Plummeting down Peru: Ausangate Traverse, Titicaca, and Passport Issues

Cusco, Peru.

10/15/16.

I’ve been in Cusco long enough. It’s really a wonderful city in a fantastic area, and I am certain I will be back sooner than later. Great food, warm and welcoming Peruvian culture, strong biking culture, fantastic single track, and tons of history. I’d spent nearly a week waiting for a replacement front hub from Schmidt (I’ve worn out the bearings on my third Son 28 hub since Alaska), and now that I’ve rebuilt the new wheel I’m ready to roll. First step: get to the famed and enormous Mount Ausangate where I can ride/push a trail along its Western flanks, then head down to Lake Titicaca and eventually the Bolivian border. So excited to be up and moving again!

 

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As far as I know my parents have been able to link every person we’ve found with our last name, Pauker, to our family tree. Of course this has not been attempted outside of the United States, especially not in Peru where Paucar (pronounced the same) is a very common last name among indigenous populations. For the last few months I’ve seen Paucar compounded with various suffixes to identify people, mountains, lakes, streets and towns… very interesting to me.

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First climb out of the Sacred Valley as I rolled from Cusco. 

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I decided to follow a route given to me by a fellow bike traveller, Andrew Cheyne. The route has since been published by Cass Gilbert on bikepacking.com. I’d climb up over Abra Arapa to the Southwest of the enormous Mount Ausangate on single track, then determine my route around Lake Titicaca to Bolivia. The Ausangate Traverse was phase one. Started with a long and steady climb, as most things do here in Peru. 

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Mount Ausangate looming over the trail. Soon after the trail transitioned to single track, I came upon a small chakra (farm), and an abundance of steaming hot pools of water. Hot springs?!? It was mid-morning and I had a long way to go. But it was freezing cold with whipping wind and driving rain. Hard not to take an early lunch break in a perfect spot. So… I did. 

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Nearing the pass, the terrain shifted from narrow and rocky single track through boulder fields to open high volcanic plains. Gorgeous to watch it shimmer in the misty afternoon light. Although there was a very clear trail, it was so open that I could choose my own route, Moab-style open riding through the volcanic slick rock. So fun.

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Reaching the high point at almost 16,000’, good spot for a snack. 

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Starting the long, wet and sloppy technical single track descent down from the pass, there was no sheltered ground for camping anywhere in sight… The only flat ground was soaking wet with spongy low-lying mosses and grasses. It was getting late. I was a bit concerned… 

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Once again, things have a way of working out just fine. I saw a small sign further down the trail illustrating mirador, and 100m off the trail was this perfect covered platform overlooking a lake. Shivering in the fading early evening light. I threw up the tent and started on dinner as rain shifted to snow. 

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I awoke the following morning to darkness through the semi-transperent tent material. My sleep cycles have for quite a while matched the light of day, so was confused why I would awaken so early. Upon unzipping the tent it all became clear. 3” of snow had fallen onto and around the tent, creating a veil of darkness. I peeked outside to reveal a brilliant morning and clear view up to the cliffs of Ausangate. 

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Rolling past various high alpine lakes with glaciers crackling above and alpacas meandering across my path. 

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Continuous descent presented geological shifts from grey to red rocks, and steep loose sandy traverses. Always interesting to decide between traversing across sand vs. sludging through the wet bough in the flat valley below. I chose the former.

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The trail eventually let out onto a lonesome dirt road down a river valley toward Pitumarca. One of the more gorgeous sections of road I’ve ever seen. 

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As the afternoon rains began, abandoned chakras become fantastic covered lunch spots. Granted they are not designed with a 6’1” gringo in mind, I could still crawl in for temporary shelter. 

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After restocking in Pitumarca, I continued down the long valleys toward Lake Titicaca via some dirt side roads.  Gorgeous country. 

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Up until now the route has felt pretty clear: ride through Ausangate. I could have followed another long bikepacking route established by Cass Gilbert and published on Bikepacking.com known as La Ruta de las 3 Cordilleras, but had trouble clarifying how I would get my exit and entry stamps from Peru to Bolivia. Following this route would have also skipped riding along Lake Titicaca, the largest lake in South America, which I really wanted to get a taste of. I decided to follow my friend Campbell’s idea and leave my bike at a Northeast lakeside town to bus around to the nearest border control office across the lake in Puno for a passport stamp. I’d then bus back around to continue on the rustic Eastern route in order to enter Bolivia legally. 

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Moments after Titicaca first came into sight, I stopped to take in the lake, the famed floating reed plants that line its shores which are used to built boats, homes and much more. I met this kind man who was collecting reeds for a project at his small home across the way. After helping him load up the reeds onto his sweet old mule, we spoke for a while about life on the lake. About fishing for sustenance, about simplicity. He has known no other life, so of course he didn’t call the experience simplicity, just normal. Only through my urban eyes did this life beckon with its lack of materialism, competition for status, and expense. 

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Always hard to get a good shot while pedaling without disrupting someone’s experience. The lake reeds are actually much lighter than they seem, but hauling them around town is still hard work.

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After leaving my bike for the day with a kind hotel owner in Huancane, I hopped on a bus to the bustling tourist metropolis of Puno. I was welcomed to town by a large parade that was weaving down the side streets downtown. 

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Walking upstream along the parade route, I found its epicenter in the city plaza, where I would also find Puno’s customs office. After swimming through dense crowds of dancers, musicians and tourists, I stood before the customs officer to get my exit stamp… 

 Oh shit…

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I pulled my passport out of two layers of zip locked bags to find that somehow it had absorbed a LOT of water at some point. It was actually soaking wet. I’d not needed to touch it for about 2 1/2 months when I’d entered Peru, since then enduring countless storms and river crossings. Zip lock bags are not fool proof. The biggest problem was that the entry stamp into Peru from a few months back was all but washed out. We could distinguish which country it was from but no dates. Only the small handwritten inscription that I had been given a 90 day visa, but no start date remained legible. So from a purely technical standpoint, I’m now in Peru completely illegally. I was at their mercy to fine me, jail me or deport me. 

After an hour of conferring with his superiors, the officer was generously able to provide a new entry stamp and simultaneous exit stamp. Given the soaking wet passport however, he asked that I go outside for an hour or so and let it dry in the heat of the sun then return to get stamped when the ink would no longer smudge. Great idea. I walked out to enjoy the city parade for an hour while the dry air did its work.

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So many gorgeous costumes! All from different indigenous cultures in the Andes and coastal regions. 

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After taking in the local parade I returned to get the passport stamped and I was on the bus back to Huancane in no time. 

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I really do love seeing some version of my rare last name all over the signage of Peru!

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Rolling out of Huancane, I took a series of dirt roads along the rustic Eastern shores of Lake Titicaca. Beautiful geological formations around every corner and lots of wide open space.

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The following evening I reached the unmanned monument marking the official Peru/Bolivia border. I’d roll down to the tiny border town for the night then get my entry stamp into Bolivia the following morning… At least that was the idea. As it turned out fate had a more complicated plan in store for me. More on that next time! 

 

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