The Peru I know Part 1: Andean Time Warps

In the time I crossed the strike in Puno and eventually made it to the coast of Peru, roughly 30 days of cycling spread amongst 2 months of settling place to place, I have failed to chronicle much of the journey in writing.  On the other hand, the experience offered nothing to keep constant updates on, rather infinite observations of culture, prosperity, poverty, neglect and pro-activity through the individual uniqueness of Peruvian cultures and life-styles.  To do justice to everything I have seen, and all of the wonderful people that have met, I will have to break up my experience in several segments.  This is the Peru I have come to know and fall in love with.

Seeing the wonderful sites of Machu Pichu and the Sacred Valley is definitely worth a trip to Cusco, though after one week of sight seeing a feeling of stagnation took over and moods went into decline.  Having decided to have a package of necessary camping gear sent to the Andean oasis, all the way from Los Angeles, I set a trap for myself.  After  one week of needed relaxation and the typical side trips taken in the region by most travelers to Peru, I could not imagine what two more weeks in this place would be like, or how they could possibly be spent.  Likewise, the marvel of more ancient ruins and the touristic night life of the city left me feeling somewhat autistic.  I just could not express any amount of excitement for what was around me.

Cusco as a city and region holds secrets of an indigenous civilization and a foreign pillage.  Colonial structures sit atop their Incan ancestors as if to show dominance.  In some aspects, there are signs that the mean spirits of Puno have prevailed here, though many of the locals engage in cultural insurgency to exert their presence and show perhaps they will never truly be defeated.   Traditional crafts are sold, clothes worn, and music played.  Unfortunately, all aspects of Cusco’s brand of tourism do not pay proper homage to this culture.  But what a beatiful place it is nonetheless.

Machu Pichu, the hidden city of the Inca’s was never found by the Spanish during their conquest here. Though centuries later, archaeologists did lay the first foreign eyes on the site and it has since become the mascot of the region, if not the country as a whole.  Immaculate to the sight, perhaps big tourism did not trust its true inheritors to maintain Machu Pichu under their image of a touristic metropolis, and despite the millions of dollars poured into the industry by foreign travelers, the poverty in the surrounding sierra shows little sign this wealth has been spread.  Opposite to the industry’s preferred method of travel, this reality was most easily acessed by bicycle.

The road out of Cusco, much like the road into Cusco, takes you into a time warp.  The main highway exists for commerce, but virtually no personally owned vehicles can be seen.  Rather, semis, tour busses, and pick up trucks used in the mining industry brush past you.  Everything appears to be either passing through, dropping off goods, or pulling minerals that will bring great developement to the cities on the coast, where mining operations are centralized.  The majority of the people, however, subsist off of working in mines, small farming, and selling goods to their neighbors, keeping a small amount of revenue in circulation in towns of no more than 100 to 200 people.  Houses are often made from tin, scrap wood, and crude bricks.  On one occasion we decided to set up camp in what appeared to be a very old abandoned mud house.  The inside had been hollowed out, the floors were dirt and in one corer the dirt was piled so high you could climb through a hole to the second floor.  After unloading our bikes, a woman appeared from the surrounding hills with a herd of cattle and told us we were in her home.  At higher altitudes the idea of having four walls seems to serve only as protection from the heavy wind that violently shakes houses of tin, wood and plastic sheeting.

The modernity of city life emerges in peculiar ways.  Imagine a mud brick house bearing a satellite dish, or an old woman in traditional garb chatting in Quechua on a cell phone.  Despite corporate Peru’s ability to sell these small modern services in the region, Andean towns are more or less void of any other modern development.  In the larger towns such as Abancay and Puquio (though they are not large by coastal standards), internet cafes can be found, though they are often packed with the local youth checking their facebooks and playing computer games.  Personal computers are rare.  Many of these places boast tourist sites, and though beautiful, they just cannot compete the political economy of neighboring Machu Pichu.  Subsequently, you will find a few nicer hostels and hotels, but the accommodations are basic, perhaps due to the lack of revenue in a dwindling tourist industry.   Despite how basic they are, they greatly overshadow the living standard of most of the residents as even something like this is not affordable to most.  Rather, many of these places seemed to house government workers coming in from Ica and Lima on the coast sent on month long missions to take census’ and promote a few basic social programs (though these programs may begin to proliferate due to the recent election of nationalist president Ollanta Humala).

Crossing the higher parts of Andes (some reaching up to 4,600 meters) was as much a feat of patience as it was fitness.  Strong headwinds blow directly into your face, literally snatching your already thin breath away from you.  The ride was more like swimming Olympic freestyle, look straight ahead as if to stick your face under water, and then with each strenuous pedal rotation, cock your head out of the wind to try and catch your breath.  If I could have counted my breaths in the 2 days I spent getting over one pass, it probably would have surpassed the total of all my respirations for the prior 10 days.  I like to call this “llama zone.”  As you get higher the cows and mules begin to disappear, and the preferred cattle for high altitude, llamas, begin to appear in vast numbers.  They look at you curiously, but their speed and gracefulness taunts you.

Despite these conditions that are a challenge to the cyclist, people do live up here.  The land and weather, infertile to yield much in the way of crops, is perfect for grazing llama, though this does not bring much money into the area.  Up until the final drop off into the desert below the Andes, we could see old Quechua women sitting perched on rocks, miles away from the closest cluster of houses, watching their cattle.  As we huffed by on our bikes, all we could imagine in our heads, accustomed to western city life, was “why would you choose to live here”.  Houses are basic shelters, not to afford any building materials, they are ofte just rocks beautifully piled into square shapes.  It is apparent that in many ways people prefer these locations and these lifestyles, though Peru’s centralized government and economy do not seem to suite, let alone pay any real amount of attention to it.

Coming over the final pass, we looked behind us one last time before our decent into the Desert.  Appropriate reparations for the toil of crossing the Andes by bike, Pachamama (Quechua for Mother Earth) granted us a 51 mile downhill spiral to the city of Nazca where we would discover a different side of Peru we had not yet seen.  Warm and happy to have been out of the mountains for the first time in three months, we each ate half of a chicken and drank a whiskey before resting up to cross the desert cities to eventually arrive in Pisco, the first coastal city on our route.

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