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On the road . October 2009 . Peru

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Hostal Sol de Selva [website] Tarapoto, Peru, 12-10-09
Leaving the cool mountains behind

San Ignacio to Tarapoto (7 cycle days; 1 rest days; 528km; 5991m)

San Ignacio to Tamborapa (71km; 626m)
Tamborapa to Bagua Grande (70km; 731m)
Bagua Grande to Pedro Ruiz (67km; 1228m)
Pedro Ruiz to km 69 (69km; 1664m)
km 69 Nueva Cajamarca (89km; 423m)
Nueva Cajamarca to Moyobamba (46km; 240m)
Moyobamba to Tarapoto (116km; 1079m)

A smooth feel beneath the wheels
Up until today, we have had ochre red dirt and beachy white sand. Beneath the wheels, it is now a bright pink combination of these colours. The initially short 4 kilometre climb out of San Ignacio is followed by a contrastingly long hand deadening 15 kilometre and 800 altimetre drop, due to the excessively rocky surface. The drizzle numbs us even further, but luckily enough it isn't cold. As we descend further, the warmer the temperature becomes and by the time we have levelled out, the sun is well and truly with us: we are now as wet with sweat as we were earlier with rain.

Rice paddies stretching as far as the gorge is wide and on either side of the raging Tabaconas River colour the landscape iridescent green. It is a pleasant change to be flowing in the same direction with such a force. The gushing sound heighten in echo almost propels us along the inconsistent path. Its a rolling 28 kilometre stretch of terrain that brings us past Puerto Ciruelo: a small township connected only to the highway by means of a drifting punt. We stop to watch a car float across. Asphalt has been present in patches all day which means, miraculously this little more than a trail, was once bitumenised. It also leads to questions as to why it has been left to disintegrate like this. Every now and again, we are teasingly given a taste of what it would be like to run effortlessly down a smooth surface. At this stage though, we can only fantasise. There is still 6 more kilometres of wobbling through sand, bumping over rock, and sliding in gravel; before our dream actually does become a reality.

At Perico, we are greeted with a pavement only rivalled by the Chinese; and if you have been following this blog, you'll know about my admiration for these miraculous little road workers. Though stinking hot in the 37° Celsius sun, what would have normally taken us 3 hours in the last few days takes just one: 18 kilometres of smooth as a baby's bottom finally rolls beneath our wheels.

There is one thing that really gets my blood bubbling up and over the cauldron and that is blatant dishonesty by visual deception. You are probably thinking what the heck is she on about now. Well, of course I am about to explain. At 6.10pm, with the temperature still at 32° Celsius we are sitting in our cement box of a room with chicken wire for a window This is the only accommodation in Tamborapa (71km; 626m) and technically speaking, it isn't really what you would call a hostal at all. Ali goes up and views the room with fluoro light and electrical point. The landlady shows him the bathroom with flush toilet, shower nozzle and sink. Though quite expensive for nothing more than a single sized straw mattress (I kid you not) on an iron frame, a cement floor and very basic facilities, Ali agrees to pay the 10 Soles. The other option, of camping, is not that appealing: firstly, we would have to pitch the tent in someone's back yard because the area is so populated and secondly, the sun has killer rays today.

As soon as we have unpacked the bags and settled into our impoverished room, up come the pails of water, making it perfectly clear that there is no running water. Okay, I can live with that, besides a bucket shower in this heat is always refreshing. Still, it is blatantly deceptive to show someone a bathroom with all the plumbing and faucets in place and not mention the fact that they are actually only of decorative value. Half past six arrives and darkness begins its descent. I go to switch on the light. Nothing. This is definitely something to get unhappy about and had I not gone downstairs and asked for a candle, we'd still be sitting on our cement floor in the pitch black. If I'd wanted a jail sentence, I would have asked for one and I certainly wouldn't have forked out 10 Soles for the privilege.

Whether there is electricity or not, is of no consequence for most people patronising Hostal El Leon. This is where couples, like the one next door to us, come for a marathon evening of shagging or as in the case of the male counterpart diagonally adjacent, for a quick bit of pleasure with his lover before showering and slipping back home to his wife. The latter scenario being normal event in latino lifestyle, or at least all the men like to tell everyone this. So you see, explicit sight is not necessarily a priority in this establishment, but as far as I can see, this hostal is simply a place of deception.

How far is it?
It's 28 kilometres to the Bellavista turnoff, where we leave the impeccably smooth rolling asphalt behind and plunge back onto the dirt track which will hopefully lead us to a small boat crossing. It does eventually, but not without missing the unsignposted left hand turn in the town and then having to backtrack a kilometer or so. A couple of Belgium guys with a local tour guide just happened to bump into us in time and also on bikes they decide to escort us in the right direction. It's a few kilometres to the beach, where we part ways. One and half minutes and one-and-a-half Soles each later and we are on the other side of the river and scrambling up the rocky slopes to the dirt road. We pass a small airfield, the monster Peru Petroleum plant and choke our way along a dusty, straight as an arrow path. Escorting us to the main highway, that deceivingly short distance to the horizon is actually 6 or so kilometres and coupled with hideous headwinds, it takes forever to complete.

Ali is already in the service station waiting as I pull up. He wanders off to the shop to find anything sweet and liquid and I question the two old men, guns slung over their shoulders and spending the afternoon at an infrequently visited petrol stop.

Me: ¿Cuantos kilometros de Bagua Grande? [How many kilometres to Bagua Grande]
Man 01: Si, cuatro kilometros [Yes, 4 kilometres]
Me: No. ¿Cuantos kilometros? [How many kilometres]
Man 01: Si, cuatro kilometros [Yes, 4 kilometres]
Me: I just give up with this line of questioning

Man 02: ¿Cuantos cambios?; as he is checking out my bike [How many gears]
Man 01: walks over to the bike too and then asks me;¿Cuantos cambios? [How many gears?]

Me: Veinte uno; I reply [21]
Man 01: looks at his mate and answers; Quince [15]
Me: No, I say. Veinte uno [No, 21]
Man 02: Ah quince, muy bien [Ah 15, very good]
Me: No quince, veinte uno; but I give up here too. [Not 15, 21]

Ali comes back from the shop with refreshments and I tell him that according to these two guys, it is only 4 kilometres to Bagua Grande and we have 15 gears on our bikes. He looks at me as though I'm totally cuckoo and tries making sense of it for himself. The "how many gears on the bike" conversation goes exactly the same reaction as it did for me, whereas the "how far" takes a slightly different turn this time.

Ali: ¿Cuantos kilometros de Bagua Grande? [How many kilometres to Bagua Grande]
Man 01: Si, cuatro kilometros [Yes, 4 kilometres]
Ali: No. ¿Cuantos kilometros? [How many kilometres]
Man 01: Si, cuatro kilometros [Yes, 4 kilometres]
Man 02: Looking quite puzzled now and probably because the question has been asked a million times, he comes up with the enlightening: ¿Hay uno mil metros en uno kilometro, si? [There's one thousand metres in one kilometre, isn't there?]
Ali: Si [Yes]
Man 02: Ah, Bagua Grande es diaz o tal vez quince kilometros, no cuatro kilometros [Oh, Bagua Grande is 10 or maybe 15 kilometres, not 4 kilometres]

Man 01 and Man 02 argue over exactly how far it is for a while and neither party can agree. Ali claims he is certain that the only two numbers Man 01 knows are four and fifteen. We eventually leave to complete the rest of the rolling ride into Bagua Grande, only stopping at a much more lively petrol station to fill our fuel bottles up and for Ali to fix a flat tyre to a crowd of admirers. It is actually 22 kilometres from our recent conversations about "how far it is" to Bagua Grande (70km; 731m).

