27 October 2014

Haquira to La Paz: To Bolivia around lake Titicaca by the back roads

After a relaxing rest day in Haquira, which coincided with local election day in PerĂº, we began the final push out of the mountains and into the altiplano that would lead us to Bolivia. By now the weather had been far from ideal, with storms in the early afternoon and occasionally in the morning. Our routine had been simple...leave early, clear the high(er) passes first thing in the morning, and make it to lower grounds before storms hit. Luckily, there were only three such passes to clear before we hit the altiplano, which brought a welcome change in landscape, weather patterns, and local culture. Despite four great months in Peru, we were excited to see what Bolivia had in store.

We left Haquira along more beautiful roads through a river valley..

...and soon crossed into the Cusco department, where stone replaced adobe as the primary building material (but the custom of painting political propaganda on houses remains).

We arrive into Santo Tomas and are surprised by its colonial main plaza and church.

We ask at the municipalidad about a place to stay, and one of the women working there suggests we can stay with her family.

Her dad, Silvio, had a daily sports-themed radio program, so we went on to talk about our trip. In the morning, the morning news program also had us on.
We thought that maybe the radio station had very low listenership, but riding out of town the next day we received many thumbs up from drivers who were familiar with us on the radio, and even spoke to a campesino tending his sheep who had heard us.

After a night in Vellile (where we were offered a hospedaje for free, also due to our radio appearance), we climbed our last high pass and soon descended to the long-awaited altiplano.

We crossed our last departmental limit in Peru... Bolivia was so close we could almost taste it!

In the morning, we enjoyed being back on mostly good-quality dirt roads.

The clue should have been in the village's name (Salinas) but we were surprised to see our first salt lake so soon.

Once onto the altiplano, cycling was suddenly a viable mode of local transportation again.
And, with storms imminent, spent another night indoors, this time in the house of a kind shopkeeper in the small village of Jayuni.
Next day we arrived in Ayaviri, with another colonial church. Alberto took this opportunity to get sick again, so we had a few days off...

... but at least we had plenty of pedi-cabs to keep us amused.
With Alberto feeling better again, we set off towards Huancane, on the north side of Lake Titicaca.

We inadvertently camped very close to a village, and so at 6 am in the morning had a large group of curious visitors...

...who asked if we would wait while they called someone to bring a camera by motorbike, and each family wanted a picture with us. Suddenly we were the tourist attraction instead of the tourists

Before Titicaca came Laguna Arapa, giving us a taste of things to come...

...including some stiff headwinds along the lakeshore...

...and some more machacas in the vicinity.
The riding was very pleasant, and we got a glimpse of the non-touristy side of the lake, with its crops and llamas

With dark upon us, and with not much free land to wild camp on, we asked at one of the schools on the way by the lake Titicaca

The morning of our last day in Peru was an scenic one, climbing 300 m over the lake to enjoy the views...

...until we eventually made it to the super chilled out border crossing to Bolivia
Once in Bolivia, the kind policemen of Escoma let us crash on their floor

...before we continued onwards towards La Paz. Even though the views were amazing, we were shocked with the erratic driving of the Bolivians...which was even worse than the already suicidal style of the Peruvians
...and so with some 120 km left to La Paz, we decided to put the bikes in a colectivo bound for El Alto
Arriving into El Alto (4080 m) the only thing left is a fast 500 m downhill to La Paz proper. But before, we stop on the edge of the hill to take in what it is probably the most amazing views of any big town to date...

...and contrary to what most cyclists do, which is to go downhill on the gentle autopista, we follow our GPS directions down some steep stairs...
...eventually arriving at the cyclists hotspot in La Paz that is Cristian's apartment
 Route notes:

- Haquira to Espinar: all paved, with plenty facilities.
- Espinar to Ayaviri: all unpaved, road surfaces can be bad at times, especially close to Espinar, with lots of local traffic. Plenty of small villages with shops etc.
- Ayaviri to Huancane: mostly all paved, unless you take the shortcut we did to Azangaro (ask the locals)
- Huancane to Tilali (last border town in Peru before Bolivia): this section is now all paved, has very little traffic and the option of taking the lakeshore if wanted, or cut across some small hills. There's plenty of small towns along the way, and very little hidden camping opportunities a few km past Moho.
- Tilali to Puerto Acosta: the section Tilali-Puerto Acosta remains unpaved, and the surface isn't great. As noted on many other blogs, you need to get your exit stamp in Puno (we did it from Huancane, 2 h one-way via Juliaca) and your entry stamp in Puerto Acosta (recommended to get the Puerto Acosta before noon as the officer may be on his extended lunch break). We learnt from other cyclists that the officers in Puerto Acosta may demand money to stamp your passport, which is illegal. There's no immigration services in Tilali, so you cannot get your exit stamp there.
- Puerto Acost to La Paz: all paved, and relatively quiet until Achacachi. After that it gets busier with colectivos, trucks, and buses. We found the Bolivian drivers to be incredibly dodgy, so instead of riding the last 120 km into La Paz, opted to jump on a colectivo (