Destination: Peru

In 2014 I spent 3 months cycling across Peru and along the way I learnt that there is so much more to this beautiful country then that famous photo of Machu Picchu and the popular Inca Trail. Peru is a truly vertical land, full of deep valleys, high peaks, remote villages, ancient ruins and an endless network of quiet mountain trails and hidden dirt roads.

Our journey began in the north as we rolled in from Ecuador. More or less totally overlooked by foreign visitors, northern Peru has so much to offer: rural communities that have seen very little tourism and scenery more dramatic than the Grand Canyon.

Dating back to the 6th Century, the hill top fortress of Kuelap is the alternative Machu Picchu of the north. Once a strong hold of the Chachapoyas civilisation, it stands high in the clouds above the village of El Tingo and can be reached by a long trek from the valley floor. A local villager showed us around and told us the story of it’s ancient residents.

Further south in the Cordillera Blanca, many trekkers come to tick off the well-known Santa Cruz trek, which is brilliant but the experience that really stayed with me was our trek over the Huapi pass.

We discovered this walk on a cycle tourist’s blog. The only indication of a possible route was a line sketched onto google maps. It involved a dodgy taxi ride up an extremely bumpy road from Huaras city centre, followed by a quiet walk up a long flat valley, with only an odd local Shepard for company. After a cold night of camping at 4,000 metres, we began a long, tough climb over a rugged mountain side and across a huge boulder field.

We reached the top at 5,000 metres and were alone, in silence and surrounded by a host of 6,000 metre peaks in perfect sunshine. The way down the other side was equally improvised. After a lot of scrambling and a few river crossings, we sprinted back down the valley and hitched a ride back down to Huaras. By 9pm we were enjoying a well-earned meal in the comfy Cafe Andino.

The Cordillera Blanca is such an accessible trekking destination. The Huascaran national park entrance fee will cost you very little. Exciting adventures can be enjoyed and then down in the valley you have a sting of towns with plenty of facilities and lots of local culture. Wander the markets and try the local food, drink Inca Kola and eat Sublime chocolate.

Learn a few words of Spanish. It is a relatively easy language to learn and your efforts will open up many conversations with local people and a chance to learn about their lives. Once you have done this, be prepared for a lot of questions! Peruvians are charming and welcoming but endlessly curious…How many children do you have? Aren’t you cold in your tent? Did you cycle here from England? Do you believe in God? Why aren’t you on a motorbike?

Talk to the guides and the arrieros (donkey handlers). They are mountain people and seriously tough. You will learn about the legends and myths that make up their mountain culture: Pachamama (or Mother Earth) that you must respect to ensure fertility of the land, the white man Muki who will punish bad miners who take too much from the land and finally Pishtaco the white Boogeyman who preys on poor Indigenous villagers.

Enjoy the long periods of settled weather during July and August but remember the altitude and the freezing temperatures. Drink a lot but take care in the source and treatment of your water. Enjoy a cup of Coca leaf tea on your mountain trek to relieve any feeling of altitude but don’t be surprised to find a chicken foot in your soup. Be prepared that when you get off the beaten track, rice and chicken may be the only thing on the menu, along with the occasional guinea pig.

Allow time, the mountain roads demand it. Buses leave when they are full and don’t always run to set schedules or leave from the same place. Most of the time you will just stick out your thumb on the side of the road or negotiate a price with a local who has a truck.

When you leave the touristy spots behind be prepared for the locals to shout “Gringo” (foreigner) a lot. It’s not a bad word, it just shows curiosity or a lack of understanding. I was commonly called “Gringita” (small foreign girl) or “Flacita” (skinny little girl).

Be prepared for the huge contrasts in mentality, culture and behaviour between the indigenous populations of the rural villages and the mestizo (or mixed blood) folk of the bigger towns. Some will share your hobbies and passions while others will never have heard of England.

Read…you will be walking in the footsteps of many adventurers that have come before you. Their writing and your reading will give depth to everything that you are seeing. Try 8 Feet in the Andes by Dervla Murphy or Cloud Road by John Harrison – Both long physical journeys of slow and remote mountain travel.

By the time we arrived into Cusco, the famous Inca city in southern Peru and the gateway to Machu Picchu, I already felt as though I had been completely amazed by this mountain nation and I was still yet to see it’s most iconic site. The sudden appearance of so many tourists was a total shock as well.

Despite our long and thorough journey through the country there was still so much to see and do: the high altitude Ausangate circuit, the trek to another spectacular but lesser known Choquequirao archaeological site, the summit of Volcano Misti near the deep canyon of Colca. Peru could easily tempt the keen explorer back again and again.

