of the tunnels were fairly short, where we could see the interior and the exit—I called these the “peek-a-boo” tunnels.
This was a continuous line of “peek-a-boo” tunnels.
We could see three in a row, which we thought was pretty amazing, but the tunnels continued around the corner. I was laughing out loud as we rode through one after another after another. I think that there were about 8 or 9 altogether.
Then there were the dark, mysterious entrances, which revealed nothing.
The sign posted at the entrance warned people to “Toque claxon” (beep the horn) before entering.
We would find these signs posted before countless tunnels and curves all over the Andes mountains. Beep beep!
Riding into one of these black holes was a great leap of faith, trusting that there would be nothing coming the other way. Sometimes I could make out headlights in the distance, so I would stop outside.
It was visually challenging to enter a tunnel that held a floating dust storm from another vehicle's tires. Even if you waited a while, the dust was still swirling around, and a longer wait would risk another vehicle coming through (which happened to us twice). At times I couldn’t see ANYthing except a fuzzy tan cloud in front of me; I just had to keep the bike pointed in the direction I thought it should be going and pray that I wouldn't hit anything coming the other way.
One entrance had two dark holes. The hole to the right was blocked off with a barrier, and the left hole looked as if it were leading away from the river, deep into the interior of the mountain. There wasn’t any choice—I veered to the left. The blackness was all consuming, and I felt as if I was being swallowed up by the nothingness around me. My headlight made little illumination, and it seemed as if I were traveling into the bowels of the earth. I received some comfort from knowing that Ben was somewhere behind me. I just had to keep going forward. Finally I could see a small dot of light in the distance—the exit! I focused on the light, which gradually got bigger and bigger. Back out into the sunshine, I laughed with relief!
We stopped to marvel at a multi-tiered waterfall.
In the middle of the rockface, to the left of the top tier, we could see the half-circle entrance to what was (or is still) a mine.
Many tunnels later, we exited the canyon and could see the town of Huallanca below.
Our descent had a series of switchbacks. We rounded a corner near the bottom and encountered a bulldozer, which backed up slowly and allowed us to get around.
On the bridge to Huallanca:
A woman was resting in the quiet plaza:
On the other side of town, the road was cut into the side of the mountain, along the river.
We stopped briefly in the next town.
We continued on, along roads that were covered in rocks.
My tires were not hooking up very well today, but I was adjusting my riding style to make them work. One of the subjects that I had addressed with Guy at breakfast this morning was our tire pressure. Back in Lima, I had watched Guy measure our tire pressure and asked him what we would be running; he had said 28 psi (pounds per square inch) for the pavement, but that we would run less on the dirt. The high tire pressure had meant a very slippery ride to and from the lake yesterday on the dirt/gravel road. I didn’t have a tire gauge with me (next time I will!), so this morning I had asked Guy to let out some of the air in my tires. I explained that I normally run 12 psi with my dirt bike at home and 15 psi if the roads are really rocky. Guy scoffed and said derisively that 12 psi meant that I was riding with almost flat tires—this is simply not true, but I wasn’t going to argue. He then said that he had measured the 28 number with a gauge that read kilos not pounds, so the air pressure was actually less than I thought it was. (A few days later, Guy admitted that he had bought his gauge in the U.S. and that it did indeed measure in pounds, not kilos.)
This pounds/kilos explanation sounded fishy to me, but I will admit ignorance in doing metric conversions. (I now know that if Guy had actually put in 28 kilos, then I would have had more air in my tires--a whopping 61 psi!) I told Guy that, regardless of whether he was measuring in pounds or kilos, I needed to have some air let out, as the tires had been too hard for me to ride comfortably and safely.
As I was picking my lines through the rocks, the front tire started feeling off. I looked down and saw that it was almost flat. Ben and I pulled over at this bridge and starting getting set up for a tire change.
While we waited for Guy to roll up, we found a big rock and got the bike balanced on top in preparation for the wheel removal. I took some photos of our surroundings.
This donkey was across the bridge.
The clouds were casting shadows on the mountains.
This small house was next to the road.
I have never gotten a front flat tire before (and only a handful of rear flats in all the years that I have been riding). I figured the flat tire was my “karma” for insisting that Guy let some air out. Once the tube was removed, however, we discovered a big nail in the tire—I have to admit that I felt relieved. The flat hadn’t been caused by my hitting a rock with a tire that had (what I thought was) low air pressure.
