The Potato Truck Ride from Leymebamba to Celendín in Northern Peru

Loading the potato truck that will take us to Celendín
Loading the potato truck that will take us to Celendín (View on flickr)

OK, I must confess we took a ride in a truck full of freshly-picked potatoes. The 100-mile ride took 10 hours through some very high mountains of northern Peru and down though hot valleys and back up to the heavens.

We have decided (or is it that I have decided?) that occasionally it does make sense to take alternative transportation through some areas which seem too difficult for biking with our load. The route we have taken through northern Peru has taken us through very beautiful, amazing landscapes. And amazing elevation climbs, descents and ascents. In one area from Leymebamba to Celendin, after reading another cyclist's blog through this area, I was intimidated and decided I would rather take a bus then climb up to 3600 meters (12,000 feet), descend to 900 meters (3000 feet) and then climb back up to 3100 meters on a dirt road, along cliffs that drop thousands of feet with only a slice of road carved on the face of the mountain.

But when we got to the place where we wanted to take the bus we found out was that there were no buses leaving for four days and there was no guarantee they would have room for us and our bikes anyway. So Randy asked around and contracted for us and our stuff to be hauled in the back of a truck full of potatoes. The 10-hour trip cost $15 and was itself an amazing experience, even though it wasn't on a bike. Amazing does not quite describe it.

Nancy climbing into the potato truck
Nancy climbing into the potato truck (View on flickr)

We were scheduled to leave at one in the afternoon but did not leave until 4:30. We watched for hours as load after load of sacks of potatoes were delivered by horses and mules from a far field. We talked with the driver, Marcial and his wife, while we waited in-between loads. He and his wife Olga had been driving this incredible hard route for over 30 years. In the past the road was even narrower and the trip would take two or three days because of landslides (and they had to do their own maintenance when they came to something blocking the road). Now the road is wider and has a maintenance crew. In my humble opinion, the road is still narrow and terribly scary. I was glad we had such an experienced driver. One small mistake or inattention on his part and we would have tumbled off the edge of the world.

Oops... what do you do when two trucks meet on a road like this
Oops... what do you do when two trucks meet on a road like this (View on flickr)

The trip took all night. We had a small spot where we could huddle above the drivers cab in an open area where we sat on sacks of potatoes and partially under a canvas tarp. The tarp was draped over a bamboo beam and we sat under that. The view from up on the front of the truck was awe-inspiring. The drops off the cliff were terrifying and the wheels of this huge cargo truck barely hung onto the gravel road. We came upon only one other truck on the whole route. Both trucks had to maneuver very carefully to pass each other on this barely one-lane road. We backed down the mountain until there was a spot was wide enough for both of the trucks to pass without one being knocked of the side of the cliff. We stopped and chatted with the other folks for 15 minutes and sold a sack of potatoes to the other truck. I took this opportunity to climb out on the top of the cab to take some great sunset pictures. We continued on in the twilight and after a few hours stopped for dinner at a lone adobe building. Inside, lit by candles, we were served a meal of meat and rice under rafters of drying meat. As we ate we talked to the two young girls who cooked this delicious meal and to Marcial and Olga about our trip and some of the other cyclists who had dared travel this remote road (on their bikes). The meal cost $2 for both of us, including tea.

Looking down on the valley of the Marañon
Looking down on the valley of the Marañon (View on flickr)

We climbed back up to our roost and watched the southern sky full of stars and constelations. It was pitch black. The milky way and its limits gleamed as we traveled though the desolate land. Not a single light from a house or a village appeared for 3 hours until we reached the bottom of the deep valley at La Balsa. The climate had changed from comfortable sunny climate of Leymebamba to high, rainy cloud forest at 3600 meters and then down to a fiery desert at 900 meters. The headlights of the truck showed all the changing vegetation in full glory. We had to duck for cover occasional to be avoid the cold rain, or overhanging vegetation and branches. The mango trees in the Marañon valley hung the lowest with ripening fruit. Bats scattered in the head lights. The edge of the cliffs disappeared in the darkness.

Several times during the trip the truck would stop, the engine would be turned off, the back doors of the truck would open up. Someone would climb up on the stacks of bags of potatoes and drag a large sack of potatoes out of the truck. Marcial is well-known in these parts, and he must have sold half the potatoes along the way, even though we were traveling in the middle of the night. A large sack of potatoes cost was sold for 37 Soles, about $13. Marcial had loaded about 50 bags of potatoes from the farmers in Leymebamba which Olga had negotiated a price of 30 soles per bag, so they were making 7 soles (a bit more than $2) on each bag. They have made this arduous 10-hour each way trip twice a week for 32 years! Gas prices are high and he owns this 8 year old truck, and he pays a helper to load and unload the truck. I bet he makes $100 a trip before expenses.

The bikes rested well on the stacks of potatoes. As for me, the sleep I got was not completely comfortable. A bed of sacks of potatoes is uncomfortable, a bit dirty and takes a bit of effort finding the perfect spot to sleep. Laying under a plastic sheet and above the lumpy bed, I got a few hours of sleep. Randy being a wonderful sleeper, can sleep anywhere, got a fine nights rest until 2:00 am when we were dropped off at a hotel in the middle of Celendin. We rolled our bikes into the center of the open patio, paid our 35 soles ($13) for a room with a double bed and a private bath with hot water. After stripping off our dirty clothes that smelled of horses, manure, dirt, potatoes and the mountains of the Andes, we climbed in bed to finish the rest of our sleep. The vision of the evening stars still danced in my head as I slipped away into a peaceful deep sleep.