We crossed into Peru just over two weeks ago. Now in Cusco, we wanted to share three of our favourite stores from the roads of Peru...
Milk and Potatoes.
by Sara Dykman
Mostly when we crossed the border into Peru we saw similarities. We were still biking along Lago Titicaca, still waving to kids running after sheep; still yelling ''buenas tardes'' to women walking cows and men hauling large bails of reeds on their backs. But, for truth or not, it seemed like we had found a country a bit less timid, a bit more ready to yell ''Hola'' at us first. It made starting conversations a bit easier. It made getting to know people a bit easier.
Our second day in Peru, we were finishing our feast of sandwiches in the town of Juli's plaza. As the sun lulled us into a lazy stupor we were awoken by a women. We talked long enough for a crowd to gather. When the women invited us to rest at her house for the night we wavered. After a few minutes of wondering, we decided, even though it was barely noon and even though we hardly knew this woman, we had to accept her generous and unexpected offer.
One of my bike touring rules is to never turn down an invitation. When invitations come, after a bit of common sense scrutiny, I almost always accept. It is these invitations that lead my trips and keep every bike tour from being a sadistic monolog of biking miles and a sore bum.
Conception’s house is a collection of buildings folded together to surround a small, sunny court yard. We sit in the sun, talk to the parrot, try to lure the rabbit in, and wave at the grandkids peaking from corners. Juan, Conception’s husband, practices his English with us. Nia and I agree, these hours we spend chatting, gasping to understand and be understood, are many times more exhausting than time on a bike.
Even though Conception had met us in a pile of our post lunch mess, she seemed to assume we could eat more…and more…and more. We were seated in the warm and friendly kitchen to wait. When Conception brought us heaping bowls of boiled potatoes we couldn’t have guessed this was going to be just one of many feasts at the house. We ate potatoes, practiced our Spanish, and laughed at our recently learned Aymarra words. After our second plate of potatoes, I could have rolled into the sunshine and watched the day go by.
Conception and Juan tell us about the history of Juli and insist that we have a tour. Even after we told them we could certainly handle the navigation on our own, they assigned Oriel, their 10 year old grandson, to show us around. I felt a bit bad for Oriel. I imagined the horror I would have felt if my grandparents had asked me to show two strangers that could hardly talk my town. Oriel, braver, consented, and soon we had taken to the streets headed to see some churches.
Juli is surrounded by four hills and consequently there are four churches. These churches are over 400 years old, and Nia doesn’t hesitate to remind me that’s older than the United States. When Oriel asks if we want to visit the museums inside each church, I suggest that we take a good look from the outside and spend our money on ice cream rather than a museum visit. He likes this plan and we carry on.
We arrived back at the house just in time to help Conception peel potatoes for dinner. This is my second time peeling potatoes in South America, and I use this time to show off the thin, long peelings I am concentrating very hard to obtain. We all laugh at our speed, but agree with a bit more practice we could learn and thus become marriageable. Potatoes peeled we chat until the dinner’s soup is ready.
Diner is delicious. I don’t know how Bolivia and Peru do it, but they really do make a perfect potato. While eating, we talk with the family, including Hernaldo, one of Conception’s grown sons. He lives a short bus ride away (in the town we passed through yesterday), and invites us to visit his family and help milk the cow. Even though I am from Kansas, I had never milked a cow, AND even though that meant a 5am wake up call, we agreed.
The next morning we arrived at Hernaldo’s house cold but ready to milk a cow. Before we could start we were seated on sheep skins draped on chairs and left to watch the blue walls and the bags of feed stacked to the ceiling in one corner. Hernaldo’s three daughters and wife came in one at a time to say hi and give us a warm welcome.
Then it was time to milk a cow. Hernaldo’s wife, a seasoned pro, managed to fill 1.5L of milk in less than one minute. The cow’s calf, stands tethered a short distance away, drooling with hungry anticipation. Nia and I stand a short distance away too, until it is our turn. It is more difficult than I expected. I manage a few more tablespoons, until I declare I’ve had enough.
We feast on warm chocolate milk and bread (a typical breakfast), and then take a tour of the farm. Hernaldo has terraced fields (some plots terraced by the Incas) for corn, wheat, and potatoes. He has three alpacas for wool, two bulls growing to be sold, goats, pigs, and a donkey. He also has a great view of Lago Titicaca, colors dulled by distance so that both land and water are a collection of blues.
We want to say thanks for their generosity with more than just words, so we try what has worked in the past. We ask to buy a few potatoes, something they eat but normally could not make any money on. I say we are on bikes and can only take a few…we receive a 20 pound (1.4 stone) bag of colorful potatoes; I can only imagine the amount if we had been taking busses. It is humbling to see such pure generosity.
The generosity continued at Conception’s house. We knew we needed to get going, and after watching a town parade, filling up with quinoa and soup and bread, washing our potatoes, and taking some photos, we had to say goodbye. It is always tough to say goodbye, but it helps knowing that we will never forget Conception’s family and the opportunity to be a part of it.
