To explore the northern part of Peru, we cycled the bikepacking.com route ‘dirt road touring Cajamarca – Caraz. The route follows (mostly) dirt roads through the Peruvian Andes. Cycling the Cajamarca to Caraz bikepacking route, the route goes over +4000m passes with its green wide plains and through narrow canyons with its red tones and adventurous tunnels of Canon del Pato.
A visit to Cajamarca, the start of our bicycle touring route
Cajamarca, a vibrant and authentic Peruvian city, is the perfect starting point for a few weeks of cycling. It’s a fairly big city so we found everything we needed to prepare for what was to come. Especially a visit to the local mercado is fantastic! Since our stay in South America, we’ve come to love the local markets. Fresh food is abundant and often cheap. You’ll find fruits, vegetables, nuts, oats, spices and herbs, dried fruits, a heaven for stocking up and provisions. We stayed in a very nice family run hotel we found on iOverlander . Cheap, clean, friendly and helpful staff, a huge kitchen and more than enough room to store our bikes in the garage. A definite advice for overlanders to spend a few days to prepare or rest.
Time to start cycling the Cajamarca to Caraz bikepacking route! Getting out of Cajamarca is fairly easy. The roads are good and traffic is respectful to cyclists. In the first small town, Jesus, we met a Peruvian road cyclist. An enthusiastic cyclist with a mission to promote cycling amongst youngsters. Cycling is not yet as big as it is in for instance Colombia. Which is a shame, because what we’ve seen so far, Peru has everything to offer for any sort of cyclist. The cycling possibilities are endless.
Cycling from Cajamarca to Cajabamba
Once we got going again the countryside slowly became less populated. With this, the paved road turned into dirt road and gave us a first taste of what Peruvian dirt roads can be like. On the first three days we did have a few hike-a-bikes, but they were less than we had anticipated. The fact that it is dry season – the best season for cycling in Peru is June – September – definitely made things easier. The gravel is mostly firm, so just the sandy and rocky bits are tough to keep pedaling.
On the second day, we came across a fence where the road ended. After some deliberation, we decided to lift the bikes and panniers over the fence and look if the road would continue a bit further. A good decision! The road was an abandoned one, but the track was still visible. For cyclists not a problem, so we pushed on. It was a lovely trail through deciduous and pine forests all the way up to the mountain pass. It was slow going as the trail was rough, but we were there alone and the sun was shining. We decided we would go off the gpx cajamarca caraz bikepacking route and head down into the valley to a tiny village named San Pablo. It meant we had to climb up the next day to get back on track, but it was definitely worth it. A beautiful descent followed with stunning rock formations. What a fantastic day it was with all that splender!
We camped on the town’s football pitch. The local children were very curious what those crazy gringo’s were doing. We had quite an audience with pitching the tent and cooking dinner. We in turn had a game of football to watch while eating dinner.
The two days following San Pablo were of the same wide landscapes, with green mountain pastures, abandoned mining pits, beautiful rock formations, an occasional village and friendly people greeting us. We did encounter a few groups of children that weren’t so friendly. They hissed at us and even threw a rocks at Nienke. Some ran away with the sight of us. There have been some stories about gringos kidnapping Peruvian children for organ trafficking. We wondered if these children thought we were those gringos?
After a nice downhill on firm gravel we approached Cajabamba. A lovely town with a surprisingly friendly and cheerful feel to it. There were plenty of little restaurants and lots of bakeries selling very tasty bread and empanadas. It just had a very good vibe. We decided to have a rest day in a hostel Caribe, situated in a nice colonial building with patio and plenty of storage for the bicycles. The woman running the place was very relaxed with us cooking in the middle of the patio on our camping stove.
Cajabamba and its gold mine
The second part of this route proved to be the most beautiful. With landscapes changing almost everyday. The region is known for its gold mining. Ascending on a very smooth gravel road we passed one of the largest gold mine in the world. Although there is nothing beautiful about mining, the sight of it had some beauty. The scenery this day got better and better. Some amazing vistas opened up with dirt roads meandering away in the distance.
That day we camped at a beautiful spot between several lakes. Old abandoned mining pits actually, which turned into lakes. The road was quiet enough to camp visibly from the road. We felt save there, so we didn’t bother hiding the tent. The sunset that night was beautiful and we felt blessed to be there at that moment.
The next day was by far the toughest of this route. Because of some landslides the usual route was blocked. We took a detour described by another bicycle touring couple who cycled from Cajamarca to Caraz a month earlier. It meant however descending on a road filled with rocks. It was more like bouncing down than it was cycling down.
The whole ordeal took a lot of concentration and focus and therefore a lot of energy. At moments like these, it isn’t about the joy of cycling anymore. It is just about getting down in one piece. Ourselves of course, but also the bikes. They get a hack of a battering from roads like this. We managed to get down safely though and continued our way up a climb alongside a deserted mine. It was a desolate sight and sad to see the destruction mining can cause.
We were hoping for a bit of an easy descent, but unfortunately the road and weather didn’t cooperate. A downpour combined with a again a rocky descent made the day even a bit more difficult. Cold, wet, and hungry we arrived in Angasmarca. Three papa rellena later, stuffed potatoes and very nice street food, we regained energy and found a hotel with a hot shower. What a luxury! It definitely was a good ending to a hard, physically tiresome and mentally challenging day.
