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Back Roads Cusco to Quito

Are you ready for an adventure few will ever take, through landscapes that sing to your soul, and villages and mining towns that prick your conscience? Then pack your bags for the rollercoaster journey from Cusco to Quito by back roads through the Andes, to heights of 4,330 meters/14,206 feet a.s.l. and dips to 740 meters/2,428 feet a.s.l., without descending to Lima and the coast. The trip takes several weeks, due to unpaved, hair-pinning roads, infrequent transportation, and daytime-only travel. It is best during the dry months (May-September); frequent landslides during the rainy season cause delays and cancellations. Be warned in some areas, especially Huánuco-Cerro de Pasco, miner and cocalero strikes may disrupt transit. Keep your eyes on the news and ear to the ground.

Lodging and restaurants exist in all the transfer towns. All transportation is daily, except where noted.


Your journey begins in Cusco. The unpaved road to Abancay, Andahuaylas and Ayacucho wends across barren puna surrounded by glacier-blanketed mountains, scattered with flamingo-visited lagunas (399 kilometers, 24 hours, $15).


From Ayacucho to Huancayo a poor road meanders through breathtaking scenery (319 kilometers, 9-10 hours, $8-10). Several companies leave Huancayo for La Oroya and Cerro de Pasco (five hours, $5), a bleak town at 4,330 meters/14,206 feet altitude scarred by a gaping open mine. Frequent buses and colectivos depart Cerro de Pasco for Huánuco, a charming city at 1,894 meters /6,214 feet a.s.l. (2-3 hours, $3-5).


From Huánaco, the coarse road soars to La Unión at 3,204 meters/10,512 feet altitude (colectivos and buses 5-6 hours, $8-10). From La Unión’s market, combis leave half-hourly for Huallanca (Huánuco) (1 hour, $1); a paved road continues to Huaraz (bus, three daily, 6 hours, $7).


The route from Huaraz rambles northward into the upper Marañón River valley and to the rarely visited Parque Nacional Río Abiseo. Travel to Sihuas (8 hours, $9; 8:30 a.m. and 11 a.m.), from where buses depart for Tayabamba at 3,300 meters/10,826 feet altitude (7-8 hours, $8; Monday, Wednesday, Saturday, midnight-2 a.m). The journey to the uninviting mining town Retamas (2,700 meters/8,858 feet altitude) lasts three hours (colectivos and combis, 7 a.m.-5:30 p.m., $6); quaint Llacuabamba (15 minutes, $1) offers a better night’s sleep. Thrice-weekly buses travel from Retamas to pleasant Huamachuco (12 hours, $9; Monday, 8 a.m., Thursday, 8 p.m., Saturday, 4 a.m.; also daily combis,10 hours, $12). The trip passes through Chahual (1,450 meters/4,757 feet a.s.l.); from near-by Los Alisos you can make the ten-day trek to the Chachapoya ruins of Pajatén in Parque Nacional Río Abiseo (guide and permits needed). The road then climbs to a 3,900-meter/12,795-foot pass before arriving at Chugay (3,400 meters/11,155 feet a.s.l.), and descends to the Río Grande and Huamachuco.


Frequent combis depart Huamachuco for Cajabamba (2½ hours, $2), from where you then catch one for Cajamarca (4 hours, $4). The trip from Cajamarca into the mysterious Chachapoyas region is arduous. It first jolts along to Celedín (112 kilometers, 4 hours, $4; four buses daily; also combis from Avenida Atahualpa, 300-block). Microbuses leave Celedín for Leymebamba only three times per week ($6.60), and buses direct to Chachapoyas on Thursday and Sunday at 11 a.m. ($10). Combis leave early mornings from Leymebamba for Chachapoyas.


From Chachapoyas, you forge northward along the Andes’ cloud-forested slopes, descending to 740 meters/2,428 feet altitude at Jaén, to the La Balza border crossing into Ecuador.


Once entering Ecuador, you visit fascinating Andean towns like Vilcabamba, Loja, Cuenca and Riobamba, before reaching your destination, the second-highest capital in the Americas, Quito.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Peru: Getting To and Away from Pisco , Getting To and Away, Getting to and away from the Colca Canyon, Getting Around, Getting Around, Getting To and Away from Arequipa, Train across the Northern Atacama Desert, Getting To and Away, Getting To and Away and Peru-Chile Border Crossings.

By Lorraine Caputo

Upon re-declaring her independence at age 29, Lorraine Caputo packed her trusty Rocinante (so her knapsack's called) and began...

17 Aug 2007

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