Approaching the "worst border in South America" I was alert ready for an onslaught of money changers, pushy taxi drivers and general nuisances that come from borders. Nothing! The last few Km's to the border on a shiny new road bore not a single car or person. Convinced I had day dreamily missed a turn I was about to turn around when I saw a sign "Welcome to Peru". How did I miss Ecuadorian immigration I thought. Well it turned out there were two border crossings one in the town and a brand spanking new one which bypasses the town and hasn't a tout in sight. This was looking like the easiest border crossing to date with exit and enter stamps available side by side. If a tour bus of old age pensioners hadn't just beat to the border by seconds I would have been in and out in moments but alas it was swift enough and I was away pedaling into Peru drama free ....untill I got a puncture for the longest prickly pined tree I've seen to date. there went my record 2 countries without a puncture. I don't hold this against my "schwalbe mondtail" tyres as these spines could well have done damage to a motorbike tyre, a suspicion later confirmed in due course a KM down the road!
Changing the tyre attracted no less than 7 moto taxis's to stop and stare and 9 road workers to literally drop tools. Evidently a chance to watch a "Gringa" changing a tyre was above job security. It was an odd situation as I knew the inevitable "Your country?" "Alone?", "Where is your husband?" obligatory questions would ensue so being pressed for time to reach the next town before dark I lied and said "No hablo Espanol" and stuck my headphones in as the mob stared in silence......honestly I feel like an animal in a zoo half the time. To give them their dues they were an incredibly attentive audience never losing their stare and watching my every move like watching a magician performing a trick. They made a simple task of repairing a puncture feel like I had just performed a mechanical marvel. I then blew my cover (the sun fries my brain) as a jokingly asked for tips for the 15 minute show which left them dumb founded as to how I could suddenly speak Spanish. That was my Q to dash before the rapidfire questions ensued....
Peru greeted me with this after 5 mins of cycling.....
Tick, country no. 28!
My first interaction in Peru was to prove unfortunately a common conversation "Very dangerous" "You will be robbed and only left with the shirt on your back", "Single girl...very dangerous" "Road very dangerous".....hardly catch phrases from a tourist broshure. Their was an over riding air of despiration on the desolate stretch through the Northern Peruvian desert and I eperienced severe poverty to the extent I hadn't seen in a while. When I say some of the isolated shacks in the desert had nothing, i'm not pwerphrasing I mean literally nothing. No electricity, no running water and no posessions. They barely had a change of clothes and relied on an old man to pedal by every 5 days with 3 gallon drums of water for the family. How you don't die of dehydration with that little water is beyond me given I was drinking at least 6 litres of water a day. Nothing grows in that climate without water, even if you had money there is nowhere to buy food and no opportunites to get a job or earn money.....apart from robbing a passing cyclist which thankfully didn't materialize despite a feeble attempt or two. You can hardy blame them, It's like holding an ice cream in front of a child on a sunny day and asking them not to eat it!
and with an epic sunset!
On reaching the first town across the border I was heartily welcomed by the Firemen at the town of Tumbes where we dinned together, accompanied me to exchange money so I wouldn't get ripped off with the fake notes (which they tried... cheeky pups), given a city tour and thrown the keys to lock up after myself when I left in the morning. A perfect end to a first day in Peru.
The slogan for the police in Peru is "We are your friends" which I personally found to be very true. Arriving near dark in the beachtown of Mancora I stopped ouside the Police station to ask for directions to a hotel or a safe place to camp and before I knew it I was installed in the new building at the rear of the station overlooking the two prisoners cells which made for a gossipers heaven watching and listening to dramas unfold. I was swiftly given a tour by the chief of police who loved the concept of travelling by bicyce and told me I was welcome to stay as many months as I pleased.....granted months sunning myself on the beach would be what was required if i was ever to successfully smooth out my cycling tan but I settled for a token attempt of one day. The trappings that come with touristic towns wears thin after a while and I happily pedalled away the following day.
Unofficial dump that is the desert....
The bonuses of cycling by the coast come in the form of unlimited "Ceviche" or raw fish marinated in lemon and onion and pristine beaches. There is nothing quite like jumping in the sea after a long day on the bike watching the sun setting whilst munching fresh "ceviche"....even if it did leave me with a disgruntled stomach on occasion. Raw fish from a moving stall in the hot desert would be a health inspectors dream at home!
