10/26/19 – 11/2/19
In my attempts to learn Spanish, I came across a film called “The Pope’s toilet.” It is about a town in Uruguay that will be visited by the Pope. The newspapers predict over a million people will come to see him speak and so everyone in town is scheming how to profit from the crowd. They spend their savings on ingredients for bread and tacos and strange church themed trinkets. One industrious man named Beto realizes that the town does not have the sanitation capacity to accommodate such a crowd and builds a pay-to-poop toilet (common in Latin America). Long story short; Pope comes and speaks, crowd is not very big, town is left with rotting meat, stale bread, and a clean toilet.
Nuevo Tingo reminded me of that town. A recently constructed teleferico scuttles tourists twelve hundred meters up to the pre-Incan ruins of Kuelap. The town appears to be prepping for a massive influx of tourism as every building is adding multiple floors of hotel rooms. We were there on a Saturday. It was mostly empty and we were hounded by a half dozen taxi drivers wanting to ferry us five hundred meters to the cable cars.
The ride from Chachapoyas included a stellar fifteen kilometer retracing of our climb into town complete with a dump truck rolled over in the middle of a curve, rear tires slipping away on gravel covered bends, and several dog attacks thwarted by unclipping and kicking within an inch of their faces. This is especially challenging at thirty kilometers per hour.
Another winding riverside canyon road to Leymebamba. Arrive in town and ask a few places about where we can camp. Restaurant tells us to try the tourist office, they send us to city hall to talk to the mayor. An interesting quirk about Latin America is that nobody can really say no. If you put a problem before them, they will try to solve it. It will often be put in the cue in front of whatever they were doing before that would generally be considered far more important.
So when you appear in front of the Mayor’s secretary, tattered shirt and salt sweat stained shorts and dirt faced, and you tell her that you’ve cycled the entire globe just to get to her town and see this mummy museum that you’ve heard so much about and you realize that there are hotels but the reality is that if you paid for a hotel room every night you would never have made it beyond Vancouver so you really need to know if there is somewhere that you can stick the tent for the night in town. She drops whatever she’s doing and gets the mayor and says, “Hay dos ciclistas y necesitan un lugar acampar.” The mayor looks you over and takes this as a personal challenge.
“Espera aqui,’ he will say, and so you wait.
Soon enough, the whole of city hall is making phone calls on your behalf. Within fifteen minutes you have accommodations in what appears to be the council chambers above the tourism office. Showers and toilets on site. The view overlooks the main square and you can watch children play soccer in the street while the dogs search for scraps and lift their legs next to strollers. The fact that requesting such a thing in the states could likely result in a fine and perhaps a night in jail is not lost on you.
The mummy museum contains dozens of specimens recovered from Lago de los Condores. Apparently some farmers discovered them in the late nineties and, not knowing what else to do, did the logical thing and looted the graves and hacked the mummies open with machetes in hopes they were filled with gold. Word got out and soon enough people were coming from all over and stealing the dry little carcasses. Eventually the government caught word and made a solid attempt to recover as much of the plunder as they could and built a little museum.
08B climbs nearly two thousand meters in thirty kilometers from Leymebamba. Along the way we pass women knitting scarves while walking children to school, a crazy man lashing out at dogs with some rope, and the usual trucks speeding around one lane shoulderless blind curves with death drops to one side. It rained the whole way up. Shortly after the high point we passed a small village. There was no restaurant, but a woman invited us into her kitchen to warm up and cooked for us.
“What did she just say?”
“All the animals and lots of rain.”
“She’s telling us the story of Noah’s ark.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t have answered yes when she asked you if you had a relationship with Jesus.”
“I was trying to be polite.”
I tried to turn the conversation a bit from proselytizing and asked if there were many Catholics in Peru.
“Si hay, pero son escorias sucios.” (Yes, there are, but they are filthy scum.)
She was an evangelist. She explained that the Catholics do nothing but go to mass, which is boring, and spend their free time judging others. This, obviously, does not leave any space for the saving of souls. She must have caught on to my ruse and quickly moved back to her story.
“Cuantos dias piensan?”
I dipped some bread in my hot chocolate and stared at the table. My fingers were still numb and I just wanted to sit quietly with them wrapped around my mug.
“40 dias y 40 noches de juvia.”
“What was that?”
“Forty days and forty nights of rain. Not sure if she is still talking about the bible or the next month and a half in Peru.”
“Does she realize we don’t speak Spanish?”
I told her that we really didn’t understand. She mistook this to mean that we didn’t understand “La palabra de Dios,” (The word of God).
She returned with a bible.
