I arrived in Cusco by trail yesterday afternoon. Landing in a dense urban environment is alway jarring after long stretches in the calm of wilderness and small villages, but with cities comes the ability to replenish certain resources than run low over time: connection to mountain bike community, wifi to catch up with my loved ones back home, and high quality baked goods! Cusco provided all three in wonderful ways.
First morning walking around the historic center of town, this alpaca was hanging out waiting for its owner to come out of a store. Not the typical canine companion one would find outside stores in US cities for sure. But with it’s proximity to Machu Picchu, Cusco lives and breathes with the tourist industry. Many locals have learned to capitalize on it in any way possible, including walking around downtown with an alpaca as a mobile photo opp and petting zoo.
I spent most nights at Hostal La Estrellita. Known ubiquitously by South American cyclists, this place is relatively cheap for Cusco, has plenty of secure bike storage, and is a great place to convene with other two-wheeled travelers from all four corners. (L-R) Tina and Tomas and Antonia from Germany, Jimmy and Pia from Australia, and Kamran On Bike from Pakistan. At it’s most busy I counted 14 cyclists in the hostel simultaneously.
All living on a shoe string budget, we decided to share a big meal together.
So fun to share food, beer and stories with this motley crew. Neil and Vicki (featured far left) and I have crossed paths quite a few times since our first meeting back in Quito. Bikers are good people.
My second urban need was quickly met just next door to the hostel: a fabulous bakery. With strong wifi… down here in Peru a good connection to the internet is good as gold. But I’m truly not sure what kept me returning to this bakery most — the wifi, the croissants, or the surprising incidence of captivating female law officers that frequented the locale… Perhaps a combination.
One big night out in the city with local ex-pats started at a local bar, progressed to the fanciest hotel in the city, leading to a late night dance club and a post-dawn stumble back to our hostel. I am definitely not used to all nighters anymore, as the next couple of days were more fuzzy than I bargained for. I think clean living suits me a bit more.
The busy, narrow, tourist filled streets of the historic city center.
For a long period of this short life, I identified as a percussionist. I was an ethnomusicology major in college, focusing on the folkloric music of Cuba. After college I moved to the Bay Area to develop myself under the tutelage of my mentor and godfather, Michael Spiro. While this music will always hold a place in my heart and soul, it’s not the central focus of my life these days. That said, I still need to keep music alive within me, even while traveling by bike. The challenge is that percussion instruments are generally big and heavy, at least the ones I’ve studied. Back in Colorado I got tired of feeling the empty space music had occupied, and picked up an Irish tin whistle. I’ve studied it on and off for the last year, learning from online videos and classes. But I’ve never been “in love” with the instrument. It’s always felt a bit shallow in tonality and tambre. But I do love it for it’s small size, light weight and durability.
Arriving to the Andes, I’ve encountered load of folkloric music and wind instruments. Most are made from wood or bamboo and have rich, deep tones with haunting overtones. My favorite so far is the Quena, a 7-holed flute that happens to have the same tuning as my Irish tin whistle, making the fingering mostly transferable between instruments. So I have been searching for a quality Quena since Ecuador. I’ve seen many for sale in public markets, but they’re the cheap touristy models with poor construction, out of tune, and just not that inspiring to play. Here in Cusco the Quena is a staple in the local traditional music, so I assumed I could find a professional instrument maker in town. Much searching, inquiring and pavement pounding led me to this man’s little shop, buried deep within a busy artisan’s mall. He made all of these instruments himself. They all sound interesting and amazing. Some of them are his own creation, never seen or sold anywhere else.
So after sampling 20 different quenas he suggested, I found mine. I could feel how much he understood my need to onerously discern the sound of each instrument to pick the one most resonant with my taste. He patiently played each for me as I didn’t yet have the technique to make a tone. So happy to start learning!
Cusco, in addition to a ton of urban tourism, has quite a large network of rideable single track right from town! I started most days with a 2+ hour ride into the hills outside of town. I took Jimmy with me one day and he fearlessly descended this steep descent on his rigid touring bike. Yeah buddy, get some!
Many of the adobe walls built to delineate properties are lined with cacti. Not exactly sure why, but another good reason to have some tire sealant. Those spikes are sharp!
Many of the trails out of downtown pass through the Incan ruin site of Sacsawayman. As I rode up the rocks to explore the Temple of the Moon, this indigenous man was resting at the top, playing his quena. I pulled out mine and we played a few melodies for one another. Mine of course were Irish. His of course were Andean. The language of music is universal.
While in town, I met up with Bill and Nicole Koch, owners and operators of Haku Expeditions. They’d been kind enough to suggest some of the amazing single track descents I rode during my roundabout route into Cusco. Baku leads custom trips around the Sacred Valley and beyond via hiking, horse, and bike. They are the premier downhill mountain biking outfitter and guide company in Cusco, and for good reason. Bill took me to Cerro de Oro to share another gem of a trail along that mountain. Amazing trail and great company. While riding, we began hatching an idea of perhaps collaborating to offer bikepacking trips through Haku… stay tuned for more about that! Thanks Bill!!!
The female road workers wear their traditional dress on while working. Of course they do, because it’s not a costume. It’s her normal clothes.
I was invited by a local expat to partake in a group trash pick-up around the large lake above the city. Little did I know we’d all be packed onto one ENORMOUS paddle board, trying to negotiate balancing with teamwork to make the board go in one direction. It’s harder than it looks!
More fantastic trail finding. Sometimes I’d notice a ridge that looked rideable and just walk my bike up to explore it, assuming their was some sort of trail used by locals. Often I was right… this time I was wrong. I had to shove the bike over this loose steep rubble for a while before earning a fun descent down the other side.
While at the hostel, I got back to work on some long overdue gifts I’d been dreaming up for months. What better gift to my brand new nephew than a dream catcher made of bike parts that have been soaking up the spirit of discovery, exploration, and joy? Brake rotor base, bike chain links, spoke nipple cord, and bike tube feathers. HUGE thanks to Jimmy Purtill for hand delivering this and a few other select items back up to San Francisco for me!
All said Cusco is a lovely city. Despite the high proportion of gringos like me, I enjoyed meeting some fantastic Peruvian and ex-pat friends alike over meals, bikes, and dance floors. I feel there is more to see here. Potential for another visit and deepening. So many more trails to discover. I’m pretty sure I’ll have to make it back here soon…