Pervading Peru’s Central Altiplano: Huancayo to Curahuasi

 9/6/2016

Huancayo, Peru.

I reached Huancayo 4 days ago after an intense 12-day frenzy. Some rest days were long overdue, as I was feeling my joy for the road overpowered by the challenges of extreme altitude, cold, and overexertion. High alpine Peru had beaten down the fun, joy and wonder enough to warrant a recharge. When I arrived to this large industrial city however, nothing about it spoke to me. I considered pushing on the very next day in search of a more inspiring rest point, but just didn’t have it in me. Finding cheap lodging, I realized this could be a blessing in disguise. 

For the last few months, I’ve begun developing some ideas for a larger writing project. To share my thoughts, insights, and lessons learned, among questions, interests, and explorations. The problem is that I’ve found my energy stores are not what they once were. Sure, I can still ride 10-12 hour days back to back with thousands of feet of climbing and rough terrain to boot. But I lack the energy to stay up at night in camp, to write about my experiences. Back in Alaska, Canada and even through the USA, I’d push huge days then cuddle up with my laptop and write for an hour or two at night. No longer. I still cuddle up… but the movies playing behind my eyelids are just too enticing. I cannot stay awake. Days, even weeks have begun to pass wherein I don’t write a single word. So many thoughts and feelings that have blessed my consciousness go undocumented. I’m just too tired. 

Meanwhile during my days in the saddle, I often listen to a variety of podcasts. One of my favorites is Freakanomics, hosted by Stephen Dubner. In one episode, he explores the topic of “grit”, into which I’d fold determination, discipline and perseverance. This is what I need more of. I downloaded the audio book by the best selling author on the topic, Angela Ducksworth, in which she shares her vast research findings on the topic of grit and how people can develop it. Still reading the book for now, but hoping I can use the lessons she shares to establish some new approaches to writing.

So far I’ve come so far as to begin recording audio during my rides. If I feel that a particular thought or insight is unfolding and worthy of further exploration, I’ll stop, pull out my phone, and record a “bookmark” about the concept at hand. Enough to remember the thoughts and expound upon them later. I now have about 4-5 hours of these little thoughts, reactions and insights recorded in 2-10 minute chunks. Step 2 will of course be finding the discipline to then transcribe and actually explore these thought-buds in order to see where they may lead. Wish me luck with that, please!

Why do I share all of this??

Because in Huancayo, I realized with the help of a wise confidant that spending a few days in a boring city might be just the opportunity I have been needing to dive into these recordings and ideas with minimal distraction. So I did. 3 full days in Huancayo consisted of nothing but eating, writing, and sleeping…

Oh, and a Tinder date…

My last night in Huancayo. Tinder is an online dating service that many travelers use to meet local people, not just for romance, but for new friendships. I was open to either, but mostly just curious to have some company with with to explore the city a bit at night. I met Marareth accompanied by her Sister for drinks at a club featuring Peruvian folkloric music and dance. While the sound was a bit boomy, and the lights a bit flashy for my taste, it was really cool to see a variety of traditional dance forms here. We shared a bottle of rum with Coke as I struggled to hear their soft voices through the music, dancing and crowd. It was a lovely evening with two great people, somehow stretching to 3am at that club before I stumbled back to my tiny hotel bed to catch what sleep I could for an early push off the following morning. Thanks again for showing me your town, Margareth!

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The highway out of Huancayo was wide, busy, smoggy. Trucks and busses coughed black clouds as the taxis scurried around them, allowing mere inches between side-mirror and handlebar. Luckily the traffic died down quite quickly after turning onto the serpentine mountain road headed for Huancavelica. Around a corner I happened to notice this very formal-looking sign illustrating aguas calientes (hot springs). Of course, a detour was in order. 

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Pulling over at the sign I was however quite challenged to find out where exactly these hot springs might be located. Steep cliffs to the left of the road, and a fast, deep river raging alongside it to the right… I scouted down the steep embankment toward the river in confusion to find a small footpath ending at a cliff over the water’s edge. 

