Canyon del Pato is Hell downhill on a tandem with inadequate brakes. Two days of Hell. It was the best way north in the Andes from Huaraz without backtracking to a road lined with illegal coca plantations and bandits; not our favorite type of cultural interaction.
The pista (pavement) ended a few clicks north of Caraz, a pleasant day’s ride from Huaraz. The dirt road was a combination of pale gray dust, loose sharp rocks up to fist size and babies’-heads, both could be either imbedded or loose. Basically it was medium double track mountain bike riding on a loaded tandem; a struggle for both Captain and Stoker. Thirty seven tunnels skirted the upper steeper part of the canyon, and a dozen or so more fortified the longer section below the village of Huallanca, where we spent a night.
The tunnels were long enough to be dark in the middle and our light was too weak to make out the rocks, or even the edge of the ruts. The dust was so thick and fine after trucks went through, that the light at the end was often completely obscured. We went down once in deep dust, and once in unseen mud from a ceiling leak. We just hung on hard, me to both brakes, Claire to the drum brake, and hoped for the best until the light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel began to cast some light on the subject. Behind us, the light at the tunnel entrance cast our shadows ahead on the track and made things worse, obliterating my view of the rocks. Claire of course, always rides in the dark. I don’t know how she does it. Sometimes she even takes videos with one hand! One of these days she’s going to bounce off. Much of the route was within bouncing distance of cliffs into the river. Once a car driver forced us toward the edge and a rock bounced us closer; we had to come off the bike to avoid disaster. Parts of it were beautiful, with huge mountains on all sides and always the roaring Rio Santa.
So, I’m still not sure what Pato means, fiend perhaps? I had seen other cyclists’ videos of this route and mistakenly thought it didn’t look too bad. It was a bone rattling two days, at the end of which we had to piece Zippy back together. The front pannier racks and mounting hooks shook loose, the drum brake cable pulled itself into the rear tire’s clearance from overuse and we lost a vital two liters of drink that we had to backtrack for, enduring an extra kilometer or two for the pleasure. At least the tent and front panniers didn’t fall off, as they did in China. Someday, back in Tucson, Bob will clean dust out of Zippy’s headset and remember Canyon del Pato.
Several days later my tennis elbow is reminding me of those two days!
Claire’s video of our ride through Canyon del Pato and the Rio Santos:
Bush Camp the Andes
Below: Appropriate for our 21st Anniversary, a photo of Claire making an oh so typical marriage bed!
Our second day on the Rio Santa was even more difficult than the first because it was long. We had nearly 70 kilometers to Chuquicara, with no improvement in the road surface, save for a few kilometers out of town. We were fortunate to stock up on large sodas and water at a small village and a roadside stand. The touring couple from Austria, Andi and Anita, told us of a bush camp spot they’d found seven kilometers out of Chuquicara. They said there was only one room in the village and it was taken when they arrived; we figured we would be so late we’d be out of luck also.
As we approached the seven kilometer mark it appeared the river was too close on one side, and cliffs on the other to allow any spot to camp, particularly one safely out of sight. But, just before the bridge, just as Andi had described, was a spot completely hidden from the road.
We set our sleeping bag out, and left the tent packed, the better to see all around us. Black mountains created a 360 degree corral for a spectacular display of stars. The Southern Cross tilted to the west as it sunk slowly below a southern mountain and the faint hints of the rising Milky Way.
As usual when bush camping, I eased in and out of sleep throughout the night, keeping time with the changing positions of stars and Milky Way. It cooled through the night and we snuggled off and on, spoke quietly about the stars, and the shadows on the canyon walls cast by the odd passing vehicle, watching for a cessation of movement or change in motor sound. We even found the fog like illumination of their dust clouds entertaining.
We’ve had a lot of experience over the years in bush camping, and have a few interesting tips for safety and comfort:
Claire’s: Not to sound paranoid, but we make a point to obscure our tire tracks going into a bush camp (some bikers call it stealth camping). We also break up the visual lines of the bike and tent or sleeping bag with a bit of camouflage. We have a silent language between us when something has alarmed either of us and we have a few decoy ploys to thwart potential trouble makers. We’ve heard people make camp near us, never aware of our presence until we pack up in the morning. We both sleep a little fitfully this way, but with 12 hours of darkness, we usually each manage seven or eight good hours of sleep. When we’re awake, we’re keenly sensitized.
Bob’s: Before getting up to pee, lie awake a couple of minutes being aware: look for lights not there when you went to sleep, the smell of a warm motor, a change in road sound pattern, wildlife or livestock nearby. Don’t use a light unless in the dark of the moon, and then only a small red LED, pointed at the ground. These only apply in potentially dodgy situations; In outback Australia, you can be lost to the world 30 m off the road.
A pale gray dusts hides loose rocks on the road through the Rio Santa canyon in Northern Peru. A cliff into the river and a nearly vertical desert rock wall are it’s boundaries. Only a one lane tunnel allows passage in thirty-seven places.
Our narrow tandem tires cut into the dust and bounce and slide from one auto-tire slickened rock to another. We hope to avoid the shattered and sharpened hidden ones, capable of ruining our day, and one of our tires. We have one spare, and wonder if we should not have brought two. A few times a particularly vile rock (by the second day I was attributing evil intent to certain rocks) would throw the front wheel toward the abyss, necessitating a dual bail out.
All this is more than a little stressful. I can’t imagine how difficult it is for Claire on the back of the tandem, not being able to see what is causing the bumping and swerving (and not a little cursing).
The two days along this road were among the most physically demanding of 40,000 miles of touring, and yet I am beginning to let go of memories of aching shoulders and hands, and the mental exhaustion. Claire said I would. And she said I would probably get us into something just as bad in the future. She’s usually right. But maybe not this time. Maybe I’ve learned it’s possible to have an adventure without such a high degree of physical punishment. I think so.
I call on my friends to remind me to come back and read this post, if I seem to be hankering for something absurdly difficult, and not hearing Claire’s subtle hints that it might be over the top. That’s what friends are for.
I won’t forget the stark beauty of the desert Andes and the Rio Santa, our star lit bush camp, the Southern Cross sinking behind a knife edge ridge, leaving us with a cool restful sleep.