Before we left we had read numerous accounts of how bad the roads would be; specifically in Peru. And we knew the heavy rainstorms this past winter had a severe impact on Peru’s roads.
But we had gotten complacent our first week in Peru. The roads in the north and northeast were generally paved and two-laned even if there were no shoulders and short stretches of flood-damaged sections.
But when we left Nuevo Tingo and Kuélap on Monday August 28th, we were in for a hair-raising white-knuckle day. To set the scene, it was raining (even though it is the dry season), foggy and as we climbed back up and over the Andes at 12,000′, it became cold and windy. All which we could handle as we ventured forth in our dry and trusty truck.
Let’s say that on the stretch from Nuevo Tingo to our next planned stop at Balsas District on Highway 8B, it was a VERY VERY good thing we only met eight oncoming vehicles over the next 6 hours of driving and 143 kms. (86 miles). The only good thing was that the road was paved (sorta). The negatives included numerous potholes that needed to be dodged, no shoulders, no guardrails; it clung to the mountainside, unlimited hairpin curves, paths cut under and through boulders and scree that had height limits, and less than a dozen ‘wide’ spots that would accommodate two vehicles and crumbling edges. So Dave had to negotiate between not hanging over the edge on the multitude of hairpin curves and between not scrapping the camper off by hitting a high-up boulder in a narrow section. I just held on.
I guess the good thing about the fog was I couldn’t see how far down the bottom was.
When we arrived at the bottom of a valley in the Balsas District, we tried to get lunch but the sole restaurant was out of food. But in our discussion with one of the men sitting around the central plaza, he was amazed first that we were from the US (almost all the Overlanders we have met doing the PanAmerica have been either Europeans or Australians. Only two other couples were from the US.) and second that we had come in from the East on 8B.
We decided it was too hot down in the valley and had read about a wide spot above the town in an hairpin curve where we could boondock that night. As we left the village, at the spot where a new replacement bridge is being built, two trucks in front of us and we had to back up and down to a flat area to let a big bus through. Thankfully we met it in a relatively flat section and had a little room to back into.
But the boondock site was spectacular surrounded by desert mountain scenery.
On Tuesday 29th, we left again on 8B towards Celedin. This section was just as narrow but it was a clear day and I could scout 1/4 – 1/2 mile ahead on the switchbacks to see if any there was any oncoming traffic. If I spotted one, we waited at the next available ‘wide’ spot and hoped we would both fit. But until we got to Celedin, we only met 5-6 vehicles.
After arriving in Celedin and getting needed gas, the drive into Cajamarca (population of approx. 250,000) was a ‘piece of cake’. Beautiful and majestic scenery and a two-lane paved road. Even so, we selected the ‘spa resort’ campground Hacienda San Antonio in Cajamarca to be based at that was 5 km outside of Cajamarca in Baños del Inca – Inca historic waterworks town. The grassy setting was in a high valley surrounded by mountains and filled with dairy farms everywhere. Turned out to be a good choice. It was working ranch that has added on camping and motel rooms.
Excellent restaurant on the grounds, no barking dogs, no roosters, no car alarms. It was serene and just what we needed. They opened up one of the rooms so we could use its bathroom and hot shower.
The first full day we took a taxi into town and discovered it was a holiday – San Ramon Fiesta – patron saint of Lima but celebrated across Peru. (Can’t keep track of all the holidays because not only government ones like Independence Day but many cities and countries have all the Catholic Saint Days that are celebrated.) In Cajamarca they celebrate b
y having different graduating classes of the San Ramon College march in a parade with banners and marching bands past a reviewing stand on the Plaza de Armas.
The oldest class I saw was 1962. All the early classes were all men, all dressed in black suits. (Except for one man who was dressed in a tan casual suit – he probably was the artistic show-off while in school also.) However, I did see one group that was just women – probably an all-women’s college. The different classes completely surrounded the main plaza’s four streets and after going past reviewing stand, I started to see bottles and flasks being shared. I estimate there 300-400 graduates with their families lining the streets and encouraging the walkers with clapping and waving.
After watching awhile and visiting the Convento de San Francisco we moved off the square and took in the former Infirmary’s compound which has been turned into history and art museums. (Iglesia Belen and Conjunto Monumental de Belen.) And, of course, no city visit would be complete without a climb up three blocks of stairs to the Capilla Nuestra Señora de Fátima on Cerro Santa Apolonia for an overlook of the City.
A stop at a tour company to line up a tour to some pre-Incan ruins for the next day and lunch at a recommended restaurant (I had a pesto pasta that was absolutely fantastic.) rounded out our day and we took a taxi back to the Hacienda.
On Thursday August 31st, we took a taxi back into town to meet up with a 14 passenger tour bus at 8:30 to take us up and over the mountain 20 km southwest to the pre-Incan advanced civilization of Cumbe Mayo’s ruins. (We were the only non-Peruvian visitors, but Ander, the tour guide, would explain what we were seeing first in Spanish and repeated in unaccented English. Though we both could understand a lot of the Spanish as well.)
This civilization was so advanced that their irrigation system diverted water from the Pacific watershed to the Atlantic side and brought water down into the Cajamarca valley and is carbon-dated back over 3,000 years ago. The irrigation system had approximately 900 meters uncovered and in the original condition – although 9 kms. in total length – and was carved partially into rock faces with precise 90 degree angles and a lock system. An amazing piece of engineering set in a rocky outcropping that reminded us of California’s Pinnacles National Park.
But as part of the hike up, unbeknownst to us, one has to climb up in pitch black unlit conditions through a 10′ tunnel cut in one of the rock outcroppings. The ‘steps’ were too high for my short legs and so through one section I was crawling on my hands and knees and managed to tear my pants and my knee. (Another war wound.) For more details on this fantastic place, please visit this site.
After arriving back in town and having lunch and then returning to Hacienda, we wiled away the afternoon resting.
On Friday September 1, we reluctantly left Cajamarca and made our way west on Highway 8 back down to the Coast at Pacasmayo. We were expecting hot beach weather but were pleasantly surprised to find Pacifica weather – cool and foggy – but in a desert setting. Pacasmayo is not a tourist town and we intended it to be only an overnight stop after the drive down the mountain.
We don’t travel long distances in any one day. Generally less than 200 miles but the 200 we drove this day took 5 hours. Part of that is the road conditions where driving faster than 45-50 mph is hazardous with multiple road repairs stoppages; but also because we stop frequently for Dave to photograph and document our journey.
We ended up boondocking (free camping) in a small park in front of police station one block from the large working pier jutting out into the Pacific.
The next morning, before we left Pacasmayo, we walked up to the Plaza de Armas – a two-block-long strip with some of the most interesting water features, gazebos, statutes, murals and seating areas we have seen on our travels. Amazing to find in this otherwise drab working industrial city surrounded by seriously pot-holed city streets.
The drive south on the PanAmerica on Saturday 2nd, took us along extremely arid and barren deserts interspersed with some intensely irrigated farms of rice fields, truck gardens and immense fields of asparagus. (Peru is the largest provider of white asparagus in the world.)
On the road we started spying a group of men who are walking from southern Peru’s border with Chile to the northern border with Ecuador in a religious pilgrimage that another Overlander couple told us about. They are wearing purple shawls or capes and carrying religious emblems, statutes and crosses. One man’s cross was 7′ long although the back end on the ground was on a wheel. They live on donations from begging and expect to be finished around Christmas.
We pulled into Huanchaco Gardens campground located in the beach town of Huanchaco on the outskirts of Trujillo – Peru’s third largest city with a million people around 3 pm.
More about Huanchaco and Trujillo in next blog.