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Before me was no bridge, just two lone cables stretching over 100 feet across the river from cliff to cliff, wavering in the breeze about 25 feet above the water. On my end, the cable was well-braced to a cement foundation, whereas it disappeared behind some brush on the far end, making it’s attachment a bit unclear. I considered my options:

1. Find my way across this river with complete lack of confidence that there were actually hot springs on the far side.

2. Let it go and continue on my way. 

Well, perhaps needless to say, option 2 is rarely the one that gets selected and today was no exception. I called across the river a few times to see if someone perhaps might emerge from a small, tattered structure up the hillside from the far cable attachment. To my surprise, a man did emerge, and looked at me with expectant curiosity. “Termales???” I asked him in my loudest and clearest voice in an attempt to pierce the dull roar of the swift river. Making a gesture to wait a minute, he disappeared into the brush. 

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Moments later he emerged, no longer walking, but gliding. Evidently this small hand cart was the only way across the river for a few kilometers in both directions, his main access to the main road for all commerce and supplies. He informed me the hot springs would charge a 5S fee for entry plus 2S for the round trip cable car (about $2USD total). Perfect. We loaded the bike precariously onto the cart and as I hung out over the rear edge to stabilize my steed, he pulled us across hand-over-hand. 

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Across the way, I climbed up to his small fenced complex, housing a large spring-fed pool. Unfortunately it was after I paid my fee that I realized “hot” was a bit of an overstatement. More like tepid, but I didn’t care. A quiet and calm break from riding in a sweet little spot was lovely nonetheless.  

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I ended the day’s ride at the railway town of Izcuchaca. A bargain hotel, freezing shower and a hot meal guided me to my slumber in preparation harder days to come. 

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Summiting yet another long climb out of Izcuchaca, I heard some music up ahead. Before me was a saxophone septet, sitting on wooden stumps and practicing by the roadside.

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 Kindly, they played a couple of tunes for me before offering to pose for a group shot. Everyone is over the top warm and welcoming around here! 

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After turning off a main road onto a smaller dirt track, the morning’s minimal car traffic diminished to silence, yielding to the subtle sounds of birds, breeze, and breath. From time to time I’d encounter various complexes filled with many small circular pools, the water flowing into them from upstream and draining back out below. They are staples in the narrow rocky canyons of high alpine Peru, called piscigranjas. Literally translated they are fish farms. Given the limited water sources in many of the high mountains, private fishing is often controlled and limited by the government, forcing most people to get their fish from the local farms. I’m guessing it’s a bit of an environmental nightmare for the local water supplies however. 

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Alpacas. They’re everywhere. Most of them run free through the mountainsides in large herds, taunting me to try and pet them with their adorable faces and fluffy furry bodies. Alas, they’re a bit skittish around bicycles so I’ve yet to have a close encounter.

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After a quiet day alone on the dirt tracks, I enjoyed a fast and flowy steep descent into Huancavelica. While the dirt road switched back from side to side, there were often single-track short cuts between turns used by travelers on foot. Perfect terrain for two big tires! 

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Beautiful old, dirty churches abound in Huancavelica. Theses folks were practicing a folkloric dance routine on the plaza in front as I arrived.

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Everything you need can be bought from one of the street vendors. This young lass was selling smoked alpaca meat. While the storage seemed less than sanitary, I’ve heard alpaca is pretty tasty… Perhaps I’ll find a slightly fresher source and give it a try…

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Upon arrival to Huancavelica, I found Bruno and Lorraine, two of the cyclists I’d ridden with in Southern Ecuador at Hostal La Posada (Among the cheaper options in town). We shared cheap food, cheap wine and rich conversation for a couple of days. I truly hope our paths may cross again!  I think I ate 3 meals of chifa (Peruvian version of Chinese food) in my 36 hours here. They most certainly do it right. 

