In the heart of the Andes

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It is wintertime in Peru. Mornings are sluggish, and very cold. But there is no rain or snow, it is the dry season. We have been making steady progress but after a month we find ourselves only halfway through the country. Peru is huge. And beautiful. Wildly beautiful. Since leaving Huaraz we have crossed over the mountains and are discovering the heart of the Andes, Peruvian style.

One of the attractions of this trip for me has always been the Andes. The feeling of cycling on the roof of the world. What would it be like to pedal at elevations close to the highest point of western Europe, or to spend continuous days on a bike at these heights. We haven’t been disappointed. The roads here are more forgiving, the more gentle gradients even out the work required to navigate river valleys and cross passes. It is far more enjoyable and if you can measure the beauty of a country by the number of photos taken, then Peru is way up there.

Cusco had always been our major destination in Peru, more so now that our friend Simon is coming out to join us there for a few weeks trekking. So we left Huaraz knowing that we had maybe four weeks cycling ahead, some of it paved, a lot unpaved and most of it remote. It is certainly one of the joys of travelling by bike, to be able to leave the usual bus routes behind and soak up the soul of a country. And so, in eight days we have covered 700km, crossed a 4720m pass and several more over 4000m and entered briefly into the lives of the mountain people, their villages and their way of life.

Route information can be difficult to find. Progress can be quick or deathly slow. We were lucky to find a miners hostel one cold night, saving us from camping on a wide open plain in plummeting temperatures. They even had an electric heater in the room, absolute luxury. Also, the road had just recently been paved and this saved us from what would have been trying times, allowing us simply to enjoy the views. The road is a black ribbon of tarmac winding its way around the mountains, an inch thick and only a car width.

There is very little traffic on the road, certainly no private cars, just collectivo taxis and vans taking as many people as possible in the same general direction. This is not to say that the roads are empty though. On the contrary, they are teeming with life. Maybe we should just ban cars altogether.

 

One of the problems we have encountered though are dogs. Not just any sort of dogs. They are as big as small bears, and just as vicious, and they hunt in packs. It is not uncommon to see a dog running hundreds of meters through fields, and that dog becomes two, three, six, suddenly they have you surrounded, teeth bared and a look as if going for the kill. Our strategy is to jump off our bikes using it as a protective shield and start shouting obscenities and making as if to throw imaginary stones at them. It seems to work. The owner may be only feet away but seems uninterested, amused even. In spite of all that we did find the ultimate chilled out Rastafarian dog, with dreadlocks and all!

Life in central Peru seems to have stood still for centuries. At least aspects of it. You still see shepherd families out on the high plains with flocks of Llamas or Alpacas, living in makeshift shelters, dealing with freezing conditions. We have been doing our best to stay warm ourselves, resorting to woolly gloves and socks and hats as well as thermals and jackets. Nessa has even had to upgrade her socks and sandals look but I am not allowed to show any evidence of the pink and white woolly addition.  The morning temperatures are close to zero and then we have to deal with wind chill. Still though, it brings a magical quality to the countryside.

 

The houses here are built from mud bricks using clay that seems to lie in a layer over much of the country. We have seen this before, but not on such an extensive scale. You will often see rows of bricks drying in the sun, or old abandoned dwellings just melting away due to sun and rain.

Horse drawn ploughs tear at the land, coaxing grains and corn and potatoes. Wool producing stock graze on the burnt grass of winter, waiting for the summer rains to bring some colour back. Life is simple.

This last part of the trip has been one of my favourite, one of the most beautiful and insightful. You can feel the ancient spirit of Incan Peru here in the mountains, it is a joy to cycle every day and to discover more and more. And because it has been so beautiful I guess I will have to finish up with some more pictures.

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