Who needs to take a long straight hot boring coast road when there’s mountains to play in?! Having deliberated the route options available from Ecuador, we decided there was plenty to be seen in northern Peru that was often by-passed by those sticking to the Pan American and flying down the nice well-maintained highway.
We therefore crossed at Las Balsas (quickest border so far at less than 45 mins), coming through some steep Andean foothills and promptly ended up on the edge of the Amazon! Well, the region Amazonas so it must be Amazon related! It was much warmer, flatter and lower than we expected for at least the first few hundred kilometres.
As we slowly rose higher we reached Gotcha, the 4th highest waterfall in the world (it was 3rd highest until they recently decided that one just up the road had a higher fall in total, although apparently not as visually impressive due to the fact it’s in 4 parts). From there we drove on to Kuélap, ruins to match the impressive Machu Pichu in the south of Peru.
This town was built at the top of a 3000m peak by a civilization starting around 800AD and lasting through to the Incas in the 15th century. Recently they put in a very fancy cable car that cuts out a 90min drive and gets you within a 2km hike of the remnants of the buildings. An amazing piece of infrastructure, though I wonder if tourist numbers well ever justify it. It’s always fascinating to wonder the whys and wherefores of who lived in these places and the similarities to customs in other far flung parts of the world… in this case the cliff side burial chambers where they placed their scrunched-up mummies. Our Spanish was not up to translating the information panels in a very well put together museum in Laymebamba, however the cafe opposite had some great coffee and dozens of hummingbirds.
While it was great to be getting some sightseeing in along the way we were conscious of the fact we needed to get some serious miles under our belts at the same time. We wild camped at a beautiful spot beside a river, albeit 10m from the road so I’m sure we provided a good source of conversation for the few passing vehicles. It’s great to be back camping in the almost middle of nowhere and hoping we get lots more of that over the coming weeks.
Just before we crossed the border we had seen a post go up on one of our forums about a couple who were stranded in the mountains south of Cajamarca, exactly the way we were planning to travel. Northern Peru is not as great as some places we’ve been with regards to Wi-Fi availability and due to this, and the need to do lots of Malaysia paperwork we decided to invest in a SIM card. Thank goodness we did as we managed to get further details from ‘DondeVan’ who had been stranded for 55hrs having taken what maps.me had demarcated a more ‘main’ road… and very likely the route we would have tried ourselves.
Part of the thinking behind this trip is to sometimes take the roads less traveled, and these days with the variety of online maps, blogs apps such as ioverlander we are well supported but maps can’t tell you the state of the road, and the roads are also known by a variety of numbers. We soon realised that if we stopped and asked, waving a phone with different route options on it was usually of no use and you just had to pick a village at the other end and ask if the road to there was open and good for cars! So off we went, following in part a route followed by ‘Tuck’s truck’ a couple of years ago (they are cleverer than us and publish their exact route). We left villages, farms and humanity behind fairly quickly and over the first few hours from Huamachuco climbed to over 4600m on a reasonably good gravel road. To be honest the road was in a pretty good state the whole 140km considering it was probably used by a few motorbikes and a couple of cars a week. The steady 20kmph was as much to do with the twists and turns as the road surface (and the 100s of meters drop offs next to us!). Another huge bonus was no rain while we travelled. We camped at 4150 overlooking a barren valley where the cloud rolled up over us in waves. In bed by 7pm to keep warm!
The next morning was beautifully clear, which seems to be a theme around here and we set off down a road full of ever increasing puddles; while they were a lot of fun to drive through there’s always the worry of the car not coping. Rich asked me to slow down at one point in case we cracked a spring. As neither of us would have a clue what to do if that did happen; back to 15kmph! However, we’re driving a 4runner so we’re fine! 😀 55km and 3 hours later we come across a disused mine, and then a used mine, a few motorbikes and then some ladies carrying their ubiquitous bundles on their backs. From there the road improved (2 lanes whoop whoop, speed bumps – boo!) and we headed on down to the Canon de Pato, suddenly at less than 1000m and over 30°C through the legendary tunnels and towards Caraz, a campsite with warm showers and a properly flat bit of grass to camp on. Happy days!!
After 36 hours of rest and relaxation (well – a car clean, admin session, shopping and showers) we hit another twisty turny track up to Laguna Paron, famed for its colour and the mountain behind it being the inspiration for the ‘Paramount mountain’. Luckily, this time it was less than a 2-hour drive. It is honestly the most stunning lake (none of these pictures are edited in any way – the water really is that colour!
We camped at the refugio (4200m) and the mountains towered above us on all sides up to 6500m. Shortly after we arrived and put the tent up, late afternoon, the watchman and a worried looking chap came out of the refugio to ask if we had a phone/reception (we didn’t) and neither did the Swiss campervan next to us. It turned out this young man’s girlfriend was suffering badly from altitude sickness – they had driven by motorbike straight up from the coast. She was in a really bad way and there was no hope of her travelling back down by bike. Rich came to the rescue and we quickly took the tent down, popped her in the passenger seat and he headed down the hill. The control gate (about 45 mins back down the hill and around 3200m) was locked, which actually was a blessing in disguise as it meant that he could pass responsibility onto someone else who could communicate a little more effectively and she had come around enough to stay on the bike for at least 10 mins down to the nearest village. It makes you realise that altitude is not something to mess around with and I am grateful that we don’t seem to suffer too badly.
The following day we hiked up to the mirador and around the laguna. Views were stunning all the way, albeit in and out of cloud and that evening we decided to stay another night – it was free – and were rewarded with the most stunning sunset, glowing snow-capped peaks.
From there we set off for the coast, knowing we’ll be back up in the hills before too long… being thoroughly organised we dressed in layers and having reached the heat of 2000m were quite happy shedding layers into t-shirts and flipflops not realising that the road went up again before it went down… lunch was a chilly affair in the hail at 4000m!!