Feeling obliged to take in at least one of the many Incan ruins in the surrounding area, we headed out on dirt roads to Kuelap, a walled city perched precariously on one of the towering granite crags ‘nearby’. We were very pleased with ourselves when we spotted a sign saying ‘Kuelap – 9.8km’ – slightly less so when, two hours later, we realised that the information ommitted would have continued along the lines of ‘ – but that’s actually as the crow flies and but in reality it’s more like 40km cos of the REALLY BENDY ROADS and they’re only gravel roads so you’ll be much slower than normal’. Hmph. The ride there hugged what was presumeably one of the old cart tracks, skirting the mountain feet and gradually climbing…for the next 40km. A deserted car park was music to our…eyes?.., the $3 entrance fee a pittance and the fortress itself a work of engineering genius, the sandy yellow walls standing almost six metres above us atop a sheer 75m drop to the cliff base. Views were predictably stunning, thunderstorms rolling in the distance in one direction – thankfully not ours – and the patterned folds in the rock from ancient volcanic action very prominent from our vantage point. Two hours of looking at roofless houses later we slogged back down the track and resumed our (very slow) progress towards Tingo…after half an hour, dusk falling and Matt’s badly-adjusted headlight perfectly illuminating the treetops, we happened upon a tourist (argh!) lodge. After bargaining with the owner – "How much for a room for tonight" – "How much do you want to pay" – "Errr…nothing?" – "Errr…no" – "How about $10" – "Bueno!" – we were introduced to lomo saltado, surprisingly a local dish rather than a Peruvian pop group, consisting of fried beef and onions with rice – probably the first local food we’ve genuinely really really liked. A group of english tourists being shepherded round the Authentic Peru Experience provided entertaining dinnertime listening (must…not…mock…) before piling into bed, determined to make better progress the following day.
6am and we were on the road, heading for Cajamarca. What should have been a straightforward day rapidly turned into probably the hardest day of riding yet as the road wound ever upwards into the mountains looming above us, deteriorating into rough, rocky cart tracks coiling interminably across the precipitous faces of the Andes. Concern about a distinct lack of petrol – even in places where they apparently sold the stuff – grew with every mile, leading to us coasting down into the valley under Gravity Power alone in an attempt to conserve fuel. Across the river, through a tiny village – where kids poked curiously at our armoured jackets and panniers – and we began the steep climb up the far mountain through white, dusty desert, reminiscent of Baja California. What was most disheartening was the fact that despite odometers registering nearly one hundred miles, we’d probably moved only three or four miles as the crow files…we could see the track twisting down the face of the distant mountains – in fact, we’d ridden up, down and across pretty much every damn mountain in view. Roads didn’t improve, much like the fuel situation, until after a long traversing grind across a two-mile long cliff face we crested a final pass and dropped into Celedin, a fantastic sight – mainly because it had a petrol station. Skipping lunch in favour of more progress we headed west again, back onto dirt roads (admittedly of slightly better quality) and back up into thin air of the Andes. Peruvian road engineers seem to have a mortal fear of a gradient greater than anything just slightly above a dead flat road – the tracks wind around hills in endless skeins of hairpins BUT DON’T GAIN ANY DECENT HEIGHT! Maybe some pages were missing from their copy of the Mountain Road Builder’s Manual. Grrrr. Dusk and rain started to fall, we got colder and increasingly annoyed with the roads as the bikes skated around in the dark on the wet marbles that made up the surface – until at LAST, cold and very tired, the lights of Cajamarca revealed themselves around a final hillside, we dropped into the town and found probably the best hotel in the world – i.e. it had hot water and a safe garage for the girls.
Anticipating a quiet and well-deserved meal we headed out to find a restaurant. Four gallons of coke later we were feeling much happier about the state of affairs…until an earthquake tremor decided to rock the restaurant, glasses clinking and lights swaying as we made a hasty exit to the street whilst hoping that the cathedral towering above us wasn’t going to spontaeneously dismantle itself. Thankfully "this is normal for the area" and nothing actually fell over – shame, cos it would have made a great photo.