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Central Peru


The road south of Trujillo proceeded in the same manner as the road north. That is, strong headwinds and endless dunes. A mixture of dunes and rocks, and larger rocks, and then verdant irrigated valleys. The dessicated trees found further north had all disappeared.

And the unexpected but entirely welcome kindness of Peruvians continued south. My second day out of Trujillo, after several hours of battling a wind that slowed me to 5 mph on flat ground, I pulled off to a restaurant in the middle of nowhere. There I met the owner, Clemente, and he fed me, gave me a bed for the night, and we had a wonderful conversation. Before meeting Clemente, I was prepared to nominate this day as one of the worst days of riding on the entire trip, but after meeting him, I was prepared to nominate it as one of the best. If anyone is foolish enough to take the costal route after everything I’ve written in discouragement, km 348 will be an oasis.

And again a couple of days later, while in a restaurant, a family (the Cubras family) invited me to their table to talk with them. I gladly accepted, of course, since talking is one of my favorite activities. And when lunch was all over, they insisted on paying for my meal. And I’ve heard that Peruvians are unfriendly!!

Sure they loudly observe that I am a gringo much more frequently than the Colombians (never) or Ecuadorians (maybe twice), but the hospitality I’ve experienced has rivaled that of the Colombians, and greatly surpassed that of the Ecuadorians. Maybe I’ve just been lucky… Who knows.

At any rate, without wind I can manage around 80 to 90 miles a day. With this wind, I’ve been lucky to achieve 60. The race down the coast is nothing at all like I’d hoped it would be.

Leaving Chancay I ran into a dutch cyclist whom I’d first encountered in Stewart, British Columbia, and then again in Bodega Bay, California. We road together for a while and caught up on everything that had happened in the intervening 8,500 miles. Before I met him, I’d suspected that my bike was slowly seizing up on me and that I couldn’t be going as fast as I had a year ago. But riding with him, I kept pace and that relieved me greatly.

On the way in to Lima, I saw the opportunity to tuck in behind a truck and draft it for a long while. I took that opportunity and cruised into town for a while at an effortless 25 mph. Eventually it got stuck in traffic, and I darted out from behind it and into the hellish maw of hundreds of competing collectivos on the Panamericana Sur. I’d long since learned that the way to deal with latin traffic is never to yield ground, and to have absolute faith in your ability to survive. And by the continued grace of God, I found myself safe, but also having overshot the road I wanted to take by several miles. I cut through Chinatown (not too different from the ones we have in California), eventually found the road I wanted, and managed to piss off several hundred more collectivo drivers to my destination. So, add Lima to the list of latin capital cities I’ve ridden through (every one but Mexico City, which I bussed to).

I spent an unexpected rest day in Lima when I woke up with a very sore Achille’s heel. The day was spent doing the usual: eating. The next day, the pain was still there, but I didn’t feel like spending any more time waiting around to see if it would go away. So I spent the day with one foot pointed downward the entire time, and the other foot doing performing most of the labor. That technique actually worked out very well, and I managed to cover 90 miles.

While in the middle of a day dream about all the peanut butter I would be eating when I finally arrived in Cuzco to meet my parents (the reason I’ve been hurrying since Quito — to meet them on time), two Swiss cyclists pulled up next to me. After a moment of confusion as to which language we all spoke best, we settled on High German, introduced ourselves, and decided to ride together for a while.

This was great news for me, since I’d been mostly alone the entire trip and was getting pretty lonely for company. And the fact that I’d have to remember a language which I hadn’t needed to speak in over six years was no problem at all in forging a bond of international friendship. We rode together all the way to Cuzco.

So, leaving Lima we rode 90 miles, the next day we rode 100. I started to worry that if this was their pace, I would be in for some serious hurting later on down the road. But they had the same fears, and the following day we only rode the sixty featureless miles to a small village whose name I can’t remember. I do remember they didn’t have water or power until well after dark, and they did have an unusually large number of roaming dogs. But nothing else.

