The climb upwards and westwards from Huaraz was as varied and interesting as we’d come to expect from our time in Peruvian mountains. Good tarmac, albeit with a few strange sun-warped undulations here and there, carried us up to a saddle in the ridge at 4000m, always with the backdrop of a sunlit Cordillera Blanca over one shoulder. The vast plateau was blanketed with buzz-cut short scrub, khaki green, shorn by the (happily absent) winds that must tear through. I followed Franco off onto the gravel and paused, waiting for the rest of the group to arrive. We were pressing on in long stints, so it was easy to get pretty strung out.
Reassembled we continued West along the 14A that, from this point forwards, picked its way down steep mountainsides in an amphitheatre of colossal mountains. In many places the road had been built up high on a manufactured prow to ease the sheerness of the angle – resulting in fast hairpins suspended over 100ft of air. But for every jutting prow the road wound its way right back to the gullet of the valley where steep walls conjoined in three directions. Here there were signs of green and small brooks, but on the sheer faces, too steep to retain either much soil or water, a dusty rouge earth powdered the parched ground. The roads were enchantingly empty so I hung back following a brief catch-up with the others, watching swoop through a series of zig-zag bends from my rocky perch far above. Framing shots accurately with a telephoto lens was nearly impossible with a broken screen, so I fell back to run and gun tactics of holding the shutter down and slowly moving the camera. One of them would surely come out right…
Throwing my camera back in it’s man-bag, I started after the group thinking I’d quickly catch up. Five minutes later I couldn’t even see the back of the support truck, spending the following five minutes wondering whether there was a turning I’d missed. It was nice to be flying along at my own unreasonable pace for a while. Soon enough, in the valley below, I caught sight of a white Toyota Hilux, making its unmissable progress amongst the black hot tarmac and rich red sandstone cliffs. I flicked the visor down with a soft click and opened the throttle, focused on keenly on the line through the next corner…
The mountain road, otherwise devoid of anything other than an occasional shack or farm building, dumped us straight into a pristine, sun-bleached square at Pariacoto. One by one bikes arrived and parked back wheel to the curb – obviously everyone wanted to be ready to get going at a moments notice, eager to continue riding. We cluttered up most of the tables inside a small restaurant, bulky jackets draped over chairs we weren’t using, watching as the occasional group of children stopped to admire the bikes and the cow skull. That was, until sweaty looking tourists billowed out of a pressure-cooker coach that had parked up right outside the restaurant. Suddenly the view was gone and there was a palpable duress from said sweaty tourists, who were now cramming in the restaurant despite an under supply of red plastic chairs. A small sea of people parted to let me through and I could feel them scrabbling behind me to get to my seat.
Pulling away from the square my bike took a startlingly wide line and I had to pull the bars hard against the front wheel’s urge to go straight into the curb opposite. A flat front tyre squealed as it limped over the concrete on rims. I waved to Franco and cut my neck with my hand. Franco inspected for punctures at the roadside then whipped out a bicycle pump and went to work. It seemed bizarre, trying to inflate something four or five times larger than a pushbike tyre by hand, but there he was, done and dusted in five minutes flat. At least inflated enough to get to the next garage (it was a good job the next garage was just around the corner). Under closer inspection there weren’t any holes in the tube, I guess the valve had just given up the ghost after being hammered down the mountainside. Swapping out the tubes took little over 15 minutes – I guessed it was something Franco was used to doing by now.
Our route continued along a thin strip of lush green oasis, where green parrots and other exotic birds fluttered overhead, disturbed from their perches. There was a weight to the air that belied its rich moisture laden quality, and fruit plantations bordered the small meandering river we were following on both sides. The sun was still high and hot at early afternoon, but the light had faded from starch white to a golden glow.
Over almost as quickly as it had began, the road rose up and into dusty desert dunes where the water was burned out of the air and ground alike. Rocks, sand and a thin sliver of tarmac for as far as you could see, with great, distant mountains bordering a wide empty bowl devoid of plants or people. Only desert. The light became white again, as if to reinforce the feeling of heat sparking from the landscape. As we neared Casma, the sea air buffeted the dunes, droving fresh sand across the tarmac and whipping it up to strike pinpricks across exposed skin. One monster dune guarded the way into the town, a veil shooting off its shoulder. Our hotel in Casma was a jewel in an otherwise ‘gritty’ dust-bowl of a town, and after a couple of hours lounging around a swimming pool we headed out for food.