How one feels in the desert.
Now where to camp.....
The north of Peru is home to the Sechura Desert, south of the Piura Region of Peru along the Pacific Ocean coast and inland to the foothills of the Andes Mountains. This region is also home to not much else. Wikipedia described it as "nothing but arid, hardscrabble waste for 15 years" and having cycled through it I see no reason to contest this description. As deserts go however this is one of luxury given that there were towns in it at a maximum distance of 210km. Desolate camping was required and it didn't help that their were water shortages and water demonstrations and protests in many towns but none the less I made it out with my most impressive cycling tan to date!
Wheres your bucket and spade when you need it?....
Tragedy.....spilling precious water whilst making coffee in the morning.
Let me set the scene for you. Imagine a football pitch covered in sand, ask all your neighbours can you borrow their leave blower machines and put them on full blast. For the Irish among you really use your imagination and pretend it 50 deg. Now place a lego man facing said blowers with a miniature tent and bicycle by its side. To recap you should only have a lego man in a sea of sand with insane heat and an almighty headwind with nothing other than a strip of asphalt cutting through the scene like a scar in a straight line......thats the Peruvian desert and my life for just under a week.
Trusty steed tackling some desert off road.
After 80km in the desert I came upon this "oasis" but alas no water.
Liars....."Always Coca Cola" but in the desert it's just a teasing sign.
The roads were not completely empty however.....they were adorned with an unsettling amount of memorials to those that didin't make it off it and it was also used as the unofficial dump of the country. Unfortunately Nappies, Rotting onions and urine topped the popular waste which was so potent smelling at times I almost yearned for the smell of decaying Kangaroo across the Nularbor.....but not quite.The memorials however weren't without their uses. With water rations dwindling before one town and I had dangerously stopped sweating. As my pee had reached the colour of cheap petrol station coffee I felt justified in stealing one of the water offerings at one memorial and doused it with iodine for clear drinking water. For a clear conscience I tidied the flowers and said a prayer!!
Yay, another day of sand, headwind and water rationing! Keep smiling...just keep smiling!
Notice the yellow tongue.....never a good sign in a desert.
Chiclayo marked the exit of the most desolate stretch of the desert and despite only being in the desert a few days I arrived bearing an uncanny resemblance to a desertarian.......panda eye tan from sunglasses, hair like I've been in a wind tunnel (which i pretty much had) and a thick film of sand and dirt covering my entire body. Every hotel I could find had a narrow staircase leading to reception on the 2nd or 3rd floor....every cyclists pet hate. This presented a little pickle as If I left my bike on the street while I nipped into reception there was no way it was going to be there on my return so I set about searching for an alternative when I came across the Firestation and couldn't resist. As I dinned and had the banter with this cheerful bunch after the miserable depressing conversations I'd had throughout the desert my mood soared and once more had a renewed appreciation for life! If harsh deserts are good for only one thing its to give you a renewed appreciation for how easy we have it!
Like a nutter I climbed up at 5pm before camp to snap this....Desert sea!
I will never forget that empty glaze that dressed some desertarians eyes like a curtain of misery. When someone is that numb and has lost all hope that they don't even bother to beg you start to wonder are they alive only in body. That empty expression is so impacting you would almost commend them for robbing you as it would show they still held some hope for a better life.
The discernible reader will have spotted the sand and emptiness theme by now.
Theft in the desert....stealing water from memorials! We all have our blemishes!
Chiclayo proved to be a very lively town, not because of my obscured perception after the desert but a genuinely upbeat city. I ventured to the famed "Witches market" where you can purchase every love potion known to man and a herb for every ailment you can think of. I settled for "Maca" "Kwicha" and "Quinua" the supposed energy super-foods. The soaring Andes lurk not far away to test their true merits! The vendors were advocating the merits of "Coca" a leaf known for its energetic properties and favored by mountain people who struggle in the altitude and chew or drink it for its enlivening properties. The pick me up is more common in developed countries in it refined form as cocaine. Knowing I have an acute addiction for coffee I was weary of adding another vice to my belt. That said its hard to believe illicit cocaine is derived from the product when you see an innocent child chewing a mouthful of it whilst waiting for the school bus in the morning!
