Into the Andes: Peru (Part I)
“Peru, Peru. My heart’s lighthouse.” ~ Steven Patrick Morrissey, Singer/Author
Cycling around in the Andes of an ancient civilization like the Inca, can give you unique perspective into the nature of then and now. We as humans like to believe that we are somewhat indestructible. We think that our particular civilization is the centre of the world and will last forever. I am sure most people in ancient Egyptian, Roman and Incan societies all thought this. We think we are the best and our way of life will continue to spread forever. However, only remnants remain of all these once powerful and great nations.
Have we learned nothing? Are we that deeply vain to believe our current life-ways will be any different? It is clear at our rate of consumption and modern way of living will not last on the course we are on. Tensions rise over non-renewable resources like gold, oil and diamonds. Wars still being fought over who the same man in the sky favours. Are we still this primitive with all our modern advances? I guess we are.
We have the intelligence to sustain ourselves in peaceful ways, but we choose to ignore the thoughtful path and let economists dictate the future of our world. Maybe not in my lifetime, but in the future another change will come and people will wonder how we all didn’t see it coming. It doesn’t take traveling long on ground level to see that the Chinese have already won the secret quiet economic war they are waging, no matter what the ‘value’ of the American dollar would have you believe. Weren’t they just on the brink of economic collapse? I guess everyone just forgot about it. While the world worries about immigration and ISIS, the Chinese shrug their shoulders and lend out another stack of cash and build another road in exchange for resources in Africa. I admire their ability to do it all so quietly with all eyes diverted to more entertaining developments. Grab your bottled water and microwave popcorn.
It was a rainy afternoon when I past into Peru from Bolivia. The rain picked up and turned the dusty border town into a muddy soup. I decided to resume my journey the following day as I checked into a cheap guesthouse to shake off the rain. The following day saw me riding along the vast banks of the highest navigable lake in the world, Lake Titicaca. It was beautiful views to the right as hungry clouds puffed their muscles waiting to unleash in the afternoon. Being the rainy season in Peru, it rained with predictability almost every afternoon and most of the night. This meant my days started much earlier than usual. On one occasion I tried outrunning the clouds, which eventually caught me. They unleashed a freezing cold rain, followed by painful hail, that turned into snow and back into a horrible rain to finish things off.
During the sunny hours I plied along windy roads waving to farmers working their fields along the banks of the life-giving Titicaca. I made my way to the first large city of Puno, where I celebrated Christmas. It was another quiet Christmas for the guy on the bike. I walked about the main plaza wearing a santa hat I had bought and listened to the local police brigade play in their orchestral tribute to Christmas. I decided to treat myself to a new pair of shoes, as mine were looking battered and the smell was overpowering for the unsuspecting person. I found a new pair in the market and said goodbye to the shoes that pedalled roads since Egypt. For dinner I had some roasted chicken and got to bed early.
I was off the next morning towards Cusco. The road was relatively flat and riding was quick for the first section. At one point though I found myself at the summit of a 4,300 metre pass huffing for air up a slow hill. It was a good thing I had no idea it was coming or it would have been a harder mental battle to get going that morning. At the top of the pass I met another Canadian cyclist for the first time on my trip. We chatted for over an hour and wished each other good luck. We both had a huge downhill to look forward to. I flew like the wind for the next 40km meeting a German couple and a Korean cyclist on the way. I met more cyclists on the stretch from Puno to Cusco over four days than I did the entire time I was in Africa.
The road to Cusco became an up and down struggle but the valley views were spectacular and life in the little villages along the road was interesting. Putting in my last uphill battle I pulled into Cusco surrounded by honking horns and hoards of traffic spewing the typical fumes in my face. Tiny mini buses cut me off at every chance and people just did whatever they wanted on the road. Peruvian drivers are very impatient and don’t do well with stalled traffic in front of them. They honk as if their horns will suddenly part the cars and they will be given the all clear to go.