 

As featured in the Professional Mountaineer Magazine, Autumn 2017:

Professional Mountaineer Sept 2017

Peru Article 1

Peru Article 2

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Adios Peru

After cycling through the Sacred Valley we arrived in Urcos on main Puno-Cusco highway. The plaza was full of food vendors selling everything from jelly in plastic cups to popcorn to hunks of meat. We sat with a lady who was frying up dougnuts with syrup and ate three plates worth. A large crowd of vendors were lined up along the main road exactly where the buses passing along the highway would stop to pick up more passengers. They would all then run to the windows to make a sale, waving in their hands huge circular loaves of bread, soft drinks or bags of peanuts. In this desperate rush, many sales were made, change and products passing through the windows of the bus.

I went to one hotel and then found another that was over half the price. Inside the building it was a maze of brick passageways and box rooms spread over three floors with metal stairs running inbetween. In the outside shower the metal door only hid me up to my shoulders. The toilet only flushed if you filled up a bucket from the freezing cold shower and poured it into the basin at least ten times. There was no light, so I showered wearing my head torch and was slightly alarmed when a male guest walked out a room right opposite from where I stood. In our room the beds were slanted, the matresses well used. A basic place but what do you expect for 2pounds50 each?

As soon as I heard the voice of the next guest to enter the hotel I knew he was english, even though the accent was familiar it also felt strangely foreign as I had only met 3 english people since the start of the trip. I was excited to meet a cyclist from England but unfortunately Id be a little disappointed. He just complained, about the altitude, the hotels, the higiene, the food. I said to him…Maybe you have been on the road too long! – He was cycling around the world. When I asked what route he would take through Peru…all he said was that he needed to get to Vancouver by next summer. I was glad the we had the time to travel through these countries slowly, get to know them and grow an affection towards them. And I had definitely become fond of Peru.

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Soon after Urcos we turned off the main road and dived into the empty, high pampas -this would be the start of the Altiplano, the high plain that runs all the way to southern Bolivia…the scenery was on the verge of a dramatic change. We camped by the road inbetween mud hut villages and in the morning a local man came to our tent as we were eating tomatoes and bread. We shook his grubby hand and answered his questions. He wore a wide brimmed hat and an old fashioned radio around his neck which was buzzing with the local channel. He welcomed us to his country and then hurried off to track down his herd of llamas.

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The stoney, empty road wiggled on through bare mountains. We met a boy cycling to school and were temporarily delayed by a traffic jam of llamas filling the road. In the afternoon we join a paved road and school kids cycling home stopped to stare (we had become very used to this – sometimes I would stare back until the kids got embarrassed and ran off). There was not much else going on. We then join a perfectly straight, extremely rocky road. On one side sun shone brightly across the empty land and on the other side wild and threatening black clouds were gathering.

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Hector Tejada was the town at the end of this very bumpy ride…a clutch of plain brick houses far from anything. Kids follow us from shop to shop, shop owners were surprised to see us. At a food stand, an old Indian lady picked up a handfull of raw meat from a bucket…and plopped it into the hot oil…she then picks up food with her hand to start serving the next customer. The vast void between our ideas about higiene was quite overwhemling, maybe their stomachs could deal with it, ours could not.

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As this trip continues I feel myself becoming more and more involved with the countries I am passing through, more interested in the lives of the locals. The initial fear and insecurity I felt when I rode out of Cartagena 5 months ago…feels distant now and has basically vanished.

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I have become so accustomed to…so acclimatized to…the South American way…Jungle, snowy peaks, the huge place up high called el silencio, the wilderness, the space, the grubby villages, the simple lives, the stone cold faces of the Indians and the bright colors of their clothes, the variety of hats, the variety of bread, the random collection of animals, the idiosyncries of the people, the hospitality, the curiosity…

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Everyday we answer questions from local people…some of them are quite smart…How often do you change your tryes? How many kilometres do you cycle each day? Some make us laugh…When are you going to get married? Why dont you travel by motobike? Its much quicker (duh…!)
But some just puzzle us…Did you cycle here from England? When are you going to come back and visit us?

Peruvians seemed to be obssessed with the cold…Often, the first thing they say is…Isnt it too cold to camp? Or… Won’t water enter your tent?

It would be very hard to leave this crazy country…

I have become so used to 5 or 6 barking dogs chasing after me, as I throw stones at them, while their owner,  often a little Indian woman, just looks on indifferently…however annoying this can be I have also noticed the plight of peruvian dogs. There are so many starving strays, dead ones on the road side, homeless ones hobbling along, undernourished, injured, ignored…I cant help feel that noone really cares.

Many times in Peru, on walking into a cafe or restaurant you are presented with a long menu showing you everything that is availabe…the hungry cyclist makes a careful choice but then the waitress informs you that actually there is only one thing on the menu…and inevitably that single thing is rice and chicken!!! Well  why dont they say that at the beginning! I whine to Stefan…

I will definitely miss buying stuff from people on the street, so filling, so cheap. Favourites would be the sandwich ladies you find on street corners in the morning…avocado, egg, cheese, omlette or even chip sandwiches for only 25p! Feeding the whole city a cheap and tasty breakfast. As you walk around the centre of any city, within a few minutes you will inevitably come across a kid with a basket full of oversized chunky peruvian style popcorn. Only 25p per huge bag.

One undeniable characteristic of peruvian men is their flirtatious spirit which has often had me in stitches. The things they shout at me as I cycle on past…mi hermosa…mi linda… guapa…mi amor! (all basically meaning…my beautiful) All said in extreme regularity and with upmost enthusiasm, usually accompanied with blowing many kisses. But its not just the men who call you funny names, everyone does it…there is the old favourite…Gringa (foreign girl) Gringita (little foreign girl). And my all time favourite…from a shopkeeper in Oyon…Flacita (the skinny little one).

Peruvians, rightly so, have a reputation for being a bit crazy on the road. Their driving is terrible! Overtaking in tight spaces seems to be their favourite past time. They also love to beep their horn, probably once every ten seconds, to say hello to their friends or to tell some one to shove off.

On some stretches every single car passing would beep their horn to say “Hello!”…the attention one receives as a cyclist … its like everybody wants to be your friend.

I remember telling a man in a suit in Ayacucho all about these observations and he agreed, shugging to himself, “its true, we can be very desordenados (messy? unorganised?). I can think of one example that illustrates this just perfectly. In Oyon, we were buying fried potatoes from a women in the street. But then in about 10seconds flat…the man Stefan was chatting to got hit by a passing car and collapsed on the ground…there was uproar in the street and the driver quickly returned to take the injured man to hospital…the fried potatoes lady also jumped in the car before giving us our change. A man appeared behind the foodstand who had no idea what was going on…so we grabbed another bowl of chips instead and ran off.

On the last major hill in Peru, at 4800m we met a woman on the roadside. She was very cheerful and as soon as we arrived she jumped up to greet us and shake our hand. She told me she was waiting for the bus and would probably be waiting all day. She lived alone, deep in the mountains…a donkey had carried all her stuff to the road and had wandered home by itself – it knew the way. I noticed she was wearing no socks! Only sandals…I asked her about this and she said she only wore socks when it was really cold! On arrival my fingers were frozen within minutes and I had quickly put on all the layers I had. As we left she huddled under a blanket…getting comfy for her long wait.

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In the tiny campesino village of Vila Vila, high up in quiet mountains, it was a thrill to sit in the sunny plaza, as the only foreigners, and watch village life slowly trundle on. Young men gathered large bundles of wool together, slinging them over their shoulder. Indian women slouched over their array of soft drinks and chunky peruvian popcorn that they were trying to sell to passers by. Random people came up to us, tried to speak to us in Quechua or just shook our hand and wished us Buenos Dias. An empty bus pulled up and a few men started to load it up with dead skinned beheaded llamas …. potentially one of the most gruesome or disgusting things ive ever seen…maybe along with vultures eating dead dogs or alives dogs eating dead dogs. In total atleast 10 of these bloody bodies made it onto the back seat and the guy drived off happy as could be.

Sometimes on this trip it is quite hard to buy stuff in shops. People ignore your request for groceries and instead ask you so many questions. This was the case in Lampa. When I finally got my avocados the jolly lady counted to 5 in English…5 Soles she said – laughing out loud.

The cheerful spirit continued as later on, we approached a mud hut village in the middle of nowhere to get some water. From afar the place seemed rather glum and miserable but when a woman came forward to greet us we were immediately made to feel very welcome. She showed us to a tap in a muddy field that filled our bottles very slowly. As we all waited for the water to trickle on an old man hobbled over clutching a walking stick and we got chatting. I exclaimed my surprise at seeing so many living at such high altitudes…he said…but its in their blood…they were born there…peruvians are very healthy…eating fresh, natural foods, they can live to be 100! When the bottles were full we left, smiling, and the man with the walking stick thanked us for the visit.

Further on we found a camp spot on top of a little hill. A man from a nearby group of muddy houses came over for a chat. He said it would be dangerous to camp out here. We were confused…but everyone has been so friendly! We said. He insisted that we go and sleep in his spare room but we politely declined his kind invitation and the conversation flowed on. As he left, he said we should come down to his house if we get too cold during the night…they have comfy alpaca blankets to keep them warm.

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As we finally crossed the border into Bolivia, I had the unbelievable sensation of…Never forget this moment…Never again will you be here, doing this…You just cycled across one of the most mountainous countries in the world.

Copacabana was an extremely luxurious and comfortable introduction to Bolivia. The main street was full of gringo style cafes and souvenir shops. We took a day trip to the Island of the sun – we hadn’t been surrounded by so many tourists in ages – in almost felt like we were on holiday! Despite this sunny start, little did we realise at the time, ahead of us would be endless nights of camping in wild places high up on the altiplano…starting a whole new and very bolivian chapter to our journey.

Riot Police, Road Blocks and Machu Picchu

I was sitting on a dark and dirty street corner in Cuzco at 5am waiting for a car to Mollepata…there was no vehicle in sight but the locals around assured us that one would be along in a minute. I put my head in my hands and yawned in total fatigue…I guess this was to be expected in a country with no bus timetable….when you wanted to travel independantly, without tour agencies.