Riding the Peruvian roads
The days that followed were days of some beautiful climbs and descents. Especially the descent to Mollepata and climb up to Pallasca were special. Mollepata is a little mountain village located halfway a mountainside with a stunning view over the climb to Pallasca. This climb has many hairpins and seen from a far some very scary and steep drop offs. Adrenaline pumped through our veins with just seeing what waited us the next day.
But first we had to get down in the valley. Which looked like it would be a straightforward thing to do. It even had a stretch of asphalt which made for easy going for the first part. With hardly any traffic going down it was a wonderful sensation. We almost forgot how it feels to glide down over smooth roads, with wind through your hair and with fantastic views as a bonus.
The fun didn’t last long unfortunately. The last six kilometers from Mollepata to the valley was one big road construction with trucks racing up and down on a very narrow dirt road with very tight hairpins. We had a few close calls with these monsters. Mud built up between fenders and wheels which made the wheels block completely. Front and rear wheel locked and so dead in the water in the middle of the road with a truck honking and racing towards you is not a funny thing.
It took us two hours to get down where normally it would take us twenty minutes. The foresight of a beautiful camping spot along the river in the valley kept the spirits high. Late in the afternoon we found that beautiful spot and enjoyed the luxury of a very tasting beer we had bought in Mollepata.
Detour over the Pallasca pass
The Pallasca pass, a 1500 altimeter gain, twenty kilometer long climb waited us the next day. We wanted to take this route, because the alternative was even more daunting. The ‘official’ route leads you into a canyon where you have to cross a raging river twice by wading through it. We met other cyclists who took this route and warned us it took them two days to cover twenty-five kilometers. Whereas going over the pass would take only one day.
So we opted for the monster climb. The climb starts with many hairpins and steep gradients, then flattens out a bit to an average of 7% for the remaining twelve kilometers. Surprisingly, we made very good progress. All that dirt road touring definitely paid off fitness wise. On top of that, the views were amazing with the steep drop offs and all the hairpins. Before we knew it, we reached Pallasca with it’s beautiful colonial church built in the 18th century. We decided to go downhill a bit, because we found a nice camp spot on iOverlander. We recommend anyone cycling here doing the same. It’s located next to a makeshift chapel of some sorts. Locals pass by with their cattle, and they all want to make chitchat. We met a kind old woman who walked all day with her sheep, goats and a pig to get to Pallasca. She the most beautiful one toothed smile.
Down to the Canyon of Tablachaca
The descent from Pallasca into the valley and the valley itself were absolutely magnificent. From green mountain pastures, open vistas and meandering dirt roads we went to a completely different world, a surreal and dry landscape.
Although the river raged down in the valley, there was no vegetation, probably because it was scorching hot. The mountains colored all kinds of red en yellow. The river, through thousands of years, had cut itself in the mountains with high mountainsides as a result. All kinds of geologically interesting formations and lines could be seen. What a difference in comparison to the days and week before. It was like we were in a different country.
At some point in history, there had been lots of mining in this valley. Many mining holes and remnants of mining activity were visible. Cycling through the deserted mining towns, almost ghost towns, with the mining factories added to the surreality of the valley. It was a strange contrast of a grim place surrounded with majestic mountains.
Cycling through the tunnels of Canon del Pato
The valley continued with a small decline until the point we turned into the next valley, the prelude to the infamous Cañon del Pato. At this junction we camped next to the police station of a partly deserted, very poor and dirty little town, Chuquicara. The police were incredibly friendly. We could use their bathroom, their WiFi, anything actually. The stray dogs of the town weren’t as friendly though. Nienke was chased by a vicious but mostly scared dog. And his friends and he used our camp spot as a toilet. In the morning we woke up with the unpleasant surprise of dog piss on several corners of the tent. It was a sign to quickly get out and head towards Cañon del Pato.
The canyon is notorious for its many tunnels. There are 35 one-lane tunnels which thankfully recently have been paved. There are no lights nor is there room for two cars to pass heading in opposite direction. Especially for motorcycle travelers, this canyon is a highlight. For cyclists there are two sides to the story. It is a thrilling canyon to ride, but can be dangerous as well.
We strapped our headlamps to our bikes, a small extra light to the left end of the handlebar and went for it. While passing the tunnels Pim was whistling as loud as he could. Nienke ringed the bicycle bell continuously and checked traffic coming from behind. Luckily, it all went well mostly because we only once encountered a car in a tunnel. The canyon is beautiful, but not as special as the previous one. The tunnels are the funpart.
It must be said though, the Peruvian drivers are maniacs! As a cyclist you have to take care of yourself, because the Peruvians, excusé mon French, they don’t give a sh*t about you. With one lane streets combined with steep drop offs it was scary sometimes. So any cyclists reading this and going to Peru, be warned!
Having passed all the tunnels it was a straightforward ride to Caraz, the finish. A cute town located beautifully at the base of the Cordillera Blanca, with white capped mountains as its decor. The town is authentic and a good alternative to the touristic town of Huaraz. A good place for cyclists to stay is Hotel San Marco. They accommodate lots of overlanders on bicycles and motorbikes. It’s easy to safely store your bike or your luggage if you want to go on a multiday hike. We recommend to do the Santa Cruz trek if you’re in Caraz. There are places to rent backpacks and other hiking gear if you don’t have any with you. We loved cycling the Cajamarca – Caraz bikepacking route a lot, and enjoyed a few rest days in Caraz before hiking Santa Cruz.
You can download the Cajamarca to Caraz GPX route with a few detours from the original bikepacking.com route. It goes over the Pallacta pass adventurous waist deep river crossing of the tablachaca river and takes a detour to avoid blocked roads due to landslides