06.13.2003-07.01.2003 Cuenca, Ecuador to Huaraz, Peru|
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|With fresh legs from my day off in Cuenca I tackled my last high pass in Ecuador. As I began my descent I encountered two British cyclists(Spokes for Strokes) who were on their way up from Tierra del Fuego. We chatted for a bit and then went our opposite ways. I soon came to pity them as the road dropped into a river valley nearly 5,000 ft. below the pass. Less than an hour before I was shivering in the paramo and then suddenly I was sweating and swatting at mosquitos. The ride out of the valley continued into the next day. After another valley traversal I was in the land of the Saraguro Indians. With their black dress they were perhaps the most striking of the Indians in Ecuador, especially the men who wore a single black poneytail, black hat, knee-length black shorts, black poncho and black shoes. The day I was to ride into Loja I was on the lookout for a gravel alternative I had read about in another cyclist's journal. I didn't have to search hard as the Pan-Am was diverted on to this exact road. And it was the best detour to date, following a clear stream through a narrow valley, all the while passing through numerous Saraguro villages whose occupants were dressed their Sunday best. If the road would have continued in this fashion all the way to Loja it would have been the perfect day. But it was not to be. After a climb into another valley I found myself cycling upstream along a putrid river, one which passed directly through Loja.
From Loja to the border town of Macara I needed to drop 5,000 ft. in elevation. Normally this would translate into easy riding but I knew 5,000 ft. was nothing in the Andes. After a long climb out of Loja I caught a glimpse of the hilly terrain that lay between myself and the border. After a screaming 4,000 ft. descent I was in the hot and arid town of Catamayo. In my haste to reach the border I had foregone a rest day in Loja. On the climb out of Catamayo I came to regret this decision. I suffered in the heat and made slow progress. At the first village I asked a woman how much climbing remained between there and Catacocha. She pointed to a distant ridge and said Catacocha was on the other side. In Catamayo I had asked a man for directions(highway signs are nearly non-existent) and told him I wanted to go to Macara via Catacucho. He had obviously missed the Catacucho part and had mischievously sent me on the back route to Macara. The woman told me the asphault I was currently enjoying would eventually end and that I would face a rough ride to Macara. I hate backtracking so I continued anyway. I spent the night in Gonzanama, the most tranquil town I have encountered on this trip. There I was told again the road to Macara was very bad. I was told to take a bus. I cycled on and never did encounter any long stretches of bad road. Nonetheless, the climbing slowed me and I arrived in Sozoranga with only two hours of daylight remaining. But if time wasn't on my side, gravity was. I still had to drop over 4,000 ft. and that helped me make Macara by dusk. The border crossing the next day was again a breeze---no lines and no hassles.
I had always pictured Peru as the heart of South America. It was home to the Incan Empire, the Andes at perhaps their most majestic, beautiful colonial towns and the Amazon Basin. But it is also a country of coastal deserts and ugly towns. This is the Peru I found after crossing over from Ecuador. Fortunately my timing(arriving in winter) meant that I would be spared the heat that a return to the lowlands usually entailed. The first thing I noticed after crossing into Peru was that I was receiving more attention than I'd received anywhere else. I didn't know if this was good or bad. What I did know was bad was the Pan-Am. After a nice introduction to backroads Peru on a gravel road I linked up with the old Pan-Am at Chulucanas. This route allowed me avoid a 120 mile stretch of nothingness known as the Desert of Sechura. I passed through the heart of Peru's citrus growing region before heading to the coast. Before arriving back at the Pan-Am I visited the ruins of Tucume, the former capital of the Lambayeque civilization. Initially, I had difficulty distinguishing between the hills of sand and the unrestored "pyramids." However, after ascending to a hilltop overlook I was able to gain some appreciation for the site. Back on the Pan-Am I passed through agro-industrial sprawl and then ugly suburbs before arriving in the pleasant center of Chiclayo, my first major Peruvian town.
After taking a much needed rest day in Chiclayo I returned to the Pan-Am and experienced the Peruvian desert for the first time. It was not a desert of cacti but a desert of sand and rock, with the occasional sand dune popping up to make things interesting. At regular intervals oases arose and the colors changed from the brown of sand to the bright green of irrigated crops. In Trujillo I took a day off to visit the ruins of the vast adobe city of Chan Chan, once the capital of the Chimu civilization. I continued on to the coastal town of Huanchaco to watch the fishermen ply the seas in their traditional reed boats. They surfed the waves much more gracefully than the wetsuit-clad surfers that were also present. I road through more featureless desert after Trujillo but it didn't bother me--I was about to start my return to the Andes. The day after Trujillo I met the Argentine/Australian cyclist couple of Adrian and Bindy. Their intended route through Peru was identical to mine and they had route descriptions complete with an elevation profile. The picture was grim: the route climbed steadily from sea level to an elevation of well over 15,000 ft. Fortunately this elevation gain was spread over several hundred miles.
We cycled inland on a private road servicing a hydroelectric project. Soon the sandy surroundings were replaced by rock. A clear sky revealed the Cordillera Negra(Black Range) ahead as well as a few glimpses of the glacier-covered peaks of the distant Cordillera Blanca(White Range). We spent that night at the project and were treated to exceptional hospitality by the staff. The next day we joined the "main" road and traded good gravel for bad. After Chuquicara I followed a narrow road through a narrow river valley--my favorite type of riding. It was remote territory so I didn't encounter my first village until I was nearly twenty miles along. There I was asked if I was going to town X. I didn't recognize the town and my heart sank. I had somehow taken a wrong turn again. This time I had no choice but to backtrack. I rode hard back to Chuquicara but still arrived well past dark. On my arrival the friendly police offered me the safest place to stay for the night, a bunk in their barracks. I caught up with Adrian and Bindy, who had had their own problems the day before, the next morning. More beautiful riding brought us to the sleepy town of Yuramarca. After Huallanca the canyon narrowed dramtically and I passed through dozens of tunnels, though none of them truly scary. After Caraz I was treated to the best mountain scenery I'd encountered since the Icefields Parkway. Peru's tallest peak, Huarascan, was clearly visible from the highway, as were several lesser but no less spectacular peaks. After Yungay I re-united with Adrian and Bindy and we spent a pleasant afternoon together completing the remaining vista-lined route to Huaraz. This passage had spurred my interest. In Huaraz I planned to seek out some trekking opportunities that would give me a more intimate experience with these mountains.
|Distance||Elevation Gain||Flat Tires|
|Leg||878 mi/1413 km||53480 ft/17545 m||2|
|Trip||13246 mi/21317 km||147 mi/237 km||17||