We cut the pace back even further the next day, because 30 miles from that nameless hamlet was Nazca, and we all had a hankering to see the lines. In the area where the lines are, some enterprising Peruvians decided to build a viewing tower, and we had the option to climb it for 35 cents to have an oblique look at some of the lines. So we did, and I managed to get a reasonable picture of a giant bean with even larger hands. We quickly got down from the tower when a busload of German tourists decided that the capacity limits didn’t apply to them, and I felt that the structural integrity of the tower was at risk.

At Nazca we decided that it was a very good idea to cram as many calories into our bodies as possible, for the next day began a 11,500ft climb. And here I need to give the Peruvian road engineers a lot of credit: whereas in some countries I’ve been through, the road would take the steepest path up the hill that pavement would stick to, the Peruvians never made the road steeper than 4 or 5 percent, except when it was obvious that there was no other option.

Anyhow, we managed 35 miles of climbing the first day, and slept under a clear sky at 10,000ft. The air was cool, but not cold, and still breathably thick. I remember this night in particular, because it was when I decided that my habit of brewing tea needed to be upgraded from habit to institution. So every evening, morning, and lunch break (Mittagspause), I’d make either herbal or coca tea. It’s nice to feel civilized every once and a while, and even though my face and hands were black with dirt, and I stank so bad that female animals would flee and males would make their challenges, I still felt like I belonged to an ordered world. Civilized.

Leaving camp the following morning, I saw a trail which I felt would save me considerable time and effort over taking the regular highway. Of course, it cost me both. The trail eventually met up with the main highway, and I quickly put that whole ordeal behind me. The road continued up and up to the pampas (rolling plain in English, perhaps). We had our lunch, and after a little while finally reached the pass. There followed 3,000ft of screaming descent, and then more climbing and descending to the village of Puquio.

The locals in Puquio seemed to be in the middle of satisfying a village-wide curiosity about how bad they could make a road before it became unpassable. They succeeded in that task as I pedaled up a particularly steep, potholed, and sandy section. I started to fall backwards off the bike, and only quick acting saved me from severe testicle injury.

Leaving Puquio, we noticed signs on the highway saying not to destroy it or take pieces from it, and collectively wished that those signs were posted on the streets of the town as well. But the folks this side of town obeyed the signs, and the highway was in great shape. We climbed and climbed and climbed. After a while, I noticed snow in the shadows and I started to see more and more alpacas munching away on the hills. The road finally leveled out at 15,000ft.

We rode hoping to come to some sort of pass before nightfall, because we knew that the air 15,000ft would be bitter cold after the sun went down. But instead of the pass, we encountered hail. So we rode as fast as our lungs would allow us (not fast), and by 4:30 we managed to ride out of the storm and into a broad plain of dejecta from an extinct volcano. We made camp, quickly set up our tents and cooked dinner, and ate as fast as we could.

The sun went down, the temperature got down to around 15 degrees, and I shivered in my once-upon-a-time 20 degree bag with all my clothes on. When the sun finally rose, I thanked God for my survival, beat the frost off my tent, and laid it out to melt. All my water had frozen solid inside the bottles, and so was useless for cooking breakfast. Luckily my Swiss friends were more experienced with the cold, and had enough liquid water to pour into a pot to cook oats.

We spent nearly the entire day on the broad plain above 13,000ft and had to climb to over 15,000ft several times before, glory of glories, the ground opened up and we were met with a 3,500ft descent off the cold plateau and down into a wonderfully warm river valley. We spent the night in a small town and bought six pounds of mandarin oranges with some of the highest seed counts I’ve ever seen.

