Without a doubt the central highlands of Peru, between Junin and Abancay, had intrigued me greatly. Cusco…I knew that would be nice, obviously, but I had no idea what to expect from the central highlands area…a region marked by a near total absence of foreign visitors. We would only meet 3 – all cyclists. This maybe was where one would start to understand the real Peru…
Later, in Cusco, I would pick up a copy of “Death in the Andes”, by the well known Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa. This book talks of the terrorism problems in Peru during the 80s and 90s where Shining path terrorist group were responsable for many violent deaths and dissapearances mostly in the Central Highlands. I found it extraordinary that we were cycling through areas that had been so dangerous only 20 years previously.
A golden evening light illuminated the landscape as we rode the final stretch to the village of Junin. Massive trucks packed with local people flew past, covering us in great bellowing clouds of dust. The central valley, this high plateau at 4000m was a bleak, bare and freezing cold place to live. Junin was particularly chilly and lifeless. We walked around the main square looking for something to eat but nearly everything was closed. We ended up eating in a little cafe run by a family. The children took our order and brought our food while the mother cooked. All of then wrapped up in thick hats and scarves. I ate a hamburger that cost me 20p.
From the bitterly cold Junin we rode down to the lively town of Tarma that is known as the pearl of the Andes. When we arrived a giant market seemed to have taken over every single street in the centre of town. There was a lively, convivial atmosphere amongst the maze of alleyways stuffed full of anything and everything, crusty bread, plucked chickens, peanuts, popcorn, sweet cakes, colorful clothes, woolly hats, cups of pudding, ham sandwiches, leather belts. We walked around the stalls snacking on all the street food, everything only costing 1Sol.
Little children in a shoe shop saw Stefan and shouted, “Look mummy what a big tall gringo!” They ran away, screaming and then Stefan went chasing after them for fun, which sent onlookers into howls of laughter.
We were on our way back to our hostal when 4 school girls came running towards us. They stopped right infront of us and begged us for a photo. They then took us to their school to do an interview with us for a school project. They asked me…Is technology advanced in your country? When I told them that in England you can find a good internet connection everywhere and many teenagers have a smartphone to take photos, surf the internet and play music with…the 4 girls looked totally thunderstruck.
We battled through some crazy traffic to arrive in the crazy hectic main city of the Central Highlands, Huancayo. We both decided that we needed some peace, we needed to get back into el silencio…the high empty mountains. Leaving the city behind we travelled along a bumpy, rough road and quickly plunged back into nothingness. Progress slowed right down. A truck offered me a lift and I said no….on the other side of this endless pass, a local band were practising and their music floated peacefully over the land. We had no idea what would be in the next valley but we definitely needed more food. A boy herding some cows said there was a shop in the village of La Moya.On the street in La Moya I bought some popcorn from a very old lady…she squinted at the coin and asked “Is that a Sol?” That night we enjoyed a peaceful camp on the local football pitch.
At 6.30am the following day we had breakfast in the empty market hall. There was just us and the chef who was very funny and we enjoyed a lively conversation. She said “Just take a car to Huancavelica. Its up hill all the way!!” She also asked “When are you going to get a profession?” “After this trip” I promised her. She asked about our ages and then said that Stefan was much too old for me but then she changed her mind, “With love there is no age”. I regret not taking a photo with her or asking her name. She was right it was a lot of uphill to the pass before Huancavelica.
Just before the top of the mountain, we stopped to admire a beautiful lake surrounded by what looked like volcanic peaks. A family who lived in a stone house nearby walked over to us for a chat. They told us about farming sheep and catching trout from the lake. The little boy in the family was named Clinton Washington after the US presidents. I explained where our countries were and what languages we spoke and then the mother said with a big smile and a laugh, ” Lets speak Quechua!”…She said we should spend the night there or “Is it too cold?” She asked. They were all used to the freezing temperatures up high, they said that from January to March there was a lot of snow and the road to Huancavelica would be impassable. Nothing grew in the area so they would always have to go down the mountain to buy supplies. The kids looked happy and well fed, the mother insisted I take a photo with them. This encounter stayed with me, charming people in an unusual place, so hard to understand their lives which were so different to ours.
Huancavelica was a pretty colonial town with great food and a lively atmosphere surrounded by steep craggy mountains, yet there were still no tourists anywhere. We arrived in town in darkness, crossing the river and pushing our bikes through a lively nightime market. In the main square we bought cheap hamburgers from a jolly Indian woman on the street. We then found a shop with the most delicious chocolate cake ever. After two tough, long and bumpy days over from Huancayo we needed to refuel.
