The scene had been set. I work until 7pm on Saturday & due to being so close to the Equator/Ecuador, by this time it is pitch black, in summer & winter. I’m not a good enough rider to head off-road at night, so I had to wait. The opportunity arose, but I was called in to work for a meeting, so it was off. I have a bike-riding friend who had done it in a day, but he rides a big 990cc KTM, which packs a bit more punch than my wee machine. I thought I’d try it in a day, what’s the worst that could happen…
Up at 5am & away by 6 (I am an intolerable faffer on a morning). Lima in winter is generally cloaked in a thick grey mist. A proper pea-souper. My goggles were a river of dirty rain droplets, as I passed the row-upon-row of optimistic roadside traders, selling everything from “Taxi” stickers to giant papaya to fluorescent kites. With a roaring tailwind I made good progress.
10km out of town, the mist evaporated & the sun beat down. By 7am I was sweating & my smile was growing. The first 50km were on road. Although the road conditions cold be compared to off-road, with huge potholes, crumbling tarmac & some tricky railway tracks to traverse. Crossing them straight on is no problem, these had been laid to criss-cross the snaking road and were almost parallel. Best to cross them at a wider angle, but with impatient drivers up my backside this wasn’t always possible. They almost gave me a tarmac breakfast, so I was glad to get off-road, onto the thin trail I’d seen. Scale is a tricky thing to judge at times & as always I’d underestimated just how long it would take.
Hairpins sweeping skywards brought an amazing panorama.
Lima to the east, drowned in a sea of grey cloud seemed a long way away.
An old lady stopped me & quizzed me. A lady of “la Sierra” (Highlands) dressed in traditional clothing, with pony tails & a big, big hat.
1) Where are you from?
2) Where are you going?
3) Where were my friends?
4) What would I do if my bike exploded/I got lost/died/worse…
Then a younger lady (with no teeth) stopped me & asked me the same 4 questions.
She was much more doom-&-gloom. She only knew of one person who had ever ventured down that road & they had died a gruesome death!
“Turn back, go back to Lima, a grim end awaits you…”
I glanced at my watch & saw that I’d been going for an hour & hadn’t made much progress at all. Best get a wriggle-on!
It’s always tricky getting a balance between cracking-on & stopping for breaks/photos/brew-stops. This place was amazing & there was nobody here at all. After 2 hours I made the top of the pass, to be greeted by a young burrito quietly waiting in line for the Municipalidad (Town Hall offices), a tiny cubicle/kiosk. Glad to have a bit of downhill as my bike was playing up a bit, but I didn’t give it much thought at the time.
I’d told myself that I needed a turn-around time. I had no idea of the conditions of the track. The first village told me that I was at 4200m above sea level. Maybe that’s why the bike was struggling, it had spent most of its life chugging around sea-level-Lima. I didn’t see a single soul in the first village & only one old lad in the next little hamlet. The road was blocked by an ancient truck parked up, I couldn’t squeeze past, so I had to backtrack & weave through the labyrinth of passageways, made trickier by a drainage ditch in the middle of the path.
When I did have to head uphill, the bike had no power at all. I was paddling with both feet; leaning forwards & gasping like a 60-a-day smoker. Having effectively ridden, forced & pushed my bike half a mile, I ended up having made about 10 foot in distance, to the other side of the distressed truck. Jacked up on rocks it looked a sorry state. That’s when I bumped into Don Pedro. He was a tiny old-timer, sporting a suit that had long seen better days, a trendy Fedora & a wizened one-tooth smile. He told me “The truck had been there months & that they were waiting for parts, but it was a very, very old truck & they would be waiting many more months. It was going nowhere fast…”
The usual questions from him, but when I asked about the next town & distances, all his answers were different to the last person I’d asked!
I chugged on out of the village; glancing warily at my watch I wasn’t making much progress through the list of places on my list of places.
Indeed the next village wasn’t even on my list, nor was the next.
Something didn’t feel quite right. My research of the route had been sketchy, I couldn’t remember missing a junction, but from the burning sun overhead I sensed that I was heading south. The route still hadn’t reached its highest point, but at the rate I was dropping down, I’d have a lot of climbing to come & the way the bike was running, I was a tad worried.
I stopped for a brew & some supernoodles (not the original & not really all that super). Nutritionally I know instant noodles are not good for you, but they’re cheap, quick & tasty. I may well drop dead one day as a result of excessive noodle consumption, I will give them up, one day…
A week of early starts & the hot sun led me into a siesta by the side of the track.
I woke with a start & considered my options.
The road looked quite new. Many rocks were freshly scratched. Going against my instincts, I carried on. It would come right, (yeah right!)
Hairpins & loose gravel interspersed with deep sand made for tricky riding.
Suddenly I came to what looked ominously like the end of the road!
Two big mess tents & a family watching a huge old telly, powered by a generator.
The man, a giant fellow strode over.
“Where are you going?”
His tone was serious, it matched his expression.
“San Damian” I replied, unconvincingly.
The family stared at me. I felt like I was intruding on something.
“That way” he said pointing back up the hairpins.
At this point I would have got my map out, but I didn’t have one.
“But how?” I asked.
“This road is not finished & won’t be for another 6mths, you have to go back where you came from”
(This wasn’t a suggestion, it was an order).
The man relaxed a bit & asked the usual 3 question.
“Where was I going?” (a good question), “where was I from?” & “why was I alone?”
He was working on the road. Judging by the size of this chap, he could have been building the road single-handed & barehanded!
We chatted a while & I left some crackers for them.
I’d interrupted their peaceful Sunday afternoon, so I bade them farewell.
By now it was 2:30pm, I had to make a decision. Push on or head home.
Struggling back up the hairpins in first gear took me an hour & I then saw the subtle junction that I had missed.
I could now see snow capped peaks in the distance to the north. Feeling the back of my neck singeing in the sun, looking at snow in the north & down to a fog drenched Lima to the west was a strange 3 way contrast.
It was 3:30pm & I conceded defeat. I had to head home.
Back the way I came, pleasant riding on good trails, I felt a million miles away from the city. I stopped for a quick brew & drank in the scenery.
Downhill was no problem for the ailing Honda & apart from a near miss with a train of donkeys parked on a blind bend (their owner was washing his clothes in the river & obviously wasn’t expecting anybody else to be on the trail), it was an uneventful ride back down to the road & onwards to Lima.
Until I got about an hour from home & hit a wall of traffic!
Nothing was moving.
I spotted a Combi dart left onto a dirt track so I followed.
The delay was due to a fire burning on the railway track & a small protest.
The Police were doing their best to delay everyone, by blocking the road both ways. Thick black smoke & the fact that at 6pm, there is a sudden & instant transition from day to night here in Peru. No lingering dusk.
The sun switches from on to off.
(Literally) blindly following the combi (who had no lights, nor were there any streetlights) down a rutted track running parallel to the parked traffic rounded off an excellent days adventure.
I’d ridden into the unknown & although it was a major fail (this time), I’d be back!