Crossing the Peruvian Andes

2009 March 2
tags: ,
by Levi

Up and to our free breakfast in our hotel in Nasca. We had to spend $1 upgrading to fresh squeezed orange juice and eggs over bread and coffee. Highway robbery! We talked to some of the other guests, Canadians traveling around South America for four months, and packed our bikes in the lobby. There was a mentally retarded kid hanging out at the hotel, obviously the son of one of the women working there, and whenever he got in the way, the people there would push him around without a second thought. Peru seems like a pretty awful place to be thusly handicapped…

We got miserably lost trying to find our way out of Nasca and towards Cuzco, and eventually I asked a Taxi driver, who decided to lead us out of town instead of just giving us directions. Thanks to his help, we were on the right way before too long, but thanks to road construction, we were stopped as soon as we turned off the main north/south highway onto the road to Cuzco.

We waited at the front of a long line of cars for the signal to go, eventually getting off the bikes and joining some Peruvians under the shade of a truck. We were stopped across the street from a giant cactus field, and a guy selling ice cream from a bike walked over, picked one of the fruits, called tuna, and gave it to us to try. It was bright pink (it comes in 3 colors, the white one of which we’d had before and not known what we were eating) and as full of seeds as a pomegranate, but still tasty, especially when totally fresh.

After a half hour, they gave us a warning that we’d be leaving soon, and we got back on the bikes. We watched the traffic pass in the opposite direction then got to head up the mountain. Up and up we went, passing all sorts of random road construction and patches of loose rocks and such. In no time, the bright sun and hot temperatures we’d been going through in the desert lowlands of western Peru were a thing of the past, and the temperature fell into the 40’s and the clouds let loose a torrent of cold rain. Before we’d made it very far, we stopped at a restaurant in a dip between two mountains, to grab some coffee and hot soup – caldo de gallina, which is rooster soup. As we were finishing our meal, a road worker came into the restaurant and told us we’d have to move back up the road, as they were starting some construction. I asked if we could just go through before they started, and he insisted we had to go back the way we came to where they’d stopped traffic, but assured us it’d only be 5 minutes…

So back we went. It was freezing cold and raining, and nowhere to find shelter. The same truck that’d be stopped behind us at the last construction work was behind us again. Before long, there was a massive explosion from the mountain down the road, and we saw smoke rising. While watching, there were a few more big booms and flying rocks. They were dynamiting the mountain right across from us! I ask the women holding back traffic how long this is going to be, and she says half an hour. My Dad finds it funny that I even bother to ask, and 20 minutes later, when a guy from another car in line walks up and asks, the woman tells him half an hour.

Our frustration continues to rise as time ticks by and we’re completely soaked and freezing. There haven’t been any explosions for about an hour, and we talk about just trying to ignore the workers and blow through the roadblock. After talking about it a long time, we start our bikes and go, the women trying to hold us back insisting we go no further than the restaurant. Of course, we keep going, and when we make it to where the explosions went off, we see a roadway covered in rocks, from pebbles to giant boulders, and no machinery in sight to move them. A cop gets in front of us and insists we stop and turn around. He says there’s heavy machinery and work going on and we can’t pass, and threatens to write us a ticket if we don’t turn around. We give up and go back to the restaurant to take some cover and have another cup of coffee.

Before long, all the people who’d been waiting behind us at the roadblock show up at the restaurant. The road block had been moved down to just past it, no doubt by the frustration of the other drivers tired of waiting in their cars. Among those who show up is a Brazilian guy we talk to who used to live in Gobles, Michigan, a nowhere town right by where I grew up! Small world…

After a half hour waiting at the restaurant another half hour, bringing our entire wait to around 3 gruelling hours, the cop who’d stopped us comes into the restaurant and says they’re allowing just motorcycles to go through. We jump on our bikes and head to where they’d done the detonating. The situation was unchanged, with rocks everywhere across the roadway, and absolutely no machinery around to move them. We get through a quarter mile of it before getting back on the miserable roadway.

The rain and cold continue, and as we once again ascend to stupid heights, fog begins to rise from the road, and eventually we’re completely enveloped in it, forced to ride through thick mud, gravel, and roadways completely covered in potholes. With the fog at its worst, we hit our first town out of Nasca, Lucana, and my Dad stops to check out the one hotel. Cold and frustrated, he wants to stop there but I convince him to press on. I convince him to continue to the town of Puquio, which is markedly larger and close enough to make before sundown.

Wonderful visibility

Wonderful visibility

We pass through more miserable mountain road, and right before Puquio, a group of three old men in traditional Peruvian clothes (and hats!) walking on the roadway spot us and give us angry and menacing looks. They walk towards us, shouting and waving big sticks with arced metal picks on them in an extremely threatening fashion. We pass them thoroughly confused, and enter the mud-filled village of Puquio. We try a handful of hotels that are below even our extremely modest requirements, my favorite being a place that claims to have a garage, and when I ask to see it, the woman leads me to what’s obviously her extremely small bedroom with a door facing the street she says we can pull our bikes through.

