August 13th, 2013
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.
(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.)