The wonders of Peru: cycling from Kasani to Cusco
Peru has stunned us with its beauty, amazed us with its landscapes, saddened us by it poverty and environmental standards and frustrated us with its incessant horn honking. We’ve been pedalling around Peru for a month now and to fit the stories of that time into one post would be impossible. This country is complex and bewildering and we still have 1,300km left of cycling here to discover more.
Bolivia may be South America’s poorest country, but the gap between rich and poor is more obvious in Peru than everywhere we’ve visited since Brazil. The affluence of the big cities like Cusco and Lima is in stark contrast to the reed and adobe homes of the majority of Peruvians.
We have been shocked to see litter everywhere. Fly-tipping seems to be the official way of disposing of rubbish, and on crossing the border at Kasani, we watched one man wheel a bin to the side of the road and deposit the waste on the edge of Lake Titicaca. Daily, we see plastic bottles and polysterene boxes fly from the windows of vehicles. Peru has a terrible environmental record and it’s sad to think of the long term damage that is being done.
For this country has some of the most amazing scenery we have seen on our trip. From the border, heading towards Puno we cycled along the shores of the beautiful Lake Titicaca. Here we bumped into a French cyclist heading towards Ushuia, Argentina.
Since she began in Venezuela, she has been robbed, attacked with stones in her tent and fractured her shoulder. We listened to her stories with massive respect, thinking that if that had been us, just one of those incidents would have seen us giving up.
In Puno, we stayed in a lovely hostel called Inka’s Rest from where we visited the reed Uros Islands. We were impressed by the engineering skills required to build these floating homes, which were originally built by people escaping from attackers on land.
The next day, we had a hot climb out of Puno, then a long descent away from the lake as we started towards Cusco. 40km on we stopped for lunch in the bustling town of Juliaca, where we ate in the shade of a statue’s skirt next to the railway line. During our break we got shouting with a friendly, English-speaking local, who yelling from his fourth floor balcony over the din of the town asked us where we were from and details about our trip.
From there our day was cut short when Paddy was hit with a bad stomach. We think the bug was originally picked up in Bolivia, but it keeps returning with a vengeance in the most remote places. Here, he was forced to use the railway line for cover, the only object to hide behind on the flat pampa. In fact the whole area offered up few camping opportunities, because of the nature of the landscape and the fact that almost everywhere was inhabited or used as farmland.
Anyway, in that state, camping wasn’t an option. After a long search and knocking on doors in the sleepy village of Calapuja, we found a tourist hostel where we could sleep for the night. Normally used by Italians on organised tours, the owner told us they also hosted the occasional cyclists who were welcome to set up camp for free in the large hall downstairs.
Our next stop was in the town of Ayaviri, and the day after we hit our 8,000km mark on a stretch of road following the railway towards Cusco. We did try to hitch a ride on the tourist train, but it didn’t stop for us. Soon after the road and railway separated, and we started the blustery climb up to the Abra la Raya pass, at 4000m.
Paddy exhausted himself early on by racing two boys on their bikes and dancing along to the music from their speakers. They wisely weren’t up for riding to the top and left us to it.
High up, it got cold, so we wrapped up for the 40km descent down to the town of Sicuani. The fast, winding descent was lots of fun and we were enjoying ourselves hugely. But not long past Agua Calientes we passed through a town where a little girl threw a ball at Paddy, whilst her sister tried to kick me off my bike and a man threw dirt at me.
The incidents upset us. In all the cases we’d said a friendly “hello” to the people, so we struggled to understand what has caused their actions. We’d expected Peruvians to be welcoming because of the number of foreign tourists that visit the country.
Perhaps though that is the problem, locals see rich gringos passing daily through their towns and villages on the way to sites like Lake Titicaca or Machu Picchu, but don’t benefit themselves from the tourist industry. We were shocked to watch two buses of Swedish tourists stop at the site of some small Inca ruins, which they used as a toilet. In a way it’s understandable that locals aren’t welcoming when foreigners disrespect their country like this.
From Sicuani we continued our descent. We decided that even though we were heading into a strong headwind it was better than having to cycle the 800m climb going the other way. We made it to Urcos that evening with very sore bums, our Brooks saddles rubbing us raw. There are photos to prove this, but we wouldn’t inflict them on you.
The next day was the final leg into Cusco, that we thought would be all uphill, but which started as undulating through breath-taking valleys and past old Inca ruins. The ascent up the Cusco Valley was gentle, and we were more aware of the traffic as we got closer to the city than of climbing.
For it’s fair to say that Peruvian drivers are the craziest of our trip so far. Their incessant honking has driven us mad. Every passing car, truck, bus or tuc tuc seems to feel it necessary to make their presence known to us. We could really use a dictionary of Peruvian honking to work out what they are trying to say, as it could be ‘hello’, ‘get out of the way’ or may not even be directed at us. Gradually we are becoming immune to the noise and imagine by the time we reach Ecuador they won’t register at all.
Yet, in Cusco the traffic was frustrating and scary. The buses are a law unto themselves and one which cut Paddy up got a wack from him. So it was a relief to arrive safely at our hostel for a few days of relaxing and exploring with Paddy’s parents who had come out to visit us.
Our first experiences of Peru were a mixture of positive and not so good , yet the cycling had been spectacular. We were looking forward to the next stretch to Nazca, which promised big landscapes and getting down to sea-level.