The town is quite a bit bigger than San Ignacio and has all the facilities we need for another day of rest including a great vegetarian restaurant: Salud y Vida where you can get a bowl of soup, a small meal from a choice of 5 dishes and a glass of camomile tea for 3 Soles. (that's $US1.00) Hotel Iris is also the best we have had so far with hot water, large airy, sunny room, cable television and a fan. The price tag though is a little more than usual at 35 Soles per night.

The waiting game
Just like South East Asia: watery rice paddies, mango trees, coconut and banana palms fill our view. It smells of hot bitumen and steamy green. Patches of road turn completely to dirt or rock, but the ride starts off relatively smoothly: rolling hills that are not too steep with a slight tilt on going up. The roadwork's department are out in force on this stretch of road and when we reach Salao after 26 kilometres, there's a major block only to be opened at 12 midday. We just cycle through and no one says anything. The 12 kilometre stretch to Aserradero is more of an ascent, but nothing too difficult, however the climb out of here is a monster: a snaking path of crumbling limestone rock that regularly hits 18%. And making the pedalling all the more difficult, the barriers have been lifted in Salao about a half hour ago and all the banked up traffic now catches up with us: buses, trucks, taxis, cars and motorbikes hurtle past, flicking blankets of stones and thick white dust in their path.

From here on in the waiting game begins. The 29 kilometres, taking us up an altitude of 733 metres, is a stunning stretch of road with sheer cliff faces protruding almost vertically out of the ground on either side of us and towering way into the blue sky. A surging river forges its path in between. When this highway is complete, it will be an amazing cycling trip, but for now we have to content with sand, rubble and constantly coming to a standstill. The road blocks are frustratingly frequent. Ten minutes here, twenty there and on one occasion for nearly 40 minutes. Road workers hang from ropes attached to trees dislodging loose rock from the overhang or they are simply relaying new bitumen. The motorised transport has already passed and the thoroughfare is closed to traffic again: its only us and the road department vehicles. At one point, I get sick of holding my bike up and lay it and myself on the ground, which prompts the workers to let us through, so I use the ploy, much to Ali's embarrassment, for the rest of the journey into Pedro Ruiz (67km; 1228m).

The waiting game continues...
We arrive a little after 5pm and pull up at the fanciest hotel in town. No-one is at reception, so we wait. The shopkeeper below is certain that someone will turn up in a few minutes. Fifteen minutes later, Ali gets to talk to an employee and finds out a room costs 30 Soles, but unfortunately the owner is elsewhere and has all the keys. We wait. A further 15 minutes passes. Ali then checks out another place of accommodation. They don't have a double just yet. We could wait until 6pm, but we've both had enough of killing time and just want to get showered and fed. Up the road, two other establishments are completely closed for business. A third, Hospedaje Nafre, and the last on the stretch leading out of town, has a pokey double with bathroom and television with no channel signals for 15 Soles. We take it, thinking our waiting game is finally over.

Ali gets ready to have a shower and goes to turn on the water. Nothing. If there was a window low enough, I could almost stick my hand out the window and feel the cool river water gushing past the walls of the building. Ironically, we can hear water loud enough. Our host says half an hour and the water in the town will be turned on. We wait half an hour. Still nothing. We wait another thirty minutes, before I am downstairs asking for a bucket. The landlady insists she'll bring it up herself. We wait another fifteen minutes. A half full 20 litre jerry can and jug arrive at our door at a little after 7pm. At least it is water and at least we don't have to wait anymore.

Never far from a village
Nothing is particularly comfortable about our room or sleep and we are happy to leave the next morning. It is at Pedro Ruiz that most travellers turn off to Chachapoyas to visit the nearby Kuelap Inca ruins. Besides the fact that after this attraction, a dirt road goes up to three passes of 3680, 3200, and 3620 altimetres and plummets each time into low lying valleys; we are not quite ready to pop into a tourist haven just yet and we continue east towards the Amazon jungle.

There's a strong fermentation odour in the air as coffee beans are being raked on plastic sheets to dry in the morning sun and a young man peddles a box of chicks balanced on his head. It must be chicha or chicha de jora: a fermented maíz [corn] drink flavoured with aromatic herbs, that we can smell. The road goes up at an average of 3% for the entire 29 kilometres and 1031 altimetres. It is 3½ hours of saddle time before we reach the pass (2281m) with a wonderful view of Lago Pomacochas and just 2 kilometres from the township of Florida Pomacochas. While you are never far from a village along this highway, this is the last place with official accommodation until Nueva Cajamarca. In fact, we are amazed at just how much of the land is being farmed and to the wild camping potential's detriment, fenced off with barbed wire.

The 16 kilometres of drop from Florida towards Puente Vilcaniza is not as far down as we expected to go and before we know it, we are climbing again towards Buenos Aires, which despite its suggestively large name, is just a village. Three old ladies, who look like sisters, wearing their matching wide brimmed straw hats, wave at Ali as he passes. As soon as they see me, there's way more enthusiasm and with both thumbs up in excited unison they scream: "Ahhhh! gringa!, gringa! gringa!". There's definitely a sisterhood thing happening in Peru.

The road continues up and down through the towns dotted on our map. With names like La Esperanza [Hope] and El Progreso [Progress], you'd surely think that they would have at least one place of lodging, but no, there's absolutely nothing. Furthermore, there is nowhere safe nor flat to pitch the tent except by the river after 65 kilometres. Unfortunately a bar full of loud drunken men stands just above it. We venture on up the hill for another few kilometres and pull off at the only other unfenced section we have seen for the last few hours at km 69 (69km; 1664m). Amongst the tall wild plants, there is a spot just big enough for the tent and we can't really be seen from the road either.

Sweating like the pig
It is a reasonably peaceful nights sleep for such a slope and the constant truck roar. It also rained during the night for a few hours, which woke me up. Ali remained asleep, oblivious to it all. With breakfast out the way, we are packing the bags as locals are walking their happily snorting pig up the highway beside us. While cleaning my teeth, the pig begins to squeal. Not just the normal "stop annoying me" or "I'm hungry" squeals, but blood curdling screams that cut the morning air as sharply as the knife that had just slit his throat. It is as if you could hear the pain and terror in his voice. I can't do anything but stand numb for what seems like eternity, while these humiliating sounds continue. In reality, it is probably only two minutes. The silence that follows is immediately filled with sadness and my first thoughts of, I'm so glad the pig isn't hurting anymore, transform quickly to a hatred for human beings that make innocent animals suffer like this.

As we pedal up the same path the pig had taken just a half an hour ago, the pungent fumes of burning hair and the sight of a stiffened pork carcass spitted on an open fire confirm the early morning activities. The mother sow a kilometre or so further on, with her six little piglets gets a quick word of caution from me. She looks at me with her piggy eyes, quite bewildered at the sound of my voice and snorts indignantly a few times in my direction. Can't say I didn't warn her.

