The Peruvian dry season is belatedly under way and it’s wonderfully consistent. For the past 2 weeks I’ve woken up to spotless blue skies and on the morn that I finally left Ticclos it was no different: wall to wall azul with barely a cloud in sky. The narrow dusty road meandering south was completely free of traffic and human life. Every now and then I’d come across a cadre of horses or donkeys having a board meeting in the middle of the road and they’d scarper as if I’d walked in on them changing.
In Cajamarquilla, an eerily quiet little village, I asked a nervous looking girl if there were any restaurants or places to eat. An old lady appeared and welcomed me into a courtyard where a group of ladies in traditional garb were preparing food. Giant blackened pots stewed over the fire while the ladies gossiped in a mixture of Kichwa and Spanish. The one man in the group offered around drinks of coke and wheat beer sometimes mixing the two, while a 3 legged dog pottered around, receiving the odd kick for his efforts.
People started turning up with pans and Tupperware containers. It turns out this was a kind of community soup kitchen, giving the poor, old and inform the opportunity eat for free. The food was simple and hearty – vegetable soup and lentil and potato stew with rice – and despite its modesty was one of the most enjoyable I’ve eaten in South America. When I tried to pay they wouldn’t accept my money and wished me well on my trip.
On the way out of town I had one last hill to mount before starting the 50km descent down into the valley. Half way up I heard a PING. One of my gear cables had snapped in two, leaving me with only 3 gears at my disposal and making it all but impossible to cycle uphill. Sheeeeeeeit. I took a look at my map. The closest town of any real size was Huaraz and wild horses couldn’t have dragged me back there. While there were a few hamlets on my planned route down into the valley I doubted any would have bike shops or even mechanics and I didn’t want to risk getting stuck even further from civilization. This left me with one option: the road to the coast. I couldn’t cycle uphill but I sure could cycle downhill. On closer inspection I realised this route entailed a 10km climb before the 120km downhill began but that didn’t seem too bad. I wheeled my way down towards the fork in the road and, like a good little Sisyphus, started to push.
In Ocros I asked around for a bike shop in and everyone pointed me in the direction of the, appropriately named, Angel. After waiting for him to take one of those 3 hour
Peruvian lunch breaks he replaced my cable and fitted the new one for 5 soles ($1.50) and in as many minutes. What a guy. Now I had to make a decision. Should I cycle back the way I came and resume my planned route, or irrationally head AWAY from Cusco and continue on towards the coast. I really really hate backtracking and after my illness and the cable snapping business I’d decided that the route was cursed.
My gut told me my destiny lay to west: I’d head down to Barranca on the seafront, see how horrible cycling the Peruvian coastal Panamericana really is, drink a pisco sour on the beach then get a bus back up to Onyo in the sierra. What could possibly go wrong? Within 15 minutes of leaving town I found a beautiful spot to camp down by the river. Aren’t guts the best?
I awoke the next morning feeling great. The sun was shining, my bike was fixed, I was fit and healthy, and I had coffee. I very slowly packed up my stuff in my idyllic grassy enclave and envisioned a perfect day of cycling ahead.
Poor naive fool.
As I went to pack up my bike I noticed I had a puncture and it was all downhill from there. Well, not exactly. The riverside path was one of the best of the trip, a gorgeous bumpy ride into (yet another) desert canyon. The views were incredible: a fecund strip of green at the base of the valley below seeking shelter beneath a carpet of cloud.
On the way down I picked up another puncture. Then at the bottom, another. Both had ruptured close to the valve rendering the tubes useless but they were cheap $2 things
so I blamed it on that. My last tube was a different brand and I thought it would hold up better. Within minutes of leaving Huanchay my tyre deflated yet again with EXACTLY the same issue. In the space of an hour I’d lost 3 inner tubes leaving me with no choice but to hitch a ride down to Barranca.
Never trust your gut.
A colectivo pulled up shortly and I loaded the bike onto the roof. I was paranoid that the bike might get damaged if it wasn’t tied down properly and got into a bit of a tiff with the driver.
“This bloody gringo thinks the bike’s going to fall off!”
“I know it won’t fall off but I’m worried something might break. If it does are you gonna to pay for it?”
“You think I’ve never had a bike on the roof before? It’ll be fine! Now get in the damn van”
The road quality was poor and the colectivo was bumping all over the place, every creak or crunch signifying a cracked rim or broken spoke to my paranoid ears. I was convinced I’d have to go to Lima to get the damn thing fixed and planned the angry speech I’d launch into the driver’s stupid potato face as soon as we reached Barranca. Of course the bike turned out to be fine but it didn’t make for a fun journey.
The other dispiriting aspect of the colectivo ride was the scenery. After the initial Mad Max phase – all epic boulders and dramatic ridge lines – the blue skies faded to grey and the landscape turned ever more drab. I felt like I was driving through a L.S Lowry painting of Peru. Upon sighting the coast it was almost impossible to identify the horizon line, so equally gloomy were the sea and sky. Barranca, far from the quaint, beachside town I’d envisioned was a dismal, ugly sprawl of dirty streets and honking horns. What a shithole.
After cycling for 45km down what was easily the worst stretch of my trip, I was relived to arrive at Huacho, where I plan to catch a bus the hell away from the coast. I’d gone an entire day without any punctures too!
Then my front tyre started to deflate.
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Tunes: Elvis Costello – Imperial Bedrooms
Reads: Attempting Normal – Marc Maron, Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story – Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Churchill Factor – Boris Johnson, Homage to Catalonia – George Orwell
Route: Ticclos – Cajamarquilla – Ocros – Barranca – Huacho