City life and Inka ruins

I got quite settled in the town of Cusco after a well needed one week break from my bike. The Hostal Estrellita and the many cyclists staying there made for a nice base camp. I enjoyed the city life, the great variety of food, the culture fix of the Inka ruins and a bit of  shopping therapy. Cusco (3310m) is a beautiful town with a pleasant climate.  Almost every central street has remains of Inca walls, arches and doorways. The perfect Inka stonework now serves as the foundation for more modern dwellings. I love getting lost in the streets and finding nice places….enjoying Cusco’s special kind of energy. Hundreds of thousands of visitors pass through every year and it’s a busy place, but one can still find some quiet spots.

I first thought I would like to do some trekking in the surrounding mountains and intensely studied the map. I than thought it might be nicer to explore the sacred valley by bike, but after some more studying the map I decided to go for the easy lazy option of exploring it by bus. Mainly because of the climb between Cusco and the sacred valley, as well as the logistic problems of being high season and traffic issue. I still really would love to do some trekking in the area and will have to come back some other time. I also have a special interest in weaving and textiles and this area is known for this beautiful art. There is several weaving and textile cooperatives in town and some good displays to be enjoyed…and shopping to be done:)

I bought myself a ‘Boleto Turistico de Cusco’ for 130 Soles (about $55) which allowed me to visit several Inka ruins in the vicinity of Cusco and in the Sacred Valley, as well as some Museums in town. I was most impressed by Saqsaywaman, also called ‘Sexy woman’, an impressive fortress construction of huge blocs of stone. On sunday I made a trip to Pisaq (36km from Cusco), which is well known for it’s sunday market and its Inka fortress. It’s a stiff 1,5h walk up from the village via old agricultural stone terraces and along the ridge past several small sites of ruins before one encounters the main ruins. It’s a beautiful setting with great views and I very much enjoyed the walk…so much I walked all the way back down too. I than carried all the way on down the valley by bus to Ollantaytambo (78km from Cusco) to visit more Inka ruins and the gigantic stones there. There were a lot of tourists around and the going was slow but the site impressive. It took about 2h to get back to town with the local bus. The next day I was off to Machu Picchu by bus, a 6h ride past  Ollantaytambo and via the beautiful Abra Malaga (4313m), a stunning drive, followed by a 2h walk along a river on train tracks rounding the base of the Machu Picchu mountain. The next morning we were up for a 4am start in the rain and the race was on to the top. I managed to be in the first dozen people to arrive at the entrance and we had Machu Picchu to ourself for a brief moment before the masses arrived (there was a bus option also). There is a tremendous feeling of awe on first witnessing Machu Picchu, and the clouds only added to the mystic atmosphere. The ancient citadel is a complete Inka city straddeling the saddle of a high mountain (2380m) with steep terraced slopes falling away to the river below. While on the guided tour the sun came out and made for a more pleasant ambiente. I did some more exploring on my own before we had to rush back down to catch the train back, followed by the 6h bus ride. Machu Picchu is truly amazing and well worth the visit. The setting is stunning, somehow reminds me of Fiordland, just on a bigger scale. It was a couple of long days and I felt like I’ve been away for more than a week.

After a rest day in Cusco, I did one more excursion in direction of the Sacred Valley, visiting the Ruins Morey, the Salineras – natural thousands of years old salt terraces – and Chinchero. Morey is an interesting set up of agricultural round terraces which were used as a experimental laboratory for different plants of the Inka empire. The Salineras are most impressive and are the local salt mine. Water at 14 degree and with a 70% salt content flows out of the mountain and gets filtered into terraces where the water slowly evaporates. These terraces have been used at Inka times and only a small number have been added since. On the way back to Cusco I got out at Chincheros and visited the market which is a beautiful ensemble of white colonial buildings on Inka foundation walls. I was very impressed by the interior of the church. The whole wooden ceiling and the plasterwalls were covered in 16 century old fresco paintings. Absolutely stunning. This was my last day in Cusco and surrounds and I’m getting ready to hit the road again in direction Arequipa.