One animal we don't have respect for are domesticated dogs that come sprinting out of houses, restaurants, down from fields, baring their teeth, snapping aggressively at our heels and causing us to stop cycling. Come to think of it we have no respect for the apathetic owners either, who don't exercise any control over their animals. In Peru, both owners and dogs are the worst we have encountered since Turkey. Most homes in the countryside have a pack of four or five varying in breed from the silky terrier crossed with a taller mutt to make a bigger version of the brainless yapper to a viciously vindictive doberman without a mask. It only takes one to start the chase and then the entire village is in pursuit. Stopping normally results in the chase being over; raising your arm like you have a stick or stone in your hand sometimes gets them to retreat; throwing a stone further helps; and our dog dazer works about 80% of the time. Having an owner who could be in command of their canine pets would be a lot easier.

Contrastingly, the journey is dazzlingly spectacular today: cascading waters; green lush rainforest; grassy verges; flora of all dimensions; birds and butterflies: Initially, we rise for a few kilometres to reach the peak (2222m). For a few kilometres a vulture glides a few metres above Ali using the same wind current that sails us down the 36 kilometres of winding slopes. The roads are mostly smooth with only the occasional hiccup and there are few excellent wild camping possibilities here.

The town of Agua Verdes marks the start of the plateau, though undulating a little until you hit Naranjos. The ride from here to Nueva Cajamarca (89km; 423m) is virtually flat and the first time we have experienced doing speeds around 20 kilometres an hour for a very long time. We had planned to reach Rioja today, but the black skies ahead convince us to stay where we are.

There are a few hotels to choose from and although our room at Hotel Chota is big and spacious, upon closer inspection its a grot-box, infested with ants and in bad need of repair. All this despite the absurdity of their own posts on the wall claiming, in a comparable Spanish proverb, that "cleanliness is next to godliness". And what we don't know beforehand is the mosquitoes result in us sleeping with the balcony door shut. Last night at 2500 altimetres it would have been perfectly alright, but tonight at 883 metres above sea level we are sweating almost as much as the pig that passed away this morning.

Three things we really like: rice, bananas and coffee
A late start is planned this morning as we only have 40 odd kilometres to do to reach Moyobama, city of the orchids. Waking up at 8am is a treat and the 9.30am start cool and overcast. We fly along the long, straight, flat highway taking us past fields mixed with rice, bananas and coffee: three of our favourite energy-boosting consumables. The landscape is jungle-like: wooden huts with thatched roofs intersperse the rich green forest; heliconias droop from hard to reach places and the intermittent orchid pushes it way towards the light and into view. People are not as openly friendly talkative here but the deafening ring of insects makes up for the lack of sound. It is obvious, by the fits of laughter from adults as well as children, that gringos are not often spotted in these parts, let alone a couple riding a fully loaded bike.

The last leg of the journey becomes slightly more undulating and the sun peeks through every now and again making the hill climbing very warm work. We make Moyobamba (46km; 240m) just as it hits 12 midday and the rain comes tumbling down for the day. Hotel Rocio is pricey for Peru at 30 Soles, but the room is decorated tastefully with its cobalt blues and wood combinations: bed, cable tv and modern looking bathroom (except for the lack of toilet seat) all add to the comfort. Conveniently, the local market across the road has everything you could possibly want for and so we are set for the afternoon. A bit of work, bit of tellie, bit of food and then the well earned sleep readying us for the 120 odd kilometre journey into Tarapoto tomorrow.

A new door, an unknown surprise
It is drizzling as we leave Moyobama, but by the end of the day the sun is in full force. The journey is a recurrent pattern of rise and fall. The road is good in parts and bad in others, though the latter case never being for very long. Its a quiet ride with very little traffic until we reach close to Tarapoto. We wind up and down past villages with grassy centre squares, banana farms; rain forests with palm leaves the size of five men tall and so much rice in its varying degrees of processing. And that stands to reason since San Martin is the leading province for rice production in Peru.

Tarapoto (116km; 1079m) is the biggest city we have come across in Peru so far. There are plenty of hotels, plenty of shops, plenty of street vendors, at least three Chifa (Chinese) restaurants that we know about and plague proportions of noisy motokars (tuk-tuks). What Tarapoto doesn't have is an abundance of wifi connections. After a fruitless search for even a decent internet cafe (though I do find out you could use the internet in the library for free during their sporadic opening hours), I stumble upon a wifi zone in Hostal Sol de Selva . While it is not in our budget to stay here, Rosita, the really charming landlady, allows me to piggyback their connection. Soon her husband, Faustino, has befriended me as well and the next thing I know, Ali and I are having breakfast with them the following morning and planning a couple of a side trips to the local waterfall and to the indigenous town of Lamas. Whether you are travelling or not, you just never know what unknown surprise is in store, each time you open a new door.

Hostal Florida, Ayacocho, Peru, 03-11-09
Jungle warmth to mountain frostiness

Tarapoto to Huánuco (2½ cycle days; 204km; 2472m; 2 and a bit car travel days)

Tarapoto to Bellavista (99km; 528m)
Bellavista to Juanjui (37km; 320m)
Juan Jui to Tocache (180km by car)
Tocache to Tingo Maria (169km by car)
Tingo Maria to Huánuco (cycling: 68km; 1624m; car: 50km)

For the latest on this route and road conditions, please check the grey box at the bottom of this episode.

Where's the jungle?
Rice paddies, papaya, bananas and sweet smelling jacaranda-like trees warming their leaves in the early sun plus all the other usual kind of tropical green pass us by. Butterflies are in plague proportion and apart from one variety with a spectacular shape making up for its rather dull leaf-brown wing, the air is filled with colours of tortoise shell, red and yellow stripes; dazzling orange; iridescent blues; and mink white leopard patterns.

As well as the great visual attraction, it is a smooth, easy ride as we fly towards the only climb we have today: up and over a brilliant red cliff bringing us to the riverside. The undulations continue cutting their path along the overhang until Buenos Aires, where the landscape flattens out and we continue to follow the massive flow of water irrigating the patchwork of rice paddies. By this stage, we have accrued 46 kilometres and 351 altimetres.

The whole region is so much more populated than we had expected that we are beginning to wonder where you actually need to travel to get away from it all. The next 16 kilometres to Picota are basically flat. A few more modest ups and downs are in store for the last 37 kilometres into Bellavista (99km; 528m), bragging its status as "future metropolis of Huallaga" on the welcome board a few kilometres from the actual town.

At first, we pass an ominous line of housing and small shops on both sides of the street and hope that this isn't supposed to be the centre. A roundabout materialises either signalling the end or the beginning of the town. We hope it is the last option, though doubtful as we bump our way down a very poor condition dirt track. A kilometre or so later and a neat and tidy fully-blown town emerges out of literally no-where. For 30 Soles, we spend the night at Hostal Casa Blanca: one of the nicest "two star" accommodations we have had to date in Peru.

Well, today we can really say we are in the middle of the Amazon jungle. After a short, but beautifully crafted section of road, we hit dirt, though nothing too difficult as the roadwork's department is stationed along the entire length and very close to laying bitumen. From Bellavista to the highest point (518m) its 28 kilometres and 304 altimetres. A further 9 kilometres of easy off-road pedalling will see you in the bustling little township of Juanjui (37km; 320m).

The next stretch of road is supposedly some of the worst tracks in Peru and we had decided a few days back, that we would use a car to travel this leg of the journey. According to internet sources, there is no accommodation either and the area is dubious as far as security is concerned owing to drug trafficking. Finding a ride is simple enough and negotiating the price of 30 Soles each, also not a problem. In Peru, you don't pay extra for your luggage on local transport and although it is highly possible that we pay a bit more than locals for the trip, our bikes are whipped from us and expertly tied to the sides of the hilux tray top without a blink of an eyelid or murmur of complaint: Right up to the last minute in Asia or worse still, Turkey, we would be negotiating the price of the bicycles down from full-fare each to something in the vicinity of half price. Besides, the expedition will be worth every cent as far as we are concerned.