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 Back on the road out of Huancavelica, packed with supplies, I hit the dirt.  Slow going in the beginning as there was a considerable amount of roadwork under way to pave this windy mountain route. 

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Luckily the crew let me through all the roadblocks, asking me to pose with the gang for a picture. It’s funny how I don’t generally feel my height difference from the locals, but pictures tend to illustrate how much it clearly exists! 

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“Slow down, our mama works here!”

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While the continuous road work for about 60km out of Huancavelica was noisy and dusty, I enjoyed fantabulous views and glassy smooth dirt roads which had just been graded for paving. Hard to complain.

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Mines. They were everywhere around here. I rode into a couple of them for a couple hundred feel before questioning the structural integrity of these old shafts. The random rubble strewn about the ground within added to my concern enough to remain in the sunlight thereafter.

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For a cyclist traveling alone,  pronouncing the names of streets, businesses and towns can be a fun an challenging pass-time. 

Can you pronounce that name?

“Mahny-yahk-yah.”

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 I decided to push a very long day in order to reach Ayacucho. A good friend had contacted me to say he’d had a really hard day and I wanted to be available to support him, especially given how rarely this friend has asked me for help. As the sun dove toward the horizon and the golden light of dusk approached, I came across a big fair under way in the middle of a large open pasture. Tons of rides, kids, and Andean folk music  blaring through the cheap speaker system. I stopped to marvel for a bit but soon left to ride the fading light into town. 

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Upon reaching Ayacucho, I realized it was much more of a city than a town. I got a bit nervous, as I don’t like to arrive in cities at night. There are certain rules I try to follow in order to maintain some allure of safety, and riding a loaded touring bike through a new city after dark certainly breaks more than one. That said, I was stopped at a random traffic light while in search of the cheapest lodging when I was approached by a man on a motorcycle. He was speaking to me but with his helmet on and visor down, so I heard nothing. I considered just riding on, but he removed his helmet and immediately and without hesitation asked me if I needed a place to sleep for the night, offering a bed in his home, only a few blocks away.

Now imagine: You’re alone. In a new city. Motorcyclist randomly invites you to his home. Do you go? I weighed the options: He could be praying on lone travelers to rob them, violate them, or both. Yes, my mind went there. But… he could also just be a really nice guy, just as every single other person has been who’s opened their home and heart to me these last 2 1/2 years. 

I chose to believe the second story. According to Mohamed Ali, “the definition of evil is unfriendliness.”

I rushed to keep up with him as he whizzed through the busy and narrow city streets to progressively darker and less populated blocks. After about 5 minutes of riding, I began questioning his statement about his home being “only a few blocks away”. Had I made the wrong choice? Was I in danger? 

Soon thereafter he pulled over on a small side street, and as I dismounted another motorcycle immediately pulled up from behind.

Uh Oh, I thought, noticing a solid dose of adrenaline enter my bloodstream.

But the new rider walked right up to me and shook my hand. My guide opened a large metal door to the nearest building, revealing a large storefront filled with a variety of outdoor goods. Turns out he owns the store and had been heading back to meet a prospective customer there when he saw me. Sigh, the mind and it’s mental meanderings. 

The store owner introduced himself as Julio, and after selling a jacket to the other man, walked me behind the store to a small room into which he brought a mattress and bedding. He said he loved bikes and loved helping out cyclists who passed through his city. He’s housed many over the years in this little room. So kind. Discovering a restaurant with wifi I contacted my friend that night and despite being dead tired from a 130km day, we dug into the conversation for a couple of hours. It felt so lovely to be able to offer my support given how much I receive every day out here. 

I decided to take one day off in Ayacucho. I’d sent myself a small package of bike parts from Huaraz a month back, and was looking forward to mounting a new tire. While in town I saw lots of local music on the streets. Not sure what this group was all about but happy to see people happy and dancing out in public. 

