PERU, 11th-25th October 2019
After three rest days in Pucallpa (we really did need a rest after that last boat journey) we were finally ready to get back on our bikes, with a continuous four and a half months of cycling ahead of us to Buenos Aires, all being well. Our time in Pucallpa had been usefully spent, finding some plastic sheeting to act as a temporary replacement for our lost tent flysheet, and ordering a new tent to provide a more permanent solution. We’d ordered the tent to Maine, which wasn’t exactly on our route, but would be kindly brought to us by a Maine resident named Max, who was flying down to Peru at the start of November to ride his own bike. We’d been in contact with Max for a while and we were looking forward to meet up with him and hopefully cycle with him for a while, and not just because he had our new tent. Also because he had our new waterproofs, and new brakepads.
The night before leaving town I checked our bank balance and saw that it was a little lower than expected. With book sales having dropped off rather sharply I was suddenly a bit concerned about money, and Dea and I agreed that we would now go back to living more cheaply, replacing boats with bikes, and hotels with camping most nights if possible. I withdrew 700 soles (£165) and we agreed to try and make it last 10 days, meaning we’d be spending at an average rate of £500 per month, which was sustainable with our finances. The idea of wild camping and living cheaply and adventurously again actually had us both feeling quite happy and excited.
Navigating out of Pucallpa was our first challenge, a noisy city with even more moto-taxis than Iquitos. We made it about two blocks when Dea spotted a vegetarian restaurant and we stopped for lunch. It was a local restaurant too, with good honest Peruvian food. For six soles each we had a vegetable soup and a big plate full of rice and lentils, and chia water. Fully satisfied we headed onwards for all of two kilometres, where we stopped again at a big supermarket to get supplies for the ride. Better not to mention how much I spent there, but eventually we got going out of town, which was mostly fine on a wide double dual carriageway (the inside lanes for cars, the outside ones for moto-taxis. We stuck with the moto-taxis). Out of the city the road narrowed to a single lane in each direction, but with a good shoulder. It was hot, of course, and we stopped once for worryingly expensive ice cream, but otherwise we cycled well on the flat road, happy to be back on our bikes again.
Everywhere along the road was private land, so our hopes of wild camping were not going to be fulfilled easily. At about half past four we spotted a water park with a big pool and slide, and a lot of grass, and decided to ask if we could camp there. We were told that we could, if we each paid the 10 soles entrance to the water park. It wasn’t exactly free camping, but it fell within our 70-soles-per-day budget, and a dip in the pool sure sounded nice.
After cooling off we were shown over to a covered area where we could put our tent by the friendly night guard, the roof of which meant that we wouldn’t need to worry about how to construct our plastic sheeting for another night. After a while the kids who had been playing in the pool left and I went back to it for a proper swim. After our bicycle trip ends next year I am going to need to keep myself busy somehow, and one of the things I am keen to keep myself busy with is an attempt at swimming the English Channel, in 2022 or 2023. It won’t be the first time I’ve tried to swim from England to France, for back in 2008 I had an unsuccessful attempt that ended after 14 hours and 42 minutes, being swept along the French coast by the tides in the middle of the night, still five kilometres from land. It has always been my intention to go back for another go, and not having swum for the past decade, I thought it would be a good idea to start my long journey back to the Channel now, in Peru. I’d bought some goggles in Pucallpa, hoping I might get the chance to use them, and here was a perfect opportunity. I thought maybe I’d start with 20 lengths and see how that went. My shoulders complained a bit at first, but they soon settled down, and the longer I swam, the better I felt. It was fun to be back in the water, and there was also a topless woman at the end of the pool, so I kept on going. I did 30, then 40, then 50 lengths. It was getting dark so I stopped there. Then I measured the pool to try and work out how far I’d swam. It seemed to be about 18 metres long, so 900 metres. Not a spectacular distance, considering the Channel is 35 kilometres, but it was a start. Dea and I then sat and ate dinner together under our shelter, frogs hopping around us, and I was buzzing to have made a good beginning to two exciting journeys in one day.
