This is the bizarre tale of how Sam and I found ourselves under arrest for 18 hours in a remote Peruvian village. Charges loosely revolved around suspicion of wanting to “steal their children” and generally do ”bad things”, making it easily rank as one of the most absurd things ever to happen to me.
Rather than simply dwell on the pertinent issue, I’ll pick up the story from the point we left Cajamarca, the town which served as our base for a week or so, and in doing so will hopefully balance out the negativity with some really good stuff. It’s a tale of two halves in every sense: ‘The Good’, followed immediately by ‘The Ugly’.
A couple of hours later, famished and fatigued, we pulled ourselves over the second pass and started down the rough decent towards the town of Cachachi, where a late lunch beckoned. It was all-downhill from here in every sense. A cracking couple of days of riding was about to be brought to an abrupt halt.
About half way down we passed through a small village, not more than ten or so houses, and were waved down by two chaps. This wasn’t the usual ‘stop for an enthusiastic chat’ scenario though, they were not impressed and angrily informed us we weren’t welcome here and could not pass. Slightly taken aback we explained we had no intention of stopping and simply wanted to continue on the road to Cachachi for some much needed lunch. This fell on deaf ears though, and increasingly not liking the direction things were heading, Sam and I exchanged glances and tried to make a run for it. We didn’t get far. The two men ran after us shouting and before we knew it the entire village (by which I mean around 30 people) had rushed to the road. Men grabbed at our bikes and women started picking up rocks, things were looking ugly.
Forced to stop, and then surrounded by a circle of angry villagers, the inquisition commenced. It was hard to get a word in edgeways through the barrage of shouting that ensued; “bad gringos” “not allowed here” “we know what you do; steal things, steal children” “why else are you here??”. This was not going well. We were used to friendly locals with beaming smiles, this lot were a different breed. When the commotion died down we explained as best we could that we were simply cycling through and had no intention to stop, let alone steal their grubby children. After all it’s a public road isn’t it?! Apparently not in their eyes, gripped by paranoia they seem to take it pretty seriously when a stranger arrives in their isolated little world. The concept of cycling for the sake of cycling, especially on such a trying route, was beyond their comprehension and they were convinced that deeper, more sinister motives existed.
The frustration was overwhelming and both of us were pulling our hair out. No amount of explaining on our part was helping; the expression ‘talking to a brick wall’ has never felt more apt. We were bad gringos and we weren’t to go anywhere. It’s tempting to draw parallels with witch-hunts in medieval times; “if they drown they’re innocent” and all that codswallop. Before long passports had been confiscated and the severity of the situation was starting to become apparent; lunch plans would have to be put on hold. By this point we would have happily gone back the way we’d come, scaling both passes again, but even that was not permitted. We were to remain in their custody until the local vigilantes, ‘La Ronda’, had investigated our motives.
Given that ‘La Ronda’ were otherwise occupied, presumably out gringo hunting, we would have to wait a couple of hours for their arrival. In the meantime the villagers did their best to humiliate us, commencing with all belongings having to be unpacked and laid out for inspection. With the unveiling of each item all eyes were focused intently on extracting some incriminating piece of evidence, “A tent” “Why do you need a tent!!?” “Tourists stay in hotels” “I knew they weren’t tourists!”. It was insufferable and I could barely suppress my sarcasm as I presented the second pair of boxer shorts for inspection. In the end the best they could do was make a fuss about our Swiss army knives, which were classified as “illegal arms” and taken off us. This, in a land where five year olds walk around with machetes.
After a time things settled down and we were able to sit in peace, whilst the ridiculous nature of our situation fully sank in. Arrested for cycling on a road, hardly crimes against humanity. With the whole village still watching us, kids peering from behind the safety of their parents, we mused on what the hell their problem was. Clearly there was a deep routed mistrust of foreigners, no doubt stemming from stories, true or otherwise, of gringos committing heinous acts. Given their relative isolation you could understand these stories getting blown out of proportion and circulated to such an extent that the whole village is brainwashed in a similar fashion to Islamic extremists, only slightly less ‘extreme’. There’s also no doubt that the mining industry has helped fuel this anti-gringo mentality, with foreign companies ravaging the land and exploiting it’s people for centuries (not to mention contaminating their water). An understandable torment. Was this therefore simply an outburst of all that pent up frustration? Were we just the unlucky victims to bear the brunt of years of gringo angst?
The hours ticked by, punctuated only by the passing through of an election campaign team, which only added to the hilarity of it all. Excited to run into gringos they eagerly shook our hands before anyone else’s, posed with us for photos and then asked why we were sat there. The reply met with sympathy, but, although they said a few words in our defense, it wasn’t a battle they wanted to fight (it’s all about the votes after all).
Eventually, nearing dusk, ‘La Ronda’ finally showed up. Not quite the Mad Max vigilante we’d half expected, rather a diminutive old man. Our fate appeared to be in his hands, and fortunately he seemed relatively reasonable (relative being the operative word). He examined the passports and requested that we unpack everything again so that he could painstakingly write a list of every single item. By this point we’d given up protesting and dutifully performed a repeat of the process, which the villagers found no less entertaining the second time round. After this palava was complete it was concluded that we should be escorted on foot the 10km or so to Cachachi where we’d be handed over to the police. A brilliant over-reaction, but we were pretty happy just to get the hell out of this place.
Given that it was now well after dark though this was all going to have to wait to the morning and it was decided we’d have to spend the night with the old man, under a sort of ‘house arrest’. A rather awkward night ensued with his extended family, all squeezed into the tiny mud walled home. The cramped conditions meant sleep was minimal for both us, but we could taste freedom and were happy to be on our way as we started our march into town. Feeling like convicts on our way to the gallows as we were paraded through the subsequent villages, a couple of well-aimed rotten tomatoes were all that would have been needed to complete the scene.
On arrival in Cachachi we were proudly presented to the local police chief, who ironically was a white Peruvian from Lima. Amazing. Instantly all anxiety evaporated and as expected he put matters right in about two sentences, something along the lines of; “It’s a free road, they’re just tourists, there’s no problem.” Its difficult to say what was more of a relief; the fact that it was all over or that we’d actually encountered rational thinking again, an amazingly refreshing concept.
And so, this whole saga was brought to an end as abruptly as it had arisen. With passports now back in our possession we were free to leave the absurdity of it all behind us, taking away from it a strange insight into the phenomenon of ‘gringo fear’ and a good “This one time in Peru…” anecdote for whipping out at dinner parties when we’re old and boring.
See here for Sam’s account.
Notes For Other Riders:
The village in question is called Santa Rosa and is a bit less than 10km from Cachachi and 3 or 4km from the top of the second pass. My GPX track of the route from Jesus to Santa Rosa is saved here.
Given that other cyclists have ridden this without issue I’d say it’s still worth doing (it’s a pretty epic route). The police in Cachachi assured us there shouldn’t be any issues in the future, but I’d recommend simply blasting through this area (it’s a descent), taking them by surprise and not stopping for anyone. Another option would be to obtain written permission from the police in Jesus or Cajamarca to ride the route.