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That night I rode back to Julio’s house to find the door locked. A note on the door invited me to a home up the street where his niece was hosting a baby shower for her son-to-be. Curious and hilarious. It seems that baby showers here are more similar to a co-ed bachelor party than the typical showers I’d been to in the states. The music was popping, the drinks were flowing, and a creepy clown was MC’ing the festivities, forcing the attendees to perform odd acts of suggestive nature with balloons among other things…. No matter, I felt so honored to be welcomed into their space with open arms. 

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While at the post office in Ayacucho, I decided to run a test. I’ve been riding with that damn rear rack on my bike since Alaska, and was curious to convert to a full, rackless setup. In order to allow for my new gear storage system to fail, I sent yet another package ahead with the rack and a few other items-to-be-removed to Cusco. I’d have a couple weeks of riding to get there and could then decide if my new system was working. Already, I’m just loving the look of the bike sans-rack. Svelt. Sexy. 

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Rolling South out of Ayacucho requires a long-tedious climb of about 5000’. The road is paved and the grade moderate, so one has but to sit down and grind his way up. Unfortunate to see yet another random river of trash flowing down the steep mountainside from the road’s edge. Trash is as poorly managed here in Peru as anywhere, and most people just dump it wherever they choose. 

I had nearly reached the top of the climb when I noticed a disconcerting grinding noise coming from my bike while pedaling. Dismounting and checking the moving parts, I found that my bottom bracket (the bearings around which the pedals spin) felt like it was full of tiny rocks. What should be a smooth spinning motion sounded like putting pebbles in a blender. I pulled the cranks off and immediately 5-10 half-mashed metal bearings fell onto the pavement. Not good. No more forward motion today. 

There are only a few moving parts on my bicycle who’s destruction completely prevents travel. The bottom bracket is one of them. So I turned around and coasted back down all 5000’ of the road I’d worked so hard to climb, back to Ayacucho. Sigh. 

I rolled through the bike shops, one by one. NONE of them had a modern-style threaded bottom bracket that would fit my bike… until the very last (7th) one. 

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Racing Bike, a tiny store downtown, had but one cheap Shimano bottom bracket left…. and no tool to install it! Another round of bike repair shop visits revealed the tool beneath a pile of parts, and I was back up and running!  

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 Back up and over that 5000’ climb, I descended into the next valley, heading toward the small mountain town of Vischongo. 

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Tight, windy roads around here require honking your horn before every twist to alert oncoming traffic. With no horn available, bikes have to just be extra careful…

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Another dusk arrival into another tiny Peruvian mountain town…

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Not 50 meters past the town welcome gate, I heard some interesting music and chose to follow my ears. A grand party was under way to celebrate the town’s patron saint (I’m sorry to say I can’t remember which saint it was. Having been raised Jewish my capacity for remembering all the saints’ names is unfortunately remarkably low!). Before I even dismounted the bike on the sidewalk next to the party, I was handed a cup full of chichi (fermented rice wine) in one hand and a shot of caña (sugar cane spirit) in the other. A local kid leaned my bike against a wall for me given my hands full of alcohol. Following my young guide toward the festivities, I was introduced to his whole family and community and enjoyed some really interesting local music and dance lessons while the drinks continued to flow through the setting sun. 

After dark I wandered the main drag through town asking for the cheapest lodging in town, and was quickly shown to a small hospedaje run by a sweet older woman. Hobbling up the narrow steps to show me my simple room with tiny bed, she returned moments later with a hot cup of coffee and an announcement that dinner would be ready in 30 minutes. Amazing. Did I say how much I love the sweet kindness of everyone here in Peru??

