This chapter of my journey is coming to an end. We are back in Huaraz after a slow ride south through the mountains. Pau’s Suzuki is on a truck heading for the Chilean border; she will be following early next week. Then I shall fly home to UK for a month and a half, leaving my moto here.
There was a moment a few weeks ago when I questioned our decision to back-track to Peru instead of continuing to Colombia. As we rode south from Cajamarca I felt a sense of anti-climax – we were no longer heading into the unknown, instead returning to what we already knew. Exacerbated by a tedious stretch of tarmac, the riding that day felt hollow and meaningless. But how wrong I was; we were in fact on our way towards the best riding I have encountered during the whole of my trip.
Exploring dusty backroads and staying in small villages off the beaten track, far from the tourist trail, is probably the defining characteristic of this trip for me. But it can wear you down. Hostels are invariably very basic and not always clean, and the food is bland and very repetitive. Clothes get washed in the shower, although it’s often pointless washing anything other than socks and underwear as the rest will just get covered in dust again the following day. Sometimes you just need a break, some creature comforts.
So we pit-stopped in Cajamarca for a week: we washed everything in a local laundry; we ate food that wasn’t roasted chicken with chips and rice; we drank good coffee; and we watched the group stage of the World Cup – an exhilarating occasion for one of us, depressing for the other. More importantly, I finally changed my chain and sprockets (the smoothness of a new drive-train is a joy that only a biker can appreciate), and got a self-inflicted electrical fault on the moto fixed. Manuel, the young mechanic to whom we presented the problem at 6.30pm one evening, worked on it until 9pm whilst his wife and young son patiently waited in his small shop. I tried to convince him that we could deal with it the following morning, but he insisted. Such is the South American hospitality that I have encountered time and time again. It’s touching, and it renews your faith in society.
One criterion for returning south was to travel roads we had not previously used on the northbound leg of the journey. So we plotted a route through the centre of the mountains. After Huamachuco we bade farewell to the tarmac for the next 600km. We were once again in ‘no map, no GPS’ territory. The first day’s riding took us across a high plateau and through mining country. When you’re amongst these huge, open-cast pits, navigation can get tricky, as the landscape is criss-crossed with recently-bulldozed tracks servicing the mines. At one point we came across an un-signposted junction with three other tracks. All we could do was wait for someone to pass and ask them which one led to the next village on our route card.
The mines behind us, we found ourselves amongst some of the most spectacular mountain landscape I’ve ridden through. The character of the Andes is always changing. Here, it is best described as ‘expansive.’ The vistas open up as huge valleys dissect the landscape. There is a striking sense of space, magnified by the lack of human impact – you only find mountain villages here. The road twists and snakes around the labyrinth of tributary valleys, making progress is slow. Not knowing where we would next find a hostel, we pressed on – only to be beaten by nightfall. Riding for thirty minutes on these sinuous roads with vertical, unprotected drop-offs of several hundred metres, sometimes through thick dust clouds kicked up by the trucks of road workers hurrying home, we were relieved to reach the small village of Bambas. Perched on a high, steep mountainside, it seemed deserted. So we pitched the tent on the only flat ground we could find – beside the church – and settled in for the night.
The golden moments you encounter on the road are nearly always unexpected. Such was the case here in Bambas. We were befriended by a delightful couple, I would guess in their sixties, who were excited to find two ‘gringos’ camping in the village. The wife returned the following morning with her dog and the three of us chatted for some time. I had woken that morning in a very practical mindset, pre-occupied with packing up and moving on to find breakfast. However, as we talked and heard this women’s story, I found myself being presented with a profound picture of the realities of life.
Here was a woman who had lived all her life in a small village high in the Peruvian mountains. Her family makes the money they need by buying young animals, rearing them and selling them for a profit. She has an intimate knowledge of all the domesticated animals, the pumas that prey on them, and the foods they eat. She has five children, giving birth to all of them at home, with no nurse present and with no anaesthetic – a very normal state of affairs for her. Her life is simple, yet the deep connection she has with the land and her small community was blatantly obvious to us. And so too was her happiness; it radiated in everything she said, from her almost childlike fascination at some of our gadgets scattered around the tent to the way she spoke about the young donkeys in the field below.
There in front of me was a mirror, reflecting back to me how much we, in the so-called ‘developed’ western world, have got some things wrong. From this elderly campasina, I was receiving a masterclass in what really counts in life. In that moment I could see with crystal clarity how we in ‘the west’ trap ourselves with undiagnosed addictions to money and material irrelevance. We confuse success and achievement – usually defined through money and professional status – with happiness. We think that they are synonymous. Yet how wrong we are.
As a society we wrap ourselves in cotton-wool: how many modern, western women would be unfazed giving birth, unassisted and without any form of pain killer, at home…. five times? We walk into supermarkets and restaurants and buy food presented to us in a packet or on a plate, with zero sense of connection to – or even basic awareness of – the animal or the land that feeds us. And yet we call this ‘development’ or ‘social evolution’. Somewhere we took the wrong turn at a junction along this evolutionary path, but we haven’t yet noticed the error.
I left Bambas deeply moved. We rode upwards to the ridge-line above the village and into the morning sun. As we crested the ridge-line, the majestic Cordillera Blanca with its snow-capped peaks greeted us. I parked up and simply soaked it all in – the encounter with the lovely old lady beside my tent, the beauty and vastness of this incredible land, the freedom of the open road under a gentle morning sun…. It was almost overwhelming. Ahead of us lay the Cordillera Blanca and the hidden sanctuary on its eastern flanks which we had tasted two months before. Our onward route would take us around the northern edge of the Cordillera to villages we had not encountered on our first visit.
In that moment, I got it – life here in Peru is good.
More photos of the ride at: The Backroads of Northern Peru – a Pictorial