Cusco, Peru

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It has been over a month since I last wrote an entry (save for the video I uploaded). When I got to Peru I knew the mountain route would be long and challenging, so I told myself I’d just take my time. In a way, I feel I lost track of time, and distance as well. Instead of geography changing as distances were covered, my route became an exploration of the different elevations, generally I was either going down into a valley or climbing out of it to another pass. Starting as low as 2,000 meters (~6,600 feet), were avocado, banana, mango, papaya and other fruits being cultivated, and with the warmer temperatures, tiny biting flies and loud green parrots. Here too were all sorts of cactus and thorny brush, and agave/maguey (?).  Higher up, 3,000m (10,000 feet) give or take a few hundred, the trees were less tropical, often pine and eucalyptus, and farmers cultivated corn and potatoes. Then at around 4,000m (~13,000 feet), above the treeline, very little vegetation except for endless ichu grass (and sometimes potato fields). Then after a high pass, head down the downhill and experience these changes in reverse, and repeat many times over the span of Peru’s mountain route.

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With the lack of much notion of time and distance, I often felt my bike was pinned to the universe, and the landscape moving around me, not the other way around. From my frame of reference, every ascent is like me slowly pushing the Earth downwards, away from me, so that the top of the hill gets closer. At the top of the passes were often views of snowcaps, many miles away, so that the curvature of the earth made it look like at eye level, one was above snow line, even though I was likely still thousands of feet below. Then, on the descent, an imaginary force pulls the Earth back to me, the bottom of valley rising up to meet me. Cyclists who cross Peru may mention the size and the mountains may burn you out, but I found the remote roads, which were mostly dirt, have been so rewarding and made the effort worth it. It would take me many hours to write up a report of the many incredible experiences along the way, so I’ll just save it for the next time we meet over some coffee.

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I arrived in Cusco, the ancient capital of the Incas, almost a week ago. What a change from the past couple months! Generally I’d roll into a small town and clearly I was the only foreigner there at the moment, if not the past week or month even. Once in a while I might come across another backpacker or volunteer worker, and we’d exchange that “Ha, didn’t expect to see you here” glance of mutual understanding of being way off the tourist circuit. So, to arrive in Cusco was quite a shock. Hundreds of tourists of all sorts wandering the streets, often in groups of a dozen or more at a time. The majority of businesses in the center all cater to tourists, signs in English mostly advertising expensive menus usually with burgers and pizza. The city itself is beautiful, many of the colonial buildings are built on top of the incredible Incan stonework.

I’ve been staying at Hospedaje Estrellita, which is the de facto “casa de ciclistas” for the city. Here I met Lorenzo, from Spain, who’s been on the road for over 13 years, and Harriet and Neil, going in circles in South America through some very remote routes. Nina, and Torrey and Lucie, who I met in Trujillo, are in town as well, so we’ve spent a lot of time poring over maps, comparing notes, and offering advice for the road ahead. It is only at a place like this that you’ll hear things like “I last ran into her seven years ago when we were cycling in Iran”.

One of the main draws of the area is Machu Picchu, the most famous of the ruins in the Incan Sacred Valley. Despite having heard of the tourist zoo this is, I felt that to come this far and miss it would be a mistake. Getting there and back did end up being a costly and tiring affair, but a worthwhile chance of a lifetime I couldn’t miss. An interesting time to be there, as next year is the 100th anniversary of the “scientific discovery” of the ruins by Hiram Bigham, and at the moment there are headlines here in the newspapers of the Peruvian government increasing the pressure on Yale University to return tens of thousands of artifacts that Hiram shipped out of the country.

My ability to neglect time and distance has mostly come to an end for the next month. My friend Hawk (Steve Hawkinson to some) had long ago told me he’d try and visit me at some point. Things worked out such that the first couple weeks were the time he could come, and the largest city that made sense for him to fly into was Santiago, Chile (as opposed to Lima, La Paz or Buenos Aires). However, I’d need several more weeks to actually meet him there on my bike, so as of right now I’m aiming to be in Salta, Argentina by the end of November, leave my bike there and then I’ll have to take a bus south to Mendoza and then west over the border to Chile. I kind of dread the idea of 24+ hours on a bus, but due to the remoteness of the region where I’ll be at the time, one of us will have to do some travelling, and since Hawk has come this far, I figure it only makes sense for me to meet him in Santiago. He flies out two weeks later, so we’ll have time to explore a little of Chile and Argentina. I’m really looking forward to his visit, and it will be a nice interlude before the last push to the end of the trip. With over two more weeks off the bike, I’ll realistically not get to Tierra del Fuego until sometime in March. But that’s OK, I can’t be in a hurry!

I plan on leaving in an hour, and should be crossing into Bolivia in about 5 days.

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