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 HuĂˇnuco-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 HuĂˇnuco, a charming city at 1,894 meters /6,214 feet a.s.l. (2-3 hours, $3-5).
From HuĂˇnaco, the coarse road soars to La UniĂłn at 3,204 meters/10,512 feet altitude (colectivos and buses 5-6 hours, $8-10). From La UniĂłnâ€™s market, combis leave half-hourly for Huallanca (HuĂˇnuco) (1 hour, $1); a paved road continues to Huaraz (bus, three daily, 6 hours, $7).
The route from Huaraz rambles northward into the upper MaraĂ±Ăłn River valley and to the rarely visited Parque Nacional RĂo 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 nightâ€™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 PajatĂ©n in Parque Nacional RĂo 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 RĂo Grande and Huamachuco.
Frequent combis depart Huamachuco for Cajabamba (2Â˝ 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 CeledĂn (112 kilometers, 4 hours, $4; four buses daily; also combis from Avenida Atahualpa, 300-block). Microbuses leave CeledĂn 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 Andesâ€™ cloud-forested slopes, descending to 740 meters/2,428 feet altitude at JaĂ©n, to the La Balza border crossing into Ecuador.
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