We had arrived at the taxi terminal at 11am or so and by 12.30pm, we are itching to go. Everyone is motioned to get in and it appears we are on our way. At least grandma01 with the blue hearts blouse on, sitting next to us in the back of the cab, believes so and is grateful to start on her long journey home to Tocache. A few circles of town, a stop to pick up a few whipper snippers from the husquvana shop and an unexpected return to the terminal waylay us a further hour. Even grandma01 is bewildered as to what is going on. In the meantime, we have collected quite a number of extra commuters. including grandma02, who joins us in the front seat and the late arrival of grandma03, who is not happy about having to stand up with all the luggage and everyone else in back of the tray.

While I'm still tossing thoughts around regarding how astonishingly overloaded our car is, we pull up behind another at the petrol station. It has chairs, tables, jerry cans and people hanging from every available rung. As I turn my head, another taxi rolls in to our right with a motokar (tuk-tuk) full of passengers on top. That I have to get a photo of.

The road is, well actually not a road at all. In Juanjui, Ali asked our driver, Jimmy, what the path would be like and although he told us it would take 5 hours of driving, according to him it was not that bad. We figure he is exagerating about the time factor. An hour into the journey and we are glad that we didn't change our decision and cycle this stretch based on our drivers opinion. It is really the worst we have seen: beats Pakistan and the road to Sary Tash hands down. On the other hand, with the exception of food crops around the villages and a bit of deforestation, it is pristine jungle. And the beauty of roads like this, is the region will stay this way. Tree tops high in the sky, creepers wrapping themselves around intertwining ferns and palms making the banks busting with heliconia red, green and yellow totally impassable. A very green sensory overload.

The 180 kilometre stretch takes Jimmy 6½ hours to complete. Admittedly, we stop to pick up every Jhon, Jhosep and Jhuan along the way with their sacks of rice, bags of peanuts, cartons of spaghetti, carved bed heads and guitars, but we still estimate that it would have taken us at least 3 long days of strenuous pushing. The road is incredibly undulating, with wheel sinking gravel, pebbles, boulders, rivers, mud, several collapsed bridges that require expert wheel placement on ordinary wooden planks or ferrying the car across the waterways on a couple of boats tied together, acting as a barge. Every time, we pass one of these road obstacles, grandma01 grabs the unused front seatbelt firmly, becomes vocally nervous, followed by immediate excitement when we are safe on the other side. Jimmy's expert and surprisingly courteous driving skills would give Michael Schumacher a run for his money any day.

Conflicting with internet information on the region, there are lots of villages along the way and once you have reached Nuevo Jaen, after 68 kilometres, there is plenty of official accommodation too: Balsayuca; Polvora; and Pizano all have hospedajes or hostals. Grandma02 gets out smack bang in the middle of nowhere and heads down the path that leads to her wooden hut with proportionately tall thatched roof. Grandma01 turns to us and affectionately comments: "her little paradise". Grandma03 leaves us a few kilometres further on too. So, if people like these grandmas live here, then I guess as far as security is concerned, it is reasonably safe. In broad daylight and going on gut instinct, it feels harmless enough. Later in the evening, when we are still navigating our way along atrocious jungle roads, there are a number of men roadside with rifles clearly on display, but then again, wherever you are, the idea is not to be roaming around in the dark.

It is strange entering your destination at night. You have no bearings compared with the orientation you get from cycling your way in during the day. With our bikes and bags unloaded and repacked in Tocache (180km by car), Jimmy comes up, shakes our hands and wishes us good luck for the rest of our travels in Peru. Not only a good driver, but a nice guy as well. We head straight to the first accommodation we see. Hospedaje Sol y Luna is definitely what you would term a grot box; but has a fan and private bathroom; only costs 15 Soles; we are tired and hungry; and a Chifa (Chinese) restaurant is next door. It will have to do for the night.

Reflecting on the day, from our bed in the little cement sweatbox while the fan cools me down and my eyes grow heavy, I figure that if anyone ever enquires as to whether I have been to the Amazon Jungle, my answer will certainly be, "yes". And if they ask me what it was like, I would have to say: "green; very green; in fact it goes on for-ever-green".

Tocache to Tingo Maria (car travel)
Today's driver is the complete opposite of yesterday's: a testosterone charged, highway hogging, horn honking, freak who thinks only of his importance and nothing else. Making matters worse, I have a man next to me who believes he has the right to half of the backseat and Ali and I should share the rest. I spend a good part of the journey pushing him back into position, trying to gain just a miniscule bit of space.

The first 25 kilometres out of Tocache is smoothly paved, flat and we sense a few pangs of guilt to be sitting in a car for such an easy cycling stretch, but that feeling soon leaves when we hit the dirt road. Although a bit better than yesterday's jungle trek, is still ridiculously bad. Still, travel by station wagon is way more comfortable than pick-up truck and we don't stop every minute of the journey to give a ride to others. The trip to Tingo Maria (169km by car) takes three hours as they quoted and costs 35 soles including strapping the bikes firm and fast on the roof rack.

I don't quite know what Ali was on about when he said he wanted something better than yesterday's lodgings and then chooses the rather expensive Gran Hotel with its lack of fan, television or power points all together for 25 Soles. For lesser facilities and an only marginally cleaner room, he pays 10 soles more. Tingo Maria is a bustling town, has a vegetarian restaurant as well as a Chifa and a huge market area with every conceivable product thinkable. Close by, are also a variety of bicycle shops. While we don't need any bike parts just yet, we do need to stock up on energy boosting supplies. Tomorrow, we will leave the warmth and unpredicted friendliness of the jungle and the climbing will start again.

Bad, bad, bad...
The 18 kilometre section out of Tingo Maria and towards Las Palmas is simple enough, though the accent is on going up ever so slightly. Cayumba, a further 8 kilometres on, is the next port of call with the last hostal we will see until Acomayo, 10 clicks after the Tunnel Abra Carpish (2640m) close to the top. The terrain remains relatively docile for the next hour or so before we really embark on the switchback ascent up the mountain. While the gradients are never particularly unreasonable, the progressively bad roads making the course cumbersome and the developing bad weather, is.

At 4.45pm, with more than 600 metres left until the top, we are soaked from both sides through with sweat and rain alike. It grows colder. For some reason, our Freytag & Berndt road map of Peru has the town of Chinchao marked enroute. Why this is, is a complete mystery as we enter the nothing village and find no suitable place to spend the night. Since Cayumba we have traversed 1210 altimetres over 32 kilometres of continuous up. We push on a further 10 kilometres and 225 altimetres away from Chinchao, before Ali tells me that we will need to get a lift the rest of the way to Acomayo, where a hostal is said to exist.

There is absolutely no-where suitable to wild-camp here. Sheer cliff faces on either side of the road prevent any penetration of the countryside and any possible concealment of our tent. All levelled areas are adorned with simple mud housing. I would just as happily ask to set up near one of the farm huts, but Ali is insistent that we don't. He later tells me that on two separate occasions, men had hung their heads out of the car and signalled a slitting of the throat. From today's experience, I have to admit that people in these parts have not been overly friendly towards us. Weighing this up, with the very poor background of this location and such threatening gestures from locals, I can understand his concern. I agree: hitching instead of pitching, it is.

