Welcome to the Wacky Races

Taking the “red road” to Cusco: welcome to the Wacky Races, Peruvian-style

If there’s one thing guaranteed to get a touring cyclist nervous (apart from a broken stove), then it’s a deadline. After all, deadlines are unwelcome memories from the “real” world; a long-forgotten past in which we didn’t have to regularly ask each other what day of the week it was. Flexibility and freedom are a touring cyclist’s mantras – deadlines are to be avoided at all costs.

But this time – much as we pretended otherwise – we really did have a deadline. Sarah’s brother Dave was coming to visit us in Cusco, and – as famously laid back as he is – we figured he probably wouldn’t appreciate spending half of his precious holiday waiting for us while we struggled over a last couple of Andean passes. Luck, however, wasn’t on our side. After being forced to stay longer than anticipated in Huaraz to rid ourselves of my cold and Sarah’s parasitic party, we found ourselves well behind schedule. No worries, we thought, we’ll stop being so precious and slip in a few main road sections (the dreaded, long-avoided “red roads” on our map) to make up some time – after all, how bad can they be?

Well, in Peru, pretty bad – as we quickly found out. If ever we needed a reminder of why we avoid these roads like the plague, then this was it. We’ve met some lovely people in Peru, but put the vast majority of Peruvians behind the wheel of a vehicle and they turn into neanderthals. Every country on the trip has had its share of bad drivers, but when it comes to being consistently atrocious, Peru really is in a class of its own. As a cyclist, riding a main road in Peru is like being thrown into a particularly surreal and lethal Latin American episode of Wacky Races - just without the funny bits.

The rules are simple. First, the use of brakes is strictly forbidden – instead just accelerate towards anything in your path, and if it doesn’t move, swerve around it at the last minute. Second, lean on your horn at all times like a four year old with Tourette’s – as long as you’re doing this, nothing will be your fault. Third, extra points are on offer for hitting anything in your way: old ladies, llamas, stray dogs, gringos on bikes – think of it as a slalom. And finally, at all times maintain an inane grin on your face, a mobile phone clasped to your ear and a piece of fried chicken in one hand.

Fortunately, after a couple of days spent swearing our way through near-death experiences, we realised that there was no way we were going to make it to Cusco in time anyway. For once, pragmatism won over our stubborn cyclists’ idealism, and we resigned ourselves to getting as far as we could before jumping on a bus for the final leg. Liberated from our deadline and so in turn from our paved road purgatory, we breathed a sigh of relief, and headed for the back roads once again.

And when we did, we were treated to one of our best day’s rides in Peru: a quiet dirt road hugging the western shore of the Lago de Junín, Peru’s largest lake sitting at just over 4,000m on the altiplano. In bad weather, this would be a bleak, desolate place – but in the sunshine, with a huge cobalt sky and cartoon-like clouds hung as if from puppeteers’ strings across the plain, it was just magical. After a day meandering along the lake, watching flamingos and absorbing the views, we found ourselves a beautiful lakeside camp spot: the perfect end to a great day on the bike, far from the Peruvian Wacky Races.

James

(Big panoramic photos don’t really work with our skinny blog, but you can open up a full-size version of any of the images by just clicking on them.)

 

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Big Brother

August 30th, 2013

When you haven’t seen a close family member for two years, how will a two week visit pan out? Emotions building to a crescendo as we approached Cusco, I was experiencing anticipation, fear, dread, excitement and nerves at the prospect of my brother’s arrival in Cusco. What would we talk about, how would we entertain him, had he changed, had we changed?

It turned out that I had nothing to worry about and the sibling bond hadn’t evaporated – shared appreciations of food, drink, music and cycling meant that there were very few silent moments during his ten-day stay. With James and I having travelled in our own little bubble for so long, it was refreshing to talk to someone else about their adventures and plans. A lot has happened in Dave’s life over the last two years too and so it was great to catch up on his news and experiences, and lay off our repetitive subjects of parasites, route planning and bike maintenance for a little while.

We hired bikes, visited ruins, ate in shabby restuarants and engaged in typical sibling banter and aggravation. Mild mortification swept over James and I whenever we removed our shoes in our shared bedroom during Dave’s visit; we may have adjusted to the foul smell of each other’s worn out kit but to Dave it was gag-inducing.

He wasn’t only subjected to our malodorous company; a Peruvian stomach bug hit him during his stay too and so we weren’t able to cycle for as much as we had planned. But the explosions from the bathroom when Dave was in there at least redressed the balance of shame when it came to embarrassing body odours. Thankfully, he overcame the worst of it for the highlight of the trip, an unforgettable visit to the Incan ruins at Machu Picchu.

It was great to see you bro, thanks for visiting…and for bringing a mountain of new kit for us too!

Sarah

(We’ve adjusted the photo settings on the blog so you can see larger versions of any of our photos. From now on just click on the image to enlarge it.)

Sarah and Dave drinking beer in Cusco, Peru

The best way to catch up on news and family gossip after two years? Over burgers and beer of course!

Dave and James riding in the Sacred Valley near Cusco, Peru

Respect to Dave – we hire him a pretty awful bike and with no panniers, he carries everything in a 70l rucksack on his back and doesn’t complain once.

