What goes up must come down: cycling Cusco to Nazca
Peru is a big country, a fact we are slowly realising. The road from Cusco to Nazca took in seemingly endless climbs, vicuna-filled plains and some of the world’s largest sand dunes. The scenery was breath-taking and whilst we were disappointed not to spend more time there, we were relieved on reaching Nazca to be down from altitude at last.
After a relaxing break in Cusco with Paddy’s parents and a fantastic trip to the lost city of the Incas, Machu Picchu, we said goodbye temporarily as they set off to Lake Titicaca whilst we climbed back in the saddle. They have driven the road to Nazca already and promised us dramatic scenery, but nothing could prepare us for the size of the landscape.
We were happy to be back on the road, me especially, with a new saddle (a Selle Italia Diva Gel Flow) to replace my Brooks. At top of the switchbacks overlooking Cusco, we stopped for our morning cake which we shared with an elderly man, who was filling in potholes in the hope that passing vehicles would offer him a few Soles.
What goes up must come down, so we had a descent into the town of Anta, where we ate an omelette lunch in the local food market. Peru’s abundant roadside food stalls have provided us with fantastic meals. From the delicious fried cheese (queso frito), pasta filled soups, fried beef and chips (lomosaltado) to the almuerzo, a set menu, costing about £1.50 which varies depending on what the owner has chosen to serve that day, but which is always far too big for us to finish.
Refuelled, we were back on the road where we met a French couple cycling the other way. We had one pass to climb that day, which they said we would hardly notice climbing. It was a ridiculous struggle, however, as we battled into the headwind. Grumpy at the top, we recovered our spirits as we realised our last 30km was downhill to the town of Limotambo. There wasn’t much to do other than push off and enjoy the ride.
Whilst Paddy went into a hostel to ask about staying the night, I stayed outside with the bikes, where I noticed a huge spider. Knowing Paddy would ridicule me if I screamed “tarantula, tarantula”, I quietly mentioned it to the little boy in the hostel, who ran off shouting “mum, mum, there’s a tarantula” and returned with the tools to get rid of it. I spent the rest of the evening on the look-out for any of its friends.
The next morning, after free-wheeling 20km down to the riverbed, it was flies that we were under attack from. So climbing away from them was initially a relief. Five hours later, having covered less than 20km, perched on a set of switchbacks and under the tarp sheltering from a thunderstorm we’d have given anything to be back down with them.
We stopped briefly for a homemade, mango sorbet where we were too slow to react from dogs marking their territory on Paddy’s panniers. The dogs here are always keen for a sniff of us, for a chase and a nip at our legs. Racing them is futile and throwing stuff requires pre-planning. Squirting water works, but it’s a precious resource in this heat. Stopping is good, but then we lose all our speed. Our new tactic is to point at them fiercely and shout. I find “go home” effective, whilst Paddy prefers the more aggressive “F**k off dog”. The effect is cartoon-like and instead off ending up ashen-faced, we have pedalled off laughing at their puzzled reactions.
We stopped that night in the hostel-packed town of Curahuasi and early the next morning Paddy’s parents reappeared. In their position as our temporary support team, they took our bags from us, which was most welcome whilst we cycled up the equivalent of Ben Nevis, about 1,300m.
By this point it was apparent my new saddle was not going to do the trick, I was pining for the Brooks. Better some nasty chaffing than aching pains.
We eased the workload by managing to hitch a lift clinging onto the rear bumper of a slow-moving truck. Paddy bagged the best position and when I had to drop off so a truck could overtake he disappeared off around the hairpin bends. I got my own back by feeding his bread and cake to a friendly dog, who consequently accompanied me up the hill.
At the top of the 4000m high pass we met up with Paddy’s folks and repacked the bikes for stability on the road down into Abancay. Only parts of the winding road were visible from the top and we enjoyed an effortless 35km in an hour and a half.
In rainy Abancay we had a decision to make about the next leg. The terrain to Nazca would offer up more of the same long climbs and we estimated we would need at least four days to get there. Although our support team were keen to accompany us, we were worried as both had been hit by altitude sickness and we were keen to get them down as soon as possible. The thought of more climbing on our sore bottoms was also not attractive.
In the end we took the decision to skip out the section from Abancay to Puquio. Taking a bus for any stretch makes me feel guilty, but karma kicked in pretty soon. The journey was terrifying, with the driver overtaking at breakneck speed on hairpin bends and blind corners.
As we’d ‘cheated’ to here, we thought a little further wouldn’t hurt and bagged a lift to the top of the pass about 50km after Puquio. We were disappointed not to have cycled up through these incredible valleys, but part of us was relieved to have escaped the task, the climbs were big to say the least.
That meant that our downhill into Nazca was huge too. In total we had a 100km descent into the town, from 4,100m to 600m, starting along vicuna-filled plains and gradually back into the Atacama Desert. Here we passed some of the world’s largest sand dunes and battled to keep a straight line as we cycled through the wind coming up the valley.
Finally we reached the bottom and followed the old riverbed into the dusty town of Nazca. I attracted lots of wolf whistles and jeers, people don’t seem to be put off by the presence of Paddy or my filthy and covered-up appearance.
We rewarded ourselves for our recent hard work (??) and checked into a lovely hostel with a pool, which was incredibly inviting after our dusty ride. It was almost hard to drag ourselves away to explore the famous Nazca Lines, huge figures drawn in the sand by the Incas. They are best seen from the air, which meant that pilots Paddy and Kevin were excited to have a flight in a Cessna. I was less so, spending most of the 30 minute trip trying to hold on to my breakfast.
Yet aside from that, we were all feeling remarkably better being down from altitude. Giddy on oxygen we enjoyed homemade pisco sours and relaxed for our few final days together. For our next leg to Lima we’d be back to carrying our own bags and dealing with the desert heat.