So just two days into Peru, we saw another similarity with Bolivia. Peru, like Bolivia, has wonderful people ready to help a stranger. That and they eat a lot of potatoes.
The Road That Wasn’t…
by Nia Thomas
We were only one day away from Cusco, and a bed, unlimited food and a rest for our aching legs…or so we thought. Our map showed that from Pillpinto to Colcha there was a road that followed the river, a mere 6 miles long with an elevation loss of 100m – great!!
We knew we had two big climbs left before Cusco and were glad that the afternoon should be an easy glide down the valley before starting the first accent up to Paururo. But when (as we always do) we stopped to ask directions for this magical road in the Pillpinto plaza we were met with gasps and shaking heads and the information that there was no longer a road, just a walking track in the mountains.
Everyone told us, in no uncertain terms, that we could NOT take this route with our bikes, we would have to take the carratera (the main dirt road) to Accha (nearly a 1000m climb) before descending all the way back down… Everyone told us this, except for one elderly gentleman, who after initially saying no, changed his mind and said if we were willing to push our bikes we could do it. One in ten thought it was possible. That was good enough for us! Off we set down the dusty dirt road to continue our questioning for the route at the next village, hoping, wishing that we would be able to make it through.
We reached the small village and asked the gathering of three ladies in the plaza which way to Colcha, they looked at us, our bikes, to the hills ahead and burst into a babble of Quechua and rapid hand gestures interspersed with a few Spanish words. The jist: no. Just no. There was no way we would make it through, even if we pushed our bikes. It was two dangerous. The path was steep and narrow. Two people had DIED on it recently. We sat down on a bench deflated at the realization that our ‘easy’ afternoon was quickly turning into a 1000m climb for essentially nothing.
The ladies must have sensed our disappointment because we were soon met with barks of ‘Ven!’ and a motion up the street. We followed, bikes in tow, into their home where we were presented with a mountainous bowl of corn topped with cheese and a suspicious yellow drink that we later found out was fermented corn juice. The shade was a welcome break from the beating midday sun, and after 15 days on the road without a proper rest day, food was always greeted with a smile. And so once the plate was clean and the cups drained, and we’d promised for the 100th time that we would take the road up to Accha instead, (and we’d given the ladies a tomato and an apple to say thanks) we set back out the way we had come, back to Pillpinto where we started the climb.
Switchback after switchback after switchback. The views over the valley just got more and more stunning with each turn, but it was hard to enjoy them knowing that we were only going up to come back down. After 2 hours of climbing and with the sun setting we dragged our bikes up to what was probably our most picturesque camp spot of the trip so far.
It wasn't just the unexpected extra climb that was troubling us, we had planned on reaching Cusco the next day and had very few Soles (Peru’s currency) left to our name and only a small amount of food. Sure we had an emergency 100 soles note, but in the tiny villages that we were passing through that was as good as useless!
The next morning we finished the last few miles to Accha, to then find that it wasn`t quite the top. We continued up, along a bit of the road that was still under construction, and therefore we had it gloriously to ourselves, bar the odd van full of day-glo clad men. The descents (with some smaller climbs) that followed were just breath taking, the views panoramic and national geographic worthy. We screamed and shouted as we soared through the mountains, enjoying the wind on our faces and the constant moving stream of new views to admire.
By the time we finally reached the river, 1000m up, then 1000m down, 45 miles and a day later we were smiling…for the most part.
by Nia Thomas
As we climbed the dirt road out of Arapa it felt as though, after nearly a week of cycling along its waters edge, we were finally leaving Lago Titicaca behind and heading back into the mountains. As we crunched over the dust and stones of our first proper ascent in over a week I rediscovered my ‘granny gears’ (no offence to grannies everywhere who rock) and started the spin to the top.
After a few miles of climbing we reached a small village, a plateau in the hill and a young boy in the road. We shouted our usual ‘Hola’ and ‘buenas tardes’ as we creeped by, and carried on pedaling. But this boy wasn`t content with just the pleasantries and carried on the conversation – luckily we were moving slowly enough that he could comfortably walk and talk to us. His name was Estaben (like esta bien which means it is good), he was 11 years old, he liked to play football, but there was no-one to play with in his village.
As we left the village the hill re-appeared and with Estaben at our side we continued the climb. We hadn’t gone more than 10 meters before he grabbed the back of Sara’s bike and started pushing her up the hill at a run. There was a delighted shriek from the saddle and the pedaling became a breeze. Then he turned around: ‘tu tambien’ and it was my turn! This carried on back and forth until we reached the summit, me and Sara sweat free and smiling, Estaben out of breath but also with a grin on his face. After all that effort we couldn’t just leave, so we cracked out our chocolate stash and shared a treat before descending down into the distance.