It had been raining with few breaks for the past four months. A late hurricane literally threw water on our Costa Rica plans and every mountain we had thought to climb had disappeared from sight under heavy batteries of rain and hail. Our friends Matthew and Lesley, along with their kids, planned to vacation near Cusco and we had planned to drive south to meet them.
Having made this plan at least four months prior, we thought we had plenty of time until suddenly we had only two weeks. We charted our route and congratulated ourselves on still having time to spend a few days surfing at Chicama, purportedly the longest left break in the world.
Except we didn’t have enough time. Because the weather hates us and tries to kill us.
An extreme and largely unexpected weather phenomenon dubbed a “Coastal El Niño” slammed into Peru’s northern coast, tearing apart the Panamerican highway, drowning cities and demolishing smaller villages. If we were going to see our friends, we needed a new plan.
You know what we should do, we said; drive through the mountains. We’ll be safe in the mountains. We accepted this as truth, even though it was not.
We entered Peru at La Balsa and made our way to San Ignacio and towards the mountaintop ruins of Kuelap (kway-lap), having decided that in lieu of surfing, we could visit some ruins along the way. We’ll devote separate blog posts to those ruins. This post is all about the road.
The road to Kuelap was in fairly good condition. Narrow in places and potholed, but no more than usual.
From Kuelap, the road conditions began to rapidly deteriorate. Fog limited our line of sight to only a few meters. I honked at curves to alert other drivers that we were coming. This definitely avoided several collisions. Every now and then, Jordan emitted a gasp, as she caught glimpses of the sheer drop-offs to our side, often at points where of partial road collapse.
We spent two nights in Cocachimba, from where Google maps suggested an 11hr, 25 minute drive to cover the 471km separating Cocachimba and Huamachuco. Close to 20 hours of hard driving over roughly 600km of narrow and fractured roads brought us to a mountainside perch below the ruins of Marcahuamachuco. iOverlander reviews suggested this campsite had stunning views. We huddled in our living room (front seats) and dined on wine and dry ramen, while watching the rain pound our windshield.
The next day, we met sections of road increasingly washed away by landslides. The afternoon rains were intense. We turned back at one river crossing, fearing that it would not be the deepest along that stretch of track and that the oncoming rains would render it impassible should we need to backtrack.
At one point, maps.me led us off the main highway (PE-3N) and onto a desolate dirt road heading southeast (Ruta 116). The road’s thickening mud grabbed our tires one too many times, spinning them violently to one side or the other. With no town on the map and the hours counting down to sunset, we turned back to the security of the 3N’s asphalt.
The detour bought us security, but cost us time and we pulled into the town of Angasmarca tired and low on fuel. Fuel proved to be an issue in the mountains, as many of the gas stations we passed were closed, their resupply trucks stymied by the deteriorated roads. We bought fuel from a shopkeeper, who stored it in plastic buckets. Octane 90, she assured us with a smile, although we were not in a position to be picky.
Miles of crumbling highway later, a team of road workers directed us away from where a landslide had obliterated one section of the 3N north of Pallasca. We diverted onto the most severely switchbacked dirt track that we had yet driven on. Evidence of recent landslides filled our vision at literally every turn and in most places in between. Jordan threw the car into low gear to climb the steep track, the wheels still slipping on some of the loose dirt that struggled to play the role of road. Jordan and I agreed that we would never drive this road in wet conditions.
Towns blur together in my memory. A truck coming the other way stopped us to say that the way forward was blocked. We drove on, just to see, and soon confronted a swollen river, rushing over the road. We deliberated its crossing for some time, before deciding we could make it. I threw the car into low gear and pushed it through. I could feel the current pushing our wheels. Were the water any higher, the current would have been too strong.
We had no time to congratulate ourselves. Barely a minute later, we confronted a line of cars stopped on the road. Walking ahead to survey the scene, we found that the road had collapsed only minutes before, sending a truck downhill and its driver to his death. Would-be rescuers ran down the slope below us. We looked down just in time to see one sweep his arms in the form of an X, the international symbol for “no”, there’s no one here to save.
The road at that point now consisted of barely half a lane, where the rest had collapsed. Two workers, whose Toyota Hilux was parked on the side opposite us, talked to each other. We have to get through, one said. We have to cross the river before the rains start, otherwise we won’t make it. They walked back to their truck and drove past where the other truck had fallen, hugging the cliff face as much as possible.
We also worried about going back. We had seen no place to camp and the nearest town would have us driving through the dark. If the Hilux can make it, we can make it, we reasoned. We got in the car and edged forwards. If anything does happen, I just want you to know that I’ve really enjoyed traveling with you, said one of us. I love you, said the other. The road held and we arrived, fatigued, in Cabanas after five days in the mountains. I don’t think we’ll make it to Cusco on time, said Jordan. Let’s see what tomorrow brings, then maybe we’ll break the news to them.
We bought more bucket fuel that next day and hit the roads. At this point, we had changed our minds about sticking to the mountains. Reports held that all roads heading south to Huaraz were blocked, cutting off our only realistic path through the mountains. We headed west, hoping that the Panamerican would be open enough for us to make Chimbote.
Fortunately, aside from a temporary closure to remove debris from an avalanche, it was. Crossing over a mountain pass, the weather became dry and the sky only partly broken by clouds. We passed the skeletons of temporary mining towns, abandoned when extraction slowed. The river alongside the highway was almost black with mud carried down from the mountains.
The mountains ended and the land became flat. The storm had passed, but evidence of its destruction stood out in the form of a wrecked village, a broken highway and everywhere signs for soup kitchens (ollas comunes) for the displaced.
We had escaped the mountains, but our adventures were not over. At a collapsed bridge, we tore apart the the tube connecting the muffler to the engine and roared into Chimbote sounding like a race car. The repair was easy and cheap and we celebrated our safety (and my birthday) with wine and tacos in a dirty town that smelled strongly of rotting fish.
Smells aside, it felt good to relax out of the mountains. The drive had been harrowing, but we had seen a lot of beauty through gaps in the storm. Desolate landscapes, towering mountains and pastoral mountainside towns. The north deserves a return visit. In drier conditions.