In Cusco I stayed at the Estrellita, which is known to be the hostel where cyclists congregate. It didn’t disappoint and soon I had met a good group of people waiting to celebrate New Years. Some of the French travellers put together a nice New Years dinner and we played some sort of miming game. I explored a bit of Cusco, but found it to be one of the most touristy cities on my trip. I found some local restaurants that served nice food for cheap, away from the centre of tourist pizza heaven. For lunch in Peru I always looked for the market. Almost every town has at least one central market, where for one or two dollars you could get a deliciously unique soup and a full meal with a drink. On the road this was always a welcome break and gave me the energy to continue tackling the monstrous hills that lay waiting for me in the afternoon.
From Cusco I took off towards Machu Picchu. It had been one of the few pin-points on the map I had actually planned on seeing during my time in South American. Most people in town were organizing some expensive tour to the site, which I could not afford or wanted to be apart of. The ticket itself was a huge expense for me, but I didn’t mind paying it. The cheapest route there involves a 5 hour collective van, followed by an additional van of 2 hours, which ends at a place called Hydro-Electrica. Here backpackers walk along the train tracks towards Agua Calientes, the town, at the foot of Machu Picchu. The train almost totally empty at times is the biggest scam going with white table clothes and white collar tourists. The walk to the town took an additional 3 hours on the tracks and I arrived to the sight of burritos and overpriced pizza once again. I was actually amazed by the power of tourism and the Disney Land created in the beautiful Inca valley.
“Few romances can ever surpass that of the granite citadel on top of the beetling precipices of Machu Picchu, the crown of Inca Land.” ~ Hiram Bingham, Explorer
I grabbed a cheap dinner from the local market from a friendly lady and was off to bed. Up at 4am I started my climb with the line of other sleepy travellers to the top of Machu Picchu. There was already a line for the bus to the top. Yes, there is a bus to the top. For $24US you do not have to walk a step to get all the way to the top of one of the world’s most iconic and historical feats of ancient human creation. I arrived at 6am in time to enter and see the site before all the crowds arrived. Changing my shirt already soaked from the climb up I came around a corner to see the view for the first time and was blown away in the morning light. It was truly worth it. All of the effort cycling to get here made my contemplative moments more special, as I gazed over the terraced walls and restored structures.
I thought about the other pin-points on the map I had brought myself to with the power of the bicycle. The Taj Mahal, Iguazu Falls, The Great Wall, Pyramids and Colosseum. I found sitting there on the edge of the world, that same old feeling I always had at these places. Of course I was once again humbly overwhelmed when you consider the scope and grandeur of it all. I truly am a lucky person and I know it. However, I felt the feeling of emptiness. These places now only exist for tourists to come in droves with selfie sticks to share on Facebook. It is not these wonders which have given me the rich experiences I have achieved on the road. Sure these are massive pin-points on the map. They are somewhere to look forward to and set your sights on, but they are never the objective. What I love is what is in between. Meeting the people that call these countries home and seeing a clear road challenging me. I missed the freedom of my bike and returned down the same path to Cusco. I packed up and continued onwards where the real adventure and memories are made. For me, they are found out there on the road.
After Cusco I had a huge choice to make which would dictate the course of my Peruvian trip. I could head down to the coast where riding would be much flatter, warmer and easier, but far less interesting. My second choice, was the intensely difficult Andean route towards the Amazon where, I heard from my good friend and cyclist Steve, you could take a boat up the Amazon to Ecuador. The second sounded like the type of adventure I thrive on. From Cusco the climbs began and they didn’t stop. For days I would spend my entire day crawling up mountains at 6km an hour to reach summits over 4,000 metres. At the top I would be treated to a stunning view and then race downhill for next hour or two. Then repeat it all over again. The highs and lows were literal and mentally battles crushing.
On the road I broke my rear cassette at the top of a mountain pass and strode downhill with no pedals. I eventually found a spot to fix my bike and had to have my whole rear wheel rebuilt. I finally found some quality parts and took the opportunity to repair a few lingering problems. Out of a city called Abancay I descended some 10km and then climbed up 45km along a road that looked like it was a stray piece of spaghetti. At the end of the day, as the sun was getting low, I finally reached the top of my climb to see where I started my day. It was the first time I have rode all day long and could still see where I had begun. The climbs here were by far the most massive and difficult of my journey. Nothing can ever compare. The mountains from here wound their way along beautiful cliffs and windy stunning roads to Ayacucho, where I took a day to rest.