Ben was looking at the tire rim and noticed a big flat spot on the curved metal.
"Oh, that's new," said Guy, seeming to imply with his tone that perhaps I had dented the rim.
"No it's not," said Ben. He pointed out that someone had already tried to repair the rim, as evidenced by obvious grind marks. Guy didn't say anything in response.
I was thinking, "Was he just trying to get me to pay for a rim that I didn't damage?" Thank goodness for Ben's good eye and expertise!
As Ben was inflating the new tube with his CO2 cartridge kit, I looked at Guy and said, “You never let the air pressure out of my tires, did you?”
“No,” he admitted.
I had a few choice words that I was thinking, but I kept them to myself. At this point, however, I started mulling over the possibility that Ben and I could continue on the ride without Guy. The large fee that we had already paid to Guy had included a sum to cover hotels, so we would probably have to eat that cost. Things hadn’t yet reached the breaking point, however, and I was still trying to make things work. Onward we went.
These small trees were growing near the road:
One of the bridges we crossed:
The rocks were slanted at sharp angles, revealing how they had been shifted upward by the forces of nature.
These two photos give some perspective on how massive the rocks were—can you find me in the second photo?
Entering a dark tunnel:
And hoping that I didn’t meet one of these big trucks before I exit:
The trucks and buses often took up the entire road.
One time I came around a corner on my side of the road, and found myself face to face with a big truck. I put on the brakes. There wasn’t time to stop completely, but I managed to squeeze myself over to the far right edge of the road, onto a berm, and slip by the front tire. As I came to a stop, I saw that the rear tire was all of the way to the edge of the road, and rolling straight at me. Yikes! I tried to get out of the way by leaning the bike as far as I could to the right. The ground was sloped downward on the other side of the berm, however, so there was no solid earth to put my foot on. I felt myself doing one of those slow-motion falls, and landed in some pokey shrubbery. The bike was on top of me, and as I tried to wriggle free, I realized that my leg was trapped. I didn’t have the leverage needed to hoist the bike off of me. Luckily, the truck had stopped now, so I called out to the driver, “¡Ayúdeme ayúdeme!” (Help me, help me!) He quickly came running and helped free my leg; then we both pushed the bike to an upright position. He was very concerned about how I was, but I assured him that I was fine. Ben and Guy arrived a few minutes later, having missed all of the drama.
After that, I took to beeping my horn around all of the blind corners if I was in the lead.
Crossing another river, and looking at the road ahead after a tunnel:
The rocks along the canyon walls truly looked like they could come tumbling down at any minute.
Ben, emerging from a narrow canyon:
The roads were not well marked. We had to ask directions a few times, just to ensure we were heading in the right direction.
Across the river was what appeared to be an abandoned town. However, as I know from my Appalachian roots, many people make their homes in structures that do not look as if they could possibly be habitable.
We saw a small group of homes high on a hill:
The façade of this church was nicely painted, but the piles of bricks on the side evidenced some ongoing construction.
We continued to navigate through tunnels that had been blasted into the rocks. This is one of my favorite shots, with Ben and some distant headlights:
Around lunchtime, we crossed a bridge onto asphalt and were faced with a junction.
We could continue straight on a road that wound up into the mountains, or we could turn left onto a wider road with a barrier and a line of buildings on either side. We chose to go left, hoping to find a restaurant and help with directions.
Here I am, beyond the road barrier. (Note the man sitting down against the building across the street—he is the gate-keeper, in charge of raising and lowering the barrier.)
There were several restaurants, but we just weren’t getting a “good vibe” from this area. The people that we saw, and talked to, weren’t very welcoming . . . but they weren’t “hostile” either. The energy here just seemed “tired” and somewhat depressing.
We decided to trust our instincts and keep moving. We did, however, buy some bottled water and a bag of locally-grown, small oranges. The oranges supplemented our lunch of Power Bars (I had brought a stash from home); the fruit was sweet and juicy, although getting the peel off with my fingers was quite a challenge, and eventually I resorted to using Ben’s knife to cut the oranges into quarters.
After our brief stop, Guy said that we needed to take the road up into the hills. After several miles, Ben noticed that his GPS indicated we were going in the wrong direction. (He had mapped out a general route before leaving home.) Guy was leading at this point, so Ben zoomed to the front and asked Guy if there was more than one way to reach our destination, explaining that his GPS was saying we needed to turn around. Without looking at Ben’s GPS, Guy said curtly, “No, there’s only one way!” and took off on his bike without a backwards glance.
