Enjoying the rough and the smooth in Peru.
27 Jul 2008
We haven't written an update since we were in Bolivia and we are now in Ecuador, so our challenge is to to tell you about our whole Peru experience in this update.....where to start?!!
Well, Peru was a wonderful mix, of riding, of landscapes, of activities, of weather and of food. We probably had a greater variety of things in the nearly 7 weeks that we were there than we have had in a long time. Rather than the consistent dry, sunny and, at the higher altitiudes, cold weather we had become accustomed to in northern Argentina and Bolivia, in Southern Peru things changed as we came off the altiplano and we had a mix of sun, cloud, hot, cold and some RAIN!! Yes, in Peru we had to put up with a few days with some rain. We even had an afternoon and evening of snowfall when we were trekking so we had it all. We also went through a huge variety of country from high barren Andean mountain landscapes to fertile colourful populated valleys and to very green humid and flatter jungle.
Crossing from Bolivia to Peru was not a big change with the landscape at first being very similar and the people wearing similar clothes and looking the same. However, the people were almost instantly more outgoing and certainly in our experience more outwardly friendly than the Bolivians. We had heard really mixed reports of the Peruvian people with some other travellers saying they felt the people were rude, unfriendly and at times they even felt threatened. Well, we're delighted to say that our experience was completely different.....picture the scene: on our first day we rode past an elderly couple at the side of the road carrying their usual heavy loads. They gave us great smiles as we passed and then just after we stopped to take a photo. As Nick was lining up his shot the old lady came up to me and took my hand from my handlebar and held it in hers and looked me straight in the eyes and said "Bienvenidos a Peru Señorita" and then just walked on. It was such a sincere and touching gesture I could have wept! And I have to say that it really set the scene for our overall interaction with the Peruvian people; they were warm, friendly and helpful. It has to be said that they also took great delight in calling out "Gringo" or "Gringa" as we passed (something that we hadn't had before)which we know upsets some people, but we just felt it was never said in any way offesively and was just a nice way of acknowledging our presence and making contact.
Lake Titicaca was our next stop after La Paz. It's about 170kms long, 60kms wide and sits at an altitiude of 3830m. It is shared between Bolivia and Peru with the border going across the middle, and it is apparently the highest navigable lake in the world. It is also very beautiful, with the mountains of the Cordillera Real making a wonderful backdrop. After we had climbed the 12kms out of La Paz inhaling large quatities of carbon monoxide (but with great views of the city), and a further 10kms through El Alto breathing in a few more fumes, our ride from La Paz was excellent. We had the mountains on our right, including Huayna Potosi that we had climbed, and then after about 60kms we got our first views of the Lake. We then rode along it's shores and up and down some rolling hills through some lovely villages to the town of Copocabana, which is the place where you can take a boat trip to the Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun). It's a popular tourist thing to do but it still maintains great charm and loads of history. We had a lovely night there in a hostal in a quiet village in the company of an Irish, an American and an Italian as we watched local fishermen bring in their nets in the bay as the sun set.... "muy tanquilio" as they say here.
We all visited some Inca ruins on the island the next day in the company of a local archaeologist who gave us loads of great information in Spanish that was then translated to us in English by our new Italian friend!!
Our next stop was the historical and very important town of Cuzco. It was once the foremost city of the Inca Empire and according to our guide book is now " the undisputed archaeological capital of the Americas". It is also of course the Gateway to Machu Picchu which is probably the biggest tourist draw card in Peru and one of the historical wonders of the world. The outskirts of the town left much to be desired in cycling terms and did little to impress or indeed prepare us for the wonderful historical centre that was to come, with its beautiful cobbled streets, wonderful main Plaza and fabulous old churches and other historical buildings. It really is a lovely place that just oozes history. Of course with all the appeal it means many Gringos and higher prices but it is still a 'must see' place and one we thoroughly enjoyed. It also happened to have one of the best cafes (is there a theme emerging in these updates of ours?!!!) which had great views over the plaza from the balcony and every day we were there there were large groups of dancers in traditional dress dancing around the plaza as part of the week long build up to the Inti Raimi festival, the Festival of the Sun, and the biggest party of the year in this area.
