Back to the mountains: Chachapoyas to Cajamarca

What is it about the mountains that make me feel so at home? I didn’t grow up in the mountains, though I did spend many winter days skiing as a kid. It wasn’t until I was 29 that I exchanged city living for a life amongst the peaks of British Columbia. What is it about them that I find so majestic, and so inviting? I know other people who feel this way about oceans or forests or deserts or the great plains. I’ve often wondered what it is that makes people consider certain things beautiful. Why do I consider mountains so incredible?

Whatever it may be, I was definitely very happy to find myself back in the Andes, in the small city of Chachapoyas in northern Peru, in time for Christmas. A few days of beach time in Mancora was nice, and I was with some great people there, but I didn’t feel nearly as relaxed lazing back in a hammock there as I did strolling the colonial centre of Chachopoyas and gazing out at the green surroundings that plunged into incredible river canyons.

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Chachapoyas’ pleasant pedestrian shopping street.
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Looking out over the city of Chachapoyas.

Compared to hectic Mancora, Chachapoyas was calm and orderly and traffic-free. The main square was being renovated, but it did have a nice pedestrian street, a typical South American market and a good variety of restaurants. I settled in at the Chachapoyas Backpackers Hostel and spent the first day there lazing about and walking the city streets. There’s not much to do in Chachapoyas itself, but it is an excellent base for the many attractions surrounding it.

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On Christmas Eve, I set out to go see one of the main attractions – Gocta Falls. Depending on who you ask, it’s either the third or 16th highest waterfall in the world. Regardless, at 771 metres high, it is truly impressive. Almost as amazing is the fact is it was only discovered by outsiders 15 years ago. I booked a tour through the hostel and was joined on the hike to the falls by an American family and a Spanish/Peruvian couple. The drive to the start of the hike took a little more than an hour and we got our first glimpses of the falls on the way there. We started the walk in a small town, and we enjoyed periodic views of the towering falls as we got closer. Finally, we reached the base of the waterfall, with only the lower (and bigger) of the two drops visible. The water cascaded down in a thick mist, crashing apart when it hit the rocks below. It was fairly dry at the time, so the waterfall wasn’t at its mightiest, but the spectacle was just as impressive as the water fell in ever-changing curtains of water.

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The hike to Gocta Falls begins in Cocachimba
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Fossils were visible in the rocks along the trail.
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The two stages of Gocta Falls.
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A seething mass of worms.
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A beautiful blue butterfly.
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The hike to Gocta Falls.
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The lower drop of Gocta Falls.
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At the base of Gotca Falls.
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Gocta Falls drops in a thick mist.
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The area around Chachapoyas is home to huge canyons.

That night was Christmas Eve, when Peruvians celebrate Christmas. The owners of the hostel organized a group dinner consisting of barbecue chicken, fries and salad. It wasn’t fancy, but it was a nice way to spend the holiday. This was actually the first time I’d spend Christmas away from family, so it was nice to have company. After, we went to the church of the main square, but it was surprisingly quiet in the lead up to midnight mass. I had to hold back my laughter at the nativity display – not because of the scene, but because of the Christmas lights that each played a different song of high-pitched digital midi music. These lights were everywhere, and were just as annoying as you could imagine, but here they seemed completely out of place. I went back to the hostel and was on my way to sleep when the city erupted in a massive display of fireworks – a Christmas Eve tradition in Peru. I walked up to the roof of the hostel to take it in and watch the flashes of lights soar into the night sky in all directions. I could hear the partying continue late into the night as I slept.

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Kids dance in the street on Christmas Eve.
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Christmas dinner at Chachapoyas Backpackers.

Christmas Day was a lazy one as I got ready for the next stage of my trip. After calling home in the morning, I pretty much did nothing except pack. The following day I set out on my bike with the aim of making it to Kuelap 30 kilometres south, where I hoped to visit the ruins left behind by the ancient Chachapoyan culture. The gondola taking you up to the ruins had been down for a few weeks but fortunately it was up and running when I got there. Kuelap is perched on top of a mountain, providing amazing views of the surrounding area. The tourist brochures call it the Macchu Pichu of northern Peru, and I guess I’ll see how they compare in a few months. I strolled around the site for a few hours, taking in the great walls, circular houses and temple structures left behind by the Chachapoyan people.

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Fred and the Utcubamba River.
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The view from the gondola to Kuelap.
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Before they built the gondola to Kuelap, the only way up was a 35 kilometre dirt road
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The walls of Kuelap.
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The entrance to Kuelap.
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One of the major structures of Kuelap.
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The people of Kuelap lived in circular homes.
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A few llama live amongst the ruins.
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Kuelap was a major centre before it fell due to infighting prior to the rival of the Inca.
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The walls of Kuelap.

