Cusco is a beautiful city that I have one solitary photo to show for it. After a few painful days in bed, Halloween came and went. As November began, my appetite slowly returned and I ventured out on the cobblestone streets of this historic but heavily tourist-influenced city. Before recovering, The first two nights I feverishly walked the shortest distance possible for chicken soup, while people tried to sell me massages and llama trinkets. I hadn’t seen another gringo since Huaraz weeks before so all this was quite a shock to the system. It makes you want to explain to peoole that you are not a regular tourist, you’re special, you’re better than other tourists else because you rode your bike here so no you can’t buy an alpaca blanket. I’m not better than any single person on the planet but the feverish frustration with mass consumerism had taken my mind here. By the third day I was used to it and ignored the hawkers, finding glorious reprieve in an excellent coffee shop.
I got lonely in Cusco in a way that I only do in cities. I wanted a group of people to drink and revel with, as I heard people do in this town in particular. Instead I watched an entire season of Madmen, still not quite up for socializing even with the other bikepackers at the hostel.
I realized I rarely initiate conversation with others, especially tourists, so of course I wasn’t going to meet anyone. I had to come out of my hermitic shell. Once I was on the recovery/appetite path, I went our for a burger. The first group I considered approaching were two Texas guys arguing over whether the white contents in the grinder was salt or sugar. Have you ever seen sugar in a grinder at a burger place? Right. Strike one. Second was a group of American girls at the coffee place. Females! In a group! What a novelty. Then they started talking about angel conferences. Literal Angel Conferences. That’s fine, but Not my thing by a long shot. Strike two. Then there was a co-ed group that mention Knoxville and Jackson and I thought “aha! These are my friends they are from my homeland!” but they got their coffee to go and were out of sight before I could say “hey y’all”. After three large cappuccinos, the cafe owner was impressed with my espresso-drinking ability and we became friends. At last, my friend for the day! Before You know it it’s 7pm and your still in the café but you’ve switching from espresso to gin and discussing city history and bikes.
My first full day out of bed, I finally went to Machu Picchu, which had been on my short list of things I wanted to see, but also something I considered avoiding altogether because I had heard it was over the top touristy. It was AMAZING.
On the four hour train ride from Cusco, I luckily ended up next to an archeologist who schooled me on many other megalithic (ie. Large stone) sites around the world. There is a theory floating around that Machu Picchu was built before the Incans, and then they adopted it as a sacred and important site. Peru would never agree to that theory for national pride, tourism and economic reasons, but it’s very difficult to prove so I say sure that’s possible. That’s the great thing about scientific theories- they are all just theories that we continue to provide evidence for. Anyway, archeology friend (Tony) and I traded information in case our paths crossed later and for when I’m in Croatia, where he lives.
Machu Picchu. I’m not sure where to start. I ended up joining an awesome tour group of mostly women, and we all became friends too- I was on a roll! And you go up the the highest point and amid the thousands of selfies being taken, you wonder how in the world anyone- pre-Inca or not, put these stones in place. There’s massive stones at the top for doorways, not to mention the countless terraces cut into the hillside. There’s one area called Huayna Picchu (young mountain) that is like a spire in the valley, and there’s even houses and terraces on that. I would have been impressed if someone made this site in current day, much less thousands of years ago (the dates of the site are also debated, many say 1500 AD but others say much earlier). Like I said- either way I was impressed at the magnitude and scale of this sacred place. We hung out in the ancient ruins and soaked it up. They say you only have four hours there but when I was leaving there was no one at the exit so I retraced my steps and soaked it up a bit more. At much lower elevation, the 7,000ft jungle was warm and humid and reminded me of home in a way. It was so refreshing to wear just my sundress and not every layer I own. Instead of taking the short shuttle back to aguas calientes, I walked down a million rough cut stone steps and then along the road to town, giving myself more time at this special place and imagining the Incas scurrying up and down much more gracefully than I. A few Peruvians passed me like I was standing still and my hips screamed at me for ignoring them for so long.
A few more rest days in Cusco and finally I was off. I was mostly ready to leave, though I could have handled a few more of those delicious meals.
I left Cusco late in the morning on the terrifying trafficked highway. Not today death. Not today! Eventually it got quiet and I was thrilled to be on flat, paved terrain in the countryside again. I camped next to a river and a cool narrow bridge that was only for pedestrians and motorcycles. It poured down rain as soon as I finished cooking dinner over a small fire And I slept 11 hours incredibly well. It’s such a nice feeling to sleep well while camping, I’m not sure I can explain it.