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Peruvian roller coaster

I enjoyed my rest day In Ayacucho (2748m), I nice mid size town with a well preserved colonial center. My bike got its second new rim in a week, as I switched back to my 32 spoke hub and a stronger rim, while I enjoyed good food in a nice restaurant overlooking the plaza. It was so good I went back for dinner and tried my first Alpaca meat, which I rate far higher than guinea pig! I stayed in a friendly hotel next to the market and for breakfast tried the local brew: Maca with Quinoa and apple juice and fresh rolls with eggs…..yummy! Besides eating I visited the Barrio St Ana, which is home to artists and artisans. I admired the textile weavings and met a unique man claiming to be the only one in whole of Peru being able to play a song with a leave of a tree as an instrument! He demonstrated and I was truly impressed. Not only did he play a very melodic song, but than demonstrated the longest breath whistle of Peru.

The next morning I caught a collective to the top of the pass over 4000m, a beautiful paramo and home of the lamas. My bike was strapped to the top of the bus on top of hundreds of pollos…about 800 meals worth of them. I was looking forward to a nice 2000m and 50km asphalted downhill, but soon the smooth sound of the tyre changed to a more rugged noise and the roadworks had started. There was dust, fresh tarseal smells, mud and gravel to deal with most of the way down. Once one reaches the tropical lowlands the sandflies attack. They are about half the size of the species we have in New Zealand but twice as vicious! Nevertheless it was an amazing ride with great vistas across the Andean mountains. On the low point I met my first cyclists going the other way, a couple of young biologist girls and we had a long chat, while being eaten by the sandflies. Shortly after I caught up with Colombian cyclist Carlos Coral, which I had briefly met on my arrival in Ayacucho. We headed on together making a start on the 2000m uphill, but soon got stopped by more roadworks. There was a total ‘no paso’ as they were blasting and pushing down rock from the cliff above the road. We had to wait till on dark before they let us through, but there was still some rocks coming down and we were glad for our bike helmets and very quickly past. We still had about 10km to Chincheros, the next village and carried on in the light of our head lamps. I was very happy to find a hostel with a room on the ground floor that evening and not having to carry all my gear including the bike up several flights of stairs. We took most of the next morning for the rest of the uphill through some local villages and mainly small farmlets before we crossed the high paramo at about 4260m. Carlos, a true Colombian, carries a little music player and we enjoyed some nice tunes while struggling uphill and traversing the highlands. It was a nice day, the scenery was stunning and lamas grazing on the side of the road…..what more can one wish for?! We met a french cyclist heading the other way and had a short chat, than enjoyed a nice smooth all paved downhill to Andahuaylas. We stopped two thirds of the way down and had mate de coca and bread with cheese on an open cooking fire on the street….the perfect way to warm up after the cold downhill run. The ladies were very chatty and we had lots of fun with them taking photos and quizzing them about their local recipes.

We reluctantly started the long way back up to 4100m the next day. When we passed a local adobe farmlet and the owner’s brother called us in to share a drink of fresh warm local milk, corn and some bread with cheese we didn’t hesitate. Henry was very hospitable and made us feel very welcome. I enjoyed the local food and adobe built with the free ranging guinea pigs! By the time we left it had started raining and we made our way up to the pass in the mist. On the downhill run we got very cold and when we were stopped by roadworks again we found out that we are on a different road than we thought…..not even Carlos’ GPS had noticed. It was still 90km to Abancay and here was the last village till than. Since it was already 3pm we decided to stay in this tiny mountain village called Kisuhara. We decended down to it through some ankle deep mud and started looking for a hospedaje, but ended up camping in the local school room instead: second grade! We had a nice evening chatting with the school teachers while watching them prepare a ‘caldo de cabeza’, which is a soup made of a sheep head and the feet. This was to be our breakfast the next morning……I didn’t sleep too well with this prospect in mind! The next day the sun was out and after a hearty breakfast of a very nice tasting soup (I past on the feet and the skull bits) we headed on down the unpaved road. It was a beautiful long traverse heading into a long meandering downhill to Abancay (2378m). It took longer than anticipated and after a fresh sugar cane refreshment at the valley floor we braved the small 500m uphill to town and arrived on dark. Accommodation was expensive for a non tourist town, but we treated ourself to a nice place and thouroughly enjoyed the luxury of a hot shower and fresh crispy sheets.

