Ecuador & Peru: Cuenca to Celendín

We’ve had a big couple of weeks of riding. By the time we left Cuenca we had a serious case of border fever so set out keen to cover some ground. And when we crossed the border into Peru we just kept on going… However, we did slow down to visit Gocta Falls and the ancient ruins of Kuélap. Then the COVID-19 situation escalated and we were forced to stop.

Cuenca to Loja (via Jima and Oña)

After a solid week of work for Matt it was time to leave Cuenca. The TEMBR makes a very circuitous route out of Cuenca (that adds almost 30km) but we opted for a more direct route. We rolled out of town, crossed the Panamericana Highway, and quickly found ourselves back in the countryside (and being chased by dogs).

For the next three days we made our way through countryside and farmland, sometimes on the highway, sometimes on gravel roads in the hills above it. The ongoing showers made it hard to see the views (or take photos), but when it did clear up it was very pretty.

You can see the highway in the valley below.

On the way into Loja Gabe’s other knee started having a niggle so, despite our desire to keep pressing on, we had a rest day there to give it a chance of coming good. Thankfully some combination of the rest day, Advil, and adjusting her saddle seemed to get it under control.

Loja to Yangana

As we left Loja we turned off the main road and onto a gravel back road. The first part of the climb was tough going, but thankfully the gradient soon settled down and we were able to happily tap it out on fresh legs. A break in the weather also meant we were finally able to appreciate the views.

We had lunch in Vilcabamba, a lovely town popular with tourists. We were intrigued by the number of dreadlocked hippy types in the town, although when we learned of the local hallucinogenic brewed from cactus, aguacolla, this made a bit more sense. The town also had a period of fame in the 1970s when it became known as the Valley of Longevity due to reports of an unusually high number of centenarians there. However, subsequent investigations found that the average age of a “centenarian” there was actually more like 86 - a discrepancy due to many of the locals not knowing their date of birth.

From Vilcabamba we detoured off the highway on a lovely gravel road that meandered through a valley and actually saved us a bit of climbing. Of course, that didn’t mean we were off the hook entirely - we still had one final 500m climb up to our campsite. With the light fading rapidly we made it up to the plateau we had been aiming for. We pitched the tent, made dinner, then promptly fell asleep.

Yangana to Zumba

The morning light gave us the opportunity to fully appreciate the views from our campsite: there were mountains and valleys as far as the eye could see in every direction. We could have looked at that view for hours, but with another big day ahead of us Gabe was cracking the whip.

With a gradient consistently around 10% the climb out of camp was tougher than we were expecting. Indeed, that would be the tone for the day as all the climbs were hiding some brutally steep pinches. Fortunately we were down below 3000m a.s.l. (we even got below 1000m a.s.l. at one point!) so there was plenty of oxygen to suck on.

The drop in altitude did mean an increase in the temperature, however. At the top of one of the climbs we pulled into a tienda and were delighted to discover they had ice creams. Yes please! This also coincided with the road turning to pavement to dirt. While we cooled off and ate our ice creams we watched a group of children playing jump rope in the middle of the road, which led us to wonder - is it really a highway if it’s dirt and there is so little traffic that children can play games on it?

Zumba to Jaén (via San Ignacio)

Highway or not, the next morning it delivered us to La Balsa and the border into Peru. Having not arrived with a scheduled bus load of people, there was no one at the Ecuadorian immigration office (apparently this is quite normal). So we settled in for a wait, using up the remainder of our US change on what would be our last packets of Yupi brand chips1. After about an hour a man showed up at the office and we got our exit stamps for Ecuador then crossed the river/border into Peru. Entry into Peru was quick and easy (there were staff in the offices for a start), although it did involve a chat with a doctor to confirm we were healthy (the first COVID-19 measure we had seen). We exchanged some of our remaining US dollars for Peruvian soles at a tienda opposite and were pleasantly surprised that we hadn’t been totally ripped off on the exchange rate, then continued on our way.

The next couple of days would see us drop very low, down to around 500m a.s.l., and the landscape changed as a result. We found ourselves riding through lush rice paddies, slick with sweat from the humidity. Indeed, it was so hot and sticky that we almost welcomed the rain when it came. We certainly didn’t bother putting on any rain gear.