Another day of pleasant pedaling as the landscape got drier and led me to the base of a pass that I could see from a distance was stormy with clouds rolling in. My keen observation, Plus the lightning bolts and thunder, had me considering options. Then it started a light sleet/hail where I was. I tentatively pressed forward, taking shelter once in a store, since I thought it might pass quickly as afternoon storms often do. I rounded a corner and the mountains in front of me had disappeared into an opaque grey cloud. Then on the left there were unexpected hot springs teeming with Peruvians. Numbs hands= Decision made. Get warm. After an hour of glorious soaking, I realized they had a hospedaje (guest house) and decided to stay the night- the storm was stagnant, stubbornly sitting on my pass. I was feeling kind of weak sauce for not pushing on and coping with the elements like I had done so many other times before, but those other times didn’t have hot springs as options.
Woozy from the hot bath, I saw/dreamed a couple parking their bikes in the hospedaje, and they said they had pedaled 5km up the pass and turned around! There was hail building up and it was too cold, they said. They had also seen a group of 7 Germans that were cycling and they had continued. Then 5 of the 7 Germans turned up, fingers and faces frozen. “You were smart to stay here” they said. Hah! First time ever someone has said that to me. I was shocked, I hadn’t seen other cyclists in a while. Noel from Scotland and Caroline from England were such a delight, we had dinner together and I shared a room with one of the Germans since the guest house was now totally full. Noel and Caroline and I cycled together the next day to Puno, where another afternoon storm was brewing and we ran into Brian, an American bikepacker who I had met previously in Huaraz.
The next morning rolling four deep from Pulcara, we set off in an unexpected snow-covered landscape, cold and wet but getting better as we lowered elevation and the day warmed up. Our Mid-morning stop in Juliaca, (which was chaotic and full of near-Death-by-tuktuk experiences) was a small reprieve from the weather with Copious espresso in a cafe. afterwards the sun graced us and we pedaled pretty quickly as a paceline to Puno, on Lake Titicaca.
The lake is gorgeous! I had heard it was, but I’m such a bad tourist, I didn’t realize people take boat tours out onto the lake and such. I checked into a nice hostel, which was amazing after the rough cut places we had been staying in (no hot water, spotty electricity etc). I bee lined for the lake to appreciate it before I left in the morning. The almost full moon was rising above the lake, between buildings in the street and it was SO BIG and soft yellow on the horizon. I was delighted to witness it and to have friends at nearby hostels. It was a happy and relaxed night as the four of us dined together and Noel and Caroline treated, which I really appreciated. Not because the meal was expensive, rich, and delicious, but because this is a great gift to give another traveling cyclist and I hope to do the same one day. They are retired and claimed “we’ve been earning all our lives! We got this.” I hadn’t dined with that many people in ages so it was just all the more lovely.
I left the next morning, late again- The others were doing boat tours, but I felt like I needed to move forward on my slight time crunch. I pedaled arpund the south side of the lake, staring at it as often as I could without running off the road.
I had realized at the last minute that My plan A route to Chile (via Tripartito) doesn’t have an official border crossing between Peru and Chile. Damn. My plan B was to go through Bolivia. Unrest was brewing.
You’ve probably heard about this but: in 2016 Evo Morales got his supporters in Congress to do away with the two term limit for presidency, so he could be president forever. In October of 2019, as the votes rolled in and he saw he wasn’t going to win, he announced that the count was in and he had won. The people took to the streets, knowing that he had not won. Peaceful protests. The official folks checking on this were like “dude this is some blatant fraud. You did not win”. Then the army sided with the people and asked him to resign (ie. Accept his loss, which he still hasn’t done). So he fled to Mexico for asylum, and his supporters, mostly indigenous farmers, got really mad and took to the streets and blocked roads because they think he should still be in office and they fear (rightfully so- look what happened to progress in the US) they will lose the rights and representation they have gained in the past 12 or so years. He is part indigenous himself. It’s more complicated than this of course but this is the skinny on it. Some say they will fight a civil war, some say there was a coup (there was really not a coup, by definition). Mostly there was a restoration of democracy and some people did not like the outcome. I can understand both sides, I really can. The interim president, Ms. Jeanine Añez Chavez created a cabinet and not one nominee was indigenous. After pressure was put on her, she brought one indigenous representative on board.
So that’s Bolivia. I learned most of this from the New York Times, word of mouth, and local newspapers in Peru.
I labored over indecision to go to Bolivia or not. Was I being overly cautious? Was I being reasonably cautious? My plan C was to descend 12,000ft alllllll the way to the coast in Arica, Chile, then go back up the mountains for a southern border crossing into Bolivia. My fork in the road was on the south side of Lake Titicaca. I wanted the best for Bolivia, for them, but I also wanted to make sure I was safe.
I went for plan C, headed to Arica over several lovely but challenging days, with a few hard climbs and high passes on my way to the border. Turns out this was in the “properly cautious” category as unrest in Bolivia swelled, the border got closed, the La Paz airport closed, foreigners were told to leave, and the US issued an evacuation alert.
So my last week in Peru I was alone and enjoying it. I camped next to an empty house, using it as a windbreak for that afternoons’ wind/hail storm, I watched the mostly full moon bathe my tent in silver light and shadows, using my hat to shield my eyes so I could sleep. I slept in an alpaca corral and that night saw the moon rise in a bronze hue. Then I camped high up on a mountain in the wind, enjoying the chilly sunset views and discovering a brand of ramen noodles that I actually really enjoy.
