Northern Peru

We crossed the border into Peru at La Balsa, after an exciting and tiring drive south on dirt roads. The border post was a bit different from other ones we’ve experienced so far. As we pulled up to the Ecuadorian customs control, the officer realized someone was there, so he put on a cut-off t-shirt and running shorts, and then proceeded to check us out of the country. I guess it’s a bit more relaxed here! Again, the process was much easier than in Central America, the border officials were friendly and helpful, and we were on our way fairly quickly, this time on pavement.


After spending the night in San Ignacio near the border, we headed onwards. The northern part of Peru is not frequently visited, in part because it is so difficult to get there. However, we didn’t want to miss the stunning scenery, as well as stay away from the desert-like coast. Throughout Peru, we decided to take the mountain route, and even though the roads are windy and slow-going at times, it’s been amazing.

Our first stop would be a visit to Catarata de Gocta, the 5th highest waterfall in the world. For the first time in months, we put on our running shoes and decided to make it a quick trailrun to the base of the fall. Little did we know that the trail was quite steep and most people sit on mules to spare themselves the pain. We made the way there quickly, but were struggling a bit with the switchbacks on the way back. But a good intro to the mountains to come. For the night, we headed on to the ruins of Kuelap, on top of a craggy mountain. The drive there was an absolutely stunning dirt road that wound up from the valley.

In the morning we were the only visitors to these ruins, which left us a bit unimpressed. However, the views from the mountain top continued to amaze us. After a quick breakfast, we headed back down into the valley, and headed towards Cajamarca. It was an intense drive on a windy one-lane road, where we went from 3,000m to below 1,000m, back up, back down, again and again. Simply fascinating.

Cajamarca was the first larger town after a while, where we restocked, and got to take a much needed shower at thermal baths. As we were heading south, though, we started hearing a really uncomfortable noise from our front wheels, a metal grinding noise. A bit nervous, we checked our front brakes and noticed that they were worn unevenly. One of the pads was worn to the metal – no wonder after all the mountain roads. Carefully we proceeded to the next town, Huamachuco, but of course we had no luck finding a mechanic on a Saturday evening. The town, however, was remarkably pleasant with a beautiful Plaza de Armas, people pointed us to a nice safe spot where we street-parked.

The next Mercedes dealer was 180km away at the coast, so the next morning we drove down the mountains to Trujillo. It was an exercise in engine braking, including speed bumps and downhill grades. We probably only used the brakes 10 times on that route. On Monday morning we headed to the dealer, who reluctantly helped us (apparently they don’t usually service foreign vehicles) – we needed to put in new pads, refinish the rotors and a rebuild the calipers. Unfortunately we had to wait a day for the pads to arrive from Lima. When all was said and done, we came away amazingly cheap, paying a total of $60 for all this labor.

Our next stop was the drive through Cañón del Pato. We drove about 40km into the canyon on a dirt road and pulled over for the night. It was a beautiful spot and felt wonderful to sleep in the still and quiet, as compared to the previous two nights in Trujillo. The sun set was on fire that night. The next morning we continued our drive through the canyon, which became even more magnificent. We had to drive through 30-some handcarved tunnels along this one-lane windy road. With liberal use of the horn and a few reverse maneuvers to let other cars pass, we made it safely.


Back to the mountains we went then, with our next stop in the Cordillera Blanca, the highlight in Peru for mountain scenery. We camped at a lodge owned by Charlie, owner of 3 Rhodesian ridgebacks as well as an alpaca. The lodge is in an absolutely stunning location, with views of Huascaran and other high peaks. Unfortunately for us it was the middle of the rainy season, so views were limited to the very early morning hours. From the lodge we hiked to the famous Laguna 69, a beautiful mountain lake. We took a taxi up to the trail head, but decided to walk all the way back to the lodge, covering quite some distance. Prior to heading out on the hike, I read the trail directions and tips from Charlie to Nikki so that we’d both be on the same page. One of the tips strongly recommended against eating the deep fried dough that’s sold at the national park entrance ‘unless you have a cast iron stomach.’ So of course, when we got to the entrance and Nikki sees this delicious looking bread for about $0.50, she had to have it. I wasn’t sure if she was joking or not until she devoured half of it, offering me some… When I asked her why she was eating it despite the advice, she immediately felt sick. She was actually just nervous, finished the bread and thankfully didn’t get sick. The final piece of the walk back to the lodge was along an irrigation channel. In typical Nikki fashion, she managed to dump her phone in the water. This was rewarded by a pleasant dip into the cold mountain water to fish it back out. Surprisingly, the phone turned right back on after putting it in rice for the night – go iPhone.

Although there were plenty of other hikes we would have wanted to do in the Cordillera Blanca, we decided to head onwards. We’ll return for sure at a better time of the year.

Posted in Peru and tagged .


  1. Recently bought a Sprinter and am daydreaming following your journey.

    Given the break-in you experienced awhile back, where do you leave the van when hiking?

    • Hey Colin, we never leave our car unattended any more. Its usually not hard to ask around with locals living near trailheads to watch the car. Sometimes it means you have to walk a bit more or take a taxi / public transportation, but it’s worth it given that we carry all our belongings with us on this trip.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *