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On the Road Again:Cusco to Puno

****Still having problem with the photos - will try to resolve today****

Howdy everyone. David pointed out that there was a lot of duplicate info in the last two posts. I have to admit that I wasn’t really paying attention to what I was writing as I was floating in the middle of a giant pool of self pity and loneliness which I’m happy to say has now been drained and I’m off an running in the city of peace – La Paz.

Also, if you haven’t already, please visit my Heifer International gift registry and help bring chimneys to Peru!! Thank you!!

So I have made it to another country – Bolivia – without any problems. There were some interactions with the police which were rather amusing while being daunting and at least two times I have almost burst into tears: once out of frustration and once because I heard a song that I liked and was at ~4300m and was probably a little bit irrational, but I’ll get to those little stories later.

I’m afraid that this will be a monster post as I will probably just start writing and keep on going…

So the day I was to leave Cusco after my “final feed” of delicious pancakes with carmalized bananas at Jack’s, I ran into Sarah and Richard – the owners of the Koga-Miyatas in the storage closet at Hostel Amaru. This was, for me, a conundrum. I was mentally prepared to leave but the lure of having cycling partners was strong. However, I just didn’t want to stay another day so we made plans to meet up in a few days, exchanged tips and contact info and I took off to Urcos. The ride out of Cusco was a little hectic – a lot of traffic for the first 20 km or so, but as I got farther away the riding became better and as I turned the corner for the turn off to Puacartambo (site of the infamous weekend festival of the virgin of Carmen), the terrain started to give way to houses and little plots of land as opposed to the squalor that exists at the edge of the larger towns. The ride was mostly downhill and my wobble was reduced due to my new packing system – I wish it had lasted. Along the way, Anton the 18 year old passed me heading back towards Cusco on a motorcycle – he was on the prowl for a guide and they were cheaper out of Cusco. He told me about a cuy restaurant in Urcos, my destination for the evening, and I told him about the frescos in the churches along the path. While I was interested in the cuy, he was not very interested in the churches.

I skipped the church in Andahuaylillas as I had already visited it via combi with Alexandro from Italy, but the church in Huaro was supposed to have better frescos so I pulled into the colonial town square bouncing violently over the Spanish cobblestones. Whoever though that cobblestones were a good method of pavment? The church was locked up tight and there was only an old man drying wheat kernels on the church plaza. We practiced understanding each other with questions about origin and destinations and then I asked if I could go into the church. This was one of the many excersise in directions that you have to do as a traveler who knows some of the language of the country you are visitng, but not a lot. It turns out I needed to talk to a woman who lived a few blocks down. I left my bike in the custody of the old man and headed down the street. After a few more inquisitions as to the location of this woman, another woman banged on a door. How I was to know that that was the door to bang on was beyond me, but that’s why you bring out basic words like “Quien? Iglacia?” when complete sentences don’t work.

So out of this house came a man, not a woman, holding this huge metal key. This key is apparently the original key for the church which was built in 1891. As we made our way back down to the church attempting to converse I noticed that there was a young man lurking about my bike. Now, I like to trust in people, but until I saw the old man still standing there too, I was a little worried. So off we went into the church which, yes, had pretty cool frescos which for the life of me I could not describe here as I don’t really remember what they were. The main deal with these frescos is that they cover the entire inside and that they are in the process of being restored – the work which will be completed in December. So upon leaving, the man with the key put on a stern look and rubbed his thumb and forefinger together. Silly me, nothing is free, so I pulled out the s/5 that he wanted and handed over. Then he was all smiles again and was happy to pose for pictures with the key and the door. I retrieved my bike from the old and young man and bade them farewell and headed off with directions to another frescoed church up the road. I have to admit, I had no intention of visiting this church which was only reinforced by the closed door that I saw while riding by – no more goose chases for this evening.

After negotiating the market, running into Carla, my teacher from Cusco, and getting my stuff the steps of the Hostel El Amigo, I set off to get myself a cuy. The whole cuy eating thing is just weird. You are eating a guinea pig, a small rodent which many of us had as cute, albeit noisy, pets as children. But as I was leaving cuy country this was to be one of my last non-touristy chances to get one of the little critters for my dinner. So I headed up the hill to the cuyria and upon arrival (a little out of breath) I was told “Hablame” which I think means “talk to me” after I tried to explain, in gasps, my desire to eat a cuy. Once she understood what I wanted things went great. She went into great detail about telling me what the menu was and why the cuy at her establishment was the best. I have to admit, the idea of a highly herbed and spiced rodent was much better than just a rodent from the oven. She picked up a pre-cooked cuy from the over and showed it to me for approval (yikes) and then took it off to the kitchen to prepare the rest of the plate.

