Hunting Double Track in Peru’s Sunchubamba Reserve: The Road to Nowhere

With a seemingly endless array of dirt roads scattered throughout the Peruvian Andes, it’s easy to see why it has become a favorite destination for bike travelers like Ryan Wilson.  During his latest trip to the country, Ryan looks to connect the northern city of Cajamarca to the Ancash region along some rarely traveled dirt tracks through the Sunchubamba Game Reserve.  With little information about this zone to be found online, read on to find out how it went. 

If you’ve followed along on this site for the last eight years or so since I started traveling by bike full-time, you’ve probably realized by now just how much I love riding and spending time in Peru. So much so, that even though I’ve got a huge list of countries I’d love to visit, I just keep finding myself coming back every couple of years to uncover new (to me) zones of this amazing country.

The riding here can certainly be tough. You’ve certainly got to find some sort of pleasure in all-day climbs, day after day, as there are essentially two directions in Peru, up and down. Flat isn’t in the vocabulary here, at least as we know it. When a local tells you the road ahead is “plano” (flat) to the next town, that generally just means there aren’t a bunch of switchbacks, but you still might be gaining a few thousand feet of altitude by the time you get there. The other challenge is the altitude, which has a way of sapping every last drop of energy in your body far before you expect it to.

However, the diversity of landscapes, the endless dirt tracks scattered up and down the slopes of the mountains, the abundant (and spectacular) wild camping options, and the fascinating culture keep me coming back for more time and time again. You simply can’t beat the reward of those views from the top of a massive mountain pass in the Peruvian Andes.

I started in the Northern city of Cajamarca, a place where people have lived for thousands of years, with settlements dating back to around 1500-1000 BC. The huge Plaza de Armas (town square) where locals gather in their free hours, the colonial architecture throughout the historic center of town, and the local cuisine immediately made this one of my favorite cities in Peru.

As usual with Peru, I mapped out a ton of route options in advance and then went for whichever one felt the best when I arrived at a junction. In this case, I had mapped a way south, through a place called the Sunchubamba Game Reserve. Very little info could be found about this zone on the inter-webs, with only a mention that some hunting may go on there, but questions remained.  Was it privately owned or had it been turned over to the government?  There was little in the way of photos to be found as proof that people actually go there, but I was just too intrigued by the little track through the mountains that I could see on the satellite map to not give it a shot.

First I had to make my way to a little town called San Juan. I climbed through steep neighborhood streets out of Cajamarca toward a place filled with interesting rock formations called Cumbemayo which the owner of the hotel I stayed at told me I should check out. I found a spot a ways off the road and decided it would make a good place to camp for the night.

In the morning I rode over the ridge and finally got a view down toward the depths of the valley on the other side, which runs down to the Pacific Ocean. This first range of high mountains that sits way above the Peruvian coastal area is one of my favorite areas to ride in all of Peru. The canyons and valleys in this zone are even deeper and more dramatic than the ones you get further inland, and watching the evening sun dip toward the sea from a 4,000-meter (~13,100ft) ridge is something truly special.

When I arrived in the small town of San Juan, after bombing down a big paved road descent, I set up in the one hotel in town for the night. Across the street was the police station, with a handful of officers outside. When I spoke with the hotel owner about where I was heading, he insisted that such a road did not exist. There was no way that I could head up the valley I was pointing toward and end up in Huamachuco. It was a dead-end.

He waved me over to follow him and we started talking to the police officers just outside the hotel. They were fascinated by what I was doing, but equally confused by my route, as I pointed in the direction of the valley with the road I wanted to take. We talked about my previous trips to Peru and I listed off a bunch of places in the country that I’d been to over the years. “You’ve seen more of Peru than most Peruvians!” one officer said.

This was where my enthusiasm for the country apparently paid off because one of the officers made a call to someone in the last tiny settlement along my planned route. “It’s closed” he said when he got off the phone. My stomach sank. “But I talked to the person responsible and they said they will let you pass”. A roller coaster of emotions.

In the morning, I started the long climb from San Juan into the mountains. Passing some gates along the way, the locals seemed to be expecting me, though I didn’t linger too long, for fear that someone would change their mind and tell me to turn around.

Passing the last tiny settlement, the standard Peruvian trocha (dirt road), turned into an overgrown double track. The grass on the hills around wasn’t fully grazed down to the root by livestock, a rare find in Peru. There were no motorcycles or little houses scattered up into the mountains like usual either.  Something felt different about this place.

The sun set and I found myself a nice spot for the night, overlooking the valley I’d climbed out of.

Before the sun rose, I heard a truck drive up the road in the direction I was heading. It was the first I’d crossed paths with in about 16 hours. As I made my way up toward the high point of the first big climb I reached a giant fence with a tall gate crossing the road, and some workers there, apparently putting the finishing touches on this gate out in the middle of nowhere. They were not expecting me and seemed to not want to let me pass initially, but some sweet talking and name-dropping of people I’d spoken with in San Juan eventually got me a pass.