Anticipating a 70 mile gentle downhill along the river to the city of Abancay, we brought nothing else with us in the way of food but those oranges. And for the majority of the distance, say 55 miles, it was exactly that: a gentle downhill along the river. But oh god, those last 15 miles of uphill without any real food in my stomach were absolutely brutal. My two Swiss companions cheated by clinging on to the back of a slow moving truck. But I was more principled and less talented at it than they were, and chose to ride the entire thing. When the wind was at my back, I sweat incredibly, and the biting insects swarmed my eyes and nose. When the wind was in my face, the insects blew away and I crawled upward.

We finally got into town, regrouped, demolished a local Chinese restaurant, rested, and then demolished a pizza parlor. On the map Abancay is tantalizingly close to Cuzco, but in reality it is 6,000ft climb, 6,700ft descent, and another 5000ft climb before the city limits. This took two days, and my first two flat tires since leaving Quito. But after all of it, I rolled into town, found my way to my parent’s hotel (a day late), and was greeted with a hot shower, hugs, and 8lbs of peanut butter.

The next evening, I met up with my Swiss friends again, and with them, we went to a pizza parlor known for its giant portions. We asked the waiter to show us the pans for the various sizes of pizza we could have, and against his advice, ordered a pizza “large enough for 15 people”. When it finally came out, the three cyclists in our group burned through it, leaving my parents (and us) still hungry for more. We ordered a “family sized” pizza, and did the same to it. We finally left, but in my heart and stomach, I knew I still had space for a medium pizza…

I spent the following three and a half weeks variously honing my flirtation skills and travelling with my parents. Two weeks into my rest I developed a new form of sickness where my throat got so dry it would bleed when I woke up in the morning. So it was with a three and a half week break from the bike, plus an illness that I greeted my friend Travis.

I wasn’t about to let a little thing like a bleeding throat stop me from riding with one of my good college buddies, so shortly after he arrived we partnered up with two new Swiss and one French cyclist and made for Puno. I rode like I remembered being able the first day, but my apetite was nowhere to be seen. The second day, my apetite was still depressed from my illness and my carbohydrate debt was mounting. I went even slower.

During that second day, we took a break at a hotsprings to take in the rejuvenating waters. I had high hopes for their curative powers while riding toward them, but the color of the water and the presence of testicle-exfoliating men at the other end of our pool quickly diminished those hopes. I rode away from the springs uncured.

The next day we finally made it to the Altiplano, which ordinarily would mean luxury cruising all the way to Lake Titicaca, but my weakness continued to piss me off and, embarrassingly, the group had to wait for me several times. We ended that day in Juliaca, and through some shrewd negotiating on the part of the Swiss, we ended up with two beds for five people, and having to pay for hot showers. But it only cost the bedless (myself included among them) five soles, so I view it as a win.

Finally after Juliaca the group parted ways. Travis and I arrived in Puno, and set about devouring the best pizzas the city had to offer. Machu Pizza was a particularly good example. Travis also toured the floating islands, while I hunted down mini-bananas and washed my underpants.

The day after Puno, we rode along Titicaca to the town of Pomata. The ride was nearly uneventful, until we rode through a patch of freshly laid tar, and were nearly completely covered. This was quite inconvenient for us, and Travis got pretty well pissed off about it. As I write this, I still have tar on my hands (the damn stuff just doesn’t come off!).

Pomata was a nothing town, and had I known what it would be like, I would have stopped well short at Juli. But we had no idea, so we waited in the center for well over three hours until either the owner of one hotel returned to rent us a room, or the owner of the pharmacy across the way decided that he would rent one of his rooms to us. When the owner of the first place hadn’t still come back by 7:00pm, the pharmacy owner finally rented us a room at five soles a bed. That would have been an excellent deal, if the toilet weren’t so disgusting that I would have prefered to crap on the ground.

The next morning, planning to go only the short distance to Copacobana, Bolivia, we woke up slowly, took our time cooking breakfast and rolled out the final 20 miles to the border. Leaving Peru was no trouble at all, and so ended two months in a country that continually baffled me, but that I loved nonetheless.

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