Signs of life after the desert....sugar cane! Good wind breaker too.
Unless one is aspiring to open a second hand clothes shop or construction supply store, one is generally not appreciative of the unofficial dump that is the side of the road in the Peruvian desert. Having pushed the missile through a few deserts in Australia, USA and Mexico I have my benchmarks and this desert tops as the most deserted desert (sounds obvious) to date. Just plain eery. I think this feeling is derived from the fact that there is no flow in this desert. Simply nothing for 200km then boom suddenly a bigish city. It's hard to be mentally prepared for a desert when its disrupted by incongruous cities as opposed to a gradual immersion of small villages which develop into nothing. This stark contrast makes it all the eerier and probably makes it feel more isolated than it actually is. It's significant population of vultures and not a whole lot of fresh meat/ roadkill did also unsettle me somewhat as I feared I may feature on their menu....thankfully no duck-diving magpies like in Australia this time!
Poco a Poco.....little by little.
The town of Paijan in the middle of the desert is just another dusty desert town to most people. However for cyclists it acts as your best chance to make a travel insurance claim as the local "Moto" taxi drivers know the route is well trodden by vulnerable bicycle tourists who are easy targets in the remote desert. I proved to be just what they were waiting for and as I entered I spotted what I had been afraid of in my rear mirror, as 2 moto taxi's did a U turn and followed me busy calling another taxi on their mobile for back up. Knowing exactly what was going to happen I sped into the town trying not to look vulnerable......if you look like a victim you soon become one!! as they say. I took a series of turns to confirm my suspicions that they were indeed following me and to try and lose them but alas I quickly realised a "moto" has a speed advantage over a bicycle and found myself ducking into the first hotel I saw to hide.
Deserts have their beauty too....if you cycle slow enough to spot it!
The lady at reception understood my predicament and graciously plied me with coffee until I planned my next move. She informed me they had to take the speed-bumps off the road through the town as if pickups slowed down all their goods in the back would be pinched. It would be fair to say the town hadn't many redeeming features and unlikely to ever feature in a lonely planet book as an idyllic desert oasis. Knowing full well the robbers would be waiting for me on the town exit my only chance of escape was to load myself onto a bus or take a dirt road that may or may not still exist along the coast. Checking the coast was clear I took the latter option which had the added benefit of taking in the archeological sight of El Brujo which even merited a dot on my map. With a constant eye in my rear mirror and my pepper spray in its easy to reach Velcro position I headed into the sugar cane fields towards the archaeological sight.
Novel nights accommodation in a dog center....no childish jibes please!
An hour later it was nearing dark as I reached the coastal sight but alas no town.....so much for the dot on my map. A collection of collapsing adobe huts sat at the edge of the site overlooking the ocean and I spotted a silhouette moving in the setting sun. Appearing like a genie out of a bottle I introduced myself to the fisherman as a tired cyclist who had literally reached the end of the road. He proposed me camping in the courtyard of the sole residents of the "village" which conveniently happened to be his good self, wife and the last son they hadn't managed to marry off yet. I divulged the fact that I was happily "married" to get that conversation out of the way straight away and positively RSVP'd the camping offer. While he marvelled at my Mac Gyver like moves setting up my tent his wife set about preparing the freshest ceviche possible caught seconds before my arrival.
CBD El Brujo.
The evenings entertainment in this off the grid town, lacking in electricity and running water took a turn for the good with the 33% population increase that evening. I haven't enjoyed an evening as relaxed with perfect company as we dinned on delicious ceviche by candle light in a long time as much as I did that night. The atmospheric lighting was more to do with necessity more so than atmopheric fine dining etiquite. I will always remember that familys kindness and totally relaxed nature as if I was a returning old friend.
