Monday, 30 December 2013

Cusco and Machu Picchu

The courtyard at Estrellita hostel
Plenty of bike company
I had to laugh when I arrived into Hostal Estrellita with 9 motor bikes parked in the main yard and several bicycles in the store room, I was in good company. It was by no means a plush hostel but very reasonably priced by Cusco standards and the next day I was happy to find out that they even included breakfast. Three more cyclists arrived an hour or so after me, one American, one Spaniard and an Irish guy from near Derry. I think Simon was the first Irish cyclists that I had happened to bump into on the road to date. It didn’t take long to get to know the friendly gang in the hostel most of whom would be spending Christmas there. On my first day there I went off to get that hamburger that I had promised myself about a week ago, accompanied by Simon and his Colorado girlfriend Olivia. We had been told that one of the best burgers in town was to be had in the Irish Pub so off we marched. The cheeseburger in Paddy’s Irish pub didn’t disappoint and it was certainly worth the visit if for no other reason than for the two Irish men getting their photo beside the Christmas tree made out of Guinness beer cans…. extra cheese with that cheese burger please.

It doesn't really feel like Christmas unless there's a Guinness beer can Christmas tree in the room
On Christmas Eve a large gang of us from the hostel headed over to another hostel where there was an organised all you can eat Christmas spread being put on with Christmas turkey. Arriving back to the table with a plate piled high one of my Aussie motorbike buddies Lindsey, said there’s no way I could eat all that food. He underestimated the hunger of a touring cyclist, not to mention how excited I was to get some turkey for Christmas having missed out on it last year. We rolled out of the hostel and half of us went for a pint in the Wild Rover hostel while the other half went for a stroll around the central square. We sat there, the average age between us being older than the younger back packers we were surrounded by, getting blasted by trance music. While I like some electronic music there’s a time and a place and some cheesy Christmas tunes would have been more appropriate… more cheese with my turkey please. We sat there, most of us in a food coma, staring at out pints. One pint was enough and we headed for the hay. It won’t go down as my maddest Christmas night on the town but the traditional Christmas dinner box had most definitely been ticked.

Central Cusco
Loads of Irish in Cusco for Christmas

La Merced
Mike and Karen (, a cycling couple from Edmonton, Canada  had taken the initiative of putting a list up where you could sign your name if you wished to prepare and share in a communal Christmas dinner on the 25th. The closer we got to the big day the longer the list of names became so the kitchen was quite the hive of activity in the day or two leading to Christmas and especially on the 25th. I was on Spanish (Irish) omelette duties. By about 6pm the feast was ready. Close to 30 people eventually sat down to dinner and there was a truly impressive array of food and drink along with the variety of nationalities. As with the previous night I ate too much. It’s hard not to when your regular diet week in, month out consists of oats, bananas and stale white bread rolls! It was a fantastic evening and I think everyone enjoyed their Christmas at Estrellita. As Bill, another one of our Aussie biker friends had put it that morning; “You ain’t exactly family but you pricks are alright!” I wasn’t the last to bed as a few of us had decided to head in the direction of Machu Picchu the following day.

Karen, Mike and Kathy put a huge amount of time and effort into the Papas Rellenas
Christmas feast
Spanish - Irish - Omelette...!
...which even got a thumbs up from a real Spaniard!
Simon's delicious banoffee pie didn't last long
A big happy "family" enjoying their Christmas dinner 
 The trek to Machu Picchu

Simon, Olivia and I left the hostel at about 7.30 in the morning of the 26th of December bound for Aguascalientes, the nearest town to Machu Picchu. There are numerous ways of getting to the famous UNESCO World Heritage Site such as bike, bus, taxi, train, hike or combination of some or all them. We decided to take a break from the bikes but being long distance touring cyclists went for the most budget public transport option. The journey started with a 1 hour bus journey to Urubamba via minivan, then a packed old bus where we didn’t have seats and had to stand for over four hours. Although the three of us did a good job of impersonating a bob sleigh team at one stage when we all reverted to sitting on the dirty floor in the isle of the bus. I had hardly slept a wink the night before after over eating for a second night in a row with the Christmas festivities. Stomach cramps and dashes to the bathroom seemed to have been the theme for most people in my dorm on Christmas night. Knowing that a big trip to Machu Picchu lay in store I had bunged myself up with Lomotil before leaving the hostel but the packed stuffy bus rocking over and back and up and down on the crazy Peruvian roads didn’t do my sensitive stomach any good. Despite a female Brazilian tourist, who was also standing, fainting during a 10 minute stopover there was still no sign of a seat for her when we all got back on the bus. After the bus journey it was time for a stint in a Toyota Corolla where Simon and I were lumped into the boot (trunk). It’s been a while since I’ve travelled in the boot of a car. I was almost glad to be looking out the back of the vehicle as our stunt driver sped along the gravel road with a steep cliff to one side. Once we made it to the village of Santa Maria we changed back into a minivan where I had the luxury of a seat! Thankfully our new driver seemed to have less of a death wish. The minivan dropped us at the hydroelectric plant at about 5.30 in the evening where the last stretch of the journey involved a 3 hour hike along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes the last half of which was in the dark so luckily we had brought our head torches. We finally staggered into Aguascalientes, exhausted and more than 12 hours after leaving the hostel. We bumped into some of our Aussie biker mates who had got the train and had even had time for a massage upon arrival to Aguascalientes. But as Lindsey admitted himself, they’re more flash packers than backpackers! If you ever go to Machu Picchu and the budget isn’t too tight, get the train.