Machu Picchu itself is a train and bus ride away from Cuzco. You head for the small, and very expensive town, of Aguas Calientes and then either walk or take a very expensive bus up to the ruins (there is nothing cheap about Machu Picchu! the one day entry fee is about $45 per person, which is very expensive in this part of the world, and apparently going to go up in the future!). We were tempted to walk but we also wanted to save our energy and time for when we were in the ruins themselves so we joined the bus queue at 6am to join the throng of other Gringos making their way up for sunrise and to make the most of the quieter time before the day tour hords arrived.
As with so many of these things, you can look at loads of picures of a place but it is nothing like seeing the real thing. Actually being there gives you so much more in terms of the whole environment and the feel...if that makes sense. It's not just the ruins of Machu Picchu that are impressive, it's the whole place: the spectacular location and the realisation of how difficult it must have been to build such an incredibly well structured city in such an inaccessible place. The amazing thing is that this ancient city remains a mystery to archaeologists and apparently they rely heavily on speculation and educated guess work with regard to its history and function. In many ways this somehow adds to its charm and allows you to speculate yourself as you walk around. Above the ruins is the hill of Wayna Picchu that also has some ruins at the top. There is a steep path where they limit the number of visitors per day. It is certainly worth the walk as it gives a wonderful birds eye view of the main ruins and of the whole place.
In the middle of the day the huge number of people unfortunately started to detract from our experience - we're not good in really busy tourist sites! There are apparently about 2500 people per day and despite advice from UNESCO they don't limit the numbers, it's far to good an opportuntiy to make lots of money. Just trying to find a quiet place to eat lunch was almost impossible. However, with that aside we thoroughly enjoyed our visit and were very glad we went. We had also managed to do a walk the day before from Aguas Calientes that takes you up a hill across from the ruins and gave us spectacular views, with very few other people, so it certainly helped to complete the total package.
The influence of the Incas is huge in all of Peru, despite the fact that they were only around for about a century before the Spanish got here. So in addition to Machu Picchu we have visited several ruins, walked on some of their amazing paved roads and even camped on one of their hill terraces. Of course there are loads of places we haven't visited but to be honest if we stopped at them all we could have been in Peru for a year, which is time we didn't have.
Talking of time, after Cuzco we realised that we didn't have that much of it left considering the ground we still had to cover. We therefore decided that we would need the help of a couple of buses in Peru. We took the bus from Cuzco to Lima, allowing us to see the capital city, which isn't the most impressive capital we've seen but it was good to visit none the less. We then took another bus back in to the mountains to a town called Huancayo and cycled from there to Tarma which is a town they call "the eyebrow of the jungle". The road drops down and down from here for about 3500m on the East side of the Andes to the jungle at about 400m. We had decided that we really had to make at least one visit to the Amazon Basin as such a large percentage of Peru is made up of the Amazon jungle (and Boliva for that matter) so a trip in this part of the world would not be complete without it.
We were looking for an adventure and we certainly got one...... but not quite the kind of adventure we had planned. We didn't know of any other cyclists who had done this route and we know that most travellers visiting the jungle generally fly to one of the main towns...... now we know why!! Despite asking several people about the road and the availability of provisions, accomodation, etc., not one person mentioned the condition of the road or how much up and down was involved. Looking at the map it all looked fairly straightforward and, if anything, the distances between accommodation looked pretty short. About 4 days tops we thought as we ventured off the tarmac again and on to the dirt. All started well with good road and fairly flat riding for the first morning, however that was where the easy bit stopped........the next 6 days were spent riding on one of the most outrageous roads we have ever been on. Yes, I know we've said it before and that we are always finding an even toughter road than the one before, but this one really was the worst yet. We had slippy wet mud, we had huge pot holes with knee deep puddles, we had thick thick mud, we had thick gravel and we had loads of up and down. Character building we think it's called!! Not suprisingly the only vehicles on the road were trucks or 4 wheel drive pick ups, the only form of public transport available (a bus would never have made it!) so all of them full of local people spilling out the back and holding on for dear life. Any time we asked people how far it was to the next place it was always, "muy lecho" (very far) which, when you are pretty knackered, the light is failing and camping is not really an option because there are very few suitable places, it's really hot and there are apparently many poisinous snakes around, it's not really what you want to hear. As a rule we try to never ride in the dark but we finished twice in the dark on this particular leg of our trip, one night walking about 7kms in the pitch black pushing our bikes in the company of one big snake that I almost trod on and 3 locals who took us to a refugio where we could spend the night. Over the whole time we pushed our bikes more than we have on the whole of the rest of the trip and fell off more than we have before too! The whole thing in fact was a real test of our off road skills and I have to say we ended up doing sections that in the past I would have been pretty chuffed about doing on an unloaded suspension mountain biking, never mind a fully loaded touring bike!! However, all good fun as they say and certainly a time we will remember. Sadly we didn't see all the wonderful jungle animals and birds that you read about as apparently you have to get much further in to the jungle where there are less people, but we did see a few snakes and heard many different birds. We did in fact camp one night as there were no other options, and as we set up our tent in the drizzling rain in the thick jungle next to a river we thought of Paddington Bear from deepeest darkest Peru. We never saw him but we reckon he must be from around there somewhere!!!
