Yanacocha Loop: Cajamarca, Peru

by Danny Beamsdistance: 150 km
total elevation gain: 9000 ft

I am a US citizen and long time cyclist (both road and dirt) living in the northern Andes mountain town of Cajamarca, Peru. Cajamarca is the place where the Spanish captured, and murdered, the last Inca emperor in 1532—the beginning of the end of the Inca empire. Cajamarca is a region full of history, culture, and single track. I have the privilege of living at 9,000 ft and riding my bike up into the mountains to do research for my dissertation in applied anthropology four or five times a week—a 50 km daily commute that includes 2000 feet of vertical gain. That gives me a good fitness base, but it also gets boring.

For a diversion I enjoy taking one day a week off to ride up into other parts of the mountains I have not visited. The single track and dirt roads here are endless—mountain biking heaven. Peasant farmers on horseback are my only competition for trail space; children watching sheep my only companions. My wife, Vanessa, doesn’t understand my compulsion/obsession to ride until I am senseless. She calls me her hero, but I know she doesn’t mean it. She is just thankful when I walk back in the door every afternoon.

I especially enjoy attempting to complete circuit rides linking previously unlinked loops. If I didn’t have responsibilities I would probably (no, I know I would) spend all day every day exploring remote corners of this region. I know riding alone is dangerous, especially in remote back country where some people don’t know the terrorist war in Peru is over, but I don’t have any riding partners to share these breathtaking experiences with. There are mountain bikes here, but for some unfathomable reason, their owners stay down in the valley.

One of my most recent adventures was connecting a loop circumnavigating the largest gold mine in South America, Yanacocha, located in the highest mountain range of this area (the highest passes are about 14,000 ft). I had been part way around in both directions and had heard from peasants that horse trails and old mining roads connect the major villages throughout the area. By studying the topo map I figured the loop would be at least 130 km (it turned out to be 150 km) and would climb five major passes, totaling over 9,000 feet of vertical gain. I decided to go in a counter-clockwise direction so I could finish on the only paved section of the loop—the final 15 kilometers would be smooth and downhill. I didn’t know if I could even finish this loop in one day, but I figured I could always bail out and turn around if the day was more than half gone and I wasn’t half finished.

I meekly told Vanessa I would be home early in the afternoon. I didn’t want to tell her the truth-—that I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I knew I was going to be pushing it to make it home before dark. For fuel I carried a Camelbak full of powerful lemonade (which works just as well as any athletic drink on the market), two bottles of water, sixteen Oreo cookies, and four oranges (no Powerbars or gels here). Heat or dehydration wouldn’t be a problem, but rain, sleet, and hypothermia might be. We are at the end of the rainy season, but because of the El Nino this year, big storms are still likely at any minute high in the mountains. In a single pannier I carried two spare tubes, tools, pump, tights, fleece jacket, and a rain shell and pants—all standard gear for any trip into these mountains.

Cajamarca—Combayo (33 km)
I was familiar with this part of the loop, having made the trip to Combayo, an old hacienda, numerous times. The road was completed only in 1990, to allow dairy farmers to more easily get their milk to market. This double track winds through a river canyon and then climbs and descends two passes before arriving in Combayo. On Sundays they have an open air market in Combayo, where you can see hundreds of saddled horses parked on the hills around the village. Peasant farmers trade their potatoes and other crops for manufactured goods brought in on trucks. I left the house with great anticipation at 6:45 am, already behind my scheduled 6:00 am start. It rained the night before my trip so the road was sticky with mud. My tires became heavy and dragged through the brakes, so I had to dismount and dig the goop out with my fingers. This part of the route passes through a beautiful canyon and by cliff faces carved with pre-Inca burial chambers called “ventanillas.” They were robbed centuries ago, but you can still find painted pottery pieces and bones scattered on the ground below.

No time to stop today. I was on a mission. I passed a minga, a communal work party, of fifty men clearing the drainage ditches of recent mud slides. They all stopped their work to stare at the crazy gringo in tight lycra shorts. A young man asked where I was headed and I said Combayo. He said I couldn’t get there on a bicycle, the road is too steep. I just smiled. My granny gear and I can go anywhere. I got a pinch flat on a fast descent. I didn’t like taking the time fix it. I should have pumped my tires up harder before I left the house. Being Saturday, the market plaza was empty except for a few kids playing marbles. I had made it from Cajamarca to Combayo, climbing a total of 2500 ft, in 2 hr 18 min—bettering my normal time of 2 hr 30 min.

Combayo—Chanta Alta
From Combayo the real climbing began. I had to climb from 10,000 ft to 14,000 ft in only fifteen kilometers. This road was in even worse condition than the first part. In several places the rains had completely washed the road away, making it impassable to motor vehicles. Bad for them…good for me. In places I had to dismount and shoulder my bike cross deep arroyos. In other places it was easier to follow the horse trail directly up the mountain rather than taking the switchbacks of the mining road. I passed several families and single men on horseback. They were heading back up into the remote mountains from Combayo. Some people here live a two- or three-day’s horseback ride away from the nearest road.

