Heading south from Cajamarca, the road is briefly paved then you leave the pavement behind for a very, very long time. About four hours south of Cajamarca is Cajabamba, a small town with a sizeable market, but otherwise un-noteworthy. A woman on the bus who lives there asked me what I was planning on doing in Cajabamba, I told her that I was planning to travel south to Huamachuco. With several daily departures it is quite easy to arrive at Huamachuco, a further four hours south of Cajabamba. According to the guide books there are a several attractions such as ruins and there is also a large lake up in the mountains which was not mentioned. We passed by the lake, which has a small town bordering it containing about six restaurants, a few small stores, and two gas pumps, it had all the feel of a ghost town as every restaurant and every store was open but deserted except for a few locals hanging around in the streets watching us pass by.
Some of the mountain scenery on the way
After arriving in Huamachuco I set about figuring out how to head further south as maps showed a road going south and also a road heading east and eventually looping around to the south. This section of Peru is apparently too lonely for the Lonely Planet or other travel books as it gets barely a mention.
The first few bus companies that asked about going south were really no help, and it is kind of hard to go somewhere when you don´t know the name of a place that you are actually going to. Telling them I wanted to go towards Huaraz only prompted them to tell me that I should go to Trujillo and then go along the coast.
A dusty street in some small town where we stopped for breakfast
But I didn´t want to go on that easy road. Knowing the name of a town on the road heading east I was able to find out that there were maybe daily combis heading there at 3:30am and one bus company, Garrincha, had service three times a week, but no one knew exactly what time or which days, I kept getting different answers, and their office was already closed for the evening. Apparently there is no transport south of Huamachuco even though a road exists, that road is actually the old Inca Road, used for ages but not in this era. When I returned to my hotel overlooking the largest plaza in all of Peru I aksed the man at the hotel for a phone number for Garrincha, he then called someone and found out that there happened to be a bus passing through the next morning at 5 or 6am from Trujillo to Retamas.
The river wash that we had to cross
This sounded better than getting up at 3am so I set my alarm and went to sleep for a few hours. Hours later I woke up and took a trici-taxi to the closed Garrincha office and waited for the bus for 45 minutes with a few other people. About 5:30am the bus pulled up and I got on, actually having two seats to myself. 30 minutes later we left Huamachuco, the beginning of a long slow ride, although it was rather pretty with the sun rising in the mountains. Out of Huamachuco the bus wound its way up and down the mountains for hours, through some very nice scenery over some very poor and rough roads. I was unfortunate enough to be forced to sit in the back of the bus and the ride was rough enough to send those of us in the back airborne multiple times. Many times the road passed over places that would be absolutely inpassable after heavy rains, and a one time when crossing a grass field the road disappeared at all into a myriad maze of tire tracks through the mucky plain.
The bridge across the Rio Marañon in Chagual
I only wish the bus weren´t so rough and my window could open so I could have taken some better pictures.
Reaching a mountain pass after about 4 hours we proceeded downhill for a long time to cross the Rio Marañon at a town called Chagual. We stopped in Chagual for lunch and several of the buildings in the town were so run down yet were proudly sporting DirecTV dishes, it was quite the contrast. Being at the bottom of the canyon, the town was hot and dusty, rather inhospitable actually. Leaving town we needed to cross a tributary of the river and there were broken foundations of two separate bridges that seemed to have existed at one point in time. After their two previous attempts to overcome Mother Nature had been thwarted the townspeople apparently decided to give up.
Where we ate lunch in Chagual, delapidated house with satelite TV
The road now ran right across the river, with the drop from one side being so steep that with all four wheels in the water the back of our bus was resting on the bank of the river. Luckily the bus had enough traction to pull free and cross the river. From there the road followed the river on a very narrow lane with the river straight down to the right and the rock wall of the canyon close enough to breath on on the left, very precarious at times. The road then went up the canyon on a series of switchbacks, climbing steeply, with the bus having to back up to make some of the turns, rolling backwards towards the dirt mound separating the road from a drop of hundreds of feet straight down.
Back up in the mountains we made our way through a few mountain towns, none requiring any mention.
See if you can find the road across this grass field
As the sun started to go down we were high up in the mountains when a green lake came into view way at the bottom of the valley, it was quite pretty and looked quite inaccessible from our position up above. Maybe forty five minutes later the bus started to pass through some mines, there were a few encampments for mine workers, tailing ponds, rail cars, and other mining infrastructure. By now it was dark and we were passing miners walking along the road after their shifts. Soon we came to a stop outside of what appeared to be offices for the mine. Here the bus stopped and everyone got out, apparently the bus wasn´t able to continue to where it normally stops, about 100 meters up the road. The end of a long 14 hour bus journey in a terrible old bus, not the best of my travel experiences.
The joys of riding the bus in rural Peru, sadly the camera can´t capture the outside scenery as well
I got out here with my backpack and walked up the road with all the miners who had just gotten off their shift in their uniforms and with faces smeared with dirt. As you can imagine I received quite a lot of strange looks, apparently the mining town of Retamas doesn´t get a lot of tourists.
The town seems to have grown rapidly around the mines and is situated on a steep mountainside. There are about 3,000 workers that work in the gold mines there, and they appear to actually work in rather humane conditions, only 8 hour shifts, and there are two separate shifts a day. There is one alley, that is barely wide enough for cars, around which everything in town looks down on, and this alley leads directly up the steep hill from the mines. There are multi-story buildings perched precariously with awkward stairways rising up from the alley.
The alleyway in the town of Retamas
The alley resembles something from the streets of Hong Kong with people eating off of stools and ramshackly wooden stalls selling drinks and food while people noisily make their way up the hill to their dwellings. I found a place to stay and had something to eat and found out that there was transport every morning at 4am and 5am to Tayabamba. I didn´t really want to get up that early again but there wasn´t exactly any reason to stick around town. Waking up early I made my way down to the parking lot where the transport leaves from at 4am and waited for about 30 minutes until a car showed up for Tayabamba. I waited in the car with one other passenger for another 30 minutes before we left, unable to pick up more passengers. We did pick up three more along the way and were four across in the backseat for the 3 hour ride.
The plaza in Tayabamba
It went much quicker in the car than in the bus, zipping up and down the mountains and valleys. And in no time we had arrived Tayabamba, which looked to be a very nice mountain town, big enough to have a bull fighting ring and a nice main plaza. The travel gods were certainly on my side as we arrived there around 8:30am and the thrice weekly bus from Tayabamba to Sihuas was thirty minutes late from its normal 8am departure on Thursdays, Saturdays, and Mondays. A got a seat and waited, glad that I didn´t have to sit around for two days in Tayabamba, now only 8 more hours to Sihuas.