Here I ran into a French cyclist, named Remy, who I had met in La Paz and Cusco. We decided to ride to Huancayo together. Along the way we communicated in Spanish as his English was poor and so was my French. Our collective Spanish was surprisingly better. From Ayacucho the route was dry and full of cacti. The road narrowed and turned into a one-track route. We pushed through terribly steep climbs along the river, inside massive canyons. We camped in tiny towns, shared food and stories. One day we saw a small gathering of people where a truck had flipped off the side of the mountain and lay on the roof. Clearly the passengers had not survived and we were silent for a long while afterwards, each playing with our own thoughts. The riding in this section was extremely slow and involved a lot of hard work.
Camping in a small town we cooked dinner in a space where we were told to sleep. The village crowded around to watch us cook our dinner and asked us the same questions on repeat. I was slightly irritated at this point and wanted everyone to just give me a moment of peace after another long day. The next day saw some faster riding and we made good time until reaching yet another 35km hill. We talked it over and agreed that climbing this pass today was not in either of our interests or would make our trips any more fulfilling. From here we took a lift over the rest of the mountain pass and to Huancayo where we found a big proper dinner.
At this point Remy and I said our goodbyes. We both had a bit of a different way of riding after so long on solo missions. We also had different routes which we intended to take. It was nice riding with someone for a few days and I truly appreciated the company. However, I know myself and I always do better on my own. It is hard to describe to people when they ask about being alone, but if they were on this type of journey they might then understand how flying solo makes sense. Undertaking a trip like this you must know and understand yourself very well, if you are to involve another person in it with you. I spent the following day getting my dirty laundry sorted and explored the crazy weekend market of Huancayo, where I ate a delicious ceviche. For Peru’s claim to fame in culinary beauty and simplicity, see a recipe here on one of my favourites, delicious CEVICHE.
“A bicycle does get you there and more. And there is always the thin edge of danger to keep you alert and comfortably apprehensive. Dogs become dogs again and snap at your raincoat; potholes become personal. And getting there is all the fun.” ~ Bill Emerson, Writer/Journalist
From Huancayo I made my way to the Jewel of the Andes, Tarma. It was a bit of a long day with a huge mountain pass that never seemed to end. The dogs in Peru are notorious among cyclists for being some of the worst in the world. They definitely did not disappoint on this day. I made it to the top and the sun began to start sinking behind the mountains and as I wound my way down to the city. It was one of the most beautifully set places I have ever rode into. With perfect looking terraces stretching out along the switchbacks, I meandered with my mouth open past waterfalls and beautiful green into Tarma at the heart of the valley. I found a cheap place to sleep and debated my onwards route through the Andes or to sink down early into the Amazon. Discussing with a few locals solved my problem and the next morning I found myself on a 75km downhill into the Amazon Basin. For many stretches in Peru the views have been stunning, but commuication with home and my beautiful supportive fiancé has been a bit more difficult than we all would like sometimes.
The weather changed almost instantly and the people seemed to change as well. It was as if I had entered a completely different country. Everyone wore flip-flops and seemed very laid back. There were pineapples for sale and even coconuts in fridges serving up cold coconut water. One of the best things you can drink on a hot day while cycling. I explored the little towns as I went and began to see fruits I had never seen before. Places like La Merced, Villa Rica and Puerto Bermudez were waypoints for me as I made my route towards Pucallpa. There were two large climbs on dirt roads which I sweat over ten litres of water. It was for sure top five hottest places on my journey and definitely the most humid. It was too hot to do much of anything, let alone cycle up the side of a mountain. However, I persevered for three days of sweat filled beautiful riding.
On one day late in the afternoon I was racing down a hill after a long climb when a truck stopped me to chat. A nice man named Walter introduced himself and invited me to stay the night. I happily agreed. Walter was 81 years old and was still working as a farmer. He got up everyday at five to tend to his animals and milk his cows. He was also rebuilding his house at the moment after some ‘terrorists’ destroyed it. I never understood what exactly happened to his house, but he was super welcoming all the same. He was of Italian origin and had lived in Peru all of his life. I enjoyed our chats together and after breakfast the following day, we took a photo and said goodbye. Another kind friend from the road.