I’d been gearing up for a Pisco Sours after David had told me about them by the pool .The national drink of Peru, they had been strangely absent for the trip so far. Lime, egg whites and some form of booze were the key ingredients.. I was looking forward to a glass with some fresh grilled fish at El Tio Sam restaurant, but there was none to have. Following the meal I was overcome with a childlike stubbornness to get my Pisco Sours, and as the old boys retired to the hostel, Frank, Mike and I picked up a Tuk Tuk and headed to a bar the driver knew.
Away from the main road the streetlights disappeared, the road became potholed and rough and we passed a colossal mountain of rubbish on our right. We were heading into a dark and rapey abyss – I was thankful we had a Franco to interpret the situation. A few rumbling minutes later and we pulled up outside a compound, paid entrance fee to a big man on a small stool and walked through a gate in the pink outer wall to a building that had blue and red disco lights and pumping music rolling out of the open doors. We were at a rave.
Mike and I took a few steps into the disco lights and saw the place was completely deserted apart from one man, sitting on his own in the corner. There was an unusual tang on the air, not really a pleasant smell. Without an obvious bar man, I was loosing conviction this could be the source of tonight’s Pisco sours. It all felt a little awkward.
To make things better, Franco bought our attention to a corridor that ran all the way around the central dance hall. Small rooms with what looked to be prison doors branched off this corridor and a red light swung overhead. One depressed and exhausted looking woman tried to dance seductively in her doorway as we passed by, nodding politely in the way the British do. A peak in odour let us know the airborne tang was musty groins and old sex smell. I bolted my mouth shut, hoping that my nose could filter the worst. Another woman, almost as depressed as the first, stood in the doorway in the adjacent wing. Nod, smile and straight out the door.
Thankfully Franco had asked the Tuk Tuk to stay behind for five minutes while we cased the joint. We hopped in and drove slowly away from what Mike had cheerfully called the women prison.
Next was a strange but a little less intimidating bar with neon pink signs and pumping tunes. Again, it was completely empty and not only did it not serve Pisco Sours, it didn’t have Beer or anything to drink… We’d been searching for the best part of an hour by now, so headed back to the hotel with tails between our legs.
After a late start and a slog North along the Pan-american Highway – through Chimbote, apparently a town known for its opportunistic crime – we arrived back at Hotel Bracamonte, near the Huanchaco shoreline. This time I was sans diarrhoea and feeling somewhat perkier about visiting Chan Chan – a giant ancient palace complex out in the desert. A grey veil of clouds shielded us from much of the evening sun, a small relief after being desiccated from a long day under the bulb. The pre-Inca relics were incredibly well preserved considering they were made of sand and open to the elements. Plenty of other palaces nearby hadn’t been so lucky.
Back in Huanchaco Mike (having talked about it for nearly two weeks) gave me the hard sell on heading to a seafront restaurant for Ceviche (se-vee-che). From what I could gather, it was a sushi-esque raw fish deal, and a national dish. The restaurant was a gleaming white, polished terrace overlooking the surfers bobbing in the golden ocean. To top it all off, a tray of fresh pisco sours had just been presented to the table. The pastel green fluid foamed as it was decanted into my goblet glass, leaving a white beery head floating on top. I swilled it round like a wine before taking a healthy glug, a little surprised by how sour lime, eggs and booze could actually be. A sensation sure, but worth riding 120 miles for? Probably not…
To accompany the lime drink was the lime-cured fish. A whole platter of different pickled sea creatures. It was only a few forkfulls into my meal when I wished I’d ordered something a little more wholesome, a little less sour. Mike was clearly loving it, and Franco and Jorge were hungrily devouring their fried fish. All part of playing the ‘try new things’ game I guess.
Being the cusp of the end of our adventure the mood at the table was a little contemplative. Tomorrow would be the last day on the DR – and the cow skull would make it back to Cajamarca despite being held on by cable ties and flannels. Despite occasionally dropping out of gear, my little Suzuki had done me proud, and I expected I’d miss it when it was locked back up in Dave’s garage. My little pogo-stick.
But tomorrow was another day… and as Mike’s road rash attested, it wasn’t guaranteed to be an easy ride. We ordered another jug of Pisco Sours.