Not much ventures past us in the next twenty minutes and it is getting increasingly wetter, darker and mistier. Ali pulls over the next utility. Even though it is already half full, the occupants are more than happy to help us out. With a bit of effort, the bikes and all our luggage are strapped on the back and we are squashed in with all the backseat articles for the journey. I am drenched through and remove my, about as useless as a canary yellow kleenex, Marmot rain jacket. I have to replace it when I get to Chile. It is a long, cold way to Tunnel Abra Carpish (2640m). Just after, the terrain finally begins to drop. The landscape changes immediately as we exit: from jungle one side to an almost mountainous desert-like environment on the other.

We are offered a lift all the way to Huánuco (cycling: 68km; 1624m; car: 50km), and figure: why not? Arriving at around 7pm, after a couple of military and police road blocks, our driver directs us to a "safe" part of town as he terms it. A 3-star hotel is also arranged for us at the discounted price of 30 Soles. It is obvious Ali pulled over some men with influence in this town. After thanking our rescuers profusely, we warm ourselves up in our comfortable room at Hotel Huánuco.

Another couple of cyclists pull in the same night and miraculously choose the same hotel as us. James and Kevin have had plenty of interesting adventures of their own and more about these two guys can be read on their own websites. We leave the next day, while they stay on for a well earned day of rest after a couple of 4700 metre passes. No doubt we'll cross cycle paths again. We are all heading towards Cusco.

UPDATE OCTOBER 2012: In the meantime, the road between Tarapoto and Tingo Maria has improved significantly. Below are some points made by Roeland Dilz, who cycled here in October 2012 (when you visit his blog: his last entry is marked #1, so to read the start of his trip, go to the end). The eastern loop is a great alternative to the coastal route, where there is quite a security risk these days. And this part of the country is also virtually undiscovered by tourism; another bonus for off the beaten track cyclists.

* Between Juanjui and Campanella (approximately 35km) the road is still unpaved, but doable (but I didn't have any rain on the whole route from Tarapoto to Tingo Maria). This is probably the only part of the road that will not have any pavement for a considerable amount of time in the future.
* Until the repairs of the two big bridges over the rio Huallaga are finished there is an improvised ferry over the river. In between the two bridges (Campanella to Puerto Pizanna) 80% of the road was paved, but the pavement is too thin to last any longer than only a few years. Every time a truck needs to break, the asphalt just crumbles under its wheels.
* After Puerto Pizanna to Tocache the construction of a road of excellent quality is in progress, but not finished yet.Expectations are that construction will be finished somewhere in late 2013. Although it's never pleasant to pass a road under construction, it's probably better than it used to be.
* After Tocache the road is good.
As long as there isn't too much rain(!), the road isn't actually that bad anymore.

Plateauing out
Huánuco to Huancayo (5 cycle days; 370km; 3586m)

Huánuco to Huariaca (69km; 1142m)
Huariaca to Cerro de Pasco (51km; 1422m)
Cerro de Pasco to Junín (72km; 412m)
Junin to La Oroya (55km; 218m)
La Oroya to Huancayo (123km; 392m)

It's amazing what a difference a tunnel can make
Ali has been reading a few blogs about other cyclists experiences in these parts and everyone has noticed the difference between people on the jungle side of Tunnel Abra and the desolate region we are pedalling through today. Its a relatively easy climb, only averaging 2% and reaching a maximum of 7% over the entire day. We push gently upstream as the river weaves down through the verdant valley floor. This is all that is green though. The further away from the water source you go, the browner and more barren the countryside gets.

Our path rolls its way along potholed and crackly bitumen with a thin strip of semi-decent road near the right hand edge: just wide enough to keep the bikes on. People are instantly responsive and sociable along this stretch of road and the popularity of indigenous dress is the most prevalent we have seen in Peru so far.

Roads have a habit of worsening as you near each village and there are plenty of these along the way with a few basic accommodation options available as well. In between, there is relatively little except the occasional farm, though more and more wild camping opportunities arise from this partial desolation. Rain hits us around 12 midday and increases in strength throughout the afternoon, though as we ride into Huariaca (69km; 1142m), the sun has decided to burn brightly.

Rude awakenings
We head straight to Hostal Rosa Nautica because it was recommended in someone's blog and Kevin and James, 24 hours behind us, tell us a few days later that it really is the best value in town. The other choices we pass on the main street must be complete dumps, because Rosa Nautica is not one of the better lodgings we have frequented. For 20 soles we get two single beds with ungraciously sagging mattresses in a cement block, meagerly decorated with one rickety table and a basic chair. No more, no less, unless you count the grime smeared walls and battered nylon curtain as part of the deal. The bathroom is akin to a pig pen with a half length swing door that everyone can look over or under, depending on their preference, and containing the one and only share shower and toilet. A hot water system is connected in a rudimentary way that should you dare touch the tap, which you will inevitably need to do since the temperature fluctuates so dramatically during your shower, your neighbours will be in for a rude awakening with your electric shock yelping.

We are given a room, which I routinely inspect. Like a Ferrero Roche, the first bed is hard around the edges and soft in the centre. I sample the next one, but as I sit in the middle of it, a wooden slat breaks leaving a hole as unwanted as any sweet-tooth cavity. The owner comes over immediately and impertinently remarks: "Muchas pesas!" [Too heavy!]. Now a bit overweight, I have been from time to time in my life, but at the moment I definitely am not and if his bed can't hold 65kg, then there is something severely wrong with it. Besides, how dare he, with his belly hanging over his belt, have the audacity to say such a thing to a paying customer. To prove my point to this rather ignorant male, I lift up the mattress to reveal yet again, another typical "Peruvian hostal botch carpentry job": the slat that dropped is way too short for the bed width anyway and there are gaps all over the place creating that saggy mattress syndrome, that every budget traveller dreads, but soon grows accustomed to.

Ali thinks the whole scenario is hilarious and calls me "fatso" all evening. Luckily I'm a little more thick skinned than breaking at his name calling and anyway, he soon changes his tune when he tries out his bed. The slats missing from where his upper back lay make it impossible for him to get to sleep. Only after pinching one from the end of my bed -being short can have its advantages- does he finally get some comfort.

The following morning starts off with a 15 minute car alarm session at precisely 5am. The type that continually hoots and whirrs and whistles and honks and then begins the sequence all over again. The type that has you following the pattern, desperately anticipating each instance of silence as the moment when the commotion will finally stop and you can return to your slumber. And obviously the type that needs to be owned by someone with a better intellect than the idiot staying at our hostal. The type who doesn't have a clue how to turn the damned thing off. I just get back to sleep and my alarm goes off.

Up there!
We pedal out of the village early enough. The road is unpaved or in bad repair for the good part of the morning. I am travelling at around 6 kilometres a hour and according to Aaldrik, that is not good enough if we want to attain today's destination. Personally I figure, if we can't reach Cerro de Pasco, then too bad, we can camp. Besides, we are cycling at around 3000 metres and foresee rising to somewhere near 4300 metres. It is climbing all the way and though never particularly steep, I am still finding the going a little tough. Nonetheless, we end up having one of those "Sonya's going too slow arguments". A dispute that can never ever be resolved.

