Peru Adventures 2011
by Lon Haldeman
The police gave us a warning at the roadside checkpoint. A group of bandits had stopped and robbed a bus 100 kilometers ahead on our route. The good thing is that we only had to ride 60 kilometers more today.
Our cycling route from Tarapoto to Yurimaguas, Peru was 160 kilometers of newly paved roadway across the jungle. I had ridden this stretch almost ten years ago and the road was filled with mud and melon size rocks. It took me almost 12 hours to ride 100 miles on my mountain bike. During the past eight years the road had been improved from each end until both cities were now connected by a smooth path of twisty black pavement suitable for filming a sports car commercial. This would be the first time we could ride the entire distance without sections of road construction.
This road has always been a strategic location for hijackings and political protests. The road bends and climbs through many miles of mountainous jungles, making it a perfect location for hiding bandits who ambush buses and taxies. Since this road is the only way to reach the river port of Yurimaguas, there was always a steady supply of trucks and supplies being transported from the jungle to the coastal cities. Whenever there was political unrest this section of road would be blocked with burning tires and fallen trees by protesters to disrupt the transport of goods across Peru.
This year during our bike tour we would divide our ride from Tarapoto to Yurimaguas into two cycling days. The first day was 36 miles up and over the mountains to the truck stop town of Caynarachi. We would sleep at a basic hotel that had a bathroom down the hall and a restaurant across the street that served local jungle food. The next day would cover the final 64 miles to the river port at Yurimaguas where we would find our boat to travel down the Amazon River.
Our tour group included Greg Lester and his wife Drue Banister. This would be their first trip to Peru. They had wanted a tour “that went where tourists don't go”. We were trying to balance adventure with a safe tour so we were taking precautions in this part of the country. We were also joined by Susan Rosenblatt who was returning for her fifth tour in Peru. Her easygoing spirit is always welcome when things get stressful. Lynette Chiang was along to document all of our Peru Projects and make a DVD about our tour. She would have a challenge producing a program that covered eight major projects in a 22-minute show. (More Peru DVD updates later). Peru National Cycling Champions Alessandra Divila and her sister Samantha also joined us. They rode their racing bikes and didn't have any trouble dropping us whenever they wanted. Rounding out our tour group was our 12-year-old friend Aracely and her mother Nayda. We met Aracely six years ago at a roadside restaurant in the jungle. Since then she has traveled with us every year to all corners of Peru. Her friend Yeni from the Chosica Girl's home also joined us. Yeni won a competition to go on the tour for being the top English-speaking student at the Girl's Home.
All together we had a varied group of eleven people ages 12 to 65. We traveled and worked together to complete a busy schedule of projects across Peru. We had all arrived in the busy city of Lima and spent our first two days visiting the Chosica Girl's Home and buying books to deliver to Amazon River schools. The next day we flew 250 miles into the jungle to the remote town of Tarapoto. Here we assembled our bikes and began our tour, while transporting 220 pounds of school books in our support vehicle.
Our first cycling day leaving Tarapoto included a break to tour a waterfall in the roadside canyon. The recent rains were making the 100-foot high waterfall expand to over 20 feet wide. After an hour of hiking to the falls and wading in the pool we continued riding up the mountain. A steady cool rain began as we climbed higher over the summit. The new road was built on a series of pillars and braces extending out from the cliffs. The cliffs on one side and the drop off into the canyon on the other made a picturesque landscape as we meandered up the green jungle grade in the misty drizzle.
After our night's rest in Caynarachi we were planning our next day to Yurimaguas. We knew we would need to ride through the location where there had been a roadblock and robbery the day before. We made a plan to hire taxies from Tarapoto to travel with some of our non-cycling crew. One taxi would drive two kilometers ahead of our bike group and the other taxi and crew members would stay two kilometers behind us. If the taxies saw any suspicious roadside activity they would drive up and warn us. We would have the choice to wait or turn around before riding into an ambush.
It rained throughout the night and the drizzle continued until 9:00 AM. We waited at our hotel for our taxies to arrive from Tarapoto. The taxies were delayed 45 minutes and we began to wonder if we should find different taxi drivers. Finally they arrived and the drivers were agitated and talking fast in Spanish. I knew something was going on. They had just been stopped in a ten-vehicle ambush a few miles before Caynarachi. We were familiar with the twisty road from the day before. The gunmen made the drivers get out of their cars. Then they were robbed and the gunmen threw the driver's car keys into the jungle. The drivers were further delayed when they needed to hunt for their keys.
The incident added to the anticipation of proceeding to Yurimaguas. Now there were recent ambush locations in front and behind us. The police were out patrolling the road but the heavy jungle coverage along the road gave the advantage to anyone hiding in the bushes. We packed our escort taxies and started riding our bikes with our eyes scanning the ditches for hints of trouble. The feeling was similar to riding past a familiar farm where you are chased by dogs. We were on the lookout while playing hide and seek.
We passed the location of the ambush the day before and didn't see any signs of activity. The rain had stopped and the jungle humidity was making us wetter than the rain. As we approached Yurimaguas we could see three riverboats docked at the port. We had made it through the most dangerous section of road. (Next year we have an eight-day bike ride planned through a very safe region). Now we would need to find a riverboat to take us down river for the next two days covering over 400 miles to the city of Iquitos.