First days in Cusco

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Cusco,  the name conjures up images of Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, Inca trails through the birthplace of the Inca people. This beautiful city, 3400m above sea level, is on almost every travel itinerary in Peru and possibly a destination for all those travelling through South America. There are many ways to get here and we took what is possibly the toughest route of all, 25 days cycling across the Andes from Huaraz. The sheer joy of cycling over the last pass and seeing the city spread out in a valley below us was overwhelming. We had endured long days and short days, sick days and rest days, mountain passes and the grassy plains of the high puna and the desert like landscapes in deep valleys. And finally we arrived, worn out and in need of a break. And feeling very proud. We had made it through the notorious section from Huancayo to Cusco, 844km of which about 550km is unpaved, 6 passes above 3600 meters and several descents of up to two thousand meters and more in between. Thanks to a couple of Swiss cyclists, there are online elevation profiles that we were aware of for a while and had put to the back of our minds. It just can’t be healthy to be reminded of the following too often.

We left Ayacucho two weeks ago not knowing what to expect. We were hardly out of the city center when the concrete pavement abruptly ended. And then the climbing began.

Unpaved roads are tough going. Everything rattles and jolts and full concentration is required at all times. It is so much slower, weaving your way through a gravel and sand surface, or where some pavement from long ago has resulted in a horrible  potholed cobblestone like surface

Still, this has been an unforgettable part of the journey. There is very little traffic and the route brings you through some of the most inspiring scenery you can imagine. The high passes cut through the grassy puno and after long descents you find yourself back in a desert like landscape, usually crossing a river before starting back up on the other side of yet another high valley.

This is really as remote as it can get in Peru. There are a handful of villages and towns, usually spaced out enough to be able to get lunch and dinner and a two dollar room for the night. But not always.

Cycling though the puna has been one of the great experiences of Peru. These grassy highlands are home to Llama herders living in conditions many of us would not survive more than a few days in. Extreme night time cold, no electricity or running water and in solitary high altitudes where a bitter wind can numb your body in seconds. The silence up there is as immense as the blue sky on a day of sunshine, it is a very special place to cycle through.

 

Downhills are always the reward for a long struggle up to a high pass. However, on these unpaved roads it is not quite as simple as that. One wrong move, one lapse of concentration and you will come crashing to the ground. But being a lover of high speed, steep off-piste snowboarding descents, I couldn’t resist. This is prime downhill mountain biking terrain. Ok, we were carrying a lot of weight on steel framed bikes with no suspension but I didn’t care. Eyes focused on a spot out ahead, piecing together a route, calculating the odds, fingers on the brakes, pedals unclipped, the adrenaline rush of high speed on the edge…..fun. It couldn’t last. The roads just got too bad on the very last unpaved section and I limped out onto pavement for the first time in several days with multiple punctures and a ripped front tyre. It was on the way out anyway, having lasted me since the start of the trip 7 months ago in Mexico.

Back on pavement, only a couple of days from Cusco, we had been dreaming of this moment for weeks, only a couple of more passes to go and we would have completed a memorable trip through the Andes which began three months earlier in the north of Colombia, many thousands of kilometers away. The pavement was so easy now and so enjoyable. The weather had also turned, we felt the first rain in 6 weeks. Dark brooding clouds over terraced hillsides.

 

On the road from Abancay there is a somber reminder to how precious life is. We have all heard reports of a bus somewhere or other going off the road. Tragic stories we quickly forget. This memorial to the bus full of people who died on a sharp bend will stay with me for a long time though. Memories of my great friend Al came flooding back in a wave of tears. He had planned to join us on this part of the trip, with his pure cycling spirit and sense of fun. He would have made a great trip even better. Yeah, it was time for us to get to Cusco, time to wind down for a while.

And so here we are, we have landed on our feet. We are Couchsurfing with Juan Carlos, an easy going Peruvian who is sharing his house with several like-minded travellers. Easy going and chilled out, just what we needed. We even had a chance to visit one of the projects he works on, a center for women (and their children) who suffer from domestic violence. I brought my bike, complete with all the panniers and we entertained the kids for the afternoon. We got them to colour in a map of our route from Mexico and generally had a lot of fun. The 4 days since we arrived have felt like a home from home and as well as the cycling, this is what the trip is all about too, making friends, learning about a new culture, exchanging ideas and above all, appreciating life, and the simple things in life.

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