I put on my iPod shuffle, which helps me go a little faster and cycle on up front, reminiscing about good times to Van Morrison's "Bright side of the road". By the time we have pedalled 12 kilometres and 408 altimetres, we have reached the monster dam and equally monstrous eyesaw at, if my memory serves me right, Cajamarquilla. Ali is cycling in close range of me again and we continue on through the next 7 kilometres of climbing to Chicrin / Yanapampa (3541m) and then a further 8 kilometres to Pariamarca (3706m): both having some form of accommodation. From here on in, the countryside takes on a whole new perspective: rolling velvet of olive yellow randomly studded with low-lying shrubs; rocky crevices gushing waterfalls; stone walls imprinting hillside swirls; coloured ribbons threaded through grazing cow's ears; and curious llamas popping their heads up to see just what it is that has passed them by on two wheels. There are great camping prospects to be seen everywhere: barren nature and only a sprinkling of traffic.

Why climbing high can make you hit rock bottom
By the time we reach 4000 metres above sea level, I have the makings of a monster headache: the type that makes you feel like throwing up; the type where someone has put a vice on your skull and is turning it very, very slowly. It's horrible.

Basically, the higher you go, the less oxygen there is in the atmosphere. With slow and short ascents, your body has a better chance of adapting to the decreased oxygen, but the more rapid the climb and the greater the height covered, the higher the risk of altitude sickness. And the strange thing is, it can hit anyone: at any time; at any age; and at any level of physical fitness.

It usually begins with a headache, though that could also be a symptom of dehydration. Blood thickens at high elevations as fluids flow into the body's tissues. Naturally, this decreases the efficiency of distribution of essential elements and elimination of unwanted components. The outcome is a headache, weariness and extreme thirst. It goes without saying, that drinking lots of fluids prior to and while climbing is essential.

In Peru and Bolivia, the indigenous population have been using coca leaves for centuries as a stimulant and to combat the effects of altitude sickness. Either chewing a couple of leaves or drinking the coca mate [coca tea] is said to energize you and suppress hunger, thirst, pain, and fatigue. Now before you start thinking that, I'm endorsing some sort of contraband drug, I should explain that coca leaves are perfectly legal here. While it contains an average of 0.8% cocaine, the effects from consumption of the fresh leaves do not produce the euphoric and psychoactive effects associated with use of the drug. So, before we embarked on this leg of the journey, I purchased a little bag of coca leaves for 50 soles cents (€0.17) in Tingo Maria. In hindsight, I could have bought them from any one of the small villages along the way: coca leaves are literally drying everywhere in this region.

I can vouch that it is a stimulant for sure and if you had a really bad toothache, it is capable of numbing your gums quite effectively, but unfortunately it did nothing to stop my pending headache from turning into a fully blown migraine. Maybe I should have chewed on a few leaves before I left. I'll leave that for the mountain experiment.

The turnoff (4298m) to our destination is blocked and a 5.7 kilometre detour put in place. We decide to risk climbing over the rubble and it pays off. The 2.5 kilometres of road is perfect all the way to the arched entry gate (4350m) and the highest point we have ever reached so far on our trip. Only at this point, do we need to slide our way down a few very steep dirt slopes to find our way to the centre of Cerro de Pasco (51km; 1422m). Local kids can't resist following us excitedly on their bikes.

The city is not the prettiest we have ever seen and while trying to cross a drain near one of the many local plazas my foot slips, falls through the grate and into the shit (literally), dramatically followed by the thump of me hitting the ground and then my bike landing on top. locals scramble to help me up and I don't know how I managed to get free without a scrape nor a broken bone, but I do. Maybe the gods were feeling a little sorry for dishing me up such a headache and didn't want to burden me with any more pain.

We continue with our search for accommodation and find that everything is pretty appalling considering the prices landlords are asking. Most places Ali turns away from after simply poking his head inside, if not from the filth, then from the daunting thought about trying to get the bikes up the abnormally steep stairways. We end up settling for an icy room with share bathroom facilities at Hostal Santa Rosa. It costs 20 soles and compared to what we have had previously for this price, it is a total rip off.

We get one towel the size of a tea-cloth; no toilet paper; no soap; there is no hot water upstairs we are situated; and the shower downstairs has been installed by the scroogey man running the place. It takes 30 seconds to warm up to temperature and then the electricity cuts out and it goes cold again. the process repeats itself, so you never really get warm, which also has something to do with the fact that the shower is outside in the courtyard with a half-length saloon bar swing door, a cement floor and just incase you have forgotten we are at 4289 metres and it is freezing. I feel so sick: the vice still on my skull and a churned stomach. I almost have to crawl my way back up the stairs to our room. Fully clothed, I slink under the four blankets, take half a panadol and pray that sleep will relieve me from the pain.

Ali goes out for dinner by himself and when he gets back, I can manage a smile and have enough appetite for the delicious bowl of noodle soup, bread roll and sweet herbal tea that he prepares for me. Nothing much else is achieved that evening except for sleep.

A perfect little town
Just so you know that our landlord really is a scrooge and that I am not simply exaggerating for the story; a few minutes after we have woken, he turns off the electricity in our room, forcing us to open the shutters for light and allow more cold into the room. Before we have finished with our toiletry routine, he shuts off the water and tells us we have to go downstairs to use the bathroom amenities. For 20 soles, I'm a little ticked off.

We venture along the 7 kilometres of badly unpaved road until bitumen reappears. Stunning cloud formations hang over the mountain range to our right. Seagulls with black heads soar above the lake pools, llamas stare us out even more than their fellow Peruvians and it is all too pleasant to worry about the fact I only have three gears available. Two metal clips giving the spring in the levers of my rapid fire gears have snapped. It is no wonder, considering they are 15 years old and very well used, but now the chain can't really be moved from its middle position on the cassette. My three gears come about only from shifting up and down on my crank set. Actually it does make you realise, that for not too difficult conditions, you only really need a couple of gears: even with a fully-loaded bike.

The bustling town of Carhuamayo is 34 kilometres from the start of the asphalt and its pretty easy sailing all the way, apart from the strong side winds that pick up with fury every now and again. The next 29 kilometres, though, become a lot harder as my headache worsens and I am really happy to arrive in Junín (72km; 412m).

Hostal Orbel is almost brand spanking new and so far removed from yesterday's accommodation that it is hard to believe it is only 5 soles more: hot water in our private bathroom, clean, neat, comfortable bed, television, soap and toilet paper. The only downside are the flannel-sized towels. If it goes on like this, then tomorrow they'll be handkerchief dimensions and the next night nothing at all. At least we get two. For some reason even if you pay for two people, in both Central and South America, you only get one towel. And for some even stranger reason, they look at you as if you are from another planet when you ask for an additional one. Obviously, hotel owners in this neck of the woods have never had to experience being the one who gets to use the towel second.

From our window we have an expansive view across the plateau and the perfect spy point for people watching. Women in colourful pleated skirts, full with petticoat layers and belt sashes, wrapped snuggly in their woven blankets intersperse between motorbike-cars, donkeys, sheep, bicycles and modernly clothed individuals too. The one thing the indigenous women have in common is a pair of knitting needles. They walk up and down the street clicking their sticks, occasionally chatting to a passerby while creating a new pair of socks for the pending winter.

The plaza is like any other plaza, statue in the middle, bench seats and green shrubbery, but unlike in Mexico or Colombia, they don't seem to pull much of a crowd. Street sellers and snack carts surround area and a covered market area has just about everything you could possibly want. Except that is, for bread: stale buns in the convenience store across the road are about the extent of what is left for us today. I guess you have got to be early.