The following day I was armed with directions which were distant memories of an excursion to the beach years back. Obediently or stupidly I followed the canal, turned right at the 4th sugar cane field, turned left at the recently burned corn field and turned right at the canal again. Predictably somewhere in the equation I was truly lost but as always luck was on my side and came in the form of a man on a donkey who having once recovered from the sight of a girl on a bike in these parts composed himself and set me in the right direction but threw in "the track is awful" and a hesitant glance at my load. Lack of other options and a dwindling water supply kept me going until I met another fellow cyclist. He however was 90 plus, machete yielding man and on his way to tend to his fields. He reckoned he knew a way out and said follow me....then we were a party of two. All was going bumpingly well as we skated through rice paddy fields until suddenly we arrived at a canal traversing a dried river bed 300m below. I will always remember my reaction as it's not something i say often as i came to a defined stop like a soldier holding my bike like a rifle..."no". The line or in this case canal that needs to be crossed has been crossed...this is lunacy. Unsure if my self assigned guide was suffering from Alzheimers thinking he was 19 not 90 bashfully proposed "lets go". The suspended canal over the 300m drop consisted of a 20cm thick concrete trough that was 3m wide and 5 metres deep. My guide proposed walking on one side "walking the line" if you will whilst simultaneously pushing the missile on the other 20cm. With any luck in the likely event of falling you fall inward falling only 5 metres. Being the right side of 90 I reckoned i had more to lose on this excursion but mid pondering my friend was already attempting to haul the missile onto the death blank. For lack of a better idea I followed. My task was to stand behind the missile and steer it in the right direction. Given that i was squinting my eyes out of fear and pushing the bike with one finger I'd say i failed miserably at this task. In a bid to calm my nerves my new friend yapped on about the history of the canal as I responded "mmmm" or at best "que interessante" for the longest 1.5km of my life. When we miraculously reached the other end to dry land in jubilation we jumped and hugged each other as if we had just discovered the south pole and he threw in a dance and a beaming smile for good measure. Special moments like this will be hard to forget.
Finicky eater don't push bicycles up mountains....guinea pig!
Turning many a head in a rural village following morning, I was then directed towards a dirt road directly by the coast, by directly I mean a fair bit of pushing was required through sand when the road momentarily turned into the beach on occasion. Well wheres the fun if you have it too easy, sea views AND a decent road....come on now. It was odd cycling metres from a beach and yet a desert on the other side of the road but not unpleasant I must admit given that your main fear in a desert is running out of water. After 30km of nothing and no sign of life (apart from a nudest who I reckon hadn't been uncovered before judging by his reaction) like an actual oasis in the desert Huanchaco appeared, a touristy surfing town. As I pedaled past cafes offering continental breakfast you are quickly reminded how off the grid you have been for manys a day. I pushed my bike into the cramped local market like trying to push a cow into a cornershop at home and dined on ceviche which compared to all other towns on the coast decreased in size as the touristic numbers increased. My lips were stinging like crazy from the lemon in the ceviche so I made a brave move and looked in my bicycle mirror at myself for the first time in a while. Boy had I let myself go....the dusty gravel on the dirt road was a shade of grey which i was now coated in. My misbehaving sooty stove had me with sprinkled with various smudged fingermarks from when I made attempts to rid mosquitoes that dined on me. For good measure I also had a splash or two of iodine on my face from when one tries to put iodine into water on a windy day. Well I'm always stared at on the bike anyway so now they at least had a reason to stare.
Canon de Pato.
Like a hot knife through butter this road was literally carved out from the mountain.
Arriving in Trujillo a policeman spotted me and reckoned correctly I'd be looking for the famous "Casa de ciclistas" the oldest in south America which was started the year I was born so obviously quite recent! Lucho greeting me with "Mi casa es su casa" and a wealth of touring stories ensued. Boy is it refreshing to meet someone local who totally gets what you are doing and describes traveling by bicycle with the passion it deserves....."free like a bird, only on a bike are you truly alive". When asked if I had any problems with the missile I responded naively "not really" but given that your the best mechanic in south America it would probably do no harm to have a peak.
The Missiles surgeon, master mechanic and legend Lucho!
The diagnosis the following morning after staying up until 5am working on it was ...."not good but none the less respect for getting here alive on the state it was in". As they say ignorance is bliss and I always look at the Missile as if she is akin to a fine red wine appreciating in value with the years, sentimental value at least. Lucho perhaps thought otherwise but had to admit given the 30,000km it had done it had done well. To cut a long story short an overhaul was required and took a few days to carry out the surgery. While Lucho took care of the mechanical repairs I took care of the more cosmetic yet essential repairs. If you ever have 4 days to while away, perhaps try fixing lots of niggly little things you have been meaning to fix for a while in a city with all its markets spread in various corners and with locals who are unaccustomed to an Irish Spanish accent inquiring about uncustomary touristic requests such as a water heater, cement glue, waterproof silicon, cable velcro and the like.
