Peru: Part 1

Freshly tuned up, my bike seemed to do fine through the river crossings that morning and even a section of mud that flooded down the mountain. “Heh. My bike feels great� I thought to myself as I shifted into a harder gear and sped over a few quick rolling hills.

Though as my chain began to skip, I was sure my two dollar “DINGL� brand derailleur was at fault. Even when finely tuned, it offered only 7 of the 8 gears, and now the teeth couldn´t catch any.

Every section graded more than 20 degrees forced me to step off, and first pretend that hammering on the derailleur with a rock would fix the problem, and then, push the bike to the next flat section. This miserable routine continued the next few hours until I arrived in Cochabamba, a city apparently celebrating Easter a week late (rain delayed the celebration, they explained).

A giant tree decorated with ornaments of fruit and cloth had fallen over in the central park and the townfolk were busy trying to right it, while two young girls elaborately costumed sat idly on horses, preparing to be paraded around. I found the others cowering under the presence of a giant mob (more than half the town) that had circled around them, as if the gringos were the second coming of Christ.

Goat looked over my bike, “Bad news. It´s not the derailleur. Your whole drive train is blown. The teeth are gone. We can try flipping each cog and filing the teeth, maybe get you a few extra days of riding, but… well…� and left me to consider our lack of options.

This was to be day one of a lengthy and serious bikepacking section on dirt roads, horse trails, and missing spots on the map. Not the place to be without a drivetrain.

Eventually we decided to leave our bikes in the town and bus to Trujillo in search of a new drive train.

Just after dark the bus was trying to pass a landslide, revving its engines in attempt to power over some rocks. People were screaming both inside and outside of the bus and if I were to somehow be asleep, I´d consider the scene a nightmare. I wished I was on my bike.

Unfortunately, I wasn´t asleep when the ticket taker walked back to collect the money after we resumed our course: his hand was covered in a bloody rag; he severed his fingers while trying to move rocks from under he bus tires, half his pinkie and ring finger to be exact, and he was still calmly collecting the money. It didn´t appear that he had any plans to reattach them.

Ceviche at the coast was everything I had hoped for and we discovered a Casa De Ciclista (the first in our trip) filled with a half dozen other cycle nomads. The guest book there had over a 1,000 entries of cycle tourists passing through since 1986. One couple had been travelling for 8 years and had signed the book three times. Lucho oversaw the place, making sure all bike tourists had everything they needed, and within a few hours he had rounded up all the best parts he could find.

The scariest thing about the bus ride back was getting my fingerprint taken before boarding the bus, apparently they record the prints to assist them in identifying the bodies when a bus crashes, falls off a cliff, gets stuck in a mudslide, or collapses with a bridge, etc. Fortunately, the ride was smooth enough, and uneventful until we neared Huamachuco where we´d turn off and drop down into the valley for our bikes.

The stream beside the road looked particularly gnarly, a disturbing neon brown sludge kept building up, and it was only until we saw the artificial mountains of Yanacocha did it make sense. One of the biggest gold mining operations in Peru extracts every possible microgram of gold by digging up entire mountains and using cyanide and mercury to extract the gold. Then they rebuild the mountain with the leftover debris in a sort of multi-colored terraced pyramid that looks exceedingly toxic.

In 2000, a load of mercury spilled in a nearby village. Kids played with it, and men collected it, believing it to be a valuable mineral. Workers at the mine began offering 30 dollars for every kilo that was returned, and so the whole village went about gathering the mercury (naturally, without gloves), women carried it in their skirts and everybody started getting really sick. Doctors from larger cities noticed so many cases of mercury poisoning from the area that they alerted the media, etc. resulting in a class action lawsuit. When our bus arrived, I made sure to buy bottled water.

With a full on drivetrain, we began our route that wouldn´t see paved road for three more weeks. We climbed out of the desert, avoiding the spiny cactus segments that dropped onto the trail. We climbed up into greener hills, with eucalyptus groves. Entered town of Chugay just before night and opted for a 3 dollar hostel. Woke up early and started boiling water for a delicious cup of coffee. “Oooh man my stomach hurt something terrible this morning.� I said to the others, still thinking about the 30 or so minutes I spent squatting in the hole they considered a bathroom.

“Hmmmn..Goat had the same thing� JJ said.