So it was that we were thoroughly bedraggled by the time we arrived in Jaén. The man on reception at the hotel, however, was a fellow cyclist and so didn’t seem to mind at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. So much so that we had to politely excuse ourselves from his excited questioning so we could shower and dry off.

Since crossing the border into Peru we have been seeing moto-taxis everywhere. In the cities their approach to driving somewhat resembles the chaos of dodgem cars (thankfully with fewer impacts).

Jaén to Cocachimba

From Jaén, we bumped our way out of town and down to the river on the Old Road to Bellavista where a couple of short boat rides ferried us across the river. It seemed like a magical boat ride, taking us from the rice paddies of south-east Asia on one side of the river to the arid rolling hills and hardy shrubbery of Utah on the other. This was the first of just many dramatic changes in the landscape we would experience throughout the day.

We stopped for lunch in Babua Grande where a couple of curious young boys befriended us. Despite giving us no reason to believe they had any idea where we were going (i.e., blank stares when we said “Catarata Gocta,” “Cocachimba,” or “Chocapoyas” - the latter being the large town near Gocta Falls) they confidently declared that it would take us about 3 hours to get there. When we responded that we thought it would probably be more like 6 hours they told us that it would take us 3 hours if we rode faster. While we couldn’t fault their logic, we did fail to live up to their lofty expectations.

We rode out of town through more rolling hills and then, seemingly in the blink of an eye, we found ourselves in a gorge winding our way alongside the Rio Utcubamba. Surrounded by spectacular hills, it was at this point that we started to feel like we really were in Peru.

It was dark and raining by the time we arrived at Cocachimba. But the lovely staff at the hotel and restaurant next door saw that we were warm and fed and could collapse into bed.

Our reason for coming to Cocachimba was to visit Gocta Falls, a stunning multi-tiered waterfall totalling some 771m tall, often cited as being the third tallest waterfall in the world (although the World Waterfall Database currently places it 17th - apparently there are many different ways to classify waterfalls). While locals had known about the falls for centuries, superstition about the curse of the mermaid who lived in the waters beneath meant that its presence was kept a secret from the rest of the world until it was “discovered” by a German economist, Stefan Ziemendorff, in 2002.

We had planned on catching a moto-taxi to San Pablo, the town on the other side of the valley, and then hiking the full loop of the falls back to Cocachimba. However, when we woke the next morning it was clear that the weather wasn’t going to cooperate with us - it was pouring down. A small break in the rain let us see the falls briefly, but otherwise we settled in to relax and listen to the rain.

Cocachimba to Nuevo Tingo

The next day we were in Nuevo Tingo by lunch time, so spent our free afternoon giving the bikes a much needed wash. It’s been a while since we showed them the love they deserve for all their hard work carrying us (and our stuff) across the continent.

The next morning we caught the cable car to the Kuélap ruins. Situated on top of a mountain, a visit to Kuélap used to involve an arduous hike uphill. Since 2017, however, a 20 minute cable car ride can do most of the work for you.2

Kuélap is often referred to as the Machu Picchu of Northern Peru, even though it was built 600-900 years before Machu Picchu on a larger site on a higher mountain… It is clearly a site that the government is investing in (the cable car alone was estimated to cost $20m and looked the goods).

Kuélap is surrounded by limestone walls 10-20m high with three entrances that each narrow as you enter such that only one person can pass at a time. The need for such a fortress is unknown, but it has been speculated that it was for protection against the expanding Wari tribe.

Human occupation in the area dates back to 5th Century AD, but most of the structures at Kuélap were build between 900 and 1100 AD. In it’s heyday, Kuélap was home to around 3,500 Chachapoyas (“Cloud Warriors”) living in some 400 stone houses.

Narrow channels would run around the sleeping quarters in the homes for breeding cuy (guinea pigs), a traditional food in Peru that doubled as a live central heating system.

The Chachapoyas were conquered by the Incas in 1470, although modern DNA analysis suggests that were not wiped out completely - DNA from the Chachapoyas can be found today in descendants living in the area.

Rhomboid and zigzag patterns were a hallmark of Chachapoya architecture.