We eventually find what is surely the nicest hotel in town, a modest place with real hot water and a dangerous staircase leading up to our room on the 4th floor. The place doesn’t have a garage, but the owner walks us 4 blocks away to a giant mudpit that acts as the garage for the city, where we can park our bikes for $1 each. I also find out that the mounting hardware for my top case has broken at some point on the road here thanks to the horrible potholes, and it’s only thanks to my numerous bungee cords around the thing that it didn’t fall off the damn bike. We shower to warm up (by the end of the night, we’re shivering like mad and completely soaking wet) and grab some mediocre food in the restaurant below our hotel. Sleep comes easy thanks fo the 3 wool blankets and a comforter on our beds.

In the morning, we have to deal with my broken top case mount. A quick aside, Givi should be horribly ashamed of themselves for providing such weak bolts, especially considering the mounting plate and hardware cost $50! We stopped by three hardware stores in town, amazed that they’re all open considering it’s Sunday, but find only SAE bolts, and nothing that’ll work to replace the broken hardware. We go in search of a Mechanic who should at least have access to Metric bolts, and hopefully something with the proper threads to screw into the mount, and we find a mechanic who’s on his way to an automotive hardware store and takes me with him. This place has no sign, just a door to a small room with wall to wall bolts, fan belts, and metal parts. I show the guy behind the counter my broken bolt, he searches for awhile, coming out with a few similar pieces that we should be able to hack to work, and then does something amazing: inside his display case, he pulls out a plastic tub full of exactly the same bolts, and they’re made of harder steel than the original bolts! The guy doesn’t have a lot of these bolts and doesn’t want to sell them to me, but with my mechanic friend’s help, he parts with three for less than $1 a piece (the mount only uses two).

We put in the new bolts, and discover the center of the town has been covered in people in costumes covered in ribbons and white face paint, dancing and making music in the streets – it’s Carnival in Peru, and the locals are really gettin’ down! We have to drive cautiously through part of the celebration to get back to our hotel. We watch and take some pictures of the party, then pack our bikes and get out of dodge.

It's not quite the same scene as in Brazil, but the locals still know how to throw down for Carnival

It's not quite the same scene as in Brazil, but the locals still know how to throw down for Carnival

The road out of Puquio is completely ridiculous. Thick with mud, and down to one lane stuffed with trucks, we crawl out of town wondering just how awful things are going to be today. Eventually as the city ends, the road improves to a real highway, and coils straight up through the mountains till we’re thousands of feet above Puquio, watching the clouds roll over the city. The road stays nearly perfect as we climb to an extremely high flat plain. Our bikes are barely running at the altitude (around 14,000 feet!), and the road is pretty desolate. We pass sheep and Alpaca herders, and six peaks covered in glaciers and snow! The temperatures are low enough to not have to wonder where the snow came from.

Eventually, we hit the end of the high plain and descend down, down, down into a river valley with a monsterous dirty river, boiling and churning in some of the most impressive rapids I’ve seen, and seemingly unending! We followed the riverbed for miles and miles through amazing multicolored mountains trimmed with vegetation and in rich red, pink, and brown. We passed river after river acting as tributaries and bolstering the torrent of the river, with some coming in clear and frothing white, only to instantly be overpowered by the muddy brown of the main river. We passed the scene of an accident with a large first-class bus that had managed to completely leave the roadway and fall onto the bank of the river perpendicular to the road, on its side, and with tons of broken windows.

Doesn't do the river justice, but we never stopped for pictures

Doesn't do the river justice, but we never stopped for pictures

The bikes were running much better at the lower altitude, the weather was warmer, and the road was still great, so we made good time, till we came across a house with a sign advertising “Cuyes”! Once again, Cuy is the word used for Guinea Pig served as food, and I’d been looking to try cuy since entering Ecuador, so we stopped. We ordered one cuy and a couple beers, and joined a ridiculous group of Peruvians on their way back from a family reunion. We joked with them for about an hour, during which time some kids there gave us some more crazy native fruit to try, all of which were tasty and indescribable, but our food still didn’t arrive. When our cuy finally came up the hill to where we were sitting, it was beginning to get dark outside. The cuy was served splayed out and baked, with its head severed but still on the plate, its grizzly visage still whiskered. It was very greasy, with a lot of skin but little meat. Certainly not bad, it didn’t live up to the hype, and tasted a bit like rabbit. Only worth the nearly $10 for the opportunity to try the beast.

