Sunday, October 25, 2015

Cusco Craziness, October 20-25

Our time in Cusco has come to a close. We`ve spent the last week getting to know the city, drinking gallons of chocolate milk, running errands, preparing for Bolivia, and visiting this place called Michu Pacchu, or something like that. The pictures will take it from here...

Jesus` open arms overlooking the city

The old city of Cusco from the church of San Cristobal. The massive cathedral is dead center facing the spacious Plaza de Armas.

On a tour we attended, we were shown how the locals dye their wool. First they take a parasite called cochineal from its home on a cactus and smush it...

...then they mix the insect`s blood with substances such as salt, water, and different compounds from local rocks...

...creating a number of different colors. 

Adri and Tam trying on the local alpaca hats

A charango, a mandolin-like instrument local to the Peruvian and Bolivian Andes, made from an armadillo hide.

Two days of our stay were filled with an impressively organized strike by locals from Cusco and the surrounding villages to protest the proposed privatization of the ruins. Nothing was open for those two days, not even the roads through the Sacred Valley or the trains to Machu Picchu. According to a show we heard on the radio, the strike cost the tourism industry 1.5 million dollars, and that, not to mention the accompanying flood of complaints from thousands of stranded tourists, got the government`s attention. The law was repealed the following day, and we were able to begin our journey towards...

..Machu Picchu! All the trains from Ollantaytambo were full due to the previous days` road closures, so we shared a taxi with some friendly Chileans to go around the back way. It navigated a huge mountain pass and some sketchy roads like this one, arriving after a few sweaty, nauseous hours at a hydroelectric plant, from where we...

...hiked a few tranquil miles of railroad track to Machu Picchu Pueblo (or Aguas Calientes).

Heliconias abounded along the way, splashing color on the otherwise green forest.

This curious motmot was one of a few interesting birds we saw along the way. Check out its ¨racket¨ tail.

We woke up at 4 am to hike the steep trail up to Machu Picchu but were frustrated to find a gate over the bridge at the bottom. A crowd of hikers gathered before the floodgates were opened at 5, and we booked it up the trail, arriving at 5:37 only to find another gate: the site opens at 6. We didn`t mind the wait, taking pride in the fact that we had beaten the buses that leave the town beginning at 5:30. This picture was taken at about 5:40...

...and this one at 5:55

Yay, we made it!

The classic shot... I had to take one, or fifty.

A tiny part of the lesser-visited residential sector of the ruins

Spectacular rock engineering of one of the temples

Inca houses

Amazing. A tomb under the Temple of the Sun
Machu Picchu: expensive, a huge hassle, and overrun with tourists, but absolutely spectacular and totally worth it.
The icing on the cake of a wonderful day: a torrent duck, a bird we had been looking for for months!
A special thanks to Fedor and Maria Cristina for hosting us in their beautiful home! Mil gracias a ustedes!

Coming soon: Bolivia!

Monday, October 19, 2015

Pavement, Passes, and Adriana! October 10th-19th


From Tam's journal:
October 10th
Installing new brake levers on my bike takes longer than anticipated so we end up staying one more day in Ayacucho. An afternoon off with literally nothing to do is a much appreciated luxury.

The new member of our team, Adriana!

October 11th
It's a slow morning packing up and fighting traffic out of town, but when we finally reach our road it's worth it. Not only is this road newly and smoothly paved, there's a small shoulder! Although there is a bit of the usual speeding traffic we aren't bothered by it.

Here we go! Tam and Adriana

Riding by fields of colorful quinoa
Stopping for breakfast a bit out of town we are immediately surrounded by small, blood-sucking flies. It seems that whenever we come down to lower elevations these awful buggers come out in force. As we try, rather unsuccessfully, to defend ourselves, we are suddenly surrounded by new visitors- a huge herd of cows. Bells jangling, the cows wander their way by, some coming over to inspect our bikes, likely wondering if they are edible. As we watch, a bunch walk out into the road and are nearly missed by a screeching, honking car. Soon after, a lady madly waving a rope emerges from the bushes and attempts to get her cows back in line. Just another day in Peru.