We weren't the only ones to find the bus journey tiring. (Photo Simon & Olivia;
A fast flowing river beside the train tracks
I shared a room with Simon and Olivia and was sound asleep by 9 o’clock.
We were up and out of the hotel by 5.45 the following morning and took roughly an hour to hike our way up to main entrance to Machu Picchu. Again there is an overpriced USD 18.00 bus that can take you up… maybe next time! By 7 o’clock in the morning I was standing in the middle of one of the world’s most famous landmarks mouth open at how impressive the place was. I have been privileged to see some spectacular ruins on this trip like the incredible Teotihuacan in Mexico and Tikal in Guatemala but I think Machu Picchu took the biscuit for me. As much for its stunning location among the steep lush misty mountains of the Sacred Valley as for the size and beauty of the ruins themselves built into the mountain side. Simon, Olivia and I (a.k.a. team fart) pretty much walked up and down every path that there is to walk in these extensive ruins and after sheltering from a midafternoon down pour it was time to say goodbye to this special place.

Machu Picchu

I can't wait to go for a snooze when I get to Machu Picchu (Photo Simon & Olivia)

We weren’t sure if we were going to make it all the way back to Cusco that evening but we were going to try our best.
After another tiring 3 hour hike back along the train tracks we luckily caught a taxi straight away to Santa Maria and from there were fortunate to catch a minivan heading all the way straight to Cusco with seats and all. We made it back to Cusco shortly after midnight where we all went straight to bed shattered from our two days of travelling and hiking.

The next few days were spent exploring Cusco (formal capital of the Inca empire), eating well and preparing for the onward journey. On our last night a large gang of us went to Paddy’s Irish pub again where I made sure to get another cheeseburger as I didn’t know when the next chance for a quality burger would be.

Giving the bike a scrub
A great send off from our friends in the hostel

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

The road to Cusco

The Cordillera Blanca
The next few days were a pleasure, not that they weren’t tough going with plenty of climbing but it was all on paved roads so I felt like I was finally making progress.
I managed a half day on the bike after a late departure leaving Huaraz. I had been between two minds as whether to take the dirt track up through the National Park Huascaran via a route I had already been on whilst visiting the glacier a few days previous or whether to take the 40 km longer paved route that skirted around the edges of the park. 

Sign at turn off for Pastoruri

As coincidence would have it I got a puncture at the turn off for the dirt track. By the time I had the puncture repaired and the bags all back on the bike it was starting to lash rain so I decided to call it a day and took shelter with a family who didn’t mind me “camping” in their front room. The Marceliano’s were lovely people and I had great fun walking their little daughter around the room that evening. I think a days cycling in Peru is less tiring than entertaining a one year old for an hour or so!

The two lovely ladies in red

The next morning, after the photo shot, I hit the road going for the paved option. It was a lovely sunny morning and it felt great to be spinning my wheels on a normal road with little traffic and spectacular views of the Cordierlla Blanca to my left. I wild camped that night half way into a big climb wedged in a valley with big mountains on either side. I spent most of the following day climbing the 27 or so kilometres up to Punta Union (the pass) questioning whether I should have taken the shorter unpaved route but the views were fantastic so it was all good. I layered up at the top of the pass and belted out twice the distance done until then with the luxury of a paved downhill to bring me into the town of La Union. I camped that night in the kitchen of la policia in La Union. 

The following day was a biggie as I tried to make a push for the city of Huanuco. It will be a day that I shall never forget and one that has a very big impact on Peru not being one of the favorite countries of the trip. Although it was paved the climb was on a narrow, very windy road with a lot of heavy goods traffic. Despite all of the blind corners and trucks going in opposite directions this didn’t stop them driving at speed or driving on the wrong side of the road. To compensate they blew their horns. They really blew their horns. It is very difficult to imagine coming from Ireland or probably most western countries the extent to which they like to blow their horns in Peru in general. In all the various countries I’ve passed on this trip I had not experienced anything like the horn honking of Peru but this day was the worst of all. Big truck, fog horn type blasts lasting for several seconds at a time going every minute. To say that I was at my wits end would be an understatement. At one stage I was so wound up that that I decided I needed a break and to have a few deep breaths, deeper breaths than the ones I was already taking cycling uphill at altitude. I said my prayers for the rest of the afternoon with the words “Forgive those who trespass against us..” swapped for “Forgive those who honk their extremely loud horns incessantly at us”. The dogs were also up to their usual tricks of barking insanely and chasing anything that moved. Far away hills (or mountains) are always greener as I dreamt about those peaceful days lost in the middle of northern Peru, miles from anybody pushing my bike up a stoney river bed!