We finished our food quickly and headed to Abancay as the sky threatened to rain. Thankfully, we made it before it really began, and wound on a crazy street through a larger town than we’d expected. We stopped at the first hotel we came to, and when the woman insisted there was parking for our bikes and internet access, we were game. When I came outside to tell my dad, he’d been sprayed with some soapy stuff from a can by random people walking by, apparently celebrating carnival by shooting water and stuff and each other in the streets. Way back in Ecuador, in the first town we stayed in, kids had managed to peg me in the foot with a waterballoon from a high ledge over the highway, but since then we hadn’t been messed with until Carnival. Since then, people with buckets of water, waterballoons, hoses, and water guns have been trying to soak us as we go through cities and towns of all sizes.

We unpacked our things to our hotel and the woman showed us where to park our bikes… inside a store. She literally raised the metal shutter for a storefront under the hotel and had us cram our bikes between the shutter and the display case. We settled into our room and it started pouring like mad outside. We headed out looking for some sort of mischief, but managed to accomplish little beyond getting wet. We did find a store across the street with multiple large rooms absolutely full of candy and chocolate, far more than I’ve seen in any other one place on this trip, and I’d be hard pressed to name anywhere in the states that could rival the selection.

Abancay is only an 200 Kilometers from Cuzco, where we catch the train to Machu Picchu, and so we finally knew we’d be there the next day. I got on the internet to buy us overpriced train tickets only to discover that the train to Machu Picchu for the next day was completely booked, and also there’s only one train there per day, and it leaves at 6:50 AM. The following day was free, so we booked it and knew we’d have an easy day ahead of us.

Our overpriced hotel in Abancay didn’t have breakfast, so in the morning we hit the street. As soon as we left the hotel, however, we were shocked to discover our motorcycles on the sidewalk, in the street, and the store they had been in open for business! Now I’m ok with them needing the space, but they should have told us, and they definitely shouldn’t have tried moving our giant heavy bikes on their own when we were practically sleeping on top of them. Frustrated, we walked several blocks before finding a restaurant that claimed to have breakfast, so we stopped and ordered eggs, bread, and coffee.

After about 10 minutes, we found out they didn’t have bread or coffee, and had to go and buy them. After the woman asked several times how many “breads” we wanted, we gave up and went elsewhere. Or at least tried. We walked around for at least 15 minutes finding not a single restaurant selling breakfast. Eventually we found a place selling pastries but no coffee, but had one just in case it was all we could get. Anothercouple blocks and we finally found a stretch with several restaurants, multiple with signs that translated to “Today’s Breakfast: Rooster Soup.” Now, nothing against rooster soup, but a fine breakfast it is not.  We stopped in one and asked about eggs and were extremely happy to hear they had all three: eggs, bread, and coffee.

Finally, we hit the road, but not before I got a chance to complain to the woman at the hotel about her deception and bad form in moving our bikes without asking us. We battled the unlabled road out of town for awhile before finding the right path, which had us climbing up to see God before we’d reached the city limits. Things had been pretty warm in the valley so we hadn’t started off fully dressed for the cold, but as our altitude climbed once again, the temperatures dropped to bone chilling lows. We stopped on top of a mountain to put on more clothes, and some friendly cops stopped to make sure everything was OK. Before we’d reached Cuzco, we took our warm clothes off in another valley, put them on on another mountain, and taken them off again in another valley. In one valley, a sheep hearding dog herded a sheep at a full sprint in a perfect circle around my Dad’s bike and nearly into the front of mine. More kids try to throw water at us.

Eventually, we reach a mountain top overlooking a large valley stuffed with buildings and we know we’re in Cuzco. After descending on a long winding road along the outskirts of town, we’re thrown into a packed urban sprawl, and manage to stumble on a divided freeway and decide to get on it. It picked up the railroad tracks at one point, and so we followed the tracks till we saw signs for Wanchaq Station, one of Peru Rails train stations in Cuzco, and the one I mistakenly thought we’d be going to the next morning to head to Machu Picchu. Until then, we hadn’t seen a single promising Hotel, and just as we were giving up on the area around Wanchaq Station, we happened on two fancy hotels, at least one of which had a garage, so we stopped and I walked into the first. For less than $20, the woman offered us a nice hotel room with wireless internet, parking, and would store our bikes and excess stuff while we were at Machu Picchu for no extra charge! Needless to say, we took the offer.

After we got settled, I headed to the market nearby for some pan fried chicken with rice, salad, and a soda which set me back about $1.08. Afterwards I had a delicious piece of $0.40 chocolate cake. Afterwards we can chill, repack our things to live out of our backpacks the next day, and arrange for our 5AM wakeup call that you can just imagine how much I’m looking forward to.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. 2009 March 3
    Kristen K. permalink

    Sounds like I need to move to Peru and help the mentally disabled kids find some productive volunteer work!

  2. 2009 March 5
    Brad v permalink

    Marc and I miss you Levi!!!!!! Come back!!