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.
In general travelling solo suits me but after about 10 days with little more in the way of conversation than the standard gringo cyclist questionnaire…
“Where are you going?” “Where are you from?” “You’re travelling alone?” “Don’t you get scared?” “Don’t you get tired?” “How much does your bike cost?” “Why don’t you attach a motor to that thing?” “What do you think of (insert country here)?”
…I was craving something more substantial. And so I ended up Couchsurfing at Misa’s place in Ayacucho. Misa was inquisitive and friendly and I immediately felt comfortable in his house as I sat drinking tea and chatting with him and his sweet elderly mother, who constantly nagged him about everything. “Misa….MIIISSSAAA!”
Cerro de Pasco is a fascinating place. It lays claim to be the highest city in the world at 4310 metres (although this is highly disputed), is the poorest city in Peru and has a bloody great polymetal mine slap bang in the middle of it that’s as deep as the Empire State Building is tall. Apparently the mining company even has the rights to destroy the historical centre in order to expand. It is also very cold. When the bus pulled in at 6.00am all the Peruvians were layering up in preparation for an Arctic expedition and there was me in just a shirt. Not fun.
The Peruvian dry season is belatedly under way and it’s wonderfully consistent. For the past 2 weeks I’ve woken up to spotless blue skies and on the morn that I finally left Ticclos it was no different: wall to wall azul with barely a cloud in sky. The narrow dusty road meandering south was completely free of traffic and human life. Every now and then I’d come across a cadre of horses or donkeys having a board meeting in the middle of the road and they’d scarper as if I’d walked in on them changing.
Huaraz is a touristy town nestled on the fringes of Peru’s biggest mountain range, the Cordillera Blanca. I spent 4 days there bumming around, drinking coffee, eating cake and watching the Champions League final. After a couple of weeks of spartan living and existing on $10 a day, when presented with pizza, craft beer and curry it was easy to get carried away and I didn’t bat an eyelid at prices I would’ve baulked at a few days prior – penny wise pound foolish and all that. The chief excitement to be had in Huaraz without draining one’s wallet is the market where stalls abound selling ‘chocho’ – a little ceviche-like salad with beans instead of fish – fresh bread rolls, cheese, honey and an assortment of more uniquely Peruvian fare.
Deciding not to push on to Cajamarca proved to be a blessing in disguise when Miguel, noticing my beleaguered state, offered me a discounted room at his Tetem Backpackers. He proved to be an absolute mensch and the place, with its huge rooms and heated pool was the perfect place to spend a day off. If you’re in the area check it out!
A couple of days before I arrived in Chachapoyas I noticed some paint peeling on the frame of the bike. It was only later while giving it a clean I realised it was something much more serious. The welding at the join between one of the seat stays and the seat tube had completely cracked and the two were no longer attached. I went online to find out how bad this was and, much like how WebMD can make a mild rash seem like a virulent case of smallpox, the various cycling forums soon led me to believe that I had no choice but to give up on my frame or else suffer the dreaded “catastrophic failure”. There was never any mention of partial or slight failure, it just had to be catastrophic. It was clear that if I rode my bike again it would instantly explode and I would die. On the other hand replacing the frame would be time consuming, expensive and a logistical nightmare. As I lay there in my hostel bed I saw my whole trip flash before my eyes. Surely there had to be a way to fix this.
With all the birthday jollities behind me I had a nice easy day heading south from San Ignacio. A forgiving incline gave way to 20km of downhill and soon I was down at the valley floor, only 400m above sea level, tracking the river as it zig-zagged south. With little to no traffic my attention was diverted by the legion of millipedes inching their way across the hot road and the eagles soaring above.
Travelling by bike is full of surprises. You cycle 200km relatively untroubled and look at the next 200km on the map and think “It can’t be that different, can it?” but of course it always is. I didn’t know much about the route from Loja to Peru other than that it was lower in altitude and I assumed that meant “easier”. I was wrong.