We decided to pass on the next 2000m uphill and took a collectivo to the top, where we got to enjoy the views of the Nevados before heading down into a beautiful valley. The morning light was stunning on the fields and the smell of anis was in the air. This region is the main producer of this crop and it was harvesting time. We also came across linseed drying on the road. We headed on all the way down into the Arpurimac gorge before climbing back up. The sandlies were bad, it was hot and dusty and it didn’t take much to also convince Carlos that it was time for another ride. We caught a collectivo which took as the remaining 60km to Cusco (3310) on a very busy road. I was glad not to be cycling with all the mad traffic about!! We arrived well after dark and had trouble finding a hostel with a free room. The next morning we moved into the Hostel Estrellita which is the disguised Casa de Cyclistas de Cusco and has a great french bakery next door….. ahhh…la vie est belle!!!

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Big mountains, high Paramos and never ending gorges on way to Ayacucho

After a rest day in Huarez I got organized to take on my biggest challenge on the bike yet: the carretera Pastoruri, a traverse of the Cordillera Blanca with two 4800m passes.  The first night I camped in the park around 4000m amongst some ruins and the weather wasn’t looking very flash. It was raining, cold and windy, but – ojala – the next morning I woke up to sun and blue skies. The landscape was strangely familiar to home but on a much larger and higher scale. The road was rough gravel and as soon as the inclination got a bit steeper I was puffing hard. It followed up a tussock valley with clusters of the impressive Puya Raimondii plant, also known as the Queen of the Andes. It is a species of bromeliad endemic Bolivia and Peru, and whose distribution is restricted to the high Andes at an elevation of 3200-4800m. It may reach up to 10m in hight, with more than three thousand flowers and six million seeds in each plant. Its reproductive cycle is approximately 40 years. The road than climbed up past the Nevado Pastoruri, a popular tourist excursion, and than over the first 4800m pass. I got rewarded with amazing views of snowy 6000m peaks and deep valleys, the sheer size of the Andes deployed in its full glory to my feet. I biked along under glaciers only a few meters away and than over the second pass. This is easy one of the most amazing routes I’ve been on in my life and I had to stop every few hundred meters to take another photo and gasp for a breath of air. I have come across one  car, one  German family  and one local couple on horses in a day. Once the gravel road joined back onto the main road to Huallanca I got rewarded with a long downhill to this nice little Andean town. I celebrated with a nice trout for dinner.

The next morning it was raining and I was happy to be on a downhill run through a lovely gorge to La Union, a small little hamlet servicing as base for tourists to visit the Inca ruins of Huanuco Viejo. It had stopped raining by than and things looked a bit brighter. The road followed down the valley and up the other side over a 4000m pass called ‘Corona del Inca’. Another front has come in by than and it was cold and raining and I had to stop my fingers from freezing on the downhill. It got warmer as I got lower, stopped raining and by the time I hit the valley floor at 2000m it was nearly tropical and the kids were swimming in the river. What a great downhill on a narrow one lane road through some local mountain villages. Huanuco, ‘town with the best climate’, was noisy and busy. I took a bus back up the mountain to over 4300m the next morning to the Mining town of Cerro de Pasco. I carried straight on from there, but 10km out of town my rim and tube of the front wheel exploded. A taxi took me back to town and I got a whole new front wheel for my bike the next day. I had to change from my 32 to the more common 36 spoke wheels and a new hub. While waiting for my bike to get fixed I had made a trip to the ‘Bosque de Piedras’ a vaste area of limestone bolders in all shapes of animals. From Cerro de Pasco the road than went over a high windswept altiplano, along a lake rich of bird life and than dropped down back to 3000m before reaching the beautiful Mantaro valley and the town of Huancayo. The next day I enjoyed a long breakfast and chat with a local woman living in Houston before visiting some of the local artisan villages by bike. In Huayllay I bought some alpaca items which will keep me warm on my way over the Altiplano.