The local people we pass during the rest of the climb are extremely friendly and make the biking enjoyable. We find a lovely camping spot in the high altitude grasslands and have a gourmet dinner filled with dehydrated goodies that Adri brought with her from the US. So delicious! And peanut butter with chocolate for dessert. Oh, how we have missed the stuff.

A sign on the way up: ¨Papa, don´t speed, we´re waiting for you at home.¨  Some drivers might interpret this a little differently: ¨They´re waiting for me at home! Faster!¨

October 12th
We reach the top of our pass early in the morning and enjoy some almost flat riding in the paramo before beginning a HUGE descent from 14,000 feet or so down to 6,500. Our road is super smooth with wonderful views of the valley below around every switchback. The air heats up as we go and by the time we reach the bottom I'm sweating.

Tam and Adri descending into a huge valley
As we begin to cruise along the river, suddenly we spot another touring cyclist going in the opposite direction. Leo, from France, tells us that he initially planned on biking around for a couple of months, and now he has been on the road for 11! We love his bike design; he has a metal basket mounted on the front! We enjoy swapping route notes and stories then continue on.

Hiking our bikes down to the river we find a beautiful camping spot and swimming hole. It's the perfect end to a great day. Our tents set up on the flat sand, we splash into the cool river, the water clear blue and so refreshing. As the sun begins to sink below the mountains we clamber out to enjoy the warmth of its last rays. Dinner is delicious again and we stay up late talking and enjoying the brilliant stars.

October 13th
In the first town we come to we stop for some groceries and to fill up on water. The tiny shop we stop at has big crates of avocados, citrus fruits, and mangos outside. Danny tells the lady that he would love to have an avocado tree in the future and she tells him that she has land for sale! We joke about purchasing some Peruvian land and the lady ends up giving us a whole bunch of fruit for free. So kind of her!

Slowly we begin to climb out of the river valley, stopping after a little while to have some breakfast. As we begin to gorge on mangos, an adventure-mobile pulls up. The Swiss couple inside is very friendly and have traveled all over the world! We enjoy talking for a bit with them. Check out their blog here. FYI, it´s in German, so ready the translator or go study up on your German.

A town we passed on the way up with a nice central square
After some more rather hot climbing we stop for lunch in the shade of a gas station. The owners of the place have a misbehaved Rottweiler puppy who tries to play with and eat our bikes and shoes. The puppy is named "Danger" and its owners have no idea what his name means in English. That puppy is going to be a menace when it's older.

Late in the afternoon we encounter two other touring cyclists going the opposite direction. Originally from Poland, they've been biking for almost two months and seem to be having the time of their lives. We have a blast sharing stories and laughing with them before parting ways. They plan to travel the length of the Amazon river by bicycle! Check out their crazy blog here - it´s in Polish, but no words are needed to describe the pontoon bicycle they built for the journey.

David and Hubert, two energetic new friends
October 14th
After climbing all day yesterday we finally complete our giant pass in the morning. From the top we have another beautiful, smooth descent into a river valley. I was thinking that we would cruise into the town of Andahuaylas, find a hotel, and relax for the afternoon, but... things are never quite what you expect.

As we enter the valley we notice that the sides of the road are lined with people and we are whistled to stop by some angry policemen. We exit the road just before a car decked out with bright stickers zooms by, its ridiculously loud motor audible long after it passes. It seems that the main road we were planning on riding into the city has been closed for a NASCAR type race. We're able to detour around it for a bit but then the only option is the main road. The policemen explain that we can ride on it as long as we get out of the way when the cars come by. So we ride along and wave to the people who are all watching the race. At one point we encounter a huge crowd of people, and as we bike through Danny says, "we're winning!" The people begin to laugh and wave and even take our photos as we pass by. I'm stopped by a small boy who wants my autograph. Laughing, I help him out and am enlisted for some more photos. It's the nicest welcome we've ever had to a city!

We find a great deal on a big room and spend the afternoon wandering around the city. In the central square there is an impressive, ancient stone cathedral and a cafe with gourmet apple pie which we splurge on. A trip to the market leaves us with much more food than we actually need, but I just can't resist all the cute ladies selling delicious fruits and veggies.