Cuidado” (careful) the man dramatically warned as he pointed up the mountain.  “Cazadores?” (hunters?), I asked.  The man shook his head, “Nada. Nadie.” (nothing. nobody).

Still confused by the dramatic tone in his voice and not totally sure about what I was getting into, I quickly jumped on my bike and pedaled away, not giving him a chance to change his mind and force me to do some crazy backtracking.

The part of the route that followed was one of my favorites in Peru. A feeling of remoteness that is pretty rare in this country, where you’re typically bound to come across some van or two hauling locals from village to village in even the furthest reaches of the Andes. There was none of that up here.

The double-track was often overgrown, high up near the ridgeline, and the views around every bend were a total surprise. The Peruvian Andes never disappoint.

Before I ever started along this route, I’d spotted an area on my topo map that looked ideal for a campsite with a view. When I arrived, it beat any expectation I could have dreamt up in my mind, sitting high above a deep valley, with layers of mountains sprawling in every direction. The sheer scale of this place cannot be conveyed with pictures or words.

Eventually, this “closed” road dumped me out near a small village called Calluan. From the strange looks I was getting from locals, it was immediately apparent that this is a place that tourists do not visit. People were spotting me on the road and immediately running inside their homes.

I stopped at the one shop in town to try to buy supplies and the woman at the shop looked at me like she’d seen a ghost. She asked if I was from Cajamarca as if I were a local (I do not look like a local). Before I could answer she asked if I was from the military. I told her “No, I’m just a tourist” as I pointed to the bike, but she clearly did not believe me for some reason. I asked if I could buy some things at the shop, but she quickly closed the gate at the front entrance and told me she doesn’t sell to strangers.

Pretty creeped out by the vibe here, I left in a hurry and continued up the road. Soon I passed through some other tiny settlements where, thankfully, people seemed much more friendly, like you’d normally find in these parts of Peru. Waving hello, shouting “gringo!” with excitement as I passed through, and helping me find my way amongst the tangled web of roads in these hills. One man yelled from his kitchen window “Allez! Allez! Allez!” and clapped his hands as I held on for dear life up the 15% gradient outside of his home, at this point now feeling like a can’t let him down by putting a foot down and pushing until the gradient eased.

Arriving in the larger town of Huamachuco, I found myself back on the tourist trail, where it’s not a big surprise to find a gringo roaming around town amongst the locals in their signature giant hats, which are unique to this region. This was another classic Andean town, with a big street market, and a picturesque town square. A perfect place to rest for a couple of days.

Straight out of town, you could see an imposing range of jagged mountains, which happened to be the exact direction I was heading. One steady climb straight up to Lago Huangacocha, where I’d find a spot for the night that was too good to pass up, right on the edge of the lake.

A smooth dirt road climbed up further into the mountains and undulated up and down from the ridge, creeping above 4,300m (14,100ft). At these altitudes, I’d officially entered the Alpaca zone, with herds roaming and grazing the hills all around me.

Not wanting to descend toward civilization just yet, I camped high in the mountains for a chilly night with another stellar view, straight on an old set of rarely used tracks, but perfectly out of view of the road above.

Plunging into the valley, I hopped from village to village, slowly making my way toward the edge of the Tablachaca Canyon at Pallasca. I’d spotted a crazy switchback-filled dirt road in the area on a map many years ago, and plotted my route through here almost entirely based on finding an excuse to take it. Sure there are a couple of far more practical options to go that would still be quite spectacular, but I was dead set on this one, even if it would take me an extra day or two to get where I was heading.

Passing through the town of Bolognesi, I reached the edge of the canyon one last time before zigging and zagging down toward the river, thousands of feet below, along a series of about 35 switchbacks. Here, the hillsides filled with grazing alpacas were replaced with spiky cacti, and the road was precariously cut into the edge of a rapidly eroding cliffside.

A warm night of camping alongside the Tablachaca River was a rare treat that you don’t get too often in the Peruvian Andes. Both tent doors were propped wide open, listening to the roar of the water rushing by. A stark contrast from the previous night I had, camping with a layer of frost on top of my sleeping bag.

By this point, I was an easy 40-kilometer ride from meeting up with my original route where I started my trip from Peru to Ushuaia back in 2016. While I was far from done with the Andes, to me, this felt like the moment that I closed the book on my North-to-South route through South America, having ridden from Colombia to connect with the spot where it all started so many years ago.

Note: if you want to attempt this route, you’ll have to coordinate with the police in San Juan, and it might be impossible now that a very large, locked gate has gone up in the middle of nowhere around km108, where it’s likely that no one will be around. Your mileage may vary!