Feeling pretty exhausted and a bit drained we took a pick up and a bus back up to the mountains in search of fresh air and better roads. We had actually always planned to bus this part because we had been warned that it was a dangerous bit of road and several robberies have taken place here, mainly due to drug trafficking apparently! On one section of the road an armed guard got on the bus with a very large shot gun to accompany us for the worst stretch, so we were pretty happy not to be riding. We stayed in a town called Huanuco at about 1800m recovering for a couple of days, then carried on North West on another very rough (but nothing like what we had just been on), very hilly and very beautiful route back across the Andes. It took us over a 4900m pass through the Huascan National park that is full of wonderful peaks over 6000m. You really feel like you're in the Andes up there.
All the cycling through the mountains just made us want to get in amongst them and that's just what we had planned to do from the town of Huaraz which is the main centre for trekking and climbing in the Cordillera Huahuash (which is where the story of 'Touching the Void' took place for those of you who have read the book or seen the movie) and the Cordillera Blanca. We decided on a 3 day trek and 2 days climbing a peak called Vallanarapu (5686m)in the Cordillera Blanca. It turned out to be a wonderful mix with mostly good weather, apart from our snow fall one day, and we managed to miss the crowds. Our trek took us up one valley, the Quebrada Quilcayhuanca over a 5000m pass with some snow and down another wonderful u-shaped valley called the Quebrada Cojup. The next morning we met a guide with all the technical equipment and another couple from Denmark for the peak. We walked up to the moraine camp at 4900m which had wonderful views of the beautiful mountain Ranrapalca (6162m). Once again we had an early start for the peak, 2am this time which was perfect timing to arrive on the summit as the sun was rising. We just love it!!
It was then back on the bikes back down hill on the west of the mountains to a town called Trujilio on the north coast. It's here that the now famous, amongst cycle tourists, Lucho has a 'Casa de Cyclists'. Lucho has basically opened up his house as a place for cycle tourists to stay. He is a talented bike mechanic with a workshop in the house and he is happy to fix any problems you might have. He is completely nuts about cycling and has done a bit of touring himself but more road racing and he just loves to offer his services and help cyclists when he can. He's a lovely guy with a very tolerant family and is a great example to us all, we hope we might be able to return his hospitality one day but the chances of him making it to Scotland on a typical Peruvian salary is sadly unlikely.
It was then on another bus (we've done a lot in Peru!)to Tumbes, a town on the border with Ecuador and time to head for yet another new country. However, looking back to our last bit of Bolivia and Peru we realise we have managed to watch the sun rise and set on one of the highest navigable lakes in the world, visit one of the 7 historical wonders of the world, cycle in one of the most famous jungles in the world, trek in one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the world and interact with some of the friendliest people we have met, so not bad for a few weeks of travelling...... and a time as always with many great memories to treasure.
Now we´re off to 'do' Ecuador and see what other adventures lie ahead. Our plan is to cycle up through Ecuador then to Bogota in Columbia. We have decided that after hearing so many great reports from other cyclists about Columbia that we want to visit there, and I suppose feel we have completed our journey up the Andes. We then have a flight booked from Bogota on the 30th August to Tijuana in North Mexico where we will cross the border to San Diego where my mum is coming out to meet us at a friends house. 4 of us then plan to head off on a road trip in the South West for a couple of weeks, which will be a bit of a culture shock but one we are really looking forward to. This of course means that we are missing Mexico but it's very hot there now and we just didn't want to rush our time away in South America. Better to do less well than try to do more feeling rushed we reckoned. We had also originally planned to go to Cuba but unfortunately that's not going to be possible now. It will all still be there for another time.
As always we hope you are all well and still enjoying the updates.
Vicky and Nick