Back In The Heat (La Balsa to Celendin, including Tingo and Kuelap)

It’s been 11 days since we crossed the border from Ecuador to Peru. It kinda felt like we were back in Central America, it was hot and humid and we were on asphalt most of the time. How did we manage to cycle (and sleep) in these conditions before?

The border La Balsa was quiet, small and friendly but unfortunately down at 600m. A dirt road had brought us all the way down and in Peru asphalt continued. We carried on and slept in Namballe. The next day Dan felt sick and we waited in San Ignacio for two days. This is where we met two other cyclists, Kat and Graham, who had only started their cycle tour a few weeks ago and were stuck due to illness as well.

Once Dan felt better we got back on our bikes and had a few days until we started climbing into cooler climates. At least we had frequent cloud cover, little traffic and refreshing coconuts en route.

From Jaen we took a dirt road to the Marañón bridge leading to Bagua Grande, it was very beautiful but with no cloud or tree cover we found ourselves wishing we had just b-lined it as it took us about double the time on dirt. After Bagua Grande we started climbing along a river, beautiful big hills with scary cliffs all along the way. Many road workers were clearing sections from mud slides. Luckily nothing fell when we passed.

Instead of going to Chachapoyas we headed to Tingo Nuevo, which we had been told was reasonably big. From there we could more easily visit the Kuelap ruins. Turns out Tingo Nuevo is tiny, it does have a hotel and camping opportunities but is unfortunately pricier than any town we have come across so far. We were disappointed and went down to Tingo Viejo on the main road as we were thinking about hitching back to Chachapoyas. However, a hotel/restaurant there offered us to camp for free in their garden for two nights so we could hike up to Kuelap the next day. We gladly accepted the offer. A very nice meal at their place energised us for the 9k 1000m climb up to Kuelap the next day. We were dreading the hike as our bodies were already tired so it took a lot of convincing but in the end we found ourselves at 3000m surrounded by beautiful ruins. Entry was 15 soles (5 USD), it’s risen a bunch in the last couple of years but is still a lot cheaper than Machu Pichu. It was a nice change of pace from cycling and a pretty bunch of ruins.

From Leymebamba our route involved crossing two mountain chains. First we had a 1400m climb and then a 2600m descend into a small town just before Balsas. A very long, scenic and mostly sketchy (windy narrow road with steep cliffs) ride downhill. We found a campspot after crossing Rio Marañón and had a surprisingly not too hot night back down at 800 meters. Hopefully this was the last time this low for a very long time, until we are descending into Ushuaia. In the morning a 2100m ascend followed to get to Celendin. if climbing is not your thing, this route is not for you. (An alternative route from Jaen up into the mountains would be, for example, to go via Santo Domingo de la Capilla Cutervo, Bambamarca, Celendin – the low point here crossing a river before Celendin seems to be only 1600m.)

Trail notes

We crossed the border into Peru at La Balsa and continued all the way on the “highway” (asphalt but little traffic) to Jaen. You could avoid the longer way into Jaen by going to Bellavista (there are hostels, the police told us there weren’t any) from where you can cross the river by boat (around 5 soles for you and your bike apparently).

To get to the bridge from Jaen we went on a dirt road which is shorter than the highway. Take the Carratera a San Isidro, then the Carratera Viejo a Bellavista. Approximately 13k in there is a road on your left side going “backwards” (west) and then turning south which will take you to the bridge. A map with satellite images would be very handy as there are some dirt roads merging off. It’s a pretty route but we found it exhausting as it was boiling hot and kept going up and down. It took us about two hours, so the highway from Jaen to the bridge might actually be a faster option despite it being longer. There is a wee town just after the bridge where you can buy refreshing drinks, snacks, and frozen coconuts!

Following the river crossing after Jaen/Bellavista we followed the highway all the way to Celendin. After Bagua Grande you start climbing uphill along Rio Utcubamba. A beautiful ride with cliffs on either side of you. Inform yourself about mudslides as they may be a hazard especially in rainy season. From Tingo Viejo there’s a hiking trail you can take up to Kuelap, it’s 1000m uphill (you can rent horses for about 30 soles pp) and entry costs 15 soles. They are apparently in the process of building a cable car from Tingo Nuevo.


Refreshing frozen coconut. 

The ruins at Kuelap.

Stunning views on the downhill to Balsas.

Climbing back up to Celendin…

      

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