I was back in the pool at 6:30. It felt really nice to be swimming again first thing in the morning with no one else around. This time I wanted to do 100 lengths, but in the end kept going all the way to 112 to make it to two kilometres (assuming the pool really was 18 metres). I felt good throughout the swim, and it put me in a good mood for the rest of the day, not even dampened by the sight of a broken spoke on my rear wheel. I changed it out, and we were on our way. Almost straight away we were into rolling hills, which was not ideal with the heat. Dea wasn’t feeling too well and we took long breaks in the shade to break things up. Camping ended up being on a football field behind someone’s house, in the company of pigs and chickens and little yappy dogs. We waited until dark in case anyone wanted to play football, then set up our tent under one of the goals, stretching the plastic sheet out over the frame. It worked perfectly. Of course we knew there wouldn’t always be such a convenient sheet-hanging-frame, but it was a great start to our life under plastic. But would it keep us dry?
The plastic sheet worked, and we didn’t get wet at all in the night. Of course, the fact that it didn’t rain helped with that. After breakfast in the restaurant of the people who had let us stay we rode onwards. It was all up and down, up and down, but I got lost in my thoughts and time passed quickly. My bike computer had recently stopped working and it seemed to make time go faster. At one point Dea asked me how far I thought we’d gone and I guessed at four kilometres. “Seriously?! We’ve done 11!” she said.
We struggled to find anywhere to camp. It was all either private land or impenetrable rainforest, too overgrown to get into. In the end we asked a sweet old lady if we could camp behind her house, and because she was very sweet, she agreed. It was a lovely spot overlooking a river and the forest, but we had a slight problem, for there were no football goals. There was nothing at all to hang our plastic sheet by, in fact, and this left us with a conundrum as to how to place the sheet over the tent without suffocating ourselves. “It would be great if the bikes would stand up, then we could hang the tent over them,” Dea said, before I had an inspired moment. “Let’s turn them upside down,” I said, and that’s what we did, one on each side, creating enough airflow to keep us alive while protecting us from the elements.
This time it did rain a little in the night, and the plastic sheet worked wonders at keeping us dry. Unfortunately I woke up feeling a bit rotten. I’d caught the throat infection Dea had been struggling with a couple of days earlier. She’d kept plugging away of course, but there was no way I was going to be doing that, and we were soon looking for a cheap hotel in the nearby town of Aguaytia. “What does that mean, water and…” I asked Dea, whose Spanish was much better than mine. “Aunt,” she replied. “Water and aunt, what a strange name.”
Having opted for a cheap option the hotel was not the very best, and I preferred to try and sleep on the floor of the room rather than the uncomfortable bed. It was a decision I regretted slightly when I was startled by something wet and slimy jumping onto my leg in the night. I awoke with a start, flicked it off me, and reached for the light, to find that it was a tiny little frog. I was a little surprised, for we were on the second floor, but I trapped it in a box and took it down to the safety of the river bank the next morning.
The infection had spread to my lip and eye, and, not having got much sleep, I surely needed more rest, and so we stayed a couple more nights in Water-and-aunt, although we did so at a much nicer establishment, Henrry’s Hotel, where if there were any frogs in our room, they didn’t jump on us. Dea was getting a bit stressed about how long it was taking us to get up to the mountains, where the rainy season was just getting started, and so we left the following day to start our long climb into them. For the first 15 kilometres the going was flat, but with a range of mountains rising up on the horizon, intimidating and enticing in equal measure, teasing us about what was to come.
After an hour or so we reached the entrance to the mountains, and what an impressive start they made. We followed a river that cut between two big peaks that seemed to serve as entrance gates, with many big waterfalls cascading down the lush green slopes, and boulders in the river bigger than I’d ever seen before. It got us both excited to be back in the mountains, and we’d hardly had to do any climbing yet!
The road continued to have a shoulder, but it was often covered in a thin layer of mud and slime that made it a bit slippery. On one right hand corner big trucks passed in both directions at the same time, squeezing the available space, and I looked behind me to see that Dea had gone down. Her bike was on the ground but luckily she was back on her feet. I rushed back to see if she was okay. She had mud all down her left side and a sore-looking graze on her left arm, but otherwise she said she was okay. I got our bikes over to the crash barrier on the other side while she went down to the river to wash herself off. It had been a scary moment, for sure, but at least she was okay. After she came back I went down to the river to collect some water for cooking, and noticed that there was an excellent wild camping spot in some trees down there, and we decided to call it a day.