I met a truly cool and amazing family that were taking a year to drive their van around South America. Dad from Venezuela, mom from Argentina, three super cute kids that they were homeschooling as they traveled. Their plans had also been thwarted by the Bolivian political situation. I was facing harsh headwinds up a steep 600m climb, walking my bike due to the wind, when they pulled over and offered me water. I didn’t need anything but them asking was so touching. I ended up eating two bananas and chocolate with them inside their van, sheltered from the intense wind. Nothing could have been more enjoyable in that moment! They had bike helmets hanging, school books strewn about, a bunk bed of sorts in the back. It was inspiring.
After my final windy camp spot I started early and gunned for the Chilean border. I hoped I could make the 105 miles in one day because there was so much elevation loss. My earliest start yet at 5:45 am, I dropped 18 scenic steep miles to Tarata, with increasing water sources and green farmland landscape. The previous valley had been totally dry. I ran into Peter, a cyclist from California and we traded route information on the side of the road, like you do. Then I realized in the middle of my “epic day” I had another 400m (1000ft) and 600m (2000ft) climbs. It was a real time suck and even though the rest of the day was mostly descending into and through the rocky arid desert, I would have arrived in Arica in the dark. I needed to avoid that because there’s also unrest in Chile and protests, mostly at night. Two nights previous a supermarket had been burned. So I stayed in Tacna, the last Peruvian town before the border. I passed a bizarre Mining shanty town just before Tacna, and the honking horns, chickens in the road, spaghetti-patterned traffic, all felt totally normal to me now. Latin America has a different relationship with noise than the US, of which I am all too aware.
It was fitting that my last few days in Peru were solitary, with a few storms, in gorgeous, remote, low-traffic mountains and valleys that continued to draw an out-loud “wow!” From my mouth, no matter how many multicolored red and purple mountains I see, or cute furry alpacas, or friendly farmers and sometimes friendly dogs. It was even more fitting that my last night was in a loud town. In this impressive, frustrating, wonderful, kind, often loud at night, desolate, agrarian, cosmopolitan, sometimes disfunctional, stunning, wonder of a country I had many good times and many challenging times over three and a half months. I won’t miss the horns honking but I will miss Peru.
On November 16 I rode 25 windy sunny miles to the border and I had read that it’s pretty straightforward but when I got to the “exit peru” window, the lady told me I needed to go to the third floor of the Casino and buy a piece of paper for 5 soles. I was like “whattt????” This made no sense, but I she was adamant so I went. The third floor was a rooftop. Back down to the second floor, inside this cafeteria that actually smelled great (I was starving but could spare no pauses to delay today). I was like “the lady told me I needed to buy a piece of paper here?” And felt sure that they would point me to some office, the poor confused gringa. But the lady was like “yes! Right here, fill out this little piece of paper and take the carbon copies with you.” Right. So I get back in line at the border and it all goes smoothly, except when the cute Labrador followed me around and confiscated my garlic and ginger that I had forgotten about. You can NOT bring produce into Chile. I had cleaned my bags out but forgotten about these little nuggets. I finally get through, bags x-rayed, papers given back and forth, and I am in Chile!
I am so excited to be here. First things first, a bike shop, hostel, seafood empanadas (SO. Good.) and a swim in the ocean. Glorious. I love swimming and I miss it so. I’m a month and a half behind my original timeline, and part of me was just ready to cross into another country, because then you really know you have in fact moved forward. Chile is looking somewhat familiar and warm and swimming on the first day of entering is certainly a great start. I was also excited for things like Parmesan and prosciutto, quality produce and ice cream after many dull meals in Peru. I was mostly excited to not be sick anymore. Even though I’ve had a few stomach flare ups and pain, I have not stopped being grateful for each day I am able to ride and have finally started feeling stronger each day instead of weakened by the effort of riding.
I enjoyed knowing Peru well enough to know everything on the menu, and the customs and culture of certain regions, as much as I could. But I was ready for something different, something more familiar and maybe a little more modern. I’m here!
My friend Brian and I met up in Arica and plan to tackle a mountain route in Chile together. He had gone into Bolivia at the border in Copacabana, only to be awoken in the middle of the night and told by the hotel owner that the border was going to close and all foreigners needed to get out. I’m sorry his plans got thwarted but I’m glad for the company for a bit, and we hope to also get to southern Bolivia to the salt flats-the information we’ve received so far has been that the southern area is so remote that everything is as normal, except the food supplies in stores are low since trucks can’t get through the blockades. We have 4-5 days without resupply so we both have extremely heavy food panniers, but mine has whiskey in it and I am looking forward to exploring these Chilean National Parks, volcanoes, and hot springs (!!) over the next few days.
Road workers always cheer me on