Everyone I passed after Combayo wanted to know exactly where I was headed, and what I was doing in their neck of the woods. These remote communities are quite closed socially and any strangers in the area are questioned as to their motives. Ninety-nine percent of the people are super friendly, but occasionally you will run into someone proud or drunk who doesn’t want you in their territory. I know it sounds kind of childish, but the preferred weapons of offense are rocks. Only on two occasions have I had rocks–big rocks from close range–thrown at me. Helmets serve for more than just crashes. But those are other adventures. Today’s ride went without such confrontations.

I did get into a battle of speed with a fellow on a horse. I caught up with him and he took offense. I was on the switch-backing road and he was on the rocky, more direct trail. Our paths kept crossing on a number of occasions. I was ahead of him and then he was ahead of me. I increased the pace and cut the trail where I could. He increased to a gallop on the flatter sections. The last time he crossed the road he looked back to make sure I saw he was well ahead of me. I waved and grinned in defeat. He won going up, but coming down wouldn’t have even been a contest.

After two hours of tortuous climbing I crested a false pass, only to see more climbing ahead. Exhausted, I stopped to put on my fleece jacket and eat some oranges and Oreos. A kid tending sheep came over a hill and kept me company while I snarfed the cookies. He gladly helped me eat several of them.

Apart from the kilometers and minutes on my bicycle computer, I kept a couple of other running accounts of events on my ride. I counted eight frogs hopping across the road, and I counted seventeen 12 year old boys watching sheep who were wearing striped sweaters. I had climbed out of the agricultural zone and into the jalca, the area above tree line where only grass grows. Few people live in the jalca. The few houses that I did see seemed to be abandoned. As far as route finding was concerned, I was on my own for a while. I shouldn’t have left the topo at home. I finally crested the real pass and came into view of a beautiful lake surrounded by the tallest peaks in Cajamarca and beautiful limestone rock formations. Local people point out how these rocks look like people or animals. They believe, they truly do, that in past centuries this area was inhabited by giants, called gentiles, who God turned into rocks because of their sins. A mix of pre-Colombian myths and Catholicism.

From here it was a good descent into Chanta Alta, a community right on the upper edge of the Marañon river valley (a tributary to the Amazon). I always get a sick feeling when I begin descending so rapidly in the opposite direction from home–knowing that if I have made a route finding mistake, I will have to reclimb every foot of this free fall. If I wanted to I could have ridden/tumbled 11,000 feet to the river below. At times, in such a vertical world, I feel like I will lose my grip on the earth. The objective in these sort of mountains is to ride high and not descend unless you have to.

I stopped a shepherd boy, Luis, and asked him for directions to Chanta Alta. “Just over the next hill,” he said. As a general rule, anything in the Andes is “just over the next hill.” He asked for a lift home. What the heck, I thought, I was going down hill anyway. I said he could hop on the rear rack until the next river crossing. He tapped me on the shoulder after a couple of kilometers and said he wanted off. “Dogs are up ahead,” he said. Sure enough, two wild-eyed dogs came at me with a murderous look in their eyes. It is generally useless to try and outrun such determined canines. I stopped for some rocks and did my best to bash their brains in. I missed, but I guess they considered it a good effort because they finally decided to leave me alone.

Alone again, I came to a fork in the trail where I had to guess which way to go. I had told Luis about my plans to ride to Chanta Alta, then Yanacancha. He seemed impressed, but he forgot to mention this fork in the road. The right fork descended down off the jalca to some agricultural lands, this I assumed was Chanta Alta. I also assumed the trail went through Chanta Alta to Yanacancha. It didn’t. Intuitively, I decided to take the high trail to the left, if I made a mistake, I could always descend back to where I started. After thirty minutes of climbing I saw a mountain range I recognized, Los Negritos. The only thing that now separated me from familiar territory was a 2,000 foot descent into a canyon and then the climb back out.

Chanta Alta—Yanacocha
I was already 75 km. into the ride so before I took the plunge (beyond the point of return), I stopped by an inhabited adobe house to make sure I could descend into the canyon and get back out the other side. A friendly young man assured me that the road was passable. I am sure he wondered about my mental capacity when I asked questions both about where I was going and where I had come from. I couldn’t descend fast because the trail was washed out in every switch-back. It is disappointing to climb so slowly, only to find out I have to descend at practically the same speed. The canyon was full of waterfalls, beautiful rock formations, and tropical plants. I would love to bring Vanessa here on a picnic sometime. But how? I guess these are moments I can’t very well share. I could see a new road winding down the other side of the canyon and crossing the river where huge rocks fell into the quebrada forming a natural bridge. The river disappeared underground fifty meters below the rockfall.

