Canyon Country and ‘The River of Instant Death’

Regular readers of this blog will understand how it pains me to ‘big-up’ any of the incredible feats of dering-do that I am somehow able to perform as part of this bicycle trip. They will therefore appreciate that this posting is going to be complete and utter torture for me because the road running South-East from Cajamarca afforded your correspondent the opportunity to get well off the well-worn track and in doing so redefine what adventure cycling is all about. This is wonderful canyon country and here Peru delivers stunning landscapes with rivers carving down through high cliff walls, dirt tracks winding through harsh dry land with steep cuttings, tiny bridges and 100 year old tunnels on the road up towards the Cordillera Blanca mountain range and its picturesque snow peaks.

View down to Mollepata
Road south of Mollepata

The ride out of Cajamarca was one of the more frustrating of the trip to-date in that on receiving directions to ‘Cajabamba’ (or so I thought) I cycled off in the wrong direction towards the hill side village of ‘Cashapampa’, the victim of my own overly enthusiastic pronunciation of a ‘J’ and my informants’ misunderstanding of a couple of plosives. One and a half hours and 300m of futile climbing later I’m back where I started. I then decide to naively believe that the red lines on my map actually represent roads (silly error), so I head off on a (represented) secondary road just to discover some two hours later that the lines actually represent bugger-all and the road terminates in some mountain village. So back I turn yet again. Then, just to make the day’s riding a complete farce, I believe the directions of some prat and head off on one last fool’s errand to another dead end. At 4pm I’m back again at the 5km mark out of Cajamarca, exactly where I was at eight o’clock in the morning, feeling somewhat sorry for myself. I decide to retreat to the relative certainty of the main road south just so that I might go to bed with some distance covered. The upshot is that a total ridden distance in idiotic circles of 106km was covered for a mere 33km gain in road distance. Oh crumbs!

Scrambling to the river

It’s difficult to adequately convey just how gob-smackingly beautiful the ride into the river valleys south of the little town of Mollepata really was. Classic dirt road with tight switch-backs snake down for 10km to a turnoff from the main dirt road onto a track that then follows the Chuquiera River southwards towards what turned out to be a particularly challenging river-crossing obstacle just 15km further down stream. A French/Swiss couple (Eric and Lydie) are my cycling companions for this part of the trip having met in Mollepata and we camp just prior to the first river crossing.

The following day was to prove one of the most challenging of the whole trip and in the morning we coax the bikes over the ash and shingle down to the river bank and assess the troublingly fast water flow. Undaunted, the bikes are unpacked and we begin the energy-draining task of transferring pannier bags, bikes and people across what was a pretty strong river flow. Just a few inches higher and the river would have been completely impassable meaning a depressing turn back up the canyon to the turn-off, something I am always loath, and am usually too bone-arsed stubborn to countenance. It is no exaggeration that there were a couple of moments in the midst of the river where the possibility of being swept away became more than a theoretical concept. Worse still, the Co-Motion might have been damaged!

The first crossing complete without incident we proceed along the far bank for a short 4km before the next obstacle where the whole bank and the track along with it has recently been completely washed away after a landslide, leaving no clear way to get beyond. With no obvious river re-crossing point we are faced with a dilemma; turn back and take a large detour up and over some ugly switch backs, or get into the river and scramble along the edge for about 25 metres to get beyond the landslide area; not an enticing prospect. But there is no viable option if we are to continue. This is a big decision as the river flow is strong and there are a few places where we are up to our waists in churning water. Above our heads the remnants of the track hang precariously waiting to deposit more than a few tones of rock and dirt on our adventurous but foolhardy heads.

Still, on we plough. (refer photos). Each pannier bag transfer took about 15 minutes to complete and hauling the bikes through the water was not an experience I’d like to repeat any time soon. However, a mere 2 hours later we are exhausted and actually still on the same side of the river from whence we came, but we have somehow got ourselves and all of the gear beyond the seeming impasse without drifting off down stream or losing more than one one fuel bottle which floated away from my bike in transit. Only one more re-crossing of the river to go and we should be clear to go on. We find a decent place and get back across the river 1km down-stream with now well practiced relative ease and then scramble back up onto the track leading south along the canyon. The upshot is that we covered a total of 15km for the day, made two river crossings and one non-crossing), so we camp, exhausted but happy to have made it through. The reward is then being treated to some beautiful canyon riding; first down hill for 55km along side the Rio Chuquiera and then cut upwards into the Rio Santa gorge and then on to the more famous Canyon Del Pato before reaching Caraz.

An opportunity to reassess one’s life choices

The old body was feeling a bit ragged after the ill-treatment I’ve dished out to it over the nine day ride from Cajamarca. The mountain trekking /tourist base camp city of Caraz is therefore a very welcome location to rest, do some maintenance on the bike and unpack all of the gear (and of course reassess one’s life). Real coffee, tourist food and a relaxing sunny court yard of the hostel are just the tonic. Not using one’s much-abused legs for anything other than the bare minimum distance it takes to get between bed and coffee are the order for the next couple of days.

Rio Santa canyon
Camping after the river

STOP PRESS: ‘Fritz The Cat’, the catamaran that managed to transport me and the bike from Panama to Colombia just sank! (all crew and passengers rescued.

Five cyclists heading south through Canyon Del Pato

13 thoughts on “Canyon Country and ‘The River of Instant Death’

  • Is it the same Buff3y we crossed the river with ? Every thing looks so real ! I can’t even find the words “hardcore” or “river of the instant death” in this text ! I am surprised too you did not mention your second “non-river crossing” across the bamboo sticks to get your bottles back from the gold prospector 🙂
    Anyway thanks again for the great time we spend there thanks to your persuasiveness !
    See you down the road or across a river 🙂 🙂

    • Hi Eric and Lydie. It was fun and I think that after the day on the river we had that ‘hardcore’ was taken as said. Had more fun on the dirt after Punta Olympica but made it to Huanuco OK. Would like tarmac for a couple of weeks would be nice.

      • Good to hear that your downhill went well ! On our side we saw a lot of tarmac during our 30h bus ride … See you later !

  • Hey Rob, keep the blogs coming – loving sharing your adventure from the comfort of …. well, my floor actually but that’s only because I can’t get my sofa up the stairs of the little flat we are in! You have nearly inspired me to do a bike ride from Bath to Bournemouth (80 miles)….. but not quite! I might just do it yet – if it ever stops raining!! Thinking of you, Nikki x

    • While out Riding. I just saw the photos of your river adventure. Glad you had such an enjoyable time! Wouldn’t bother cleaning the bike. Lots of dust and mud to come. Am in Chincheros today so might see you in Cuzco. I’ll be there 4th to 8th August. Send me an email to

  • Hi Bob,
    You’ve got nothin!!!!
    Just returned from 3 day camp with Year 3/4 students- give me a bike and raging river any day!!! Thinking of you, take care,
    Kathie xs
    PS This very brave challenge will wear of after a few nightsleep!!

      • Thank you. Will try. Trouble with my tires. Good to start but much troubles lately!

      • Regarding tires, if you hate punctures I suggest that you get a Schwalbe or Continental with ‘plus’ in the name. They have the blue band of sponge material inside that prevents most punctures. They are heavier and expensive but worth it.

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