Procession of a staute of the Virgin Mary on the feast of the assumption at Calca, Peru

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, we time our arrival in the Sacred Valley just right. The feast of the Assumption is being celebrated in Calca and the whole town is out for the event…

Men carrying statue of virgin Mary in Calca, Peru

…there are those honoured to carry the statue which looks like it weighs at least a tonne…

Man in a mask at the Assumption parade in Calca, Peru

…and those performing in the parade that follows…

Girls holding masks at the Assumption parade in Calca, Peru

…preparing to take to their place in line…

Street dancers at the Assumption parade in Calca, Peru

…a blur of colours and masks…

Close up of a pair of boots at the Assumption parade in Calca, Peru

…with details we can only wonder about.

James with a bowl of chicken soup in Calca, Peru

It feels right to follow a traditional lengthy parade with some traditional Peruvian chicken. Every other doorway in Peru seems to be home to a polleria – a chicken restaurant. Before the main delight comes a bowl of soup usually with pasta, vegetables and sometimes various unidentifiable pieces of meat…James gets lucky with this one, which comes complete with a chicken foot – perfect for scratching that itchy nose.

Sarah and Dave cycling to Pumamarca ruins near Ollantaytambo, Peru

Arrival in Ollantaytambo by lunchtime means we have time for an afternoon ride up to the ruins of Pumamarca…

Sarah and Dave overlooking the valley on the cycle ride to Pumamarca ruins near Ollantaytambo, Peru

…a rough 7km climb has us stopping every little while to catch our breath and admire the view…

View of the valley near Pumamarca ruins near Ollantaytambo, Peru

…which is quite frankly spectacular.

Circular terraces at Moray ruins, Sacred Valley, Peru

We continue the ruins trail with a visit to the circular terraces at Moray…

Woman and dog on the alitplano near Maras, Peru

…walking the Inca trails…

Doorway in Maras, Sacred Valley, Peru

…past colonial doorways…

View of the walk between Moray and Maras, Sacred Valley, Peru

…with timeless backdrops…

Salineras de Maras, Sacred Valley, Peru

…down to the gravity-fed salt pools at Salineras de Maras.

Closer view of the salt pools at Salineras de Maras, Sacred Valley, Peru

These pools collect water from a naturally salinated stream which was supposedly diverted by the Incas to harvest an abundant supply of salt for their royalty.

Lady carrying a bag of salt on her back, Salineras de Maras, Sacred Valley, Peru

Now the salt pools are owned and worked by families around Maras. They still harvest the salt by hand and then haul it out in enormous sacks on their backs.

Dave walking along the train tracks towards Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu, Peru

From Ollantaytambo, we choose the “cheapie” option to visit the ruins at Machu Picchu. The final section of the journey is a two hour walk to the town at the base of the ruins. Along train tracks through a lush green valley, it’s not an unpleasant way to spend a couple of hours.

Train heading towards Aguas Calientes, Machu Picchu, Peru

This is as close we get to the train, which at its cheapest, costs five times the price of our bus/taxi/walk option.

Sun rising over the mountains surrounding the ruins at Machu Picchu, Peru

Then after surviving the hideous tourist trap that is Aguas Calientes, it’s a lung-busting one hour steep hike to the ruins themselves very early the following morning. We arrive as the sun peeks through the clouds… 

Machu Picchu under the clouds, Peru

…providing an atmospheric first glance of this Incan city hidden in the mountains. The Spanish conquistadores could never locate it and it wasn’t rediscovered until 1911.

Machu Picchu in sunshine and early morning light, Peru

Early on we pretty much have the place to ourselves… 

Brocken spectre at Machu Picchu, Peru

…to witness natural wonders – each of us could see our own shadow in the middle of this rainbow, a beautiful phenomenon which our photographer friend Skip identified as a Brocken Spectre.

James, Sarah and Dave in front of Machu Picchu, Peru

We pause to pull silly faces – this one’s for you Mum…

A crowd of people on the ruins at Machu Picchu, Peru

…before the hoardes arrive and you can’t take a picture without at least another fifty or so people being a part of it (I wonder how many times we appeared in other people’s photos?).

Dave, Sarah and James sitting in wall niches at Machu Picchu, Peru

We do find quiet corners though, to imagine what a possible album cover could look like… 

Dave and a llama at Machu Picchu, Peru

…and for Dave’s Dr Doolittle moves to terrify the resident llamas before we head back to Cusco.

Sarah and a bottle of wine, Cusco, Peru

A visiting relative is always a good excuse to blow the budget and order wine…

Sarah and Dave pulling faces at each other in Cusco, Peru

…they are also a good excuse to indulge in childish behaviour and face pulling. 

Dave, Sarah and James drinking Pisco Sours in Cusco, Peru

Then it’s time to finally try a classic Peruvian Pisco Sour… 

James and Dave trying to swallow a nasty Pisco Sour in Cusco, Peru

…grape liquor, egg white, water, sugar and lime – when badly made can be very hard to drink…

James playing darts at the Norton Rats pub in Cusco, Peru

…but we persevere and are rewarded. Bizarrely, the best Pisco Sours we find in Cusco are in a British pub! Chance to indulge in some good old-fashioned British pub games then…darts anyone? 

Dave and Stephen in front of the dartboard at Norton Rats pub in Cusco, Peru

Dave recruits Canadian Stephen to his team to pit himself in a battle of ’501 down’ against the resident cyclists. In what can only be described as a shifty move, the visitors emerge victorious. Rematch required.

James and Dave in a hotel room in Cusco, Peru

And so the fortnight ends at it began, chatting in a budget shared hotel room with the socks and shoes hanging out of the window…look forward to the “Boulangerie Reunion Tour” in France next summer Dave!

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