In the meantime, I started working on the 620ml beer that was sitting in front of me. The platter that she placed in front of me was amazing: a pile of spaghetti with some sort of sauce on it, a very piquant pepper stuffed with chicken, carrots, and peas, papas fritos (of course), and the cuy cut up into quarter – two front and two back. I dove right in and picked up a back section. Truth be told there just isn’t much on the thing and you’re supposed to be eating the skin which is chewier then squid – it’s more like shoe leather – but that was the portion with all the herbs on it so I tried. I would eat a little meat and gnaw off a little piece of the skin. How in the world does such a little rodent get such a tough skin? So – just in case you ever want to know what cuy tastes like (and it doesn’t taste like chicken) – cuy tastes a little like rabbit and, this is weird, a little like fishy meat. The rabbit parts are kinda tasty, but the fishy parts, which are the little lets, were not. I slogged my way through the entire plate leaving some fries, potatoes, and the little treats from inside the cuy. Michelle, I just couldn’t bring myself to eat the little cuy heart. I finished up my huge beer and had a 30 minute chat with the proprietress about road safety, where I was staying and my future plans. I had done it – eaten the entire little rodent with no problems – just a few stray mental images of cuys playing in the sunlight.

There were adventures the next day from Urcos to Checacupe including a discussion with two highway patrolmen about riding solita , chatting with two little girls, my first glass of chichi (a fermented corn drink) and being told that the only room in town to let was “occupado” and the mean ladies sitting in the street told me to just go to the next town (that was one of the tears moments) but these will have to be written about somewhere else. The ride from Checacupe to Sicuani was relatively uneventful but I met the Brazilian, Autur, heading North. He had had a great experience in Raqchi having participated in a ceremony at the ruins the previous night. I merely visited the ruins (Templo de Vivacocha) for about 30 minutes. I’ve discovered that despite my great interest in archaeology, ruins don’t interest me much if I have no background context or am not involved in the project. It’s just another old pile of mud bricks if you don’t have any information about the site.

Anyway, the neatest thing about Racqui is the terrain. There is evidence of lava flow here with the mounds of prickly black rocks, much like the rock that makes up the island where David and I got married (the Long Island, Bahamas). These rocks have a name, but since I don’t have instant internet access you will be denied the pleasure of knowing what type of rock it is. The people who build this religious center (at least that is what they think it was) used this rock in some of the buildings which gives it a much different appearance than most Incan or pre-Incan archaeology. Another cool thing is that this complex was huge. The big mud wall that you can see from the road seems, to me, to have been shored up quite a lot in modern times, but the circular huts build from the volcanic stone, and some of the other things like the bath houses and the wells seem to be original and pretty impressive relics from a distant era.

Sicuani was nothing special but I did have a nice hot shower, saw the hippy gringa from Cusco (but she didn’t see me), ate banana sandwiches, got egg sandwiches made for my breakfast and generally prepared for my ride to the pass – Abra La Raya – the following day.

From Urcos to Sicuani I had been riding steadily uphill following along the course of a river which doesn’t have a name on either map of Peru that I own. The riding was not particularly difficult, but I don’t go very fast. This is due to the amount of weight that I am carrying and the low speed, torque induced frame wobble problem which hasn’t been resolved and probably won’t be anytime soon. But this is a problem that I do not wish to discourse upon here.

The Sicuani to Santa Rosa day was one of the best I’ve had on this trip. I left early, had my egg sandwiches and Sublime chocolate bars and lots of water. The morning started out with the same gradual uphill climb through the huge glacial valley that I had been riding through for days. It is a beautiful place to ride, with lots of little houses and communities dotting the landscape. Towards the end of the valley, on the way to the pass the terrain became more dramatic and the road grade increased. There are ancient volcano cones combined with huge road cuts through what looks like glacial deposits – an incredible site with the whitecaps of the Cordilla Apolobamba peaking though. At one point, near the public baths of another Aquas Calientes, a little girl ran alongside of me for nearly a kilometer talking to me about where I was from and where I was going. I was dying for air and she was blithely running along to the baths chatting up a storm. She asked if I was going to the baths and looked disappointed when I replied “No,” it was one of those things that I would have liked to do, but getting over the pass was more important.