The road was curvy and fun, and took us through a canyon with a number of tunnels. Here I am (note the peek-a-boo tunnel in the background):
After about 30 miles or so, we came to another junction that had a dirt road straight ahead and a paved road to the right. We stopped. At this point, Guy tells us that we have two options. We can continue going straight on the dirt road, but he didn’t know what the conditions were like or how long it would take for us to reach our destination. Or we could turn around and go back the way we came, and reach our destination in about 3 hours via the paved road that went out to the coast and then back to the mountains.
What?! Ben and I were astounded. Guy had dismissively told Ben 45 minutes ago that there was only one way, and now he was telling us that there are two, with one choice being to backtrack. This discussion of what route to take should have occurred at the start of this canyon, or at least when Ben was trying to show Guy his GPS.
In any event, I didn’t want to backtrack, and I didn’t want to take a paved route—I came to Peru seeking small dirt roads and an adventure. My paper map showed a tiny line wiggling its way through the mountains, and that line was my choice.
When initially designing our route, I knew that I wanted to visit Caraz (where we had started from this morning) and the city of Cajamarca (which we hopefully would reach tomorrow night). For tonight, I was only seeking a midway point between the two. I had identified the tiny village of Huamachuco as a possibility, so that was where we were currently heading. However, I wasn’t really concerned with exactly where we ended up at the end of the day, just so long as it was somewhere between Caraz and Cajamarca.
Guy repeated several times that the dirt road could take a long time, as much as 8 or 9 hours. According to Ben’s GPS, Huamachuco was only about 34 miles away as the crow flies. We knew that the actual road would cover many more miles as it switch-backed up and down mountains and over rivers. Ben and I were in total agreement—the dirt road was what we wanted. There would be no backtracking.
We passed a small group of homes without roofs:
I spotted this boy up ahead on his bicycle, and stopped to give him some colorful children’s stickers:
The wide, gravel river bed sometimes had farms along the edge. Here is one with some crops and cows, with the house built up high along the road.
We also passed through a number of tunnels, such as this one:
As I entered one tunnel, I saw Guy on his bike talking to the driver of a large truck just outside the exit, which was about 50 yards away. He was pointing back towards me—I found out later that he was telling the driver to wait outside until two other motorcyclists came through the tunnel. I was about half way through the tunnel when the driver decided not to wait. I had a momentary wave of panic as I watched the driver’s truck coming directly at me, blocking out the light from the exit. The tunnel was very narrow, and there was no time to turn around. Survival mode kicked in, and I stopped the bike and literally pressed myself and the bike against the right wall of the tunnel. I then closed my eyes and said some prayers. Oh, that guardian angel of mine—she was working overtime today! I felt the truck brush against the outside of my boot, and then it was past. After giving some prayers of thanks, I started the bike and exited into the sunshine.
Guy was waiting. He was absolutely livid that the truck driver had continued through the tunnel. Then we heard the shrill scraping sound of metal against rock—apparently, the driver had gotten too close to the curved tunnel walls and was scraping his way through.
The road had some steep drop-offs, and we passed many crosses marking where unfortunate accidents had occurred.
Guy discovered that he had a flat front tire on this section of road. Like me, he had picked up a nail somewhere. During the tire change, several large trucks passed, with their clouds of dust. Ben was checking the time:
A view of the rock face across the river:
Eventually, we left the riverbed behind and started zig-zagging our way over the mountain. Looking back on the road we had traveled:
The view near the top:
This small community was spread out over the hillside:
In one mountain crevice, we were surprised to find a large grove of trees—with tall skinny trunks:
We reached the town of Pallasca, which had a pretty main plaza and lots of people enjoying the fresh air.
A door on the plaza:
We looked at our maps and revised our plan to reach Huamachuco today—there was quite a bit of red line left, with at least two junctions. Instead, we focused on a small dot not too far away, Mollepata.
Pallasca looked like a sizeable town (much bigger than most of the places we had passed through today). We decided to see if we could find some gasoline. Guy asked around, and we were led to the storage room of this woman, who filled our bikes with gas using a funnel and a bucket.