Nuevo Tingo to Mirador Calla Calla

The next day was an easy roll alongside the river to Leymebamba, where we planned on visiting the local museum, famous for the preserved human remains from the Laguna de los Cóndores. However, when we arrived there was a notice on the fence saying it was closed because of Covid-19. No mummies for us.

A sign of things to come…

Then, just as we were about to leave from outside the museum, Matt spotted a bulge in Gabe’s front tyre. Closer inspection revealed that the bead that holds the tyre in the rim had separated from the sidewall (presumably a manufacturing defect). Not good. (Props to the sealant that appears to have been holding the split together for quite some time. Of course, there’s only so much sealant can do and at some point it had to give.) Thankfully Gabe has been carrying a spare tyre,3 so we whipped the dead one off and put the new one on. Added bonus, the spare was a 700c x 40mm, and being that little bit narrower meant that with some exuberant pumping we were able to set it up tubeless with just the hand pump.

The rest of the day was uneventful as we climbed up to Mirador Calla Calla, some 3600m a.s.l., where we camped for the night. After a few days down low since crossing the border it’s nice to be getting back into the mountains again.

Mirador Calla Calla to Celendín

Given we had camped on top of a mountain it was somewhat unsurprising that it was cold and foggy when we woke up the next day. Indeed, by the time we hit the road at about 8am it was still only 6ºC.

We began the massive, 60km descent down to Río Marañón, getting glimpses of spectacular views through the clouds. It was probably a good thing we couldn’t see more of the views because the twisty, single-lane road had a steep drop off and no guard rail so we needed to keep both eyes on the road. That said, we had the road almost entirely to ourselves - we only saw 1 car during the entire descent.

Over the course of the two hours (!) that we were descending the scenery changed a lot - lush green hills turned into a red, rocky canyon dotted with hardy shrubs and cactus. The temperature also increased steadily, and by the time we reached the bottom of the canyon at 10am it was already 30ºC.

Of course, what goes down must come up. In this case, it was a 44km, 2200m climb filled with hairpins to get up the other side of the canyon. With the heat inside the canyon our clothes were soon crusted in salt rings. Thankfully, the Peruvian road engineers very considerately kept the gradient sitting around 5% so we were able to gently spin our way up. A few hours later we finally made it to the top, from which it was thankfully just a little descent into town.4

In response to the COVID-19 situation Peru has declared a state of emergency, shut its borders, and imposed a 2 week nation-wide quarantine period, including the ban of private vehicles on the roads and an evening curfew. We had planned on having a few days off in Cajamarca (one day of riding away from where we are currently) so Matt could do some more work, so for now we’ve just bumped up and extended that timeframe a bit.5 We’ve spoken to the Department of Foreign Affairs and their advice was to “follow the instruction of the local authorities” and that there are currently no plans for the Australian Government to assist with repatriation.6 We’ll continue to assess the situation as things develop. For now, we are getting to know our hotel room very well. Hopefully we can get back on the road soon.

Prepared, but not thrilled.

¡Hasta la próxima vez!

Highlights

  • All of the detours off the highway in Ecuador were lovely and we would thoroughly recommend them. While not a detour off the highway per se, the old road to Nabón was a particularly beautiful meander through a pretty valley alongside a small river.
  • Crossing the border into Peru!
  • Even though we didn’t get to see as much of them as we’d hoped, Gocta Falls were nevertheless spectacular.
  • Kuélap are some very interesting ruins, supported by some incredible infrastructure with the cable car. The Peruvian Government has clearly invested into this site.
  • We were pretty stoked about cleaning our bikes in Nuevo Tingo. Particularly given we had a few days on tarmac and so were able to keep them clean for a little while.

Lowlights

  • Ongoing rain and low-lying cloud meant that we couldn’t see much of the countryside for a lot of this leg of the trip. When the clouds lifted the bits we did see were very pretty.
  • Getting chased by lots of dogs (particularly in southern Ecuador). One even attempted a nibble on Matt.
  • The bead on Gabe’s front tyre separating from the sidewall (i.e., dead tyre). Thankfully we spotted this while stopped rather than it blowing out on a descent…
  • Covid-19 state of emergency and nation-wide quarantine. Puts a bit of a dampener on travel. (Although, to be clear, we have been impressed by how Peru has been handling the situation).