I spent the night the following day, after a horribly steep climb, along one of the tributaries to the Amazon in Puerto Bermudez at the guesthouse of Spanish born Jesus. In 18 years of owning this rustic guesthouse, I was the first to arrive on bicycle. A huge complement and an example of how off the main track I had gotten myself. I was happy to share some stories with Jesus (believe me he had a lot) and left early the following day. From here it was a two day ride to Pucallpa, where the road literally ends and my Amazon boat adventure would begin. I sweat like crazy all day in the hot sun. The year was decidedly abnormal as it usually rains almost all day here during this time in the rainy season. Jesus made it clear he was very worried about this. However, it had not being raining at all. If it had the road would have been mostly washed away or impassable on a bike.
Sleeping in a mosquito filled guesthouse I got little sleep and started riding at 5am to make Pucallpa. However, my legs and energy levels were not agreeing. I felt sick and slightly cold, which was not a good sign. I was either dehydrated or had eaten something of poor choosing. I looked at the next hill like it was a mountain. I had nothing left in me and my legs felt very weak. A van passed by and picked me up. Finishing the day in Pucallpa, I was very ill and spent the following day recovering in a state of exhaustion. However, I had made it. Not the way I intended to arrive, but I was here and ready for my next adventure. We cannot always predict our paths in life, but sometimes must take them as they are and accept that it all happens for some reason or another. The story picks up in the following post, where the road ends and I float my bike down the Amazon River towards Ecuador.
The route through the Andes and down to Pucallpa in the Amazon Basin was wildly difficult. It was also some of the most stunning scenery I have ever been privileged to. The downhills were extraordinary and the stars at night jumped out of the canvas sky like real life characters. I would recommend the Andean route to anyone who has a bit of time and some patience for struggle. The alternative Pan-American Highway along the coast would have given me little to wonder about later on.
“If I listen I have the advantage, if I speak others have it.” ~ Peruvian Proverb
The Andean route of Peru was well worth my while and given me insight into a world I never knew exist. Life for the local people here is tough. It has few rewards and is demanding of mind and body to survive. I am happy to have shared a piece of their struggle. We are all not that different. We all want the same things in life; whether it is now or hundreds of years back during the time of the Inca. We are all chasing that internal dream of light and energy we call, the good life.
*In a weeks time I will be visiting our charity project with Free the Children in Ecuador. I am very excited about this opportunity and look forward to sharing with you my experiences afterwards. I am still also sending out three more handwritten thank you letters to the next three sponsors. CLICK HERE TO DONATE.
**At the moment I am now cycling in Ecuador. After an adventure and a half up the Amazon, I have made it through Peru. It was a challenging and beautiful journey. Update and photos from that adventure to come soon.
***A Canadian friend I met while traveling in China and Kyrgyzstan, has just released a new travel blog for adventure backpackers and travel enthusiasts. Stephan goes to some pretty interesting countries and has a lot of experience in the wild yonder of our world. Check out his site here, with a travel guide specifically for Peru at http://www.unchartedbackpacker.com.
Posted on February 1, 2016, in Adventure, Around the World, Bolivia, Charity, Cycling, Ecuador, Food, Free the Children, Inspiration, Motivation, Peru, Thoughts, Travel and tagged Abancay, Adventure, Amazing, Amazon, Andes, Around the World, Awesome, Ayacucho, Backpacking, Beautiful, Bicycle, Challenge, change, Charity, Cusco, Cycle Touring, Cycling, Cycling Peru, Cycling the World, Dreams, Ecuador, Excitement, Explore, fear, Food, Free the Children, Freedom, Fundraising, Goals, Huancayo, Inspiration, Kindness, Machu Picchu, motivation, Mountains, nature, Oneadventureplease, Our World, People, Peru, Peruvian, Riding, Scenery, South America, Tarma, The Road, Thoughts, Tourism, Travel, Travel Photos, travelogue, Travelpics. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.