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I ran into Bruno and Lorraine, the French cyclists, that night in Viscocha, and we agreed to ride together the following day until our planned routes would split. We arrived in the lively market town of Vilcas Huaman a few hours later, weaving through the bustling streets full of anything and everything the local farmers might need from neighboring hamlets. Around one corner I saw a striking man sitting on the street by a parked van. His shirtless chest presented deeply worn and cracked skin, causing me to wonder if shirts were ever a part of his attire. I noticed his elaborate necklace of large animal bones before I looked down at his hands. He was skinning an ENORMOUS boa constrictor to sell the meat. A short conversation revealed he had just been driven up from the Amazon hours before to sell meat from the snakes he’d been hunting. I could have easily spent hours inquiring into this man’s doubtlessly rich history, but we were starving and it was time to feed. Not on boa constrictor however…

 

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The newer Catholic church built upon a traditional Inca temple in Vilcas Huaman. Note the difference between the intricately designed, mortarless stone work of the Incas and the comparatively sloppy work of the church placed atop.

 

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The Incas are famed the world over for their fantastic stone work, featuring perfectly interlocking rocks leaving no spaces for wind or moisture to enter despite a lack of mortar between them.

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Bidding farewell to Bruno and Lorraine in town, I took a tiny dirt road back into the mountains.

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Detailed map studying a few days prior revealed that the route I had previously planned would require crossing a river. Neither the traditional map nor the satellite imagery clearly demonstrated the presence of a bridge along my planned route on which to cross the aptly named Rio Grande. I’d asked a local back in Vilcas Huaman about the possibility of crossing, and he said it was doable, with water “only” up to waist deep… usually. This made me nervous enough to seek other options. Luckily I found a track that cut North along this river valley about 15km to a large bridge. 

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Dropping down a few thousand feet on a fun and windy dirt track to the late afternoon heat…

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 So remember that whole idea of traversing North to the bridge?? Well… I got distracted… 

I got to the floor of the river valley to realize I’d be cutting very far North along the river’s edge to the bridge, only to then cut directly South again. It would be adding at least 2 hours, plus some time on a highway. As a last effort, I asked a local kid working at the only tiny storefront of a hamlet by the river, could I just cross here? He said absolutely, motioning to his knee to illustrate the water levels. His conferencing rubbing off my way, I followed him down the steep embankments to the water where he motioned the best place to cross.

It was not as shallow as he said. Not at all. Plus the river was quite large and fast flowing. Was this a bad idea? Too late to ask more details, the boy had already scampered up the river bank to return his work at the store. Well… might as well go for it. I pulled off my shoes and socks, sealed all electronics in water tight bags in case I fell, hoisted my rig up onto my back and began clumsily crossing the swift currents. Nearly falling a number of times, I made it halfway across the river to this little delta. Deep breath, there was no turning back now despite the even deeper, swifter waters ahead. The missing factor I’d yet to consider immediately presented itself: gale force gusts, dancing across the river valley, throwing off my balance with every precarious step onto slippery river stones. 

It wasn’t pretty but I made it across. 

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 The far river bank provided endless wind swept camping spots, and only a few protected ones. Having already destroyed one set of tent poles due to winds in Ecuador, I was not curious to repeat my mistakes. 

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 The next few days would involve a bunch of paved riding. While I tend to avoid pavement at all costs, it was a welcome solace given the relatively low elevation in this area and the heat accompanying it. I could keep my speed up enough on the paved climbs to feel a gentle breeze on my brow, making the heat far more bearable. Not to mention the zancudos. Sand flies and other small biting things with wings, they love to swarm around smelly bikers at lower altitudes. Their annoying buzzes and ear dive-bombs were a fantastic motivator to keep a strong pace up the 2 7000’ climbs I had in store.

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So that highway stint didn’t last long. I got tired of the trucks, the exhaust. The lack of any sense of ruggedness nor discovery. I turned off the road just past the small city of Andahuaylas toward a roundabout dirt route.

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Passing some gorgeous ruins, I was back on tiny mountain roads, relaxing into the endless steep climbs with a grand sigh.

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Nación Chanka. The Chanka are a pre-Incan culture that maintained their kingdom in this region of Peru known as Apurimac. Known to be fierce fighters, they resisted various attacks by the Inca empire based in nearby Cusco to maintain their land. To this day there remains great pride among the Chanka descendants around here.