“Not good…hag all night. Slept very little� Goat said, still under the covers of his bed.

I did enjoy the coffee, but soon after, a clammy wave swept through my body shortly after breakfast, washed over my nerves and settled in my stomach.

I packed up my gear to hoping it´d just go away, but I was feverish and low energy; even packing became difficult. Without warning, I vomited breakfast on the floor. Thinking to myself, “This is going to be a bad day,� as I looked at the festering puddle of wasted calories.

An hour later, I was able to hold down some Gatorade and decided to see if I could ride. Just take it slow I promised myself.

By the time we hit the altiplano, Goat and JJ were nowhere in sight (apparently his stomach hag resolved itself) and my near future had become lamentably transparent: a no good very bad, very long day. A false summit greeted me early in the day, like a dark cloud promising rain. I descended a couple hundred meters down into a sort of bowl shaped valley, only to see switchbacks climbing another 500-1000 meters on the other side.

Often I had to rest, laying in the soft altiplano tundra where not even a light rain could motivate me to get back on the bike. I just laid in my rain gear feeling like death. A huge dump truck pulled up right beside me, its exhaust smoking me out, and released their air horn, crushing my already throbbing skull. Smiling Peruvians waved briefly before motoring away. Honking the “Claxton� has been my least favorite part of Peru.

Pedaling as slow as possible while still keeping my balance, I made my way to the switchbacks. I dreamed about getting a ride in one of the trucks that passed, but they were all completely filled and were not stopping to chat.

More than half way up the switchbacks I met up with the others and we made up some lunch I was able to hold down. Feeling slightly better with calories, I was able to climb out of the bowl just as the sun was going down.

A truck stopped me a half kilometer before the pass, dismayed at my presence. “HURRY, HURRY,” the driver said, leaning across his passenger, “there are mucho asaltos, you need to get out of here,” and made machine gun motions/sounds to reinforce his claim.

At the top of the pass, any fear of assaults dissipated in the mist. It was far too cold and miserable for “ladrones” to hang out. We put on warmer clothes for the descent, hoping to hurry down to lower elevations where we could find trees to string up our hammocks before night set in completely.

Road conditions were so muddy we couldn´t keep a speed of much more than 10 kilometers an hour. A wrenching pain in my gut slowed my progress, amplified by every bump of the muddy 4×4 track.

The pain became so excruciating I imagined that I had developed an ulcer from chewing the coca leaves. Out in the Andes there was going to be no help forthcoming, and because the switchbacks were so steep, there were no campsites to be found. I just wanted the day to end.

By the time we arrived in the small village of Aricapampa the pain had become so severe I would have checked myself into a hospital if there was one. Instead, we got some beds above a restaurant and I took a couple fuerte pain killers and got to sleep.

My body relished the rest and I felt much better the next day. We continued our descent, totaling almost 3,000 meters from the pass, and dropped us into a desert valley with a small truck stop for a town. My bottom bracket had previously been welded to my frame at a few attachment points, but those had ripped off during the hours of abusive riding down the mountain. Fortunately there was a welder in the town of about 30, and we were able to reweld the bottom bracket to my bike with a few pieces of crude metal and a sloppy stick welder.

We would enjoy a few kilometres of flat riding traversing the Marañon River before turning up a tributary river valley that would bring us to another 4,000 meter pass. We crossed over a flashy bright red bridge and all thought to ourselves how odd any kind of road repair is way out here. The water flowing below it was dark and muddy, as if it were in flood. Without hesitation, we began a 500 meter climb within about two dozen switchbacks. Cruelly, you could see the entire route scratching across the mountainside.

Towards the top we passed three guys in military fatigue, looking through binoculars down towards the river valley. They ignored us and we were glad. Around a bend we could see the valley climbing up into infinity and knew that was where we were going. Chapped brown mountaintops gave way to verdant hillsides covered in fields and eucalyptus groves before the tops of the steep velvety mountains of altiplano peeked over. The Andes: mountains upon mountains.

Soon the red bridge was visible only as a tiny toy and the brown river made sense as we looked down on an open pit that machines had scraped off the valley side. Tiny yellow tractors could be seen and even heard moving the earth while a steady stream of dumptrucks came and went.