Here our trip to Machu picchu would begin. The alternative route. No tour groups or agencies. And certainly no expensive train rides. The cheapest but without a doubt for us…the most interesting way.

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Eventually a bus did turn up at about 5.15am but then we had to wait for 1 hour untill it was full. I was squashed into the back of the bus on the way to Mollepata with a smelly peruvian guy falling asleep on top of me.

After the high standards of Cusco it was a bit of a shock to be back in rural Peru. Dead, bloody animals were lying around it shops, the toilets were disgusting and the restaurants were simple and dirty. A shopkeeper gave me my change with blood soaked hands, he had just been chopping up some dead animal. But we quickly got used to it all again.

I started the hike up to Soraypampa through quiet country, along a dusty trail, the valley with the main road far,far below and the snowy peaks just visible above. Stefan ascended on the dirt road with his mountainbike.

Soraypampa would be our first camp, at 3900metres. Winds blowing down from the glaciers just above made it a bitterly cold spot.

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There were many agencies with groups of tourists and the only other independant hiker was Luciano from Brazil. He spoke to me in a mixture of portugese, spanish and english. He was very excited because this was the first time he had ever seen snow! He told me how he had been in the army and his speciality had been jungle survival. He had been involved in the rescue operation of an american man who had been lost in the Amazon jungle for 31days. Twice he had caught Malaria and once an ant bite had left him very ill for two weeks. Now Luciano worked as a pilot in southern Brazil.

We began hiking early the next morning and arrived at the top of the pass at 9.30am. We were there first, along with the donkeys from the agencies….we finally felt very well acclimatized…while all the tourists were huffing and puffing far behind.  From the pass at 4600metres we had the perfect view of Nevado Salkantay at 6200metres. The rough snowy peaks, ice falls and vertical cliffs looked beautiful and surreal against the clearest, bluest sky possible.

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Now would began a massive descent, of 3000metres, down into the jungle and the village of Santa Teresa.

As usual we hadnt brought enough supplies so when we arrived in the first tiny village, we asked around to see if someone could cook for us. We ended up eating a giant plate of eggs and chips in a shop housed inside a wooden shack, next to four peruvians getting drunk of local beer. The usual array of animals were hanging about, plenty of chickens, pigs, and stray dogs.

We joined the road for some minutes untill we came across some riverside hot springs under construction. One pool was full and when we checked the temperature it was boiling hot so we jumped straight in. The hot pool was a delight for sore muscles after an incredibly intense day of trekking…and the jungle was the perfect back drop.

After camping by the hot springs we left the road to take a trail on the other side of the valley, that would descend to the tiny jungle settlement of La Playa. The magic continued as the trail was full of waterfalls, old landslides, crazy vegetation and intense heat. I nearly stepped on a giant green snake that was curled up on the path. When I saw it, I ran off, screaming.

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In La Playa there was no traffic at all on the road. Then we saw a bus with slashed tyres. We felt that something strange seemed to be going on. I was going to take a bus down to Santa Teresa, so instead I sat on the cross bar of Stefans bike and we descended 500metres like that, through banana groves and sleepy communities.

Just before the town of Santa Teresa we came across a road block. Several trucks were parked in the middle of the road- explaining the total absence of traffic further up the mountain. It also meant the “Paro” we had heard about back in Cusco was also in Santa Teresa. The Tourist Office had advised against travel to the village of Santa Maria, they said that the population were protesting against the government and wanted their requests heard, It could be dangerous there for tourists. We had been assured that there was no trouble around Santa Teresa…apparently they were wrong.

Behind the parked vehicles there was a large crowd of locals filling the road, they all whooped and shouted as we passed. I bet its not often they see two gringos on the same bike.

We found a restaurant on the edge of town, the waitresses looked a little uneasy when they let us in and quickly shut the door again. The place was full but everybody had their eyes glued to a Tv in the corner of the room. It was a local news channel covering the riots and then it switched to a woman crying out with grief, “My son…he is dead”. Everyone around us watched the screen in silence. “The police must have killed someone in the protests” I whispered to Stefan.

In the main square all the locals were sat around doing nothing, waiting. All the shops were closed. It felt a little uneasy, we were the only foreigners. I talked to some locals and they said there was no transport on to the hydroelectric station, it was better to walk and you must leave right now, soon they may try and stop you. Then the police turned up and a crowd gathered around their vehicle, chanting, “Asasinos!” and throwing rocks. I eventually found a place to buy food and just as we were leaving town a man who we had talk to previously came up to us and said, with real concern, “be careful on the road, they may throw rocks”.