The ride from Huancayo to Ayacucho went over a hill (approx. 3800m) and into the beautiful Mantaro Gorge with stunning vistas. The gorge carried on for over 100km, the single lane road was amazing and has recently been tarsealed…bonus! Hardly any traffic and little sign of human habitation…. hence no dogs to chase me. I was aiming for a couple of villages showing on my map but neither of them seemed to exist. Just before dark and as I had run out of water a while ago I reached Acos, a village at the end of the gorge where I stayed the night in a simple hospedaje. The next day I left the gorge and traversed a dessert like stretch of pampa with lots of cacti before climbing back up to Ayacucho.

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La Cordillera Blanca

I spent a couple of nights in Cajamarca and treated myself to a thermal bath in Los Banos del Inca and some of the best locally made dutch ice cream: lucuma, poro poro and sauco being the new exotic flavors I tried. The town itself  has a nice colonial center and seems quite busy after the back country of the north. Here I met Anna, a New Zealand girl hanging out surfing on the coast with some guys from my village, and we spent the next couple of days together.  She introduced me to a great local textile shop were we ended up drinking coffee with the owner Warren and his friend Carlos and discussing quantum physics in Spanish for hours before being allowed to shop. We than carried on to Cajabamba, which is a quaint little town with a particularly nice feel to it.  But unfortunately the next day saw us on the road again to  the mining town Huamachuco, which had a quite different feel to it. I didn’t particularly like the place and decided it’s time for me to see some real mountains. In Trujillo Anna’s and my way parted and I took the luxury night bus to Huaraz. I thought I should have spent some time in Trujillo, but the mountains were calling and I saved the sightseeing for a later trip….maybe a future surf trip along the coast?

I arrived 5am in Huaraz  (3091m) and was greeted with some chilly air. I checked into the nice Akilpo Hostel, run by 3 super helpful, knowledgeable and nice brothers, and after a hearty breakfast in a local gringo cafe thought it was time to give the bike a workout. I took a collectivo up the Cordillera Negra to Callan Punta (4225m) and from there headed north on a dirt track with amazing views to the Cordillera Blanca. I loved riding without the weight of the panniers, on a dirt road all to myself with vistas to snowy 6000m peaks….wow!! I road along for about 15km before having to find a way down as the road on was owned by mining companies and closed for access. The downhill started of well, but got rougher as I got lower. I crossed through some tiny local villages and thoroughly enjoyed my day. The next day was spent organizing myself for the well known Santa Cruz track, which crosses some of the nicest parts of the Cordillera Blanca with some of the best views.

A 6 am a tourist bus took us straight to the start of the day track to the stunning Laguna 69. We stopped for a cup of coca tea on the way, which gave me the time to meet a nice French couple Julie and Daniel ….and we spent the next 4 days walking together. I convinced them to follow my route: from Cebolla Pampa (approx. 3900m) to the Refugio Peru (4665m) for lunch and than via a high route over 5000m down to the Laguna 69 (4600m approx.) where we camped. It’s been an amazing day with fantastic views, surrounded by 6000m peaks and not a cloud in the sky. We had the Laguna 69 to our-self  as all the day tourist had left by than. We left early the next morning to catch the bus at Yurac Coral over another 5000m pass to the start of the Santa Cruz track. It was a rough ride and we were happy when we got to Vaqueria (3700m). The skies had clouded over and we made our way up the valley  past some villages as it started raining. The next day we headed over the pass Punta Union (4750m) with more amazing views and some fresh snow. Down the other side we made a small detour to the mirador of the Alpamayo but didn’t quite get to see the most beautiful mountain. We camped one last night in the valley and walked out early the next morning in beautiful sunshine. A collectivo took us back down to the valley floor….the road was exiting and the car beyond repair, but the driver was an expert….Just as well!

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