“Mateo 24!” she exclaimed. She stood proud and tall for a woman of such short stature.
I stood and thanked her profusely for sharing the good word with us, but exclaimed we had to take advantage of our window with no rain. She explained that there would be no more precipitation and so we had all the time in the world to study the bible together. I thanked her again and said we had a long way to go and best get moving.
I knew nothing of Peru or its landscapes before arriving. In my head, I painted it to be a world of endless views, sky piercing peaks, houses on impossible slopes with no roads leading to them, and terraced landscapes growing fruits and vegetables I’d never heard of. The drop into Balsas is that Peru. Sixty kilometers of twisting downhills on a one lane road that has occasionally been washed out or covered by a landslide. Almost no traffic. Views for miles as we are above it all. We’d climbed higher in Ecuador, but we were still in the forest there so we never had the panorama that Peru offers. Three hundred and sixty degree views of hundreds of peaks and ridges. Some green in areas where the rain falls. Others dead desert brown. Tarantulas and lizards on the tarmac. Road carved through narrow passes in the stone. Dropping over ten thousand vertical feet. By the time we hit the bottom we were overheating despite hardly pedaling.
Balsas was an uninspiring town with drunks in the streets, moldy carrots, and crunchy water. We got what we needed for the night and began to climb back into the mountains on the other side of the river. Wild camp on a flat spot behind some piles of construction debris. Bit all over the ass by little black flies while precariously balancing on a steep pile of scree over a several hundred foot drop and defecating. Bug spray does not deter them. Soph burns herself with the lighter because she read that it makes the itching go away. I opt for the more naturalist way and rub orange peel all over my skin in hopes that the citrus oil keeps them at bay.
Quiet cool desert night. Soft breeze. A few bugs, but they leave as it gets cool. All the stars. Fireflies all over and I have trouble telling them apart from the meteors above or the headlights twisting down the switchbacks miles away on the edge of the mountains. Heat lightning flashes occasionally. Silhouettes of giants barely visible in moonless sky. As cars roll by the headlights shine on the little peak just in front of me and illuminate a small tree on the top. Everything else is black.
Hot morning. Roadside cross knocked over and broken. Cars cut engines on downhill. Can’t hear them. Twenty two hundred meters in fifty kilometers. Giant hand sized centipedes. Can still see campsite twelve hundred feet below after five kilometers and several hundred meters of climbing in forty five minutes. Power lines seem to run vertically over steep faces.
Moving well until the road is closed and we have to push bikes up the cliff side for an hour. Get to the top and they try to tell us to turn around. They'd only paved one side of the road, so there was no need to push. One small section ahead of fresh pavement. They try to turn us around again but we convinced them to let us walk on the side. The whole thing killed close to two hours. After more than six hours of climbing we can still see Balsas less than eight kilometers away as the crow flies but with more than forty kilometers of road between us.
We arrived in Celendín on October thirtieth and decided to take a rest day after all of the up and down and rain. The date hadn’t occurred to me until the next night when there were a million miniature mummies and Cinderellas wandering the plaza screaming “Dulce o truco!” (Trick or treat). Spider man circled the fountain in tears because he had lost his mother and a witch took his hand to help him search for her. I spent an hour talking to the doorman of the hotel about Mad Season. That was two Latin Americans in a year south of the border. You’d have a hard time finding two people in the states each year that had heard of them.
Fifty clicks of climbing out of town. Gradual. Back on two lane roads. Wind at our backs and a slight chill in the air. Get through the climb without too much trouble and start the long descent. Dark clouds in the background so we take the corners a bit faster and pedal through the short straightaways. Four hundred meters from Santuario Virgen de Rosario in Polloc, our lunch/tourist stop, we get pummeled with rain. We waited for a few minutes for it to calm, then rode the last half kilometer through muddy streets and showers to a restaurant.
The church at the center of town is filled with mosaics. We asked them if we could camp but the boss wasn't around. So we rode a few clicks to a hotel, but it was full. Back to the church. A man who appeared to be in charge, everyone called him Padre, told me a woman would help me with whatever I needed before I even asked a question. I asked her if we could camp. She ran after Padre. She yelled something but he didn’t respond. She told me to get my things and I motioned to Soph to follow. She showed us to an amazing room in the back. She said almost nothing and seemed annoyed.
The next day was a casual downhill into Cajamarca. I’d met a Belgian named Wim through a Facebook group who said we could ship some tires to him and let us stay at his place. After canvasing his profile and finding several pictures of him wearing sweaters on top of collared shirts we decided that he was likely a reputable man with a clean home.
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