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A little alarmed by this warning I began the 3 hour trek up to the hydroelectric station along a dusty and exceptionally hot dirt road. Stefan cycled slowly next to me. We passed more vehicles with slashed tryes or even missing wheels. And then around the corner came Luciano! Walking in the opposite direction he had taken an alternative path, climbing another mountain, directly to the hydroelectric station. He was now heading to Santa Teresa to take a bus back to Cusco. We told him everything we had seen but he insisted on continuing to the town. So we said goodbye and continued. As we walked on through the rubble that now filled the road I felt like I was in some kind of action movie…with all this drama and danger.

To my great surprise I managed to wave down a passing car that would take me to the hydro electric station. It was a great relief. Now we would definitely arrive in Machu Picchu that day, before we had been running out of time.

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From this point it was a 2 hour trek along the train line, through the jungle, to reach the town of Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes. Our next worry was that bikes were technically not allowed in the Machu Picchu Reserve and definitely nowhere near the train tracks – we had been informed by other travellers. I was ready to argument with anyone who stood in our way. We literally could not go back down the valley to where the protests were kicking off. The only way out was via Machu Picchu.

We sneaked past the office of the train company and the national park and we were through!! I was a little disappointed there had been no need for that argument.

Stefan went ahead to buy our tickets for the ruins, leaving me to hike along the train tracks alone. And it was a magical hike. Silent, steep mountains covered in dense jungle towered high above, a strong river went gushing down on my right, exotic and colorful flowers filled my view. I had never been anywhere like that before. Dust was approaching when I finally reached the campsite to meet Stefan. Along the train tracks I had met many policemen, carrying guns, shields and heavy rucksacks, hiking in the opposite direction. Obviously they were heading to the trouble spot of Santa Teresa. This was the only way for them to get there as all of the roads had been blocked! It seemed incredible that the giant machine of mass tourism was chugging over nicely there in Machu Picchu, earning somebody a bomb, while just down the road local citizens were fighting for their rights, fighting to be heard. The majority of tourists blissfully unaware.

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We got up at 4.30am to visit Machu Picchu. Instead of taking the expensive bus ride we had decided to hike. The bridge opened at 5am and along with many other tourists we began the hour long hike up to the ruins in the dark, climbing 400metres. The steps climbed through the jungle and as we got higher we saw the early morning light illuminating distant unknown peaks. Rushing up the steps as fast as we could, breathing heavily, sweating like mad, along with all the other people, it felt crazy and ridiculous but also very exciting.

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Our first sight of Machu Picchu was beyond magical, dreamlike, breath taking. However many photos you see, when you turn the corner and see it for real, it can still surprise you. I remembered the art project I had done on Machu Picchu when I was 16, I remembered buying a guidebook to Peru when I was 17, I remembered my first Spanish class when I was 18. It had been a long road to get here, but it had totally been worth it.

The following day I chose to hike out along the train tracks, from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo. A hike of 28km. At first it had seemed like a good idea but after a while it seemed like a crazy idea as my feet and legs were completely destroyed, partly due to the extensive walking of the last few days. Was it really worth it? Just to save 60 bucks? But yes, I thought, it was worth it. To be away from the tourist crowds, in the peaceful jungle, taking the alternative trail.

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The Central Highlands

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

Cordillera Huayhuash

On our last morning in Huaras we met 2 Swiss cyclists who had just completed a trans continental bike ride. We shared many stories. They told us how they had sponsored 2 kids from Sorata, Bolivia. They took then to visit La Paz, staying in a nice hotel, and the kids had been terrified of the elevator. They had never seen one before. They had also donated their bikes to them at the end of their journey.

Huaras was too comfy, too easy. We had to leave before we got too used to all of this. On the way out of the city I got a bleak reminder of the more vulgar side of the Peruvian character. Little kids screamed gringo at us, asked for money or even threw stones. One boy shouted hello at us while pissing out of his front door.

As we left the big city behind and headed south again, the land flattened out and rose to a chilly 4000metres. On the horizon, through the crisp air, the delicate outline of jagged peaks were visible. We were leaving behind the Cordillera Blanca and aiming now for the Cordillera Huayhuash, where the principle peak was Yerupaja at 6635m. This new range appeared ahead of us as a giant beast full of scary ice falls, vertical faces and a dark history. In the 80s and 90s it had been a wild, dangerous and violent region. Trekkers who resisted a robbery during this time had been fatally shot. And occasionally robberies still did occur. However since the mid 90s the situation had become much more tranquil. Partly, maybe, due to the controversial “protection” system that was now in place. Visitors to the region now had to pay a set amount to pass through each community. For the entire trek, a ten day circuit, that would be 220 Soles or 44 pounds. We were not yet sure how we would react to this arrangement.

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Chiquian was the last town before we would join the Huayhuash circuit so it was time to buy more supplies. I entered a shop run by a little plump Indian lady. She was so short she couldnt reach half the products stored on her shelves. So instead she balanced precariously on her step ladder and I was worried she would fall of. Then it took her a long time to add everything up. Shopping in Peru, a slow process. Soon we found ourselves deep in a rocky canyon between prickly trees and strong winds, 4000metres below the snowy peaks of Huayhuash and on the way to Llamac.