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Ending the day in yet another small mountain town, I found myself wandering the streets of Huancarama to the fading evening light. A woman called me into her barren storefront, in which the only items for sale were a few ice cream pops in an old and weathered freezer. She kindly shared where the locals go to get a cheap meal, then invited me to return in the morning for a special papaya drink with fresh fruit from her tree.  I returned and spent an hour with her and her husband connecting about the various kinds of papayas and where they grow, about life in Huancarama, about tourism in this less-than popular area. Following suit with all Peruvians I’ve met to date, they were kind, welcoming, warm and curious. 

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Shortly after my papaya recharge session, I ran into another touring cyclist on the road into Abancay, a large industrial city. It was extremely hot and humid in the deep valley. No wind. What better way to treat dehydration and overheating than stopping for a few shots of room temperature sugar alcohol?!? Sitting around a large table inside with a few local construction workers on a break, we downed a small bottle of the stuff, infused deliciously with ginger. The rest of the day’s riding was no cooler or easier, but now quite painless!

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The Abancay Tree House. Listed on both Warm Showers and Couchsurfing.com, the kind and generous Octavio. He’s built a huge 3 story tree house next to his childhood home, continuously adding to and refining it with help of visiting travelers. It was a 500’ climb up the sanfranciscoesque steep streets of Abancay to this “the house in the tree”. As we pulled up, it was completely  accurate. Hilarious. Amazing. Daunting. Inviting. A bunch of tarps covering a random assortment of wood slats built around a few trees, about 12’ in the air. Everything looked a bit like it was thrown together by a 12 year old, but somehow seemed to hold weight and work. There was even running water up there, lights, and wifi!  

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Entry to the compound requires walking the plank… of sorts.

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All bikes and parts are stored below. We climbed the rickety steps into the tree house with care, not sure how structurally sound the whole thing really was… A web of ropes and guylines crossed our path from above, around and below to stabilize the main floor structure. Every step caused the whole thing to undulate considerably.

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Among order one finds chaos, and vice versa. 

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Lift up a random tarp in various corners of the place and one discovers a comfy, soft foam bed welcoming the next traveller’s slumber for as long as they wish to stay.

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Over the first hour there, more and more international hippie travelers emerged from various nooks and crannies of the house-in-the-tree. One from Ecuador, one from Venezuela, 4 from Argentina. All long-term travelers wandering through South America peddling their music or wares to survive. That evening we cooked a lovely vegetarian meal together over a wood fire and enjoyed the varied songs of each musician. I rolled out the following morning while the others headed for a hike up the mountainside. 

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Climbing out of Abancay to a mirador, I noticed the common sight of a collection of crosses for people who’d been killed in vehicle crashes around this tight corner over a treacherous cliff.

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Funny how manifestation works. I’d been riding most of the day on paved or hard-packed dirt roads, wondering if I’d find any rideable single track in this area. Not 10 minutes later, I see a trail descending into a valley off of my route. Guessing that it’d meet up again at the bottom, I took the bait. 2000’ of really fun single track descent!

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It’s been a number of days of continuous travel since Ayacucho. Time for a rest day before I commit to the challenging and complex route I’d planned from here to Cusco. I found a cheap hotel room in Curahuasi, found a cheap and tasty pizza joint and crashed.

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Of course there’s no rest for the weary! I awoke at 7am the following morning to the shouts and melodies of this religious march/parade clamoring by beneath my room. At least I had a great view! 

2 Responses

  1. Luis Miron Gonzalez
    | Reply

    Nice ride! Nice adventure my friend!!!
    Luis (from spain, met in coyaique)

  2. Sharon Elliott
    | Reply

    I remember going through Huancayo to Ayacucho. Later on to Cusco. All on the bus in those days (late ’70s). I like the foto of the memorials for crash victims. I imagine an Eshu in each one, guarding the door. Abrazos!

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