Cusco, Rainbow Mountain and Lake Titicaca

 

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Back in Cusco

The Incans believed Cusco was the centre of the universe. Today it’s the centre of all things touristy in South America. I spent a couple of days in the city 6 months ago during the rainy season and, while I liked the old town, a gloomy pallor hung over everything and I was quick to head south to Arequipa after completing the obligatory trek to Machu Picchu.

This time, to the backdrop of sunshine and blue skies, my impressions were totally different. The grubby brown hills that once reminded me of something from “The Road” looked inviting; the dark, dingy alleyways now quaint and clean. And if it had been busy with tourists the first time, now it was positively rammed. After weeks in small town Peru roughing it in construction sites and mud-brick houses I had a minor culture shock at the sight of a so many white people and the opulence of the 5 star hotels and alpaca wool boutiques. No-one stared or shouted “gringo” either. For once I was just another tourist.

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The plaza de armas was full of protestors and police. Apparently they encourage women to join the police force as they’re “less corrupt”
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The protests were due to the low wages for teachers and cuts in education.
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Cusco has perhaps the nicest colonial old town I’ve seen in all of South America.
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The famous San Pedro market is mahooosive.
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50 shades of potato…
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…and a billion tiendas selling “100% alpaca wool” stuff.
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I stayed in La Estrellita, a hub for cyclists and bikers. It ticks all the boxes: cheap, next to a bike shop,a laundrette and breakfast is included.
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I met at least 10 other cycle tourers during my stay, mostly Brits and Germans, and got a load of great tips and route ideas.
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Cusco also provided some reunions with old friends. I bumped into Nick and Debbie who I’ve met multiple times on the trip and we went out for pizza.
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Then my German mate Philipp turned up at La Estrellita and we spent the next few days doing what we do best: stuffing our faces.

I could’ve easily spent a week or two doing tours of all the ruins, salt steps and market towns in the area around Cusco but I wasn’t in tourist mode and didn’t want lose too much momentum. However, there was one thing that I was determined not to miss: Rainbow Mountain. Since it was on my way south I decided to forego doing an an organised tour and hike it independently.

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Having had more punctures than a porcupine’s sex doll I bought a new tyre and filled it with radioactive slime. 600km+ later and I’m still puncture free.

 

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The road south of Cusco was refreshingly flat and I ate up 107km in record speed on the way to Pitumarca, where I embarked for the rainbow mountain.

At 2.45am I squeezed into the back of a van along with all of the vendors and a man with a metallic smile offered me a seat on a bale of hay. The van was completely packed, 20 illegal immigrants crossing the border to rainbow country, and I could barely move, although given how cold it was I was soon thankful for all the body heat. An hour and a half later we arrived at the base camp and I was shepherded into a shack where an old lady literally threw two blankets over my head and I sat there shivering like a munchkin waiting for the sunrise. At first light I set off up the mountain. It was practically deserted – just me, a Peruvian family and a small group of French tourists – and I charged ahead, determined to be the first to the top. Within an hour and a half I was metres from the mirador. All the rainbow glory was soon to be mine and mine alone. I’d bask in the pristine silence, watch the sun slowly rise over the snowcapped peaks, have a nip of rum and take in one of Peru’s most stunning sights. Then I heard a voice.

“Oh my god! This is totally gonna be my new profile picture!”

Like effluvia from a backed up toilet, a group of very talkative American tourists emerged from the other side of the mountain and started taking group photos and making bad jokes.

It really made my morning.

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Basecamp: a cluster of shops and tents at around 4300m. The peak is up at around 5000m.
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Frosty llamas
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It was a beautiful, tranquil morning and after a quick chat with this Peruvian family “Cold, eh?” “YES” I was on my own.
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Almost there…
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Despite the chatty Americans, basking in that view was one of the highlights of my time in Peru.
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And at least I had someone to take a photo of me.
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The rest of the surroundings weren’t too shabby either.
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Fierce.
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As I descended the waves of tourists arrived: at first a trickle then before long a small army of tourists making their way up to the top. 
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From Pitumarca I followed the trainline south in search of lake Titicaca and the Bolivian border, following the route taken by one Che Guevera.
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Things got very yellow. Some friendly French cyclists warned me of a steep climb north of Aguas Calientes but it turned out to be perhaps the easiest pass in the whole of Peru. Those boys are in for a shock when they get further north.
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At the pass I was invited over for beer with a family celebrating “Santotierra”, a yearly piss up in tribute to mother nature.
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After another night sleeping in a derelict building, this time a very shabby university in Chiquibambilla…
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…I bumped into Leroy, an Aussie cyclist, and two Japanese guys who are running the length of the Americas.
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That’s right. RUNNING. So far these magnificent bastards have run for 2 1/2 years from Alaska, averaging 44km a day (ie. a marathon) and getting through over 10 pairs of trainers each. Respect.
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I decided to follow the quieter route round the north of Titicaca and  took a shortcut through the pampa to avoid the supposedly dangerous and dirty Juliaca. However, things got rather confusing.
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After trying to solicit advice from some farmers, none of which had any idea how to reach nearby Taraco, I eventually found myself in Caminaca. Or was it Mosul?
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I asked around for a place to pitch my tent and Marcelino agreed to put me up in a shack on his building site.
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It was well below freezing outside but thankfully Marcelino lent me a couple of blankets and I slept soundly.
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From there I rode to Huancane where I spent a half day resting and  enjoying one of the best almuerzos I’ve had in Peru with some old women who invited me to their table.
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And the next day I got my first sight of the prodigious Lake Titicaca, the largest lake in South America and home of Cornholio. 
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Some friendly blokes gave me lemonade in exchange for a roadside photoshoot.
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It was a great day of cycling and a memorable end to my 2 month stint in Peru. This stretch south of Moho that wound it’s way along the lakeside was particularly good.
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Although unfortunately even the shores of Titicaca weren’t spared of the flytipping that is endemic to Peru.
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After one last Peruvian beer…
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“mmmhmmm”
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…and a quick game of volleyball with the immigration workers in Tilali…
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…I made it to the unmanned border with Boliva! Rather fittingly for such a small border crossing the flagpoles were bare, leaving but a lonely obelisk to demark the frontera.
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😀

Tunes: Joni Mitchell – Blue, Alkaline Trio – Remains, Radiohead – In Rainbows, Billy’s Playlist

Reads: Marching Powder – Rusty Young, The Power of Habit – Charles Duhigg, Hear The Wind Sing – Haruki Murakami

Route: Cusco – Pitumarca – Sicuani – Caminaca – Huarane – Tilali

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