08.23.2003-09.17.2003       Abancay, Peru to La Paz, Bolivia
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The road from Abancay continued through the type of terrain that had become all too familiar over the past month. Fortunately, each valley differed enough from the previous to keep things interesting. Reaching Cusco was a milestone of sorts. Former capital of the Inca Empire, it evoked many images. However, when one arrives at a place on a bicycle mental images quickly dissolve into reality. My first glimpse of Cusco, from high above, revealed a town not so different from other Peruvian towns. The mud-brick dwellings that constituted the majority of its buildings gave it the unsightly earthy look that most Peruvian towns possess. But as I rode into the heart of the city I found a colonial center that rivaled those of the finer Mexican cities. From Cusco I hoped to fulfill another long-time dream--hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Attempts to arrange the trek prior to my arrival had failed. I arranged one after arrival but the soonest departure I could secure with a respectable agency was nearly a week off. That left me playing the role of the reluctant tourist. I spent a few days wandering around the city, visiting its churches and admiring the remnants of the Inca Empire. After the arduous riding of the previous month I thought my body would appreciate the rest but obviously I had paced myself well for my legs were restless after a few days. Day trip number one took me to the Sacred Valley and the hilltop ruins of Pisac. Location is 90% of the appeal of ruins and Pisac is superbly situated. Day trip number two was the ride from Chinchero to Urubamba via Moray and Salineras. The sophistication of the Inca Empire was apparent at Moray, an agro-research station of sorts that took advantage of the dozen microclimates created by depressions in the earth. Next stop was the salt pans, Inca technology still in use today, more than 500 years after its inception.

Finally it was time to the hit the trail. A brutally early start on the first day enabled us to beat the crowds. We would maintain this advantage throughout the next three days, seeing no more than three groups on the trail each day. After a chilly first night we completed the ascent to Dead Woman’s Pass, at 4250m it was the highest point on the trail. In addition to treating the trekker to fine Andean scenery, the Trail helps set the context for Machu Picchu, passing by several ruins which served as guesthouses, fortresses and storehouses. After the second pass the trail descended into cloud forest, providing me with the first proper cloud forest trekking of the trip. The descent from the third pass was particularly punishing, descending thousands of feet along thousands of steps. A pre-dawn start on the fourth day brought us to the culmination of the trek, Machu Picchu. As it had been throughout the trek, the weather was accommodating. From above we watched as the clouds moved in and then out, hiding and then revealing the ruins. We arrived back in Cusco that night and commenced a night of drinking that continued into the next day.

The next day I was tired and hung-over. But I needed to leave Cusco, to get back to Peru. I made it only thirty miles down the road to the town of Ucros. But it was enough. The price of my room was the same as the price of a small beer from the night before. The next day I had an experience which gave me some insight into why Andean food is so bland. I had pulled off the road to make myself some breakfast. As I was taking out my food bag some young shepherds pulled up with their flock. I felt like treating myself to an espresso(my bag of Lavazza espresso grounds is, sadly, nearly empty) so I assembled my stove. This is always a crowd pleaser and the young shepherds soon abandoned their flock and sat down to watch. The spectacle reached its climax as the heavenly liquid began to issue forth from the spout. They were mesmerized. By then they hadn’t asked for sweets, money or anything else. I deemed them “un-spoiled” and felt it safe to share my breakfast with them. I offered each a piece of bread. They accepted. I then asked them if they wanted to try some peanut butter. They nodded their heads. I dabbed a little on each of their pieces of bread. After they sampled it I asked them if they liked it. They exclaimed, “How rich!” Not how I would describe peanut butter, especially the crap one finds in Peru. For me peanut butter was nothing more than spread-able protein. I covered the rest of their breads with peanut butter. While they nibbled I devoured several more pieces. Apparently it was a treat to be savored because before they’d eaten half their portions they each stowed them for later enjoyment. To show their appreciation one of the young shepherds took out her food bag and gave me four kernels of boiled maize. Relative to boiled maize I guess peanut butter is quite tasteful.

After a few days I entered the altiplano. A few days beyond that I arrived at another place that had entered my consciousness through grade-school geography lessons, Lake Titicaca. At 12,600 ft. it is the highest navigable lake in the world. In Puno I met up with my Swiss friends and we took a lake tour. First stop was the Floating Islands, a collection of islands constructed solely of reeds from the lake. Although I was dubious of its authenticity, I enjoyed our guide’s anecdotes on neighbors who didn’t get along: they simply cut themselves away from their neighbors and had themselves dragged to a more hospitable part of the lake. Stop number two was the island of Taquile. Nice scenery, interesting people, ugly town, too touristy. From Puno we made for the border with Bolivia. Peru had met, and then exceeded my expectations. Yet after nearly three months in country I was ready to move on.

The skies over Lake Titicaca had ranged from hazy to stormy while I was in Peru but as I crossed into Bolivia they cleared, thus revealing the lake of those grade-school lessons. Our first destination in Bolivia was the pleasant lakeside town of Copacabana. The last two tourist destinations I’d visited in Peru, Cusco and Puno, had been a bit of a disappointment. In contrast, Copacabana was on the mark. I spent a proper rest day in town, relaxing along the lakeside and exploring the town and its surroundings. The next day I took a boat trip to the Island of the Sun, thought by many to be the origin of the Inca. I hiked the length of the island, enjoying the 360 degree views the ridge-top trail afforded. As with Copacabana, the feeling was much better on this island than on its Peruvian counterparts.

Before leaving Copacabana I walked my bike up to the town’s cathedral. Each day Bolivians bring their vehicles to the church to be blessed. With the expectation of nasty traffic around La Paz and a descent along “The World’s Most Dangerous Road” I decided joining them might not be such a bad idea. The route out of Copacabana was spectacular. Combine that with good weather, toss in a strike which resulted in practically no traffic and you have the perfect ride. The next morning I started my ride into La Paz, over fifty miles away. I knew there was some sort of civil unrest on the route but I was repeatedly assured that I would face no problems on bicycle. Instead, I expected another nearly traffic-less day. Initially the debris on the road was a distraction. Then it became an annoyance. When I began to encounter road blocks, attended to by large numbers of people, it became dangerous. When I was in Peru a man once said to me, “Now Bolivians, they know how to strike.” He was right. I managed to circumvent the first few road blocks but eventually I was surrounded by a group of people who would not let me pass. They wanted money. I refused. After some discussion a bottle of local cola(nearly undrinkable stuff) from my cargo secured my passage. Unfortunately, the people at the next road block were more hostile. I was told to turn back if I wished to keep my bicycle. A hostile group is the solo cyclist’s worst fear. I took this advice and then commenced a cross-country route, trying to stay parallel to the highway but not within sight of it. The smoke from burning debris along the highway helped me keep my bearings. It seemed all the bad people were on the highway--every person I met was more than happy to direct me along safe paths. El Alto, a sprawling town(consisting primarily of Indian immigrants from the countryside) sitting high above La Paz, was the last obstacle. I had to avoid the main routes and therefore found myself riding through the slums, wondering if they were any safer. At last I arrived at the edge of El Alto and looked down into La Paz. After a lengthy descent I arrived in the city center. True to its name it was a peaceful city, an almost unbelievable contrast to what I had witnessed earlier in the day. My Swiss friends had left Copacabana a day earlier and had faced the worst of the unrest. In La Paz we were relieved to see each other, to know that we had all arrived safely. With more unrest planned and no safe routes out of the city available it seemed La Paz would be our home for some time.
DistanceElevation GainFlat Tires
Leg616 mi/991 km32930 ft/10803 m
Trip14837 mi/23877 km169 mi/272 km17
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