October 15th
After we leave the traffic of Andahuaylas we stop to pump up tires and oil chains before our climb. While we are stopped on the side of the road we see another cyclist coming up the hill behind us. He's on a speedy little road bike and clearly racing up the hill, so I'm surprised when he stops to talk to us. I'm even more surprised when I realize that he has only one leg! Yuber is extremely friendly, and we talk for a short while, soon learning that he's the Peruvian Paralympic road cycling champion! Apparently he used to be really into cycling, and after an accident three years ago where he lost his leg, he was determined to continue. What an inspiration! I imagine that walking is quite a challenge for him, but on the bike he has found such freedom. It's pretty amazing. We say goodbye and watch him start pedaling uphill, somehow managing to balance and then speed away with his one leg.

Tam and Adri with Yuber

 His jersey says ¨National Road Champion.¨ Woohoo!
Feeling rather slow and inept in comparison to this man with half the number of legs as we each have, we continue our climb, winding our way through small villages and checkered farmland and finding ourselves at the top in early afternoon. As we begin to descend, a pickup truck pulls over in front of us and a guy gets out to chat with us. Turns out he's an electrician who works in the city of Arequipa and loves mountain biking. He's excited to talk to us about our trip and even invites us to his place! What a friendly guy! This unexpected encounter really brightens our afternoon.

Classic checkerboard farmland
We're surrounded by continuous farmland and houses so we decide to stop in a small town and find somewhere to stay for the night. A sign over the town hall proclaims that we are in the "home of native potatoes." Sacks of them are everywhere. We enjoy some purplish tinged French fries from a lady in the square and find a hospedaje with five adorable kittens who we spend a good portion of the evening playing with.

Fearsome! But actually very small and cute

October 16th
The morning is drizzly and cloudy, and the road winding up out of town seems rather mysterious. Some ups and downs bring us through towns called "California" and "Los Angeles." I thought we were going south! 

Finally we hit the descent and begin a long ride into a deep and deserty valley. The wind picks up and blows us around in violent gusts, making our ride a bit more challenging than I would normally expect from pavement. Reaching the bottom we celebrate our progress with some egg and cheese sandwiches.

We found Jesus during the descent
In the afternoon we climb up into the city of Abancay. During the climb both of my tires go flat. Since getting these tires in Huaraz we haven't had a single flat on our rough dirt roads, but now on this paved road with traffic suddenly they're both gone. After Cusco we're avoiding pavement for the rest of the trip.

Trying to weave our way through the usual city traffic we are suddenly surrounded by dancers! It seems we have stumbled into the middle of a parade! Why there is a parade in the middle of what appears to be rush hour traffic is beyond me. We learn later that schools and universities have these parades once a year to celebrate the anniversary of the founding. 

Incredibly elaborate costumes and coordination

Stuck behind the parade
One thing is for sure, it makes our ride into the city much more entertaining. There are groups of dancers, decorated cars playing music, and so many elaborate costumes I hardly know where to look. There are guys in army uniform with fake guns, women in beautiful layered dresses and shawls, people in masks and many more variations. Everything is bright and festive!

We enjoy the evening with a large and quite tasty pizza, delicious apple pastries, and a visit to what I can only call a trail mix store. The store is filled with big bags of all sorts of delicious things, all in bulk. There are nuts, sweet dried fruit, cereals, veggie chips, and colorful candies. I wish every town had a store like this.

Walking back to the hotel we are entertained by even more parades, including some tiny dancers who appear to be no older than kindergarten age!

October 17
A bit of perseverance brings us up a steep hill and out of the city. Finally back riding through quiet fields, we are suddenly startled by honking horns. Coming up behind us is a caravan of large white vans decorated with streamers, purple balloons, and large religious icons. Yet another parade! There's even a truck with a marching band sitting in the back and playing live music! As we are passed, the people inside throw candy at us out of the windows. One thing is for sure, the people of Abancay love their festivities. 

