A Broken Bike, a Broken Body and Peru Showing its True Colours


A couple of days before I arrived in Chachapoyas I noticed some paint peeling on the frame of the bike. It was only later while giving it a clean I realised it was something much more serious. The welding at the join between one of the seat stays and the seat tube had completely cracked and the two were no longer attached. I went online to find out how bad this was and, much like how WebMD can make a mild rash seem like a virulent case of smallpox, the various cycling forums soon led me to believe that I had no choice but to give up on my frame or else suffer the dreaded “catastrophic failure”. There was never any mention of partial or slight failure, it just had to be catastrophic. It was clear that if I rode my bike again it would instantly explode and I would die. On the other hand replacing the frame would be time consuming, expensive and a logistical nightmare. As I lay there in my hostel bed I saw my whole trip flash before my eyes. Surely there had to be a way to fix this.

I sent a photo of the crack to Carlos, my friend in Medellin that sold me the bike, and asked for his advice. He told me not to worry and that given the location of the crack I should just be able to get it welded back together. Hallelujah! The local bike shop directed me to a seriously ghetto looking junkyard and I knocked on the gate. The owner who had clearly just woken up and resembled a bedraggled Peruvian Chris Farley grunted that he could fix it for a mere 10 soles ($3). Watching this oaf get to work on my bike was a bit like watching a drunk surgeon do keyhole surgery on your first born and I grimaced through the rain of sparks, but within 2 minutes his work was done and all my trip-ending fears had been assuaged. God bless you slovenly junkyard man!

On the way to Lleymebamba.

Relieved to be back on 2 wheels I made the leisurely, if a little dull, trip alongside the river to Lleymebamba. At one point I overtook a kid, about 12 or 13 years old, who was also on a bike. Not wanting to be outdone he overtook me again then slowed down to a standstill until I passed him. And so began an extremely irritating dance: I’d overtake him at high speed and try to lose him but unburdened by panniers he’d catch me then slow to a crawl leaving me no choice but to pass him again. I had fantasies of throwing him in the river.

After half an hour of these antics he pulled up beside me and struck up a conversation. He was a nice kid and I felt a little guilty for wanting to use him as a human fishing line. He asked me where I was going and when I said Lleymebamba he told me it was 4 hours away. “No way! I’ll be there in 2” I boasted as he turned off to his house. I pulled into town 4 hours later. Dammit.

Lleymebamba: a charming little town that has easily the coolest church I’ve seen in Peru.
Views of Lleymebamba on the start of a long climb.
As far as climbs go it was quite fun. Great weather and never too steep.
At the pass I saw wisps of cloud peeking out from the other side and I recoiled at the thought of another teeth-chattering, hand-numbing descent through a cloud forest.
Thankfully it wasn’t too thick and the scorching sun that periodically broke though the clouds spared me from the cold.
The road was narrow and with no barriers the sheer drops made the Trampoline of Death look like child’s play.
But once I got below the clouds I was treated to some of the best views I’d ever seen.
The kind that make you alternately whoop for joy and stare in awe.

It was in that moment that I felt I’d truly arrived in Peru. Having spent a month in the country earlier in the year the usual new country novelties like currency, beer and architecture had kind of washed over me this time and the initial landscapes had seemed an amalgam of Colombia and Ecuador, but the sheer magnitude of these panoramas, the way the mountains folded into one another in depth defying illusion, was something completely new and exciting.

At around 1000m the geography completely changed and I found myself in a Peruvian Utah: my own private Zion National Park.
Red rock walls on one side…
…cacti giving me the finger on the other.
What are all those black things?
Hundreds of hornet (?) nests. I didn’t stick around to take a closer look.

Down at the base of the gorge in the riverside village of Balsas it was a little too hot for comfort, and after the single worst meal I’ve had in South America – the meat was so bad I gave it all to the dogs – I had an early night, knowing I’d need to get up early to avoid getting caught in the afternoon heat. I awoke at 6 and after a  breakfast of bread and mangoes I embarked upon what was to be the longest climb of the trip.

The police let me sleep in front of the station. Apparently they have cyclists camping in this spot every few days.
Most trucks have paintings of Jesus on the back. This guy went one better.
Heading out of Balsas at 7am across the river.

I was initially fortunate with the weather, cloud cover sparing me from being burned alive (other cyclists have reported temperatures upwards of 42 degrees in this valley) and by 10am my surroundings were more grassy than dusty desert brush. I wasn’t done yet, though. Through rain and fog I struggled up countless switchbacks and only after 8 hours of non-stop climbing did I reach the 3000m pass.

One of the many huge zig-zagging switchbacks on the way out of the gorge.

Near the top I cycled past a group of construction workers. One of them approached me.

“Where are you from?”
“Isn’t that one of the richest countries in the world?”
“Umm, yeah.”
“You people have the opportunity to travel to other countries and see other places because of your history. Here in Peru we don’t have that opportunity. We can’t afford to travel like you can.”
” Nice to meet you too”

After 8 hours of uphills I was completely exhausted both physically and emotionally and this broadside left me dumbstruck. I quickly changed the subject and went on my way, some of the other workers wishing me well as I went, but I couldn’t get his words out of my head. My first reaction was one of anger. Who the hell confronts a tired, wet stranger on top of a mountain and starts laying into them like that? The guy clearly had a chip on his shoulder and was taking it out on me. But at the same time, everything he said was true. I was indeed born is one of the richest countries in the world and due to that I’ve been afforded opportunities that few Peruvians will ever have (you won’t bump into any Peruvians cycling from Land’s End to John O’ Groats) and that’s something I mustn’t take for granted. After all, if I were in his shoes I too might get a little annoyed at the sight of some European with an expensive bike cycling past while I was hard at work. It’s only human. The majority of the people I meet are friendly but it made me wonder how many of the more sullen glances and reluctant nods I receive are masking darker thoughts. And if they are, that’s just something I have to accept.

I hadn’t felt too cold on the way up, but on the 13km down to Celendin I felt a bitter chill deep down in my bones, the 4 hours of cycling through the rain taking its toll. I hurriedly
found a cheap hotel and curled up in a ball under the covers shivering like a shaven shrew. I spent the next 2 days laid low with some pretty nasty food poisoning, haunted by fever dreams of never ending hills and unreachable passes.

I got to know Celendin rather better than I would’ve liked (the pharmacies in particular).
Although the town was redeemed slightly by the massive wide brimmed hats that the townspeople love to wear.

Feeling a little weak and without much of an appetite I decided to solider on, not wanting to spend a third day cooped up in my Celendin hostal/prison. In theory, cycling the whole 100km to Cajamarca in this state probably wasn’t the wisest idea, but I didn’t feel like camping and the route didn’t sound too difficult.

The 46km uphill wasn’t the most memorable but it sure flew by.
A friendly passerby gave me a couple of chirimoyas, a delicious fruit that would be right up there with the greats if not for the annoying seeds.
I saw plenty of kids playing on the side of the road. I asked this lot if they’d ever heard of England and one girl unconvincingly said she had.
The last couple of hours were very gloomy and I narrowly avoided getting soaked.

On the outskirts of Cajamarca in the town of Banos de la Inca I bumped into Miguel who offered me a really nice room at a discounted price in his new backpackers. A bright end to a tough few days.

Tunes: Kendrick Lamar – DAMN, Built To Spill – Keep It Like a Secret, Paramore – After Laughter

Reads: The Sellout – Paul Beatty, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich – William L Shirer, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness – Richard Yates

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