I stayed in Nuevo Tingo at the base of the gondola that night and the following morning and I set off for my first big day of riding in a while, heading south towards a 3,600 metre pass. The narrow road followed the Utcubamba River south the Leymebamba, before beginning the long climb to Calla Calla Pass, where I hoped to sleep in an abandoned building I’d read about online. It was getting dark when the cabin appeared around a bend in the road, and I bunked down for the night.

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Looking down on Tingo from Nuevo Tingo. Tingo was mostly destroyed in a flood in 1993, prompting the construction of the new village up the hill.
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Kids gather around my bike during a breakfast stop on the way to Leymebamba.

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Hummingbirds at lunch.
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Leymebamba.
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Pedaling up from Leymebamba.
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A dry place to spend the night at 3,600 metres is always welcome.

I set off the next morning and right away saw a sign saying Celendin – 115 km. That seemed ambitious, but I knew my day would start with a 60 kilometre descent into the Maranon River Valley, so it seemed possible to make it to Celendin. The descent was incredible – 60 kilometre and 2,800 metres of vertical descent, from the alpine to the desert valley below. The road seemed impossible as it curved along the steep mountainsides, switchbacking forever downward. There was almost no traffic and the grade was just low enough that you could lay off the brakes. Down and down I went, through the occasional small village, but mostly it was just me, the road, and the soaring cliffs above and below. After 2.5 hours I reached the town of Balsas in the valley bottom, where I loaded up on food an prepared myself mentally for what was to come – a 45 kilometre climb back up to 3,100 metres elevation.

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Calla Calla Pass – what a place to start a day.
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Peruvian Roads go through the most amazing places.
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The views down from Calla Calla were amazing.
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At 2,800 metres, the descent to the Maranon River was my longest of the trip.
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The road was built into the canyon walls, and was only paved a few years ago, making a multi-day journey much shorter.
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The Maranon River is considered the source of the Amazon.
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The dusty down of Balsas sits at 800 metres.

The climb was seemingly endless as I transitioned from desert to farmland. The road wasn’t as dramatic, but the views certainly were, as I could constantly look back and see the road I had just come down, and look up at where I still had to go. I pedaled forever upwards, taking longer than I though to get to the top. Camping spots were rare, and the lure of a good meal and a hotel bed in Celendin propelled me onwards. As the lock past six and with five kilometres left to climb, I knew I was running short of time. I stepped up the pace, pushing as hard as I could to reach the top. Finally, at about 6:30, Celendin came into view below me. I raced down the hill as fast I could, worrying about my cold hands and the keeping an eye out for any traffic. I reached the outskirts of Celendin just as it got dark and settled into the Mi Posada hostel before going out for two meals – a burger, followed by Chinese food, because I was so hungry after such a big day.

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The climb out of Balsa started in cactus country.
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I passed this huge grasshopper on the way up.
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These roads aren’t easy to drive. Even the best need a little help.
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Eventually the climb emerged from the desert into typical South American farmland.
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Looking forward, I could see the road switchbacking up the mountain.
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Looking back, the views were amazing…
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I could see the road I had come down that morning across the Maranon River valley.
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Celendin came into view after a long, long climb.
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Christmas celebrations were in full swing in Celendin.

Normally I’d take a day off after such a long day, but I was keen to make it to Cajamarca before New Years Eve. I had a lazy start and didn’t leave Celendin until noon. Cajamarca was 115 kilometres away, and my only goal was to eat into some of that before finding a campsite. Of course, the day started with a long climb and I ground my way slowly upwards. I had little energy, both physically and mentally. And then the rain started – first a light drizzle, and then a torrential downpour. At about 3:30 I found shelter under the awning of a school, and with the rain showing no signs of stopping, I settled in for the night.

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A mural on the way out of Celendin.
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White hats are part of traditional wear in northern Peru, and nowhere is it more prominent than in Celendin.
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More political graffiti near Celendin.
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Yes, that is a woman blowtorching a pig at the side of the road.
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When the rain came, I found refuge at this rural school.
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The next morning I was treated to a beautiful sunrise without even having to get up.
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This highway was only paved recently, and donkeys are just as common as cars on it.
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One of the many, many political signs adorning local homes.
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The lush farmland on the way to Cajamarca.

I woke up the next morning to a glorious sunrise. I had a bit more jump in my legs today and cruised through to Cajamarca, reaching the city by mid-afternoon. After five days in the saddle, I was ready for a few days off.

You can view the GPS track for this route here: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/26717130

3 thoughts on “Back to the mountains: Chachapoyas to Cajamarca

  1. Hi. A really nice post. I am thinking of driving Chachapoyas to Cajamarca in my Kia Roi (I live in Trujillo) However, I was always told that the road was not good other than for a 4 x 4. Your posts seems to indicate it is a new road that is fine. Is that correct. Many thanks.

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    1. Hi Kevin, sorry for the late response. The road is completely paved and at a gentle grade so you will be fine. Just take it slow because it’s a narrow, winding road with some steep drop offs. The views are incredible.

      Like

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