Llamac was the start and finish point of this trek, that has been described at one of the greatest in the world. However there was no sign of tourism whatsoever. It was a typical tumbled down Peruvian village, with only one hotel and restaurant. The only difference was that a local teenage girl stood at an entrance gate ready to take your money, her father carefully observing. The protection system had already stirred up an uneasy feeling.

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But there was something else on our minds. We planned to trek for three days on the eastern side of the range from where we could connect to a dirt road and continue on to Cusco. But the was the little problem of our stuff. Stefan would mountain bike and I would hike so we were on the look out for a donkey who could carry my bike, my panniers and the tent. We hung around the official campsite at the start of the route untill a group turned up. We then invited ourselves into their cook tent for a chat, where we managed to make friends with the guide and the donkey driver. We struck a deal where they would squeeze our stuff onto their donkeys for 50 Sol per day. We were quite satisfied. Angel from Huaras was the guide, he told me that he had led this trek 15 times every year for the last 7 years.

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Without a doubt this trek passed through wonderfully wild and remote areas. At the end of the first day of trekking, the campsite at Laguna Carhuacocha was idylic. On the edge of a deep blue lake, with dramatic views of the highest peaks in the range. And then the trail from Laguna Carhuacocha to Huayhuash campground passed right underneath the active and crackling glaciers where we witnessed many huge ice falls and gazed upon perfect blue lagunas. But the protection system still left us with a rather sour taste in our mouths. It felt like daylight robbery. The only way to control the locals was to let them take money from tourists legally instead of robbery? However, despite the system, trekkers from all over the world still turned up and were prepared to pay. So the debate would continue…

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On our third and final morning of trekking we woke up to thick fog, light rain and snow up high. After trying but failing to dodge the money collectors we set of for our final camp at Vicongo. As we climbed to the pass at 4800metres lots and lots of snow appeared on the ground. All of a sudden the altitude started to effect me quite severly. I started to shiver uncontrollably, I felt very sick and had a head ache. I plodded on slowly but for the descent i sat on the cross bar of Stefans bike as he rode down hill – speeding things along.

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The hot springs at Vicongo were a total delight after 3 cold and hard days of trekking but we started to get a little worried. Where were the donkeys…all our stuff…Angel and his group? We had been soaking in the hotbath for 2 hours when they finally showed up. Apparently they had lost the donkeys in the mist that morning so packing had been delayed. When we looked at our luggage we got a major shock. One of the break levers on my bike had completely snapped off meaning that the break would not work at all. The donkey driver said he had no idea what had happened. Luckily Stefan made a temporary solution using zip tires that would hopefully hold for a few days untill we figured out what to do. Find this spare part in Peru? Only in Lima or Cusco surely. We were currently in the middle of nowhere. Or get it sent over fron Europe somehow? Whatever we did, i needed my breaks. There were still many hills to go before Bolivia.

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We negotiated a major discount with Angel and the donkey driver the next day and said goodbye to the group… All backpackers who were heading to Cusco next. They would be there about 3 days after finishing their trek…it would take us 3 weeks. Patience was vital when you were cycling across a continent.

We followed our dirt road south, leaving the Cordillera Huayhuash behind. At about midday we passed above the town of Cajatambo which sat in the valley about 400m below us. It was a detour and even though we needed to buy more food we decided to continue on to the next town, Oyon, far across the mountains. We were keen to make progress towards Cusco.

We were back in that typical Peruvian landscape of El Silencio. Only bare bleak and empty mountains surrounded us, with our tiny dirt road snaking through them. We passed a mine that seemed abandoned and to our surprise we found a shop there. A few men were getting drunk outside a wooden shack. Inside a shy girl sold us chocolate biscuits and soft drinks. Even at 4500metres in the middle of nowhere you can still buy an Inca Kola in Peru.

After a cold week of camping at high altitude we were desperate for a bed and a good meal in Oyon. But we were still far away. We reached the top of the road at 4800m of altitude at 5pm and began a 1200m descent through a narrow valley that would lead us into town. I crossed my figures that my temporary break solution would work. Despite flying down the canyon as fast as we could, night still caught up with us a few km before town. We arrived in the main square of Oyon, in total darkness and totally exhauated. A man selling popcorn told us where to find a good hotel and a little boy ran to show us the way. That night we had a massive meal of fried potatoes and chicken to celebrate the long and successful day.

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On the road to Cerro de pasco, in the middle of more Silencio, we came across a dusty, dull, lifeless village where only pigs wandered the street. But we did find 3 people outside a tiny little shop and stopped to buy supplies. They were Emerson, Elena and Soledad. They asked if they could take a photo with us – over the next few days this would become quite a trend amongst the locals. Emerson asked me, “How is life over there? Like with the government?” And i did my best to explain about our 3 major parties, our coalition government, the European union, immigration. But this was all quite hard to do, i hadnt been in England for so long i didnt really know what was going on. I then decided to turn the question around and i asked them, “Whats life like here?” And they told me about farming Alpacas and Llamas for wool, meat and cheese, and the government proctected Vicuñas. Despite their rough living environment they all seemed content. The girl Elena was the same age as me.