The parade found us again
The rest of the day we spend climbing slowly up our pass. The traffic has increased since we've intersected with a main road from the coast and we have to keep an eye out for large tractor trailers and buses. All day it rains, and in late afternoon we enter the clouds. Visibility is low, and we put on all of our lights in an effort to make our presence known to the speeding traffic.

Finally we descend from the clouds and find a nice grassy spot to camp. Our chilly evening is brightened with some hot chocolate and warm pasta courtesy of Adriana's stove.

October 18th
After yesterday none of us is excited to continue riding on this busy road into Cusco. When we wake up with more stomach problems, we decide that our best option is to take a bus into the city. We'll be able to rest and recover sooner and avoid the crazy traffic. A short descent brings us to the town of Curahuasi, where we easily find a colectivo driver who is more than willing to strap all three of our bikes onto the roof of his vehicle. Our two hour ride into the city is a bit harrowing; like most Peruvian drivers, this guy drives liberally on the wrong side of the road and passes on blind curves, but we arrive safely, bikes intact. 

On the roof they go

Once in the city we make our way into the central plaza and immediately experience culture shock. Where are the internet cafés, bakeries, and cheap hospedajes that have been in every other Peruvian plaza? Instead we are surrounded by places such as Starbucks, McDonalds, and KFC, along with various other expensive looking cafés and stores. We can't even find internet to check on an e-mail from a contact in Cusco without buying something expensive at a restaurant for use of the wifi. I feel as if we have left Peru and gone to Europe. 

As we stand in the plaza staring at the gigantic stone cathedral, we are suddenly accosted by a group of high schoolers from Cajamarca, a city we rode through months ago in northern Peru. Every single one of the giggling students wants to take a picture with us. We stand and smile awkwardly, a bit confused, for a few minutes as they click their cameras. We tourists have suddenly become the tourist attraction.

Wandering through alleyways lined with ancient Incan stonework and locals selling colorful goods made from soft alpaca wool, we make our way to Hospedaje Estrellita. As I open the door I am greeted by Hannes, the cyclist we met back in Loja, Ecuador! He and Julia are here, as well as our friend Chris, who we met in Huaraz, and a bunch of other cyclists! I had no idea there were so many cyclists riding through South America, and they all seem to be here! We spend a wonderful evening looking at maps and sharing stories.

Hospedaje Estrellita, well known by cyclists and motorcyclists for its large courtyard and lack of stairs

One of the many narrow streets of Cusco
Incredible Inca stonework

October 19th
We spend our first day in the city getting all our errands out of the way. A proper bike shop, right across the street from our hotel, gets things started on the right foot. We spend some time sorting out new zippers for both our frame bags and Danny´s jacket, and of course we sample all the local bakeries. We´ll be here for a few days checking out ruins and preparing for the next segment of our trip.

Wall art

Once you find the zippers in some cluttered market stall, there´s no shortage of colors, types, and sizes

A well-stocked bike shop

Mango and orange juice! We decided that the classic posing picture was too boring...

so we took a more fun one

 Route notes:

We took the 3S the whole way. It goes valley to pass to valley almost the whole way from Ayacucho to Cusco, with each pass involving 4,000 to 8,000 feet of climbing. Not an easy road, but it´s paved and always gradual. Also not many natural water sources around, but plenty of irrigation and houses under about 13,000 feet (4000 m).

Ayacucho to Abancay: Somewhat trafficked but never overwhelming. We could ride side by side as long as we kept an eye on our mirrors. As a new road, the surface is smooth and there is a small shoulder. Wild camping is possible near the tops of the passes, and there´s open farmland almost everywhere else.

Ayacucho to Abancay. Units are miles and feet

Abancay to Cusco: A main coastal route from Nazca to Cusco links up with the 3S near Abancay, so the traffic increases from there to Cusco. We met a number of cyclists who had done this part, and it´s not too bad, only getting crazy in the last 20 kms or so into the city.

Abancay to Cusco

In Cusco, every street has about ten hotels. Hospedaje Estrellita on Tullumayo seems to be known as a gathering place for cyclists. It´s not the cheapest option around nor the most glamorous, but it´s clean, and with breakfast and use of a kitchen included, it´s a decent deal.