Are we there yet?.Canon de pato.
When I arrived in Trujillo I was unknowns to myself rather tense after the safety aspect of the desert region. I can honestly count on one hand the amount of conversations I had since I crossed the border that didn't contain the words "ladrones" "Peligro" and "mucho cuidado". (thieves, danger, take care) All well meaning advice of course but it wears thin after a while. After chatting with the other cyclists in residence with the same mindset that it's totally normal to push a bike and 50 KG of luggage up and downs the Andes I was quickly back in the right frame of mind. the customary chit chat among cyclists flowed.....whats the longest you've gone without a shower? What do you add to your porridge in the morning? Petrol or white gas in your stove? Do you kick or spray dogs? When washing yourself, clothes and dishes in the shower which do you wash first?....the usual banter!
It never ceases to amaze me how ever bicycle tourer is different and you learn something new from each one. From Philip I learned to wear your shorts inside out when cooking to keep them clean (not sure i could be bothered though) From Ted I learned a few more tips to tame my temperamental stove, Lukas thought me a new design for an alcohol stove and a motivational cycling dance (it works too) and most importantly Nigel gave me my sense of humor back and an unhealthy addiction to "emolientos". Lucho the master taught me a lot notably don't be shy to treat your bike to more than kind words and an earnest motivational swift hand movement repeatedly from head to calves reminiscent of the karate kid ....."wax on...wax off". The message however was clear, get your head and your legs working in harmony and you'll find yourself in Cusco before you know it. He also remembered the windswept, weathered weary cyclist that arrived a few days prior and slipped some extra strong lip sun block in my pocket and a reminder to buy a new pair of sunglasses before I reach the salt flats in Bolivia....little does he know my high sunglasses consumption rate on this trip and I doubt my present pair will make it to 4000m in one piece never mind Bolivia.
A pleasant day trip with Nigel fellow cyclist in the Casa de Ciclista, was to be had off the bike while it was having surgery to Chan Chan the capital of the Chimu empire meaning "Sun Sun" . It is an enormous mud-brick settlement and is the largest pre-Colombian city in South America. If you want to see adobe construction used to it's maximum this is the place as it's an entire city constructed in a maze like arrangement. The walls act as a protection from the wind which is the main erosion problem but it's simply remarkable that a simple mud construction can last hundreds of years with relief work paintings still in tact.
Peru is not known as a haven of efficiency but one thing I will give them marks for efficiency on is their hair salons. Whilst simultaneously watching a "Novela" soap opera the hair dresser cut my hair in a record 2 minutes 47 seconds! Granted I'm not tremendously fussy about a good haircut since it turns to helmet hair after an hour of cycling but I still found it to be a jolly good result! At $1.25 I said hang the expense sometimes you just got to treat yourself!
With the bike in full working order it was time to hit the road....or dirt road up the "Canon de pato" to Huaraz. When describing the "Canon de pato" there is invariably descriptions of buses falling off the rough road that has been dug into the mountain and boasts no less than 50 or so tunnels. I lost count. It is a truly stunning route as you pass settlements with no electricity and often rely on houses that cheekily place a speed bump outside their door to slow traffic (the little that there is) and sell fruit. My first night was spent 40km from the next village in the middle of nowhere and found myself going a ridiculous ways off the road so as not to be seen camping. I could have lit a bonfire and none on the road would have seen me yet I paranoidly used my tiny head-torch minimally to avoid been seen. After sleeping in a city for over a week the stark contrast somehow put me on edge as I spent the night jumping every time the tent flapped.....the solution came in the form of ignorance is bliss as I put in my ear plugs and slept like a stone....on stones.
But they said there would be a restaurant in 50km....they failed to mention it closed a few years back!
