The dirt roads on which we left Namballe proved representative of the roads on which we’d be riding for the rest of the day..dusty red dirt roads with a gravel surface layer, interspersed with about 50km of decent fast black-top. Also making an appearace in the varied selection on today’s Road Menu was the worst dish yet…an ostensibly paved road where extended potholes have combined to expose swathes of the hardcore base layer resulting in a stuttering tarmac surface interspersed with teeth-loosening hard gravel sections. Not amusing at all, and harder to ride (both for the bikes and for us) than a pure gravel or dirt road, as the concentration required to stay upright and not pile headlong into another crater is immense. On the tarmac parts, the temptation is to gun the bike to make faster progress…inevitably leading to panic-braking and a crunching, wince-inducing encounter with the next pothole or gravel section. Thankfully we’re much more familiar with the vagaries of the bike on sand and gravel after the ‘get lost in the Andes’ session a few days ago – but we’ve found that riding the bikes on the edge of the road leads to smoother and faster progress as the margins are (normally!) avoided by the thundering lorries and trucks. All in all, the dirt roads are mentally and physically exhausting…and 70% of today’s ride was on these tracks.
Despite the effort required…the roads are amazing. Our tyres kick out billowing clouds of dust as we pick our way along the margins of the gravel roads, avoiding lorries and buses slewing sideways out of corners on the loose surface . Lunch is a set menu at a local’s cafe at one of the many small towns en route…the zoo feeling is back again as the whole place stares whilst we divest ourselves of dusty, sweaty riding gear…a very strange feeling. We discover Inca Kola – a Peruvian soft drink tinted (or should that be tainted) a lurid yellowy-green colour, ingredients being colouring (doh), sugar (yippee!) and tartrazine…bring on the hyperactivity!
Fuelled by rice, beans and Inca Kola, we’re back on the road, gravel temporarily giving way to tarmac – albeit of dubious quality at first – signs warning that the road surface is ‘irregular’ are, in fact, not lying…whole sections of the road have buckled under pressure from landslides, hastily-patched cracks in the surface forming a rollercoaster ride that strains the suspension and stretches the chain. Back to gravel before bouncing onto a superb tarmac section leading towards Chachapoyas – speeds increase as we wind through canyons alongside a river, the soaring contorted sedimentary cliffs accompanying the road evidence of the region’s volcanic past…the patterns formed as the sedimentary rocks were heaved upwards are incredible and most distracting. Thanks to a near-horizontal lean angle, Matt narrowly avoided his own personal shrine at the side of the road as a particularly rapid bus caused a high-clench-factor moment.
Thoroughly exhausted, both mentally and physically, we weather a synchronized ‘oops…I’ve just hit reserve’ moment, both bikes choking within yards of each other on the climb up the twisting mountain hairpins, pile the standard ‘just two gallons to get me to the nearest hotel please’ into the tanks and chug into Chachapoyas at about 2500m. Local hotel owners fight over the privilege of our custom for the night and we wheel our bikes into the courtyard of a picturesque hotel on the old colonial town’s square…a random meeting with Elianna and Alfonso (Peruvian and Ecuadorian respectively) on the way back from dinner results in a night of bad spanish (very tolerant on their part!) and a couple of jugs of sangria…and thence to bed.