Then we came upon a series of lake sized pools where they would use cyanide and mercury to leech out the gold from the ore that is laboriously mined from the mountains. Workers blasted past us in their company trucks, leaving us in a thick cloud of dust and not until we got within a kilometer of the 4,200 meter pass did we escape the constant chaos of the mining equipment “sharing� the road.

All day we climbed up to a tiny village sitting above a lake where they assured us “No hay pase, No hay paseâ€� – You can´t pass. They told us to drop down another road to the lake that would eventually reconnect to our road. Neither of these roads were on our map, so we opted to continue towards the landslides, knowing at the very least we could get away from the mining vehicles for a bit.

Since our very first days in Peru, “No hay pase� has greeted us in many different cities. We had been able to stay on about 90% dirt roads throughout the country where rain combined with slash/burn agriculture to inevitably cause landslides. Sometimes “no hay pase� merely meant that a car couldn´t pass, but a motorcycle could, while others were serious hike a bike through treacherous makeshift trails or thigh deep mud that made me a believer in deadly quicksand.

A huge earth mover came roaring our way, and the driver waved his finger and reassured us, “No hay pase.� The first landslide we came across was almost a half a kilometre long, but the mud had mostly dried enough to walk across. A routine became familiar, unstrap our dry bags, then push, carry, pull, and drag our bikes over the landslide. Hike back, grab the bags, and make our way once again over the broken road. Then another, and another, until it got dark as we approached another half kilometer slide. For miles, we hadn´t seen any trees to set up our hammocks, and opted to keep going, hoping to find some on the other side of the slide, except we only came across more and more landslides, until we had to dawn our headlamps and cross a few dangerous blown out creek sections, where you could hear the dull thud of rocks tumbling down with the mud, but could see very little.

JJ and I found a grove of trees that hadn´t yet slid down the mountain and we were ready to camp. Goat only laughed at our thought as he maneuvered his bike through the fallen rocks with his headlamp and looked up at the clearly unstable hillside.

“As long as it doesn´t rain.� I offered uncertainly.

Fortunately, we came upon an abandoned adobe house after the next slide and finally got to rest. After a day of relatively minimal stomach hag, I risked eating a bowl of cold oatmeal that night, hoping to get some calories in. They all soon left, as I spent the entire night vomiting and emptying my insides as thoroughly as my body could.

I felt like a ghost the next morning and was stoked to hear that we had a course of Cipro. Being sick while bikepacking is more than inconvenient, it can be dangerous. Our food supplies were low and we were in a valley completely destroyed be landslides, we´d be lucky to cover 5 kilometers and make it to the next town by night.

Around mid day we rounded a bend and saw a village on the other side of a steep valley, but what we couldn´t see was the road going there because a massive slide, starting at the ridgeline had slid into the valley, scraping the earth until only a fresh scar remained.

We pedaled to the very edge of the road and peered down the newly created cliff and up to our right I could see what appeared to be deceptively tiny boulders crashing down the mountainside, yet their booming sounds that echoed through the valley made their size more realistically 3-5 meters across.

We chose to hike down into the valley through thick brush and boulder piles and instead of dropping all the way down to the river and climbing back the other side (as recommended by a passing local), we traversed the slide, trying to avoid steeper climbs. A landfill had been ripped open by the fallen road and its layers of trash exposed. Any sign of a trail had vanished and locals across the valley spotted us and began screaming incoherently at us with wild waving hand movements.

We left our bikes and scouted our route, reaching the river that flowed down the valley thick mud flowed freely, carrying the mountain with it. A steep exposed section barred any crossing and some workers nearby yelled for us to go back, as a slide into the muddy torrent below was a very real danger.

With regular bikes, crossings like this would be sketchy, yet with long bikes, they become absurd. Locals watched in horror as J and I made our way across, our balance tested as rocks slipped out from under our feet. At the river crossing a few guys in hardhats decided they were going to carry our bikes across. Unaware of how heavy and awkward the bike was, the guy tried to pick it up over his head, but ended up falling over, much to the amusement of his buddies.

On the other side of the river, there was a bulldozer, which we assumed meant that the road had been cleared until that point, except that another landslide had actually trapped the earth mover. The locals were so happy to see gringos passing through that they volunteered to carry our bikes and gear across the rest of the landslides. We gifted them a giant bag of Coca leaves we carry around for the occasion, and soon they could barely talk having stuffed so many of the leaves in their mouths.