A perfect day
I think back to where we were a week ago and I simply can't remember. Looking back in the diary, I see it was Tarapoto with its sweaty humid temperatures and jungle green landscapes. Now, I'm thinking I could quite easily add a fifth blanket layer to the bed and I won't go near a cold shower. The last couple of nights have been well above 4000 metres and I awake regularly from wildly vivid dreams, gasping for air. The air is thin and its hard to breath, even at rest state.

The alarm goes off at 6am. Ali looks outside at the bleak grey skies and thrashing rain. I need little encouragement to roll over and pull the covers a little higher. At 7am, we can't hear the storm anymore: it is snowing. Twelve midday is check-out time, so we can dawdle around this morning and see how the day pans out. We can always do a short trip to La Oroya.

La Oroya is the type of place where almost nobody plans to stay. Besides being a crossroad town, with one highway heading towards Huancuyo and a second branching off to Lima, it has another asset clearly keeping tourists at bay. It is said to be one of the dirtiest towns in the world, due to the heavy metal mining and processing by an American-owned smelter. We figure it is only for one night and seeing as we survived India, we are certain we can handle a bit of industrial stench. So, after a leisurely breakfast and some computer updating, 10.30 arrives along with a little bit of blue in the sky. A few dark clouds threaten, but the sun is beckoning and we can't resist getting back in the saddle.

From Junín there is 14 kilometres of up and down rolling until the turnoff to San Pedro de Cajas (4186m). We take a quick break here, but are on our bikes as quickly as we got off when a black cloud rolls in directly over us. It doesn't last long and the perfect day eventuates. A wide shoulder protects us as we past the nothingness of barren hills and rock faces; a perfect amount of sun keeps the chill factor down; a perfect 1% downhill glide on a pretty well perfect highway. No brakes required: now, you can't get more perfect than that.

The turnoff to Tarma comes after adding a further 18 kilometres and restful 200 altimetres down to the journey. The occasional village can be spotted as we float as easily downstream as the river next to us. I imagine that the limestone studded cliffs could have only been crafted by an expert inlay jeweller of grand proportions. A large green water pipe is the only distraction from the peaceful scenery. Another 13 kilometres and another 200 altimetres down and we enter Paccha with, according to the road sign, accommodation. Though exactly how reliable this information is, is doubtful. The sign also says it is 131 kilometres to Cerro de Pasco when it should read 115 kilometres and that we are at an altitude of 3720 metres. It is more likely 50 metres higher than that.

The landscape might still wow us, but the road is not quite as tranquil for the eleven kilometres into La Oroya (55km; 218m). The shoulder virtually disappears and trucks miraculously materialise from out of nowhere. Despite being cluttered with electrical wires, machinery; railway lines and water pipes, the limestone rock faces towering way above us in all their powdery white glory, are pretty spectacular.

The town itself is no more smelly than any other industrial town we have previously visited. Though after a bit of research, it is apparent that at least 99% of the children in this Peruvian township have lead levels in their blood that way exceed safe limits. Little is being done to clean up the effects of the Doe Run Smelter by either the Peruvian Government (its former owner) or the unit of the U.S.-based Renco Group, who took control of the company in 1997. And it is obvious that people who live around these parts have little concern for their health either. The river is none other than a floating rubbish bin.

Accommodation is severely lacking on the section of road leading out of town, so we double back to the Lima turnoff and try our luck there. Three hospedajes present themselves in a row: we opt for El Viajero as it has a room with a private bathroom. It is an astronomical 30 Soles for an old run-down box with make-shift private bathroom and cable tv. I am now completely bamboozled as to what to expect for your money in Peru: the further south we go, the more random the accommodation gets. Tonight's saggy beds for 5 Soles more than our pristine lodgings last night, seem completely about turn. But then again, it is way better than the dumpy grovel with share bathroom amenities and a cheapskate landlord in Cerro de Pasco.

I'm gonna jump through your airspace and rip your bloody arms off?
There is no water when we awake and I should have known better and been a bit more wary of possible follow-on effects to the initial bad start, but I am totally enjoying the early morning commencement and the 15 kilometre per hour pedal down the empty street. Empty that is, except for one parked taxi on my right. When the idiot inside opens his car door and knocks me for six across the bitumen, my temperament takes on a whole new light. Besides performing one of those flying spread-eagle slow-motion stunts, landing first on my shoulder and then thumping my face hard against the metal drain, I am pissed off at having my peaceful morning thoughts disturbed with such an onslaught of thoughtlessness.

Now, I could have forgiven the driver had he come across: asked how I was; apologised for his totally inconsiderate and absent minded action; and offered to help me up from the tarmac. But no, we can also add arrogance and chauvinism to this guy's list of qualities, because as well as ignoring the fact that I am still horizontal with the road surface, he immediately starts waving his hands about and blaming me for the accident, saying I should have looked first.

Could somebody please tell me, how one is supposed to guess the precise point at which a person, in a darkened glass vehicle, is thinking about stepping out? Telepathy? Orange flag waving? And then pray-tell, what miracle trick would you need to execute to be able to pull a fully-loaded bicycle up to a halt within milliseconds without flying over the handlebars first? Besides, this man hits my back right pannier, which clearly indicates I was already passing at the moment his lordship decided to open his car door. And so I ask you dear readers, who should have been looking?

His adamance of innocence just further infuriates my distaste for those fuelled with importance based on size and strength and I'm going to blame the adrenalin swirling its every way through my veins for the screaming; ranting; crying; poking; stomping; more screaming and complete lunatic hand and feet actions that follow. I just want to jump through his airspace and rip his bloody arms off.

My frustration heightens as an old man leaps on the bandwagon trying, with his patronising "this is a highway" speech, to disregard any entitlement I may have to road space. Well, I certainly agree with him that this is a main thoroughfare, but it is also an urban zone and not only bicycles, but donkeys, carts, taxis, trucks and all types of vehicles have the right to travel here too. I bet you his attitude would be entirely different had his innocent walk down the street turned into an unwelcomed trapeze flying event when our taxi-man opened his door. The irony of it all is, the only place in the whole of Peru, where we have seen cyclist warning signs is here in La Oroya.

And because I am still feeling quite bitter that I have received no consolation or words of kindness from the car door perpetrator, I make him feel bad too by relaying that after 41,000 kilometres, the only place in the world where we have had problems is here. I know, its a bit mean and a little far fetched, considering our escapades in India, but then again me jumping through his airspace and ripping his bloody arms off is also highly improbable, even though I still #######################################

Luck on our side?
I am even more determined to get to our destination today as the effects of the adrenalin wear off. My hip and shoulder throb; so does my knee and elbow; and I know darned well tomorrow, I won't be springing out of bed all rosy and eager to get back in the saddle. I consider myself pretty lucky though not to have suffered anything major from the accident and the aches and pain evaporate a little in the beauty of our perfect cycling environment. Colourful cliff faces covered with agave cacti and their curling asparagus sprouts shooting sky high; a raging river with white water caps coursing their way downstream; fairly flat terrain and warm sunshine keeping a smile on our faces, well at least until lunchtime when a killjoy cloud, as black as I was furious this morning, rolls in behind the mountain range. We are heading for an obvious collision course, but somehow with a bit of wind on our side, a bit of deserving luck and an impromptu stop to fend a snapping mongrel off my leg, the cloud is miraculously passing over the canyon as we slip through it with only a couple of raindrops to agonise over.