On the road to Lircay we zoomed back up to 4000m again. People were walking about up here, sat on the roadside, tending flocks of Llamas.We then came to a village full of poor lifeless plain empty mud brick houses…I had to ask myself…why would you live here…so high at over 4000m? Maybe the answer to my question was that they had no money and no choice. For them it was their life, it was normality. Men were digging up the mountain to make bricks and then cheap houses, dead dogs lay on the roadside, sheep grazed on empty football pitches. The houses were dark, dingy, depressive but political slogans, symbols and messages persisted everywhere…painted on rocks, cliffs, houses… preaching, promising change and sustainable development….but did the locals even know what that meant…or what these big changes would be?
On the way down to Lircay I saw many women sieving corn on the roadside, they stared at me in total confusion. That night we ate rice chips and chicken in a tiny cafe run by a mother and a daughter. They asked us if England was the same size as Peru. Her niece wandered in and stared at me like she was hypnotized. The mother said they aren’t used to seeing such tall, white girls.
On the way up to the next pass at 4000m we needed a snack. There was a shed on the roadside with a sign on the door saying, soft drinks and biscuits for sale…an Indian lady unlocked the door and inside the bare walls we found a few packets of biscuits and bottles on the muddy floor. After a long climb we camped that night by a school. I asked a local woman for some water and I followed her into a dusty yard, full of chickens, to fill up our water bottles. Later she sent over her neighbour with a bowl of boiled potatoes for us. I munched away on these potatoes untill I realised there were boiled maggots stuck under the muddy skins. Two giggling children with a pet lamb, then came to play on the swings next to our tent.
Like in every South American town the market in Ayacucho was a centre of bustling activity. If you needed something fixed, if you wanted a fresh Palta, if you wanted a cheap breakfast of fresh juice and egg sandwiches, you had to go to the market. Inside the giant market hall in Ayacucho there were children playing everywhere, Indian ladies sat amongst piles of handicrafts, bread, dead animals, books, belts, shoes, all crammed into narrow rows. It was dirty, busy, chatty, lively with piles of potatoes, shoe cobblers, sewing machines. Old women were frying dougnuts on little portable stoves or cooking kebab on homemade bbqs. Mothers were breast feeding their babies, friends were gossiping.
In Ayacucho I remember seeing a young woman pushing a wheelbarrow full of strawberries down the traffic filled main street, a baby tied to her back. We also saw mothers or little children selling bags of popcorn on the main square for 1Sol each. After Ayacucho there was a man who had converted his motobike into an ice cream van and he rode between villages selling ice cream. Everywhere I went in Peru I got the sense that there was a distinct lack of unemployment which had driven peruvians to become very entreprenurial…doing whatever they can and working hard to support themselves. Running your own bussiness seemed to be the norm here.
The road from Ayacucho to Cusco was going to be a hilly one with 5 big climbs from boiling hot river valleys to peaks at over 4000m. On one of the descents I passed a cyclist fixing a puncture on the roadside. I stopped and said to him, “I know you”. We had met over 2 months previously in the city of Cuenca in southern Ecuador. And now our paths had crossed again!
Near Cusco, at the bottom of a hot, dusty canyon, we could not find a good campsite. Eventually we asked at a restaurant if they could help us. The man pointed to the corner of the carpark and said that we could camp there, next to a big pile of logs. He said, its very tranquilo here at night…How wrong could he have been! 10 minutes later 2 men turned up with a truck and asked if they could park next to our tent, they then spent the next two hours loading the truck full of logs. Despite this major annoyance they were still very friendly. The logger with the sweaty face offered us some homemade non alcoholic chicha. He poured it out of a jerrycan and into a glass made from half a plastic coke bottle. It was quite a strong mixture and I winced in disgust after my gulp. He told us they would drink 3 litres of it each per day when they were working. So as all the normal tourists speeded passed towards Cusco in comfy coaches, I settled down for a good nights sleep in our carpark campsite.
In Anta, just before Cusco, a drunk local started hassling us and I had to get rid of him with a few strong words that brought many stares from onlookers. When the drunk had finally gone I asked a boy nearby where I could leave our rubbish. I was shocked and appalled when he said, “just throw it in the river!” I then started to lecture him on why that was not a good thing to do and very bad for the environment. But it was hardly surprising that he had that attitude when you looked at how much rubbish was left in the rivers and by the roads of Peru. He was just following the example he saw all around him. Right up untill the touristic centre of Cusco poverty abounded…poor quality housing, rubbish everywhere, dirty streets, old ladies begging or searching through the piles of rubbish. But suddenly, everything became clean, polished, pretty…we were finally back in tourist land.
My first impression of Cusco was magic. This is an enchanting and beautiful place. Tourists approached us to ask many questions about our trip…I felt like a celebrity! For my first half an hour in the Plaza de Armas I was bewitched…but then, after a few days of rest, enjoying the trendy cafes, the pretty streets, the big shops…I realized that I was bored. I had to push past huge tour groups blocking the street, little boys hassled me to buy ugly llama key rings, everything was more expensive, locals only wanted to sell me stuff, not chat.
It was all too smart and clean, too easy, just like being in Europe. Then the strange sensation came over
me… I was no longer satisfied by conventional tourism and travel.