The Mother Abbess, who sang this song to Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music obviously never bicycled in the Andes. She would have advised to take the bus instead.
But, I sang this tune to myself as I left Cusco. My plan was to ride west across the Peruvian Central Highlands to the coast and pick up the Pan-American Highway which runs north all the way to Ecuador, about 1500 km. I knew this would be a challenging route, as it traverses some very high country and involves some huge uphill climbs. But I had to try it. The Mother would have been proud.
After some initial hills leaving Cusco I had a great ride downhill for 40 km before ending up in a valley at the end of the day just as a storm was blowing in. I stopped at a store and noticed the locals standing outside watching the weather and looking worried, so I figured something was brewing. I decided to hang out with them and see what happened. They let me spend the night in an abandoned building next door. As it turned out the storm was not as bad as I expected, and they served me home made cañaza, a potent liquor. We sat up late talking about life in Peru and the USA. It was cool. Here is a shot of my accommodations and the area. The girls are the daughters of the family there.
The Longest Hill
The next day was a killer. I have never had a more strenuous day cycling. I knew it was going to be uphill but I did not expect 65 km (40 miles) uphill with an elevation gain of 2000 meters (6500 feet). It took me 11 hours to get to the pass. This was a problem because I was trying to get to the town of Abancay that night. I figured if I got to the pass by 4:00 pm that would leave plenty of time to zoom downhill into town and get a hotel before nightfall. But by the time I reached the pass it was 5:30 and the sun was setting. I still had 30 km to go downhill. My only other option was to camp out near the pass. But at 3900 meters (12,800 feet), it was cold and I did not have much water. I decided to go for Abancay. I sped down, freezing. At first it was ok, but it became darker by the minute. Finally I could barely see the road, just the white line to my right. I was also passing cliffs with signs warning of falling rocks. I was scared to death I would hit a big rock at 40 km/hour. But fortunately the road was rock-free.
Meanwhile I was exhausted and shivering as I descended. Then to top it off, dogs started chasing me ferociously. It was a very bizarre experience. I finally stumbled into the town center at 7:00pm, 90 minutes from the pass and well after sunset. Needless to say I was a bit shaken and asking directions to a hotel in my garbled Spanish was a challenge. My brain was just not working. But all´s well that ends well. I found a hotel and got a hot shower. Boy I slept well that night.
Here are a couple photos from that day. Looking back, this is part of the road I cycled up.
My Kind of Democracy
Meanwhile, along the way, I kept noticing these signs, which were for political candidates. They use symbols, apparently, so illiterate people can vote for a picture rather than a name. Kallpa, for example, is the rooster candidate. “vota así” means “vote like this”.
This got me thinking. How useful is a vote if people are illiterate? This is the problem with democracy. It´s the same in the USA, where we have this “one person one vote” concept. I am educated, intelligent and knowledgeable. Why should my vote count the same as some half-wit, wife-beating trailer trash, the kind of people you see on Cops and Jerry Springer? I think people should have to take a test before they vote. The test would determine their grasp of the issues. If they score high, their vote counts, say, four times. If they score low, it would count as 1/4 of a vote. This would ensure that the most votes reflect the opinions of people who know the issues. I know for a fact some people vote for the most handsome candidate, or the one with the most attractive name.
What do people think? Would you vote for such a system?
Anyway, back to the road, which became very steep with many switchbacks. It also started raining. I camped that night in the rain at 3900 meters on the side of the mountain. Not very comfortable. I was in a bad mood so I did not take any photos, just sat in my tent, cold and wet and had a unappetizing dinner of crackers and tuna fish out of the can.
The next day I continued uphill as the weather worsened. Colder and wetter. I finally hit 4500 meters (about 14,800 feet). I couldn´t believe it. There was slush on the road:
This set an altitude record for me. My previous high was on top of Mount Rainer in Washington State, which is 14,400 feet.
I was wet and frozen, but I kept going, believing that the road would have to descend at some point and I would camp at a lower altitude. But as I passed through the small village of Negro Mayo at about 5:00 pm I realized I should stop. I was on the verge of hypothermia. My feet and hands were wet and frozen. There was one restaurant in town and they had a bunch on old rooms out back so they let me set up my tent in one of them. It was a life saver.
But It was a cold night. It actually snowed. Here are a few photos of the place the next day.
My “room” the morning of October 28:
The restaurant family also raised llamas. They didn´t seem to mind the snow:
That day was kind of a blur. I remember crossing the Highlands and eventually descending about 1000 meters in to Puquio. Here are a couple pix from that cold day. I had to put plastic bags on my feet to keep out the wind.
I recovered a bit in Puquio then got a taxi to give me a lift to the next high pass (why didn´t I think of that before?) The ride downhill into Nazca was nice. I passed through a nature preserve inhabited by protected vicuñas, relatives of the alpaca:
I had a good plan: it was all downhill to Nazca, about 70 km. A nice sunny day and I was looking forward to great views of the Andes as I descended 3000 meters to oxygen-filled air.
Then, suddenly at midday, my front tire went flat. It had a two inch rip in the tube, so it was unrepairable. I put one of my two spare tubes in, inflated it, and as I removed the pump it pulled the stem out of the valve with a loud whoosh. In two minutes, I had lost two tubes. I put my last tube in and inflated it. All´s well. I rode on for another hour, then whoosh! The tire went flat again. This time the tire had ripped open and punctured the tube. I could not believe it. I rode 72 days without a flat, now I get three in one day, and no more spares. I was sunk, disabled for the first time in my cycling career. I had no option but to hitch a ride. Fortunately there was a fair bit of traffic on the road. I flagged down a passing truck and the people seemed nice enough. But as we rode the driver spoke non-stop in accented Spanish, and wanted to know all about my life (married? Children? Profession?, etc. ) He also admitted to snorting cocaine and smoking marijuana. I was, therefore, a little tense as we sped down those mountain roads next to steep cliffs. But nice views of the mountains, even though I would rather have cycled down.
Here is my last shot of the mountains. My disabled bike on the side of the road:
We managed to arrive safely in Nazca, warm and full of oxygen at 500 meters, the first time in a month I have been below 9000 feet. It felt good.