At Jauja the road forks and both directions lead to Huancayo: both paths are 50 kilometres long as well. From other blogs we already know that the left road has little shoulder, so it can do no harm to try the right highway. It is a good choice with its wide protective lanes and excellent asphalt. Apart from a touristy theme park (Peruvian style), it is farming and small villages the whole way into the outskirts of El Tambo: potatoes, artichokes and corn line the paddocks on either side.

Only one major hill to traverse as you enter Huancayo (123km; 392m), but it isn't half as bad as the impatient horn honking and pushing for road space. Finding a hotel takes Ali almost 45 minutes. There are plenty available, but they are either way over our budget or way under our standard of living. He does discover Hotel Agape, which is a little gem of a place with its neat and tidy room; cable tv; piping hot water in the private bathroom with taps that don't come off in your hand when you turn them; and free wifi connection in the lobby. Only pitfall is that our bed is on the fifth floor and let me tell you taking all twelve plus bags upstairs is almost as difficult as a day's cycling. Nonetheless, luggage inside, we settle in nicely for a few days.

Cycling the length of a rainbow
Huancayo to Ayacocho (4 cycle days; 218km; 2802m)

Huancayo to km. 86 (86km; 935m)
km. 86 to km. 128 (42km; 370m)
km. 128 to km. 177 (49km; 707m)
km. 177 to Huanta (42km; 790m)

The colours of Autumn
Kevin and James enter Huancayo a day later than us and we catch up for a drink and the usual exchange of cycling adventures. It is a little hard finding somewhere that sells beer and that's quiet enough to listen to one another. Most venues are pumping the music out at decibels loud enough to permanently damage the hearing. We settle for a place where our eardrums still tickle, but at least the music choice is bearable and we don't have to auction off our belongings to pay for a bottle of beer.

It is easier getting out of Huancayo, than it was getting in and from the outskirts onwards, the road simply rises 700 odd gracious altimetres, passed a patchwork of farmland in all the latest autumn colours for 30 kilometres. It is obviously time for sowing the crops because there are oxen and ploughs dotted across the sandy barren hillsides. The road drops gently from the Alto de Imperial (3922m) through to Ñahuimpaquio, a word you don't want to get on your first day of Spanish lessons, Acostambo and then down a perfect series of zigzags on immaculate tarmac. All in all, its an amazing 31 kilometres of downhill splendour passed cornfields, mud housing and some pretty massive mountain ranges.

Izuchaca comes after a daily total of 70 kilometres and from here on in our journey continues on a dirt track until Huanta. The friendliness from locals today surpasses anything we have experienced in Peru so far and travelling here feels extremely comfortable. Five kilometres out of Mariscal Caceres and just before the afternoon rain really sets in, we scramble above the road, dodging cacti and prickle bushes at km. 86 (86km; 935m). Out of sight and in the nick of time, the tent is set up and we are inside before anything gets too wet.

Orange River
The night had been a difficult one for me: sweaty with fever; cramped with diarrhea; and listless with fatigue. Repetitive tent exits; little sleep; and lack of appetite have had their toll when we rise at 6am. I have no inclination to start riding just yet and we decide to sit put for a few hours, so I can sleep a bit more. I started a ciprofloxacin course at 12 midnight and so I'm hoping they will kick in soon. They do, at least enough for me to get back on the bike at around 11am.

The day is as beautiful as the thick orange river we are following. We stop to filter water at the first accessible point we come to and Kevin and James cycle past. Continuing on together is a slower process than normal, but also a lot of fun: Kevin and James are two really relaxed guys. Another event is taking place along this stretch of road to brighten things up as well: a motor-taxi race from Huancayo in Peru to Asunción in Paraguay and should you wish to read some of the crazy antics of this contest then check out the mototaxi junket website. They too are a pretty unusual bunch of people.

The boys stop to kick a football around for a bit of extra exercise in the three house village just above where we decide to camp for the evening. A grassy stretch of bank at km. 128 (42km; 370m) is perfect for us to pitch all three tents, light a fire and settle into a cool, starry night. Before that though, three strangely tanned boys make there way into the freezing (for an Ozzie), river.

Pink river; pink road; pink pepper trees
Another beautiful morning, but a painful night for Ali. While I've gained my strength, Ali has lost his and is feeling rather miserable after an evening similar to the one I had the previous night. The first climb is long and takes us to around 2900 altimetres and probably our highest point of the day. I suggest the guys continue on alone as our journey is most likely going to be very long and very slow. They do, though with loose plans to possibly meet up later on in the day and camp together just outside of Mayocc.

Our journey is indeed laborious and when it is clear that Ali is deteriorating as the kilometres click on, we plan to stock up in La Esmeralda aka Anco and find a suitable camp spot as quickly as possible. Revitalised after an Inca Cola (Peru's version of cream soda pop), an apple and the news that Kevin and James are only 30 minutes ahead of us, we push on. The sun continues to blister the landscape's palette of hot and dusty pinks. Not only the river, the rock faces and the road, but the pungent scented pepper-berries of the Schinus Molle trees lining our path splash hues of this vivid colour across the vista.

The road is undulating and hard going in parts, but a fabulous cycle if you are not feeling under the weather. The landscape becomes dryer and more desert like as we make our way towards Mayocc. The last hill before we tumble and bounce our way down the gorge and to the river, Superman clearly needs some assistance. After dropping my bike at the top, I walk back down the path and give him a little helping push from behind. You can call me Wonder-woman if you like; I much prefer her outfit to Superwoman's.

At km. 177 (49km; 707m) and road marker 299, Ali cannot pedal one more revolution and we slip down a side path heading towards the river. I move off to find water, while Ali sets the tent up and when I get back he's crawling inside to rest. After a wash in the river, I finish off the chores, filter water and prepare dinner. Its a peaceful evening with a bright moon for light.

In Mayocc, 10 kilometres down the road, the boys are sipping on beers on a street bench, waiting to see if we'll show up. Many beers later, they end up spending the night at a local's house instead of the hospedaje. While quite a number of the villages along this route have accommodation on offer, (see our country information pages for more info) , it is incredibly basic and expensive for what you get. Camping wild is a much better option and there are plenty of opportunities to do so.

All the colours of a rainbow
Another hot day and a landscape akin to the cactus strewn views of Baja California. Only difference is the addition of a raging river and the absence of the snowbirds and their motor homes. Colour is again nature's little gift to our journey. Rolling roads to Mayocc are followed by some decent winding climbs out of the village. Red, orange and pink tones variegate the mountain range to our left. Our path leading down to Puente Allccomachy (2239m) disintegrates as gradually as the landscape dries up. The now upstream river leaves our side and we struggle to reach Huanta (42km; 790m) on some pretty poor roads before the afternoon rain storm blows over us. It is uphill all the way.

Bitumen reappears as we enter the city and it is actually bigger than we had expected. Accommodation, however, is as bad as it gets: dirty, dank and depressing. It still comes with a 25 Soles price tag mind you. The pizza restaurant in the main plaza wants the same amount for a small 6-piece pizza, and we end up walking the lengths of town to find a Chifa. With a bit of persuasion, they will make us two vegetarian fried rice dishes: plain and simple, but packed with carbs. It does the trick.

In a way, our meal is quite reflective of the best of this last month of cycling. Simple lifestyle; simple camping; simple eating, packed with diverse landscapes; diverse people and diverse experiences. Peru really is a wonderfully colourful place to pedal.

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