It worked out perfectly, with a number of trees around the camping area to tie the plastic sheet to, so that it sloped down over the tent. Dea was especially happy to be out in the nature wild camping once again, the first time in a very long time that we’d done so. “I love this sheet,” she said, “I almost don’t want to go back to a normal tent again. I love how you can see out of the sides.” And she was right, it was nice to be able to see out to the trees and the mountains and the river. But the real test was a heavy rainfall that came early the next morning. We decided to sit it out in the tent playing Connect4, watching as a big puddle of water collected outside the tent where all of the water ran off the sheet. I’d anticipated this the night before, digging a bit of a hole there, and a wall between it and us, but the downpour was sufficient to risk overpowering these defences. As the puddle grew and grew I eventually went out into the rain and dug a trench with a big stick, allowing the water to drain away, and making me feel like a real water engineer.
The rain eased off and we got started on the 1,200 metre climb that we had ahead of us. Everything was going fine at first, but there were some short sections of gravel, and the general extra strain of going uphill, and after a while Dea stopped and said that her wrist hurt. We looked at each other sadly. If she couldn’t do this mostly-paved road without it hurting, what chance would she have on the gravel roads we hoped to take higher up in the mountains? Maybe this was it. We stopped at a restaurant and had a drink. Dea started talking about taking buses further south, or even flying home, and it was all very sad. Then I had one of my trademark ingenious ideas. “Let’s get a tandem!” I said, ingeniously. The logistics were a little complicated, but at least we could keep cycling together. Dea called me crazy and said it wasn’t realistic. How would we get a tandem in Peru, what would we do with our current bikes, how could we ride a tandem on mountain roads, would it even be any better for her wrist? She had a lot of good points, I had to admit. We agreed to keep trying to cycle to Huanuco before making any decision.
The pass took us pretty much the whole day, but Dea’s wrist felt better, and we started to hope she could continue to cycle if we stuck to paved roads. We made it over the top of the pass and down a little bit before camping on another football pitch, slightly disturbing two teenage lovebirds who had thought they had the place to themselves. It got dark and we had dinner, then as we were preparing to go to bed we were approached by three torches. They were being carried by three men, two of whom had big guns. This was my worst nightmare about camping in Peru, where robberies are quite frequent, come true. I’d never been robbed before, and wasn’t exactly sure how it worked. Our assailants began by shaking our hands, which seemed like a very gentlemanly way to conduct business. They then asked us what we were doing, told us we might well get wet, and said it was very tranquil here. They then shook our hands again and walked off, having luckily forgotten to take with them any of our possessions.
We had a fairly easy 34 kilometre ride to Tingo Maria, for it was downhill and then flat. But halfway there we were joined by another road and it got very busy with traffic, and that made things significantly more unpleasant. Suddenly the idea of taking paved roads all the way didn’t seem nearly so appealing. “I don’t even want to do it if it is going to be like this,” Dea said, and I felt much the same way as beeping trucks passed us by inches and cars made dangerous overtakes on every bend. We got to Tingo Maria and had a big lunch in another vegetarian restaurant, then decided to get a hotel to rest as we were both a bit tired and a 2,200 metre climb now lay ahead of us.
It was a drizzly morning but we weren’t put off from making a fairly early start, with a plan of doing three 40 kilometre days to get to Huanuco. Traffic was a little hectic out of town but it could have been worse, especially as the road was now more narrow with no real shoulder to speak of. There was at least some very nice scenery, with big dome-like green mountains and water running down everywhere. We followed a big brown river for most of the first day, meaning we only climbed gradually. Lots of trucks made the narrow road increasingly stressful as the day went on, although the biggest danger was actually provided by the dogs. The dogs in Peru were proving themselves to be absolutely the worst I’ve experienced anywhere, ever, running out at us aggressively, barking furiously. A few had bitten our panniers and one had almost gone for Dea’s leg. I kicked one in the head in a panic and felt bad, but we had to fight back somehow. I started arming myself with stones piled up in my basket to throw at them. Never before had I felt such a need to do so, but the dogs here really were like wild animals, and they were so aggressive and frightening that I really felt this was a necessary step. Normally I would never ever want to harm an animal in any way, but this was beginning to feel like a battle for survival.