From Sicuani to Abra La Raya is only 27 km, but it is 27 km of uphill. As I neared the pass the road got steeper and I broke down and pulled out the ipod. Sometimes using an ipod while riding feels like cheating, you want to enjoy the feelings that occur when you are riding, but sometimes you just need the encouragement of music to keep you going. This time however it just added to the joy of the ride. As you near passes the population drops away. There are no more farms, no more people, just you, the wind, the road and the occasional car, bus or truck that is passing you. I got to the toll booth and went through without a hitch but found out that the pass was still 5 km away. These last 5 km were difficult – the air was thinner, I was getting tired and it was quite cold. At one point in these last 5 km it started snowing. Solid little balls of iced snow landing on my black shirt melting away with my body heat while the sun was shining brightly around the dark clouds were amassing at the summit. At this point one of my favorite songs ever came on the ipod – Honky Tonk Woman - by the Rolling Stones. This brought about a feeling that is hard to describe and I almost don’t want to share. I was overcome by happiness about hearing the song in this beautiful place and I just wanted to start crying for joy, but instead of tears I just started gasping for breath. It was actually kind of funny – I couldn’t cry and breathe at the same time. A short while later, still riding on the high of song and place, I reached the summit – 14,232 ft – the highest I have ever been on a bike so far in my life.

The downhill was just a cool. I donned my Patagonia Micropuff, gloves and set off down the pass whooping it up. Just as I was gaining speed downhill the tourist train headed towards Cusco came chugging by. I waved and waved at the conductor and shouted “Hello,” to the people standing outside at the end of the train. Just another great moment of the day. The rest of the ride to Santa Rosa was nothing special, but what a great day it was. Santa Rosa offered me a trucker’s alojomiento for accommodations and later in the afternoon Sarah & Richard showed up and headed to the other hostel. That, of course, is foreshadowing of the days to come.

I rode with Sarah & Richard for the next three day from Santa Rosa to Pucara to the smog-filled capital of Juliaca and on the congested, smoggy, shoulder-less road to the tourist town of Puno. The riding was fast paced, faster than I was really able to comfortably ride, but the lure of riding with other was just too great to pass up. The first two days were some magnificent riding through the Peruvian altiplano. Here again, the ipod and also the coca leaves came in handy. The bleakness of the terrain was just beautiful and I don’t know how people could ever describe the ride as boring. The worst part about it was the wind – there was a constant head or side wind starting pretty early in the morning. There was quite a climb to get to Puno – a peak of about 4000m – which I plodded up ever so steadily and met S & R at the top to gaze down upon our destination and Lake Titicaca!

Some highlights of the ride to Puno were the policeman who informed me that since my husband wasn’t with me I was fair game. We took pictures of my future Peruvian husband, donned buffs, and rode off into the smog towards Puno. Richard got away with a warning about wearing a helmet – which of course no Peruvian wear or probably even owns – but you don’t argue with a guy holding a gun and standing in front of a tank.

The road really sucked – there was no shoulder, lots of traffic, and lots of smog. The vehicles coming towards us were virtually blinded by all the confetti on their windshields, having just been to Copacabana to be blessed. As we were rounding the bend to get our first real view of Lake Titicaca, I ran into a car that was stopped in the middle of the road in the middle of a hill and had to contain the curses that were dying to spring from my lips as I picked myself and my bike and my broken mirror up off the ground. Turns out they wanted to give me a flyer for a vegetarian restaurant. I couldn’t look at them and Sarah finally emphasized that we DID NOT want any flyers. The spill was inconsequential, but what would possess a car full of people to just stop dead in the middle of a hill and harass the poor cyclist obviously laboring up the hill shouting “vamos, vamos?” I’ll never know nor do I want to know.

All along the way there were police which is actually something out of the ordinary, but upon our descent into the city we were stopped and discovered that the reason was that the new president, Allan, was visiting Puno. How cool is that – we were passed by the presidential motorcade and upon our arrival to the Plaza de Armas we were able to see him speak. It was a little weird being in a public gathering with armed police perched high up in all the surrounding buildings in a foreign country and by all accounts you really aren’t supposed to hang around for these things being a foreigner, but there was no sign of agitation and after a bit we headed off to find a hostel.

And so ends this chapter of the Journey. Next comes Puno to La Paz and my first border crossing.

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