Peru by Chinese tank

While preparing for a trip to Peru my wife and I stumbled on Chinese-made bikes that not only looked ready for some off-roading but were temptingly cheap. So we bought two 200cc Keeways and had them delivered to Truijllo in Northern Peru, where we would start our journey.

Over the next six weeks we would abuse the bikes horribly but they held up well – so well that we nicknamed them the Chinese Tanks because they could get through anything. First gear, slow and steady, got us over even the trickiest terrain. We did have a few minor issues, usually involving errant bolts and parts going missing along the road, but we soon learned to make checking for loose nuts and bolts a part of a regular routine to keep everything together and the trip running smoothly.

To start with we travelled into the Peruvian Northern Sierra, a diverse mountainous region. Do you want to ride among giant trees showing off so many different shades of green you’d think it was a cartoon? What about endless switchbacks up the side of a mountain you were sure was too steep to climb by road? Or maybe the popular National Park of Huascarán in the Cordillera Blanca, where turquoise lakes and white mountain peaks are served up in boatloads? The good news is it doesn’t matter, you don’t have to choose because Northern Peru has it all within reach and we were keen to sample it all.

We reached the Llanganuco park entrance by dirt road and entered through a narrow valley with vertical rock walls on either side with waterfalls cascading. The natural beauty was surreal. It wasn’t long before we reached Laguna Llanganuco, which is actually a pair of lakes, Chinacocha and Orconcocha that are connected by the glacial river that feeds them. The road through the park passes right beside them and then the road climbs past the lakes and into the mountains, travelling only 15 kilometres to gain 900 metres of elevation to reach the Portachuelo Pass summit. Boy was that intense! Sitting at the viewpoint provides spectacular views.

Riding even deeper into the mountains we approached the Marañón river and were greeted by the ruins of a bridge. Next to it was a steel cable that ran across the river, and a small cage made of wood and steel that made the trip back and forth carrying people and goods. We asked if the cage could take bikes and the answer was yes, though none were as ‘big’ as ours.

The only problem was that the cage was on the other side of the river, and with no signs of life over there our helper seemed out of ideas. An hour later a fisherman came by on his way to the river and volunteered to help. We watched in awe as he slid down a rope dangling from a broken foot bridge to a sandbar in the middle of the river. He walked along the sandbar upstream, then jumped into the strong current and swam to the other bank. The river’s current took him far downstream and we could tell he was using all his swimming skills to reach the other side. Once there he collected the cage and returned.

We loaded one of the bikes but it was too wide to fit in the cage front first. We loaded the rear end of the bike onto the cage with the front wheel hanging in the air, tied it down with some weathered ropes and off the two men went with Naomi’s bike suspended high above the brown rushing waters. Once they were on the other side we watched helpless as they muscled the bike up the steep bank.

The unloading area had less than a metre of room to get the bike off the cage and avoid letting it fall down to the river, 15m below. It was a nerve-wracking 30 minutes as they struggled to get the bike off and up the hill safely. With the experience from the first bike under their belt the transportation of the second bike went much smoother as this time I joined them to help get the bike off the cage at the other side. It was comical having three men plus one bike in the tiny cage fly across the Marañon River. We paid almost double the agreed amount for their efforts and humbly thanked the two men for their help. It took us well over four hours to complete the crossing and would not have succeeded without the help of Pablo and Yonan.

There was no traffic on the other side of the river. The landscape was dry and dusty with small green and red parrots perched atop the cactii. The people we saw as we followed the road ran in fear as the bikes passed. We definitely didn’t look like we were from around there and with the bridge out for several months I doubt much traffic came this way anymore. We stopped to try to ask for directions but the accent of the lady was very strong and she was both scared and shy so I couldn’t make out what she was saying. I don’t blame her as we were wearing strange spaceman outfits with large colourful helmets and tinted goggles. Don’t talk to strangers they say, and we were as strange as they came.

Exploring the mountain road to Chacas through the Huascarán National Park we inquired at the park gate if there was any camping. The guard didn’t seem to have a problem with us but feared for our safety, though we never had any issues camping the entire time we were in Peru. The road was perfectly paved and a dream to ride if you are into switchbacks. We camped at the summit of 4800m, tucked away from view.

The road back down to the coast via Punta Winchus is one of the best in Ancash. It’s a paved single lane track filled with endless switchbacks – pure joy on a bike. Leaving Caraz the road leads up into the Cordillera Negra and at the top of the pass we found one of the very few Puya Raimondi forests left. The Puya Raimondi is the largest pineapple plant in the world. The flower can reach 12 metres in height, and each plant can have 8000 flowers. Unfortunately they only bloom once every 50 to 75 years and we weren’t in luck.

We found camping at the road summit. Once more our trusty Chinese Tanks proved worthy as we went off road, rode up the steep hill and we set up camp at the very top. While relaxing at our camping spot we had panoramic views of the Cordillera Blanca and the Puya Raimondi forest covering the mountain slopes. The morning sunrise was magnificent – all we could see was the outline of the mountains as the morning light silhouetted them, then, little by little, the valley and detail of the mountains was revealed. It was a fantastic end to our trip.

RIDER >> ALBERTO LARA
BIKE >> KEEWAY TX200
DISTANCE >> 2300 MILES