Heading North?!

Celendin > Balsas > Calla Calla > Leymebamba > Magdalena > Kuelap > Magdalena > Chachapoyas

This whole trip came about because I wanted to come and visit Si and Claudia whilst they were out in South America.  One thing led to another and, soon enough, it had evolved from a few weeks, to a few months, to the best part of a year!  I had been really keen to head up into northern Peru first though, as I’d read some great things about the mountaintop citadel of Kuelap in particular.  Si was keen to join me for a week, even if he only had his road bike with skinny tyres and some basic bikepacking bags!  And so, we planned out a route which, I discovered as I got nearer, had actually relatively recently been tarmac’d most of the way!

Si had an unexpectedly smooth coach and combi transfer from Trujillo so we were able to head out late morning of Saturday 11th June for the relatively short climb out of Celendin, before beginning a ~45km descent down to Balsas.  It soon became clear that we were going to be heading through some pretty diverse and spectacular scenery.

We stopped regularly on the descent to pick our jaws up off the floor – it really was stunning.  At the bottom of the valley lies Balsas (the green strip in the photo above), which is the mango capital of the region.  It has its own micro-climate – it’s hot, at the foot of seemingly quite arid mountains, but humid with plentiful water from the rivers and streams that run through it.  Perfect conditions for fruit-growing.  Sadly, we were a month too early for the mango season! 🙁

We had already decided to camp that night and identified a great little (discrete) spot by the river.  It seemed like a good opportunity for a quick dip to cool off and have a clean.


It soon became apparent, however, that we were being somewhat mobbed by little flies.  Without any ripe/rotten fruit to eat, they had clearly decided to try and eat us instead.  It was around about then that I remembered reading a blog from somebody else mentioning how they had to climb a little way out of the village to find a less bug-infested spot!  We hastily packed all our stuff back up and got back on the road, in an effort to find a flat piece of ground before sunset.  Fortunately, we found somewhere – it wasn’t the most picturesque spot and there were still a few bugs about but it was a definite improvement on the plagues by the river.  Once the sun did go down, the stars really began to shine through too…

Having very limited space on his road bike, Si was using a bivvy bag rather than a tent.  So, it was not without a slight pang of guilt/pity as I listened to it starting to rain from the safe haven of my tent the next morning!  Fortunately, however, this was a pretty light shower and soon cleared up.  With all my stuff finally packed away (the plus side of bivvy’s being that they’re pretty no-nonsense/quick to pack), we set off up the big climb from our overnight altitude of 1150m, up towards the pass at 3600m!  Si patiently hung about as I slowly ground up the fairly unrelenting road – his approx 15kg bike progressing somewhat more elegantly than my 47kg beast (sorry Sally, but you’re a fat-bottomed girl)!  Still, there were yet more stunning vistas to accompany the climb, even if it was hot and thirsty work (excuse the toplessness)!

Fortunately, there were a couple of basic shops/restaurants on the way to refuel and we pushed on, keen to knock off 2000m of climbing for the day.  It became somewhat trickier to find suitable camping spots as we got nearer to the summit.  After toying with the idea of a somewhat exposed ledge on a corner just off the road, we eventually decided to ‘borrow’ a little shelter from an absent resident, at the not insignificant altitude of 3250m!  In hindsight, it was a pretty good move – we didn’t have any rain but the temperature got down pretty close to zero and Si might have been suffering in his bivvy otherwise!

Needless to say, we left the place tidier than we found it!  The next morning was a fairly short push on to the summit, where it was time to layer up!

The descent down the other side, some 20km to Leymebamba, was another complete change of scenery altogether.  It was quite strange.  It was as if we were suddenly in Wales or Scotland!  Lush green pastures with lots of dairy cows.

We arrived in Leymebamba around lunchtime, found ourselves a friendly little hospedaje (La Casita), some lunch and then headed back up to the top of town to visit the Museum.  They have a collection of several hundred mummified remains there which are, quite frankly, terrifying!  There are also some interesting exhibits which helped get us both straight on the chronology of the Incas etc and some insight into the lives of the Chachapoya people and the location where they found these mummies (up at Laguna de los Condores).

We then enjoyed tea and a slice of cake in the very upmarket cafe (for Peru) opposite, which also plays host to dozens of hummingbirds that feed on their sugar water feeders.  I’m not about to win any wildlife photography awards but here are a few shots!

The next day was arguably the most civilised of my trip so far, as we headed out after a lazy breakfast on a 40km gentle descent down the valley, alongside the Rio Utcubamba, towards Magdalena.  Here we met my first fellow touring cyclist in Shane, an Aussie on his was from Alaska to Ushuaia, who I may well bump into again at some point along the way!

The peace of the descent was only punctured sporadically by a string of punctures for Si!  Needless to say, after much trial and error, he is now a patching guru!


  1. Once again, fantastic photos, and a great record of what you’ve seen. You must have been quite nervous leaving Sally on the roof – but maybe she was sitting in a bit of a well! xx

  2. What amazing scenery and excellent photos! Never having been to South America you are providing a super guide book – thank you x

  3. Who needs to read National Geographic when we’ve got your story unfolding on our screens, fabulous scenery – Thank you! X

  4. woo I cant believe you cycled all that rout balsas all way up then there is an entrance where cars go down a little road where you cant even see there is a little village called plazapampa that’s where I came.( between balsas and leymebamba)
    very glad you are having a good time abroad.
    Maria the pain lady (from Peru)

    1. Hey Maria, I’d been wondering exactly where your village was – that area is still one of my favourite parts of Peru! Could do with one of your massages after the last 10 days (from the Carretera Central at San Mateo down to Huancavelica)! C

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