I came to an intersection near the bottom of the canyon that actually had a sign posted. The arrow that pointed up the trail I had just come down said Chanta Alta. The other arrow, pointing down the canyon said Yanacancha. I knew the road from the mine (where I was headed) to Yanacancha was new. The Baptist mission built it in 1992, trying to repay the community for the accidental death of one of its members, who was struck down on a highway by a mission vehicle. The new road created market access for a whole valley of farmers who have been carrying their market crops out on horseback since the Spanish conquest. Now trucks make daily rounds collecting the milk from dairy farmers and picking up passengers.

The big city of Cajamarca is now only three hours away. I guess this is the global village phenomenon in action. I don’t think they have internet yet.

I was at the bottom of a deep canyon. I was tired and hungry and I had two giant mountain passes looming before me. I wish I hadn’t given away my Oreos. The climb out was almost too steep for my granniest of granny gears. After an hour of climbing, and sweating profusely, I spotted a milk truck grinding its way up from the canyon floor. I was determined to beat it to the top. The grade leveled out a bit on the switch-backs and I was able to speed up all the way up to 10 km/hr. I the truck passed me just before I reached the top. All the passengers in the back were waving and grinning at the silly gringo. The road crested at 13,000 feet–suspended between a forest of incredible rock towers above, called Los Negritos, and the abyss of the canyon below. As the road descended and rose, I passed the truck, then the truck passed me. Everyone in the back cheered me on as I took wild chances trying to get by on the abyss side of the road. At least I would have an audience for what might turn out to be my greatest–and final–mountain bike performance. Thankfully, the road began to climb more than descend and the truck outdistanced me. No more battling for road rights.

Now I had a well earned descent down to the entrance of the Yanacocha mine. I came up on the back side of a big black thunderstorm. Luckily the rain had just passed, but it left the road a muddy mess. My tires and brakes filled up with mud again and I had to stop several times to clean them out. I was better off trying to ride in the grass off the main track. I turned left onto a familiar gravel road, the main road between Cajamarca and all points north. My computer was reading 100 km., and I knew I had 50 km. to go. I passed a restaurant where I could have, and should have, stopped for lunch, but the storms were bearing down on me and I didn’t want to stop. I peeled and devoured the remaining oranges with my muddy hands, and got back on the road.

Just because this is a main road doesn’t mean it is a good road, it just has more traffic. I was still descending, but the blinding thunderstorm I was riding through took the fun out of it. I once again passed the truck I had been dueling with earlier, but my fans were huddled under a tarp and didn’t see me come by. I got another pinch flat from a rock hiding under a puddle. I put on my rain jacket, but too late, I was already soaked to the bone. I couldn’t tell you what the temperature was, maybe 50 degrees. I was cold, I was wet, I was hungry, it was raining and hailing, the wind was in my face, and I had one more pass to climb.

It rained for the next 20 kilometers. Clouds moved in and I couldn’t see 15 meters in front of me. The road was sandy and soft from the rain. The grade wasn’t that steep, but I was moving like it was. I kept looking back to see if shepherd boys walking with their flocks might be catching up to me. After I passed the mine entrance the road surface improved, but then big dump trucks kept grazing my panniers because they couldn’t see me in the fog. I kept cursing the name of the final pass I was climbing–Machi Machi its called. Even the name was mocking me. I kept mumbling over and over the words of my three year old when she is cold. “Tengo fio,” she says. In English, it’s called hypothermia.

I knew the 27 kilometer marker marked the top of the pass, but where was it? My mind was playing tricks on me. I didn’t see any kilometer markers anywhere. Was I even on the right road? Exactly what experience are we striving for on epic rides? The endorphins were gone hours ago. Is there a link between utter exhaustion and inner peace? I think it is more superficial than that. Our brains just like to see how far they can push our legs and our lungs–and then brag about it to other brains who haven’t been that far. If I can just make it to the top of this pass without dying, I can coast home and then brag about this day forever. Maybe even write a story and post it on the internet. I am sure no one in the history of the world has ever done this particular loop on a bicycle, much less in one day. I am a man among men. I would love to have shared this experience firsthand with others, but nobody can keep up.

Finally there was that familiar broken concrete marker with the number 27 etched on it. I rolled to a stop to commemorate the moment, guzzled the last of my water, and cranked it into my big chain ring for the first time all day. I was soon reaching speeds of 65 km/hr, passing the buses and mining trucks who had thumbed their noses at me on the way up the pass. I dropped below the ceiling of the clouds and could see the sun shining in the valley 3000 feet below. I blasted on into town and arrived home just before Vanessa started getting too worried. I completed 150 back country kilometers with over 9,000 feet of climbing in 8 hr and 44 (riding time), 9 hr 19 min (total time). That ought to look good in my riding log.

I think you can only really measure the effort of a ride by its aftermath. Even after a hot shower, it still took me two hours to warm back up under a pile of blankets. I had a fever all night and all the next day. My muscles told my brain not to get out of bed on Sunday, not to even look at the bike–but only until Monday, then, it said, you can go out on an easy ride with your wife and begin preparing for the next epic. I still have to complete that trailless traverse across the mountain tops between Porcon Alto and Cumbe Mayo.

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