The following night I made for a "village" with the CBD consisting of three adobe mud huts with one boasting a faded "inka cola" poster that gave evidence of a shop in existence at one time in the distant past. Given that the population of dogs outweighed inhabitants I thought it best to seek shelter in a building as opposed to a nights entertainment of throwing rocks at dogs all night. With no electricity life was not to be found in the customary manner of a light bulb instead I listened attentively for signs of life in the mostly abandoned houses. Soon I heard a transistor radio and made myself known "Hola, Bueanas Noches". The population was down to three this evening but the kind gentleman refused my request to camp in his garden and instead opened an adjacent building which contained 3 beds.....I was elated. My happiness soon faded when I was awoken during the night to the sound of scuttling. Grabbing my head torch I shone it round the room to discover it was in fact a dormitory.....a dormitory of no less than 11 rats.....on first count, perhaps more! Like a night club at closing time they all scuttled away with the light and their entry was no mystery as they shot for the gap under and above the door frame.
Said rat house....
The only solution would be to set up my tent but this seemed like quite at feat at 1am. I quickly packed my food away in its sealed bag as it was most likely the main attraction for the visitors. I covered my face in insect repellent, jumped into my silk sleeping bag liner to cover my body, popped in my ear plugs and prayed for the best. I awoke only once to shine my torch and see a train of them repeating their exit. Following morning in daylight I spotted rat prints on my pillow, on my kindle by my head and all over my bags.....doesn't bear thinking about! On the upside I am evidently still a very deep sleeper if I slept through all that and at thankfully they don't bite like in India.
Peru is not short on lakes and lagoons.
I often wondered why Peruvians constantly ask me how I travel at night. I assured them that it's dangerous to travel at night so I tend to sleep as I'm also I would have thought unsurprisingly pretty exhausted after cycling all day. Then I realized if you only travel for an occasion or event you are most likely going to drive through the night to save on accommodation costs as it's probably only for one night anyway. Lonely planet sales aren't very high among locals in Peru.Ahhhh that's why the place looks familiar....
Starting to get a bit nippy in the mountains....
As I was saying a touch cold in the tent....
But it looks so cold....only the thought of coffee gets me out of my sleeping bag in the morning.....and the isn't half bad either.
By the time I reached Caraz 2 days later I was very much in need of a shower and a day off. Caraz plays little brother to the busier hiking city Huaraz further south. Caraz is a tranquil town brimming with indigenous locals and I always find the behavior of the dogs as a benchmark for the atmosphere in a town. It was all quiet ambling and wagging tails in this gem of a town with a superb temperate climate......if one is looking to retire in Peru I'm marking this as the town to do so. Myself and the sole fireman Edwardo slipped into family life at the Bomberos taking turns to cook. I cringe to say this but i think he equally enjoyed my "breath of fresh air" company from an otherwise lonely job and as always I was delighted to slip into a "normal" life for a brief sojourn. After showering and removing the caked on mud from the dirt roads it became quite clear that the mud had acted as a natural plaster although not an entirely sanitary one and I was covered in blood from all my little tumbles off the bike on the rough roads. These tumbles were due to an appalling act of balance on my part and secondly due to rocks falling over head and hitting my helmet (take note mum wearing my helmet) and knocking me off the bike. Both incidents happened in such slow motion it was really the material comics are made from. Edwardo jumped into action like something out of a soap opera and had me sucking oxygen before I knew it, whilst he doused me in iodine and alcohol. I must admit the oxygen did wonders for my throbbing altitude induced headache so I happily allowed the over reaction to continue.
Pig tucked up for bed in a clay oven, Caraz.
Thieves at the meat market.....and further reasoning as to why I'm practically a vegetarian of late.
As I was preparing our coffee the following morning in the kitchen like I'd lived there all my life, there are simple moments like that that hit you now and then.....this is surreal! I never thought over 2 years ago I'd be making the head fireman coffee in the morning before we start up the truck and I get a city tour from a unique viewpoint....if a little noisy with the siren!
Hiking in Huaraz.
A swift days cycling brought me to the trekking capital of Peru, Huaraz. The only interruption came in the form of the "Bomberos" siring truck speeding up behind me on the road. I stopped and ducked off the road so they could easily pass but instead they grounded to a screeching halt right beside me and casually asked over the blaring siren if I was ok for water or needed anything. Blending into the casual nature of the interaction I assured them shouting over the siren that I was fine and gently suggested they may need to get going to some emergency down the road.
With that I chomped on a wad of Coca leaves like a horse chews hay to get me up the road to Huaraz the hiking capital of Peru!