Corona del Inca
I knew it was going to be a big ask with the first 80km mostly uphill.  I wound my way up and up and eventually got to Corona del Inca which is a famous rock formation that is said to look like an Inca crown. Not far past that was the pass which I hit at about 5.30pm. Knowing it was still probably about 50 km to Huanuco I asked at a police check point who confirmed that it takes about an hour by car to get there. Right, time to belt it. I was cycling downhill for 50 km. Suddenly, as I sped around this corner and that, I was hoping AND praying that those insane truck drivers were going to honk those horns if they were coming around a corner at me, how I had changed my tune!
Windy road
The reason I had decided to make the push for Huanuco in the dark was good coffee. I knew that the Operation Mato Groso Italian community had a place in Huanuco so I was hoping that they may have been able to help me out… again! I hadn’t realised that Huanuco is a city, which I arrived into well after dark on a Saturday night. In fact it was the biggest city I had been in so far on my bike in Peru. Being a Saturday night there was a real buzz to the streets and being a city meant it took a while to track down the OMG community. Graziano came out in his jeep to take me to the house and however bad I felt about dragging him out I felt slightly worse when I discovered that OMG in Huanuco consists of Graziano, his wife Rocio and young daughter Isabella. It is a supply base for some of the isolated village communities that OMG serve. Thankfully Graziano and Rocio were extremely welcoming and were quite happy for me to stay. Grazie mille!
Graziano, Rocio and Isabella

Over the next week I got plenty of climbing in passing from one spectacular valley to the next. I spent one of the nights in Cerro de Pasco which at 4,300 metres is one of the highest cities in the world. It is also a major mining centre but not much of a city to look at.

Open mine almost in the centre of Cerro de Pasco
Cerro de Pasco, highest city in the world

I had to get this digger to stop for a few minutes while I lifted my bike over the rocks on the road below.
Cars had to wait a few hours to pass
Not ski lifts but coal mining lifts

The very helpful Policia in Junin, also my first sighting of Christmas decorations..
Step into my office.. they even gave me my own room with a desk
Hop on, plenty of room
One of the main pedestrian streets of Ayacucho
On the 9th of December I arrived into the colonial city of Ayacucho as night was falling. Upon asking at the Bomberos (Fire station) I was told no for first time of the trip. Apparently a few cyclists had passed the year before and left a big mess behind them. After a bit of chat and assuring them of how clean I was they agreed to let me stay – phew!
After some time off in Ayacucho I knew from researching the route that the climbs got bigger as I pushed for the last 500 or so odd kilometres towards Cusco.

These kids doing their good deeds for the day were filling in the pot holes with clay and sticks
Time for a rest

Plenty of mountains and valleys to keep me going.... slow.
The landscape seemed to get greener and more agricultural as I got further south

Best shopkeeper ever, he ended up giving me two free delicious avocados not to mention sharing
two shots of rum with me, just what I needed in the heat.

The paved roads certainly helped me to feel like I was finally making progress even if I was still pretty exhausted by the end of each day. Another difference that I noticed was that the scenery seemed to be greener so although it was still relatively slow going it was good to see some alternative landscape.
Much and all as I try to stay focused on the day that’s in it or hitting the next stop over in the coming week I’d definitely be lying if I didn’t admit that I was looking forward to making Cusco from a while back. It is the main tourist city for visiting Macuh Picchu and it’s a place that I’d been hearing about from friends who had travelled South America over the years. As I said Peru had been by far and away the most challenging country of the trip to date and it even managed to surprise me, particularly up north. I knew that Cusco would be touristy but to be honest I was almost looking forward to catching up with some fellow travelers, treating myself to a half decent meal or two and kicking back for a few days in a fun place for Christmas.
I had been racing against some dirty black rain clouds all afternoon and they caught me about an hours ride from the city. But I didn’t care, I knew I would soon be getting my second shower in a week and that a decent hamburger wasn’t far away! On the evening of Saturday 21st of December, I had made it to Cusco. 
I spent the first night in the Bomberos where they were having their Christmas party and the next day moved to Hostel Estrellita which was a bike friendly hostel recommended to me by Martin, my Austrian cycling buddy.

Mural at the back of the fire station in Cusco