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Cerro de Pasco is definitely a town that will never appear in any guidebook…but in a strange way it was a totally fascinating place. At first sight it look like a giant, ugly shanty town, sprawling across bare hills. Everything seems to be covered in a layer of thick black smog, nothing looks “nice”, there is no sign of money, wealth at all. But the most incredible feature of this undesirable destination is the huge hole the town is clustered around. The buildings surrounded this hole in the ground, 1km wide and maybe 400m deep. High, bared wires fences tried to hide this ugliness. Cerro de Pasco was a mining town. We had seen many signs on the Peruvian highways encouraging the locals to look after the environment. In this town they looked like they were completely destroying it. But on the other hand they were only utilizing their natural resources for economic growth, something developing countries have been doing non stop for centuries.

As you cycle slowly through a country, through rural areas, off the beaten track, it feels as though you can learn more about the challenges that country faces. A lack of environmental awareness, rubbish disposal, recycling, lack of employment, higiene and sanitation seemed to be among those challenges for Peru.

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Silence @ 5000 Metres

I went running out of the hostel at 7,30am. I had to buy supplies and then hopefully catch a collectivo somewhere in the vague direction of Laguna Churup. The woman at the hostal had told me, “Be there at 7. Thats when people normally get together to travel” I was late. After stuffing a dry bag full of bread and biscuits at the local corner shop, i headed to where, apparently was the terminal. A man on a street corner was mumbling under his breath, “Llupa, Pitec”. I said yes as these were villages close to the trail head and then he pointed me in the direction of probably the crappest, most rubbish car I have ever seen. I got in and waited, collectivos only go when the car is full so he returned to the street corner to look for more business. A French couple and a local woman arrived eventually and we began our journey up the mountain. The road was so rough and violently bumpy but noone complained – in Peru this was expected. The car was such an old, rusty shell, I was worried that the car door was going to fall off and Id go tumbling out. No seatbelts ofcourse. This tin box took a long while even to start up…the engine grumbled unhappily as the ignition was engaged. He dropped me off by a dirt trail, 30 minutes from the trailhead to Lake Churup…which was good enough for me. He had willed his old car up a mountain just to collect my measely fare of 2 pounds.

I began the climb up to lake Churup tucked underneath the mighty snowy peak of Nevado Churup. With a heavy rucksack prepared for camping weighing me down, and the altitude, i was quite breathless. To my alarm, the last section of the climb, just before the lake, was like a Via Ferrata, with vertical rock and a metal wire to hold onto to haul yourself up. After much puffing, i arrived and it was truly worth it. It was stunning.

I sat on a large rock overlooking a perfect  bright blue lake with the snowy mountain right above me. Within a few minutes i was joined by several other hikers. I chatted in Spanish to 3 young boys from Huaras who were now studying in Lima. This was a rare venture into the mountains for them. I asked, Are you tired? No, one of them replied, just terrified from that vertical rock face i had to scramble up. Another one of the boys was curious about Europe. He asked if the Alps were in Spain. And then he said the place where he would most like to go would be Venice.

I also met John from L.A. We talked about the car culture in his city, the US immigration policy, trekking in California, learning Spanish, his year living in London. He was hiking with a Mexican friend who worked as a mountain guide. He had guided all over the Cordillera Blanca and told me that at my age all he did was climb, climb, climb all the time. He also told me about cycling around Mexico and getting lost in the jungle near Veracruz for 7 days. They were both interested in our bike trip through South America. Not horrified like most of the locals were. It made me feel good and gave me confidence I was doing something worthwhile and interesting. It was a positive encounter and I left that conversation with many uplifting thoughts. I loved to question, to be interested, to be curious, to kept on learning. It felt right to spend a life doing what you loved. It seemed as though I wouldnt be giving up my eccentric lifestyle anytime soon. I was a dreamer and always would be.

After the beauty of the lake and those positive conversations, I skipped back down to the trailhead in high spirits to meet Stefan, who was waiting there for me with his mountain bike. The plan was to go up the Quilcayhuanca valley, cross the Huapi pass at 5100metres and then walk back down the Cojup valley. I would hike and Stefan would bike. The time frame was exactly a day and a half. Not long! It was 10km to the head of the first valley following a very flat trail, past grazing donkeys, with rocky pinnacles towering over head. With views of white peaks, we pitched the tent in a very tranquil spot. In sharp contrast to the Santa Cruz trail, here there was not another person in sight. But early the next morning, some other people did appear. Sheperds looking after their sheep or donkeys. We had a rubbish map and couldnt find the trail, so we asked one of these locals for directions. Soon we were climbing steeply up to the Huapi pass…a climb of one thousand metres…we lost the trail and scrambled up a steep grassy slope, just below immense glaciers and white peaks brightly shining in the sun. These surreal, high altitude views were only for us. Alone as we were on the mountainside. Next there was a long, tough climb over a large boulder field, exceptionally rough under foot and a lot of physical strain, especially for Stefan, as he carried his bike on his shoulder. We reached the pass and yet more 6000metre peaks were revealed to us. It felt like a secret, priviledged place where not many people came, high, fresh and free. High altitude trekking gave you a feeling worth being obssessed with.

