Escorts and milestones: Trujillo to Ecuador, via the coast
Leaving Peru, it was hard to believe that the last seven weeks of cycling covering over 2,000km was just one country such were our variety of experiences. Lucho’s casa de ciclistas had been a welcoming place and fun to meet other cyclists but it was time to get moving again.
In Bolivia, we met cyclists who told us about an incident of bikers being shot at along our next stretch. Paijan, the particular hotspot, was 50km north along the Panamerican, so at Lucho’s recommendation we stopped at the police station on the outskirts. The chief officer confirmed the place was dangerous and insisted we have a police escort through the town and desert for 30km.
We couldn’t help feeling that the police’s resources would be better employed catching the ambushers and that we got more attention with them, but we enjoyed the security of their presence. They found it rather a dull task, I think, especially when they had to wait for us to fight our way through a miserable, horizontal sand storm which exfoliated us even through our clothes.
At this inopportune moment, another one of Paddy’s spokes broke. Under pressure from the police to continue, he limped into Pacasmayo. The repairs soon became a nightmare. The wheel had been trued too tightly and when the first spoke snapped it changed the pressure on the others, which began to ping without any contact. Paddy quickly managed to loosen the surviving spokes and borrowing some spares from Joel (ours all having been used up) we were able to get a local bike mechanic to make the wheel round again. But it was with trepidation that we set off again the next morning towards Chiclayo, where the next day we had time off to prepare for a long day in the Sechura Desert.
Leaving town at 5am in the dark, we had a good start for a day which would finish at 6pm in the dusk and would see us cover 220km. The wind was behind us and we quickly covered 30km to the small town of Morrope, the last we would pass before Piura. Stopping for a coca-cola we were relaxing and congratulating ourselves on our progress when we heard the unmistakable ‘ping’ of another spoke snapping. They were still too tight, so we quickly loosened them. The wheel was rideable, but Paddy would have to spend our longest day so far with a wobbly back wheel, not ideal.
115km in we were making good time, in spite of our spoke delay, and were excited about turning onto the road that headed due north and the anticipated tailwind. Unfortunately, it didn’t materialise and a cross-wind slowed us down. Added to the heat it was a tough afternoon of riding, and the constant sand and scrub provided little distraction.
Yet, we had a great moment when we hit our 10,000km mark. It’s a long way since we left Rio de Janeiro. Not far along we met a group of motorcyclists from the UK, but we had to keep going as it would take us a lot longer to cover the remaining miles than it would them.
It was a welcome relief to arrive in Piura, but we had a hunt for a room for the night as all the hospedajes and hotels were full. Finally we checked in and treated ourselves to well-earned beers and a feast in a local vegetarian restaurant, which I had excitedly spotted as we pedalled into town.
We were so pleased with ourselves that we decided to reward us with a day off, but it was also an opportunity to sort out Paddy’s wheel properly. Having loosened the spokes and looking at how to rebuild the wheel, we decided that this was a job best done by an expert, so Paddy took an overnight bus back to Trujillo and spent the next morning with Lucho fixing it properly. The spoke tool we had used had squished all the nipples and there were lots of twisted spokes, but fortunately Lucho had spares left by another cyclist and they were able to rebuild the wheel completely.
Confident with the wheel, we were back on the road heading towards the coast. The terrain was flatter and the scenery changed from desert to lush green rice paddies and cocoa plantations and we saw stalls selling coconuts, the first we have seen since Brazil.
For all our time in Peru we had stuck to the main roads, and we were keen to get off the busy highway away from the traffic and from buses who found fun in emptying their toilets on us as they drove past. So with a choice between cycling 80km along the Panamerican from Talara to Mancora, or 70km along the coastal road, nice views of the sea won out. We probably should have heeded the warning of a local who said not to take the coast, but we thought he was exaggerating as the road was lovely and smooth as we left town.
It continued that way for the firs 15km through the odd village of Lobitos, which was full of dilapidated buildings and a few surf shacks, with blonde haired dudes sat on their verandas. They assured us we could make it by that road, so we carried on crossing through barriers belonging to the local oil and gas companies, where the guards seemed surprised to see us, but still waved us on.
On the map the route appeared as a straight, ripio (hard surface, all weather) road, but in reality soon after Lobitos it became sandy washboard with lots of junctions and no signposts. We decided that the large gas pipes we could see must go somewhere, so followed them. Our progress was slow and increasingly we were pushing through sand where the dunes had taken over the road.
It turned out we weren’t the only ones struggling with the ‘road’, when we came across three gas workers trying to dig their 4×4 out of the sand. Paddy helped push them out and in return they offered to evacuate us and our bikes. We jumped at their offer and on seeing the rest of the road to El Alto we were very glad we did. Our plan was to climb out there and cycle along the Panamerican to Mancora, but they didn’t seem to understand our Spanish and we ended up with a lift all the way.
They dropped us off outside another vegetarian restaurant, which I dragged Paddy in for a soya burger, and we were discussing our luck at being rescued when a Canadian guy called Mark came over to introduce himself. He lived in the town with his Peruvian wife Lindsay and their two children, and was a keen cycle tourist who had spotted our Thorn Nomads out front. Generously he invited us to stay with them for our two nights there.
We had a lovely time with his family, who were fabulous hosts. On our day off we took their quad bike to the local hot springs, where we caked ourselves in the green mud at the bottom of the water. It was lovely and relaxing and we learnt a lot from Mark and Lindsay about the local area.
Mancora has apparently been hit badly in the past by El Nino, when flood waters have cut the road off on either side of the village, leaving villagers to rely on supplies flown in by helicopter. They told us how the town has grown in the past few years from 5,000 to 30,000 with an influx of foreigners catering for the surf and backpacker market. Most of these new inhabitants have only experienced the area’s clear blue skies and sun, and for many the heavy rains and effects of El Nino, which is beginning a new cycle, will be a surprise.
From Mancora the border with Ecuador was only 130km away, and we planned to head to Tumbes just before for our final night in Peru. However, the stunning, deserted beaches of north Peru were too beautiful to cycle straight past. We caved in at the sight of beach huts in Cancas and spent a wonderful afternoon relaxing on the beach.
It was a fitting way to say goodbye to the Pacific, as the next day back on the bikes we waved farewell to it for good. The next time we see the sea it will be the Caribbean and it’s hard to believe that we first saw the Pacific 5,000km ago in Valpariso, Chile.
Leaving the coast was hard, not only because it was so beautiful, but local fishermen had erected barricades all the way to Tumbes which slowed our progress. We were able to wheel the bikes around or carry them over the rocks and stones, and the protestors were good-natured and friendly, unlike the frustrated truckers who had hours to wait before they could move on again.
The road was still quiet the next day as we made our way from Tumbes towards the border with Ecuador. We stopped for a snack by the side of the road in the middle of farmland, but were moved on by a policeman who said it was a dangerous area and we should keep on pedalling.
So we sped on towards the border, had our passports stamped and suddenly found ourselves crossing the bridge between Peru and Ecuador, all very easy. We cycled under the ‘Welcome to Ecuador’ with Sash playing loud on our ipods, a moment we had envisaged back at our kitchen table in Peckham.
It’s hard to believe that we are now in our eighth country. Peru was a fascinating place to cycle through: frustrating at times, tough cycling in the wind and over the mountains, but a cacophony of landscapes and climates and experiences and memories that we will carry with us for a lifetime.