The next day we continued with the 1,600 metres of climbing that remained, and we pretty much just smashed it. It was overcast which helped, and the gradient was a steady 5% the whole way. There were lots of trucks, and lots of cars overtaking the trucks recklessly, but what made this most unbearable was all of the beeping. Peru was clearly staking a claim for being the worst country in the world for horn honking, and, while I’m sure China must have been the worst we’d experienced, Peru was certainly running it close. The drivers seemed to beep just to let us know that they had seen us, to let us know they were coming past, as if the noise of their engines wasn’t enough. Some would do it right as they came by, the sudden loud noise giving me an awful fright. I know they probably didn’t mean to startle me, in many cases they were just saying hello, but it is truly a horrible thing, perhaps one of the great misunderstandings of the world between drivers and cyclists, that a cyclist would ever consider a sudden loud blast of the horn in the ear to be a welcome gesture. I was left struggling along with fantasies of being able to creep up behind such drivers, perhaps when they were stopped at some lights, raising an air-horn to the back of their heads, and blowing it in their ears full blast, to see how they would like that. “Sorry,” I would say, “I didn’t mean to startle you, I just wanted to say hello.”
But apart from the horn beeping, and the dogs, it was a pretty good day, except for one thing. Dea had a bit of pain in her wrist again. Now she was talking pragmatically about taking a bus and then doing some hiking further south in Peru to keep herself busy while she waited for me to catch up. It sounded like a good way for her to get to enjoy the Peruvian Andes without screwing up her wrist, and give us both the chance to get away from the honking and the barking of the main roads, but being separated was not exactly how we had dreamt of doing this section of our trip. Having planned to take a gravel road out of Huanuco for 190 kilometres to Oyon (where we would meet Max) we decided that would be the acid test for her wrist, to see if it could handle the dirt roads of the Andes or not.
The top of the pass finally arrived, some 2,700 metres above sea level and in the clouds. There was a tunnel at the top, and a group of friendly Peruvian motorcyclists who shared the moment with us. They were going to continue on to Huanuco of course, but we elected to camp above the tunnel at a wild camping spot and then go through it early in the morning when traffic would hopefully be light.
Our plan worked well. We awoke in the dark and got ourselves through the tunnel before the traffic really started. It was reminiscent of an early morning start we’d made back in Kyrgyzstan to get through a tunnel almost two years ago, and I had the same feeling of excitement to be adventuring early in the morning as we descended the other side of the pass in the dawn light. There was also a dramatic shift in the scenery, with bare, dry mountains which were significantly less tropical, and even a number of cactuses. There could be no doubt now, we were out of the rainforest and back into the high Andes.
The road got busier and a lot less fun as a result as we descended. When we had the chance we got off the main drag and took a parallel dirt road that started 20 kilometres from Huanuco. This was really great, and a reminder of what we both really wanted to be doing – having fun riding on quiet dirt roads through the mountain scenery. And Dea’s wrist held up okay to this first small test, although the dirt only lasted for 10 kilometres before it turned to asphalt.
On the final run in towards Huanuco we came across a big public swimming pool and stopped for a break as we had plenty of time to get to town. It was another chance for me to get some training in, especially as this time the water was really quite cold (the English Channel is between 16-18 Celcius and you aren’t allowed to wear a wetsuit). This pool appeared to be the same length as the last one, so this time I swam 120 lengths instead of 112. That’s some serious progress, I know, even if I did get really cold and had to lie in the sun for ages afterwards to warm up.
We rode on through Huanuco, another town full of tuk-tuks, with an unusual traffic system. I seem to remember hearing somewhere that if you take away all traffic signals, that the traffic will somehow still find a way to work, and this is basically what happens in Huanuco. The whole town is on a grid system, with no stop signs or traffic lights at the intersections. This is rather scary, of course, and there was plenty of horn beeping and near misses, but somehow it seemed to work, with the biggest, loudest vehicles getting priority, and us waiting until there was no traffic coming from anywhere before proceeding. With this method we eventually navigated our way to the other side of the city, where we found a bargain of a hotel at only 20 soles (£5) per night, meaning we’d stretched our 700 soles budget out to not just 10, but 11 days. We were up on the sixth floor, with a roof terrace that overlooked the whole city. It was a perfect place to hang out for the evening, watching the goings-on of the other rooftops, laid out before us in a way that made me feel like James Bond might come bounding across them chased by luckless henchmen at any moment. Huge peaks rose up on all sides of the city and as the sun began to set I was left with the feeling that I was really enjoying travelling again. With barely four months left in South America I was hoping to make the most of moments like this. I was also hoping, more than anything, that Dea’s wrist was going to hold up and that we would be able to ride on the gravel roads of the Andes that we’d both dreamed about for so long. Tomorrow we would leave for Oyon on just such roads, the ultimate test for the wrist, the moment of truth for the whole trip.