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Then we started the massive descent…..1000metres down to the next deserted valley. The trail was faint and crossed boulders, loose rock, steep grass. Tough for a trekker and a serious challenge for a mountain biker. Eventually we lost the trail and the last 100metres was a complete free style hike over very steep ground and down to the valley floor. A few river crossings later and we were back on a proper footpath, with strained muscles and aching feet.

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Time was running out if i wanted to be back in Huaras by the evening. It was still a long 10km hike out to the road for me – an easy gentle downhill for Stefan. The idea had been to do this trek light and quick. We only had 2 days worth of food and I was desperate to get back to Huaras tonight so that I could continue to enjoy the comforts the big city had to offer. So i went running down the long empty rocky valley, the glittering high peaks of the Cordillera Blanca fading away behind me. After jumping over a few rivers and loosing the trail several times, I saw a road in the distance….and there was a bus approaching! I could see how the bus would pass the trail end and continue on down the mountain. I had to catch that bus. It could be my only chance to get to Huaras that night. I sprinted down the hill and practically vaulted over the wooden gate to arrive on the road side just as the bus was passing. I flagged it down and jumped in…with a massive sign of relief. I hadnt even noticed Stefan waiting for me on the roadside with his mountain bike. He gave me his rucksack through the window of the bus and we exchanged a hurried…see ya later. He would bike down to Huaras and meet me at the hostal.

And just three hours later I found myself back in Cafe Andino… lazing about on a comfy sofa…gobbling down a delicious chicken salad. Clean, fresh and revived after an extremely long day of trekking.

Huaras.

After suffering on the traffic filled main road- we were not used to this as nearly our entire route had been on small or dirt roads- we eventually arrived in the big city of Huaras, well known for its climbing and trekking potential. From the roof top terrace of our hostal we had a fantastic view of the high mountains. Huaras was not a pretty city like Cusco, rather messy, scruffy, hectic but in a loveable type of way. The was only a sprinkling of tourists, you never felt overwhelmed by their presence, and the vast majority of them were trekkers or climbers, only here for the mountains.

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After quite a few days in the wilder parts of Peru, we walked around Huaras wide eyed with a definite “just arrived in the big city” kind of feeling. We hadnt seen so many people or buildings in quite a while. We came across our first Peruvian supermarket. It was so big, shiny and new! Anything we wanted was available! Even Dairy Milk chocolate! We were experiencing the comforts of modern life with new eyes, new energy.

There were also some very nice restaurants, clearly aimed at the foreign visitors in town. Our favourite was Cafe Andino. We went there the first time to meet a German climber who had brought out some bike parts for us. When we walked through the doors, I felt like I had just stepped into sone swanky London establishment, every surface was so spotless, so polished, everything was so pretty and new. After the grimey cafes we had seen in Peru, we were a little shocked to say the least. Everything on the menu was much cheaper then it would be in England, but compared to normal Peruvian prices….it was extortionate! I awkardly flicked through the menu to find something cheap. There was also a fantastic library of travel and mountaineering literature, hundreds of outdoor magazines and copies of National Geographic. This is where i picked up a copy of Dervla Murphys book “8 feet in the Andes” about her trek from Cajamarca to Cusco, passing through many of the same places as us…so i could read about what towns we knew were like 40 years ago. I picked up another book by Murphy about her trekking through rural Ethiopia with a mule. I admired her bravery, her confidence, her adventurous spirit and the way she managed to connect with local people while on her travels. Between all this reading, we slowly worked through the cafe Andino menu. My favourite was the mixed salad which was a work of art, with a big juicy avocado sliced up in the middle.

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Not only does Peru have massive variation in natural environment, the deserts, the jungle, the mountains, but there is also massive variation in its people, their culture and attitudes.

Many Peruvians who live in cities like Huaras seem to have a similar lifestyles and attitudes to that of any european. They have awareness and knowledge of the world outside Peru. They ask intelligent questions about our trip, showing genuine interest. In outdoor shops it was a revelation to meet people with knowledge of and passion for their local mountains.

On the other hand, campesinos, (people living in rural areas, mostly farmers, often Indian) continue to live very traditional lives, working the fields, raising cattle and sheep in sonetimes very insolated areas. They always stared at us like we were aliens, their meaningless whispers of gringa highlighting their lack of cultural awareness. They were always shocked or confused to see us cycling through their land.

I didnt fully understand how such acute differences could live stand by stand in the same country. Cycling through Peru had given me lots to think about as I tried to understand this complex and incredible country.