Adventure on the Backroads to Huancabamba


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Ecuador is now behind us. The ride south to the border took us over 3800 metres as we crossed the western lip of the Andes. Three hours later it delivered us into the steaming tropical heat of the coastal plain, where we rode through mile upon mile of banana planation. Wishing to avoid the Panamericana and the Sechura Desert in northern Peru, we then cut back inland through the lush Andean foothills, savouring the cool air before heading for the more tranquil border crossing at Macara. Border towns have a reputation of being gritty, businesslike and soulless. Not Macara. Clean, intimate and very laid back (most of the shops have hammocks strung up outside in the shade of the verandas), it was my favourite town in Ecuador – and a good place to spend my birthday.

Peru greeted us with an ‘adventure ride’ from the top drawer. The town of Huancabamba – in the heart of the Cordillera de Guanami and famous for its shamans – caught our eye as we road north, but we did not visit. Now we had the opportunity to cut through the mountains to the town on what promised to be a little-used backroad. One of my maps showed a road halfway to Huancabamba, then nothing. Another larger-scale map showed what the legend described as a ‘track, unpaved (4WD)’. The GPS screen for this region was blank.

imageThe locals assured us that a route traversed the mountains all the way to Huancabamba, so we duly set off. After fifty kilometres we bade farewell to the asphalt, as the road turned to dirt and switch-backed its way up into the foothills and onwards to the village of Ayabaca. Set around a plaza with a simple but imposing church painted a warm, sandy orange, most of the houses were built from traditional adobe, giving the village an air of permanence. That ‘Peru feel’ was very much back; the villages of Ecuador we had previously stayed in felt somewhat hollow and characterless in comparison. We stayed in a simple hostel opposite the John Lennon Disco Bar. Whilst we see the effects of ‘globalisation’ everywhere we go now, I couldn’t help being struck by how a kid from Liverpool with a talent for song-writing ended up colourfully adorning a wall in a Peruvian mountain village.

The following morning we set off with vague directions from the locals. It quickly became apparent that we were now entering a very remote and rural part of Peru. Elsewhere when I have ridden dirt roads through the mountains, it hasn’t been unusual to encounter a battered old bus hurtling around a corner as it does the local run between villages. But that wasn’t going to happen here. We were riding nothing more than tracks, and the further eastwards we went, the more unused these tracks became.

imageOnce we had left the main road south of the border on the first day, we were effectively progressing into an enclave formed by the River Quiroz and its tributary valleys, mountains ranges to the north and south and with the 4000 metre Mount Vieho at its head. As we headed deeper into this enclave, along twisting roads crossing or looping around all the tributary valleys, the sense of leaving the world behind us intensified. I experienced something similar when we explored the hidden valleys behind the Cordillera Blanca; in such remote places, cut off and a long way from the main roads and towns, it feels like you are entering somewhere special – the word ‘sanctuary’ captures its essence for me. Riding the moto along these little-used tracks, through simple villages and hamlets and surrounded on all sides by stunning and untouched landscapes, I felt so free.

imageThe reaction of the locals whenever we passed told me that very few gringos on motorbikes travelled these backroads. I didn’t know where we were going; the only way we could navigate the labyrinth of tracks was to frequently stop and ask the locals for directions. Every time we asked a distance to the next waypoint (here, distance is usually measured in time), estimates varied so much that I ignored them. And the itself riding was demanding; we hit a stretch with a lot of mud; then the surface of the track turned to a very slippy ‘micro gravel’; and later we encountered numerous fords. As if to emphasise my doctrine of ‘Light is Might’ which I wrote about in my last post, I dropped my moto several times, including losing the back end on a left-hander in the micro gravel. With a full tank of fuel and the bike lying on a slight downhill incline, I couldn’t pick her up without unloading some of my kit. That evening I had the toolkit out I as adjusted the triple clamp and re-aligned the forks.

I had expected we would reach Huancabamba from Ayabaca in a day. The 190km of sinuous dirt tracks took us two. Staying is a small and very basic village overnight, we provided the locals with an unusual spectacle, especially Pau. A beautiful girl on a moto loaded up with kit is not an everyday sighting here. It always makes me laugh watching the locals do a double-take as Pau rides by, when the see her ponytail protruding from her helmet. I realised later that we had been lucky to find somewhere to stay for the night; the next day we rode all the way to Huancabamba without even finding a place to eat lunch.

It was a wonderful ride – one of my best. There is no reason whatsoever to ride that route except for the adventure; other, better roads will take to the border, to Huancabamba or elsewhere. But if you happen to find yourself in the vicinity of the Ecuador-Peru border aboard a moto in the dry season, I highly recommend you take the detour. (Tackle it in the wet season at your peril – I suspect that would be a true adventure…)

The next episode of ‘The Way We Roll’ will feature a lot of video from this ride.

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