While my bike was being filled, I struck up a conversation (in Spanish) with one of the men who had come over to watch. He asked where we were going, and I answered Mollepata. He said that the town was about an hour away—time and distance are all relative and very fluid, we have found. As we talked further, he told me to come and he would show me. I followed him down the street, past some children, and down the small hill.
He finally pointed across a deep valley to a place on the next mountain where I could see some buildings—there was Mollepata!
If there had been a bridge floating in the air, we could have reached Mollepata within five minutes. However, our route would be much more circuitous, with long stretches winding down the mountain and then climbing up the next one.
Moreover, the man told me that there were no hostels or places to stay overnight in Mollepata. Many of the rural towns are not set up to accommodate tourists, so this was not a surprise. The man said that Pallasca had a hostel and that we should stay here tonight. However, we still had a couple of hours of daylight left, and I wanted to keep riding in order to close the gap between here and Cajamarca as much as possible.
Views as we left Pallasca:
We passed through a small village:
A closer view of Mollepata (still so far) . . . but look at that fun road we would be climbing to get there!
After almost an hour, we reached the final switchbacks leading down to the river (can you find the two bikes?):
Looking down to the bridge below:
At the bottom, we crossed the bridge and came to a junction. We could turn left to reach Mollepata (which did not have overnight accommodations), or we could turn right and ride about 10 miles to a town called Pampas (where we might find beds). Our map showed a very jagged line northward out of the backside of Pampas that might shorten our route to Cajamarca tomorrow. We turned right.
The road to Pampas went up and up, flowing along the side of a mountain (there’s a bike on the road in the photo below):
The sun was getting ready to drop behind the peaks:
We passed through some terraced agricultural fields.
The “welcome” sign to Pampas was festive:
We arrived at the main plaza in Pampas, hoping to find a place to stay the night. Here is a photo of the plaza that I took the next morning:
Directly in front of us was a building with an unfinished upper floor and a "hostel" sign. While Guy went to inquire about possible accommodations in town, I quickly found myself surrounded by a group of women and children.
I greeted them in Spanish, and we slowly started talking. One of the women wanted to know what I did for work. (Despite Guy’s cynical statement to us on the first day that “all” of the Peruvians “will ask you how much money you make,” no one in the crowd asked that question—and indeed, no one did during our entire journey.)
I started handing out stickers to the children, who were very sweet and polite. I also gave away all of my hometown postcards to the women.
Ben called over that we had a place to stay, so I said goodbye to everyone and went to check out our room.
The hostel rooms were on the second floor overlooking the plaza. The stairs were very rickety, and you could peek down into the common bathroom through a huge gap in the wall. There was a shower in the bathroom, but no hot water (but I wasn’t tempted anyway, not with the big view hole). Our room was small, with a naked bulb in the middle of the ceiling. The bed was slightly larger than twin size for Ben and I to share, with a decidedly taco slope to the interior. I pulled back the sheets and found someone else’s hairs, so I pulled out my sleep sack to lay on top (which I had brought along just for times like this).
We knew that we would be traveling through towns that did not get a lot of tourists, and we had expected accommodations to be rustic on some nights. On the first day of our trip, Guy had made a big deal of how he “always” puts his customers in the “best hotel in every town” (except for the big cities). He said that even the “best” for most towns is not that great compared to western standards. Our room in Pampas was indeed basic, but it definitely would suffice, especially if it was the “best” in town.
Here I am in our room:
Ben, finding a cloth for his dusty face:
We hung our gear on hooks over the bed:
We changed our clothes and went out to find some dinner. Pampas did not have any indoor restaurants, but there was an outdoor fried chicken booth on the corner of the main square. The booth had a steady stream of customers, and the food looked and smelled delicious. We got in line.
The chicken booth had a table with five chairs that were currently occupied by some teenage boys finishing their chicken. As they got up to leave, a man who had been hovering nearby swooped in and quickly scooped up all of the unfinished chicken and fries that remained on the plates. He then started shoving the food into his mouth as if he were starving.
When it was our turn, we told the woman which pieces of pre-cooked chicken we wanted, and she put them in a huge vat of oil to double-cook them and ensure freshness. She then loaded each plate with some french fries. The hungry man was still around, and we bought him a small plate of food. The chicken was excellent; we had only eaten a small lunch (power bars and oranges), and I polished off everything on my plate.
Then we wandered back to a bench on the plaza. Several children came over to talk with us. One little boy said to us, “Good morning, do you speak Spanish?” This caused a fit of giggles to erupt from his friends. The children had learned some English in school. The boy also knew how to count to ten, which he demonstrated. Ben and I were very complimentary, and the little boy and his friends kept us laughing.
Then a man arrived who was very nicely dressed, with an air of refinement. As he walked up to sit next to Ben and I, Guy said flippantly, “El jefe!” (“The boss!”)
The man’s name was Don Felix, and he talked with Ben and I, asking us questions about our life and answering questions that we had about his. As we chatted, a small crowd of people gathered around us listening—mostly young boys, but also a few women and girls.
Don Felix and me:
Don Felix was extremely gracious and warm, and Ben and I enjoyed our conversation with him immensely. He told us that he had grown up in Pampas, and that he had returned here after school. He made us feel very welcome. When we asked about his town, he said that the main businesses were sheepherding and working at a small copper mine.
He also said that we were the first motorcycle tourists to arrive in Pampas, and that the townspeople had been fascinated that there were three bikes but only two men in our group. We all laughed at that.
Ben told Don Felix that there were many things he wanted to say, but that he didn’t know the right words to translate those ideas. Don Felix said that he understood how Ben felt.
Don Felix also clarified that the Peruvian people in this area do not call their language “Spanish”, but instead refer to it as “Castilian” (a term that refers to the Spanish language spoken by those in the north-central area of Spain; some people use the term as a synonym for “Spanish” and some use it to differentiate the Spanish of Spain from that of Latin America). We would find the term “Castilian” used throughout our encounters with people in northern Peru; for example, I would say (in Spanish), “I’m sorry but my Spanish is very bad.” And the person I was speaking to would say, “Oh? And how is your Castilian?”
As we were talking, Don Felix asked us where we were staying. When we pointed to the hostel, he looked surprised, and said that there was a much nicer hostel, with hot water, down the street. Ben and I both looked at Guy, who said nothing.
We chatted with Don Felix until the cold from the cement bench made our bottoms numb. Then we shook hands all around and said goodnight.
Ben and I went back to our room and finished setting up our sleep sacks. The hard, tiny taco bed was staring at us, with an almost guaranteed bad night’s sleep ahead. We were both mulling over the news that a nicer hostel, with hot water, existed. We decided to take a walk around the town before going to bed. On the way out, Ben knocked on Guy’s door and asked him if he had checked out the other hostel before deciding on this one. Through the door, Guy assured us, “Oh yes, I looked at it, and it didn’t look any better than this one.” We decided to go see for ourselves.
The main plaza was crowded with people tonight. Nearby, there was a teenage dance happening, and we listened to the sound of Kenny G. (!) blaring from the dance hall.
Less than two blocks down the street, we found a building with a “Hostel” sign outside. The windows were dark, but the building looked fairly well constructed—as if the common bathroom wouldn’t have a big gaping peek hole in it. A woman walked up and asked if she could help us—she was the hostel owner. Ben asked her if the hostel rooms had hot water; she shook her head but said that another hostel nearby did. (There were three hostels to choose from? How much effort did Guy use in securing us a room?) The woman offered to walk us to the third hostel, which was on the next block.
We arrived at the third hostel and found a spacious lobby with nicely painted walls. Everything looked brand new. A pleasant woman showed us two possible room choices. The “deluxe” room had a small bed (without the taco curve) and had its own private bathroom that was clean and modern (with a toilet seat!). All for $10. And the price included breakfast. (It also had a TV, which the woman thought was a key selling feature, but we rarely watch TV and didn’t view it as a plus.) Ben said, “We’ll take it. We need to go get our luggage, and we’ll be right back.”
It took us two trips to carry all of our motorcycle gear to the new hostel. Ben knocked on Guy’s door and told him that we had found a better place and were moving. Guy said he didn’t know about the third hostel. (Hmmm, did he even ask anyone what hostel choices were available in town?) We could only surmise that Guy was trying to save some money—the first hostel couldn’t have cost more than a few dollars (if that), and Guy’s comments and actions with respect to money over the past few days had revealed his very frugal nature.
We still spread our sleep sacks on top of the bed tonight—this hostel, like the first, apparently didn’t change the bed linens after each guest. And the coat-hook rack fell off the wall with a crash as we were drifting off to sleep. However, I was grateful for the flat sleeping surface and the sparkling clean bathroom.
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