Logistics

  • Cuenca to Jima (57km, 1750m): We took a more direct route out of town than on the listed on0 the TEMBR. Tarmac for the first 20km, then gravel; a few steep pinches on the final climb. We camped near the lagoon about 9km out of Jima (site listed on iOverlander) - it was a lovely campsite with a small shelter you can pitch a tent under, a tap, and a toilet.
  • Jima to Oña (76km, 1770m): Mostly gravel, but a stretch of tarmac coming into Nabón. We camped near the river outside Oña (site listed on iOverlander) - take the second gravel road heading out of town once you are on Panamericana.
  • Oña to Loja (98km, 2060m): Pavement until you turn off the Panamericana, then gravel until the outskirts of town. We stayed at Hostal Pucará ($22, WiFi, hot water).
  • Loja to Yangana (87km, 2840m): Road conditions as you’d expect - pavement on the highway, gravel off it. We camped on a lovely plateau 13km out of Yangana (site listed on iOverlander). There is no water at the campsite but there is an accessible water overflow about 1km from the top (use common sense as to whether this is likely to be flowing), otherwise get water in Yangana.
  • Yangana to Zumba (92km, 2010m): Mostly pavement for the first 2/3, then turns to gravel. We stayed at Hotel Calem ($20, great shower, WiFi).
  • Zumba to San Ignacio (72km, 2000m): Gravel until the border, then tarmac. We stayed at Hotel Dan Clemente (S/40, WiFi, hot water).
  • San Ignacio to Jaén (111km, 1150m): Tarmac all the way. We stayed at Hostal Villa Real (S/35, WiFi, cold shower); it’s about S/2 in a moto-taxi into the centre of town where there are more restaurants.
  • Jaén to Cocachimba (152km, 2570m): Gravel (at times quite rough) for the first 30km, then tarmac until the final 6km up to town. We stayed at Hospedaje Gallito de las Rocas (S/100, WiFi, hot water, breakfast included, accepts credit card), which seemed to be one of the “cheaper” places in town. Note that about 100km from Jaén there are a couple of campgrounds with tiendas where water and snacks are available (marked on map below).
  • Cocachimba to Nuevo Tingo (51km, 740m): Paved roads all the way. We stayed at Eko Kuélap Lodge (S/130, hot shower, breakfast included, accepts credit card, dinner available for an extra charge).
  • Kuélap: On the edge of town is the bus station, from which you are transferred to the cable car station up the hill. The cost for the bus and cable car is S/21 round trip. Entry to Kuélap is an additional S/30.
  • Nuevo Tingo to Mirador Calla Calla (78km, 2020m): Gravel from Nuevo Tingo back down to the main road, then pavement all the way. We camped at near the tower at the mirador (listed on iOverlander) - no water at the site, but water is available about 2km from the top (marked as “natural stream” on MapOut).
  • Mirador Calla Calla to Celendín (116km, 2270m): All sealed roads. It gets hot in the canyon, so try to get through early. There are roadside streams on the descent and lower half of the climb, but no water on the top half of the climb. There are basic tiendas at the bottom of the canyon and a couple of restaurants partway up the climb (listed on iOverlander). We stayed at Hotel Villa Madrid (S/50, hot shower, WiFi).

Note: Distances and elevation are what we recorded on our GPS. In most cases the elevation we recorded was significantly less than indicated by base maps.

  1. This was the brand of chips sold in most of the roadside tiendas in Ecuador, and we really liked them. Gabe discovered she was particularly fond of the “Mayonesa” flavour. 

  2. Of course, you could still walk if you wanted to. But we did not. 

  3. There has been a couple of occasions where Matt has questioned whether we need to be carrying a spare tyre or not. Gabe felt vindicated in insisting that we (she) continue to do so. 

  4. It says something about the scale of the day that we considered the final 13km descent into town “little.” 

  5. Also, it’s been raining a lot so… 

  6. In general, the response from the Australian Government has been disappointing. Calls to emergency consular services only result in generic advice (typically read directly off the Smart Traveller website). Conveniently, the Australian Embassy in Peru closed the day before the shut-down. The Ambassador for Peru and Bolivia has also been largely MIA.