The Road Less Traveled

When leaving Ecuador, we chose to take the mountain route into Peru. Many people shoot over to the coast and the Pan American highway proper, but we had some time to kill before we needed to be in Lima, so from Cuenca we wound our way to Vilcabamba, then South into Peru.

The drive from Vilcabamba across the border was one of my favorite of the trip. It was rugged and remote, beautiful, and challenging. Smooth, two-lane pavement was punctuated by waterfall-fed creek crossings, long stretches of one-lane gravel, intermittent mud-slides, and an occasional sleepy village. We were the only vehicle crossing the border, unless you count Charles’ bicycle, which was technically cargo in the back of our truck.

A lone guard ambled from one of the scattered buildings to remove a padlock from the gate barring entry to our 11th country of the trip.

I know Taylor already covered this part of our journey, but the driving has become a large part of the trip for me. Good and bad, Ecuadoran roundabouts, or sketchy 4x4 trails up a volcano, a big portion of my enjoyment comes from hours at the wheel of our trusty old Chevy. Nearly 10% of the 198 k miles on the odometer were added after leaving Oregon. So far we’ve traversed super-highways, goat trails, and cobbled streets hundreds of years old across deserts, along beaches, and over towering mountain passes. We’ve driven through metropolitan cities, sleepy fishing villages, and picturesque colonial mountain towns.

Ecuador provided a few of our favorite drives so far, including that lonely road to the border, but I have a strong feeling that we’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s to come. Since entering Peru the driving has only become more epic.

After leaving the ruins at Kuelap, our new friends (and fellow Chevy Silverado rocking overlanders) the Calders, and ourselves were lead from altitudes of 3000’ up to nearly 12,000 and back again by a thin, beckoning ribbon of one lane blacktop. For nearly two days we followed the PE08 184 miles from the tiny village of Nuevo Tingo to the colonial center of Cajamarca.

We wound through the Andes; passing waterfalls, pre-Incan ruins, and small trains of burrows carrying large containers of milk destined to become Andean cheese. We made time to visit the excellent Chachapoyan mummy museum in Leymabamba and snap a few pictures of tiny mountain villages as we passed.

Hairpin curve after hairpin curve we made our way, with 1000’ of exposure inches from our outside wheels and hundreds of feet of nearly sheer earth towering above us, inches from our inside wheels. A lonely wild camp with an outstanding view of the final part of our first day’s drive broke up the long traverse with wine and cocktail sundowners.

After finally making it to Cajamarca, we did a bit of exploration, visiting a few museums and finally sampling an Andean protein delicacy- Cuy. From Cajamarca we split from Fran and Doug (Calder Escapes) and shot toward the coast on a highway consisting of two whole lanes and even a few guard rails.

We spent a couple days on the coast, resting up and catching up after our six-day sojourn through the mountains before visiting the ruins of Chan Chan and rolling through Trujillo to snap some pictures and take on another expensive tank of Peruvian gasoline. All the mountain driving earned us 8.5 mpg which hurts a little more than usual after leaving Ecuador’s $1.48/g prices for $3.75/g of Peru.

From Trujillo we took on another great drive, and one of the first of many famous South American overland routes to come, Canyon Del Pato. The innocuously named “Canyon of the Duck” is about 41 miles through 35 one-lane tunnels between sheer rock walls. The desert like environment is scored by a raging glacial fed river and the canyon’s sheer walls sprout towering waterfalls every few miles and passes a hydro-electric plant that exists inside a huge man-made cavern suitable enough for any self-respecting Bond villain.

We could have made it to our destination town of Caraz but chose instead to make camp several miles from the canyon’s mouth, just to enjoy its solitude and rugged beauty a bit longer.

Even though our last few weeks of driving have been some of the best of our trip, we have a lot more to look forward to in the next couple months. Many more miles in the Cordillera Blanca, the seaside dunes of the Paracas, the Sacred Valley of Peru, then of course the epic desolation of Boliva with the salt desert of Salar de Uyuni followed by days of rugged off-highway high-altitude driving across the one of the highest borders in the world along the Lagunas Route. From there it’s just a quick jaunt across a corner of Chile and the Atacama Desert into Argentina for a stint South along the Ruta 40 and into the heart of South American wine country.