From the Cordillera, to the Desert and Ocean – Huaraz to Trujillo

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Since sharing my thoughts in Why We Ride – The Essence of a Road Trip, I have continued to reflect on the core characteristics that define my journey through South America. Perhaps the most defining, or at least one of the top three, is the variety and constant change of one’s environment.  Everything is always changing around you.  In some cases, such as when driving Ruta 40 in Patagonia, the shift is gradual and subtle.  But sometimes the change is abrupt and dramatic.  Often, it is unexpected and unpredictable.

The journey from Huaraz to Trujillo was an exaggerated example of such change, although on this occasion much was predicted and expected. In the space of 250km and seven hours of riding, we were taken out of one very distinct environment – geographically, climatically and culturally – and delivered into a strikingly different one.

Our extended stay in the Cordillera Blanca had one big advantage from a perspective from the saddle: during our time in the mountains, the wet season finished and the weather notably cleared up. They say the dry season in the Cordillera Blanca starts in May, but this year the rains seemed to withdraw earlier. That’s not to say it hasn’t rained since leaving Huaraz, but the heavy persistent stuff we endured on the way up from Cusco was well behind us.

imageAfter spending the night in Caraz, we set of northwards along the valley which divides the Cordilleras Blanca and Negra. For the first 30km the road is  tarmac, thereafter it turns to dirt and enters the Canyon Del Pato – a dramatic, deep and sheer-sided gorge between the two mountains ranges, cut into the rock by the Rio Santa as it charges towards the ocean. The road was single lane, hugging the side of the gorge often a hundred metres or so above a vertical drop, and passing through numerous tunnels. It was as spectacular as everyone had said, but not as dangerous. The exaggerated dangers of riding a moto around Peru are frequently expressed, and now just as frequently ignored. (Only yesterday a taxi driver told us not to drive to the beach, as armed gangs are known to hold up riders and steel their bikes.)

Entering the gorge at an altitude of around 2500m, we finally exited it just a few hundred metres above sea level. As the snow-covered peaks and glaciers receded behind us, the landscape became ever-increasingly dry and barren, and the air temperature hotter. By the time the Rio Santa flowed into a wide and heavily irrigated, fertile valley, we were back in the desert. Not only was the landscape and weather emphatically different, so too was the feel and energy in the towns and villages. Gone was the gritty determination and rustic, indigenous charm of the mountain folk, and in its place was a more lethargic and shabby air – to the places and the people.

Even the motorbikes’ behaviour had changed. At near sea level, the power of both bikes – notably the small-bored and carbureted Suzuki – was greatly increased. After more than two months at altitude, it was once again a pleasure to crack open the throttle for an overtake.

I must be honest – I didn’t feel much satisfaction leaving the mountains, returning to the desert coastal plain and riding once again on the Pan-Americana Highway. This detour was partly to visit the renowned archeological sites of the Huaca de la Luna and Chan Chan. The first, we visited yesterday. A towering temple built from millions of adobe bricks, it dates back to the first century AD and was only partially excavated about 20 years ago.  It was interesting from an historical and archeological perspective, but lacked the ambience and magic of the sites in the Sacred Valley such as Machu Picchu and Pisac. Chan Chan – the ruins of a sprawling adobe city dating from 850AD – never made it on to the agenda.

The other reason to visit Trujillo is to renew our compulsory motorcycle insurance (SOAT). Have a crash in Peru (even if you were not at fault) without SOAT and you’re going to jail, I’ve been reliably informed. Some riders chance it – but not this one.

Trujillo is an old colonial city, founded by the first (and very unsavoury) Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro. It has an impressive plaza, but otherwise feels to me uninspiringly urban and bland. It lacks the charm of the mountain towns such as Ayacucho, and the inhabitants are very much urbanistas. Perhaps to subconsciously reinforce the sense of dramatic change from the Huaraz Valley, we ventured into a modern, anonymous and soulless shopping mall in search of Starbucks yesterday. And today we mingled with the holiday crowd on the very unspectacular beach at Huanchaco.

So we came, we saw, but now I want to leave and return to the mountains. Variety is a good thing, change is part of the soul of road-tripping and must be embraced, but this place isn’t my cup of tea. I am consoling myself with the fact that we had to come here to find the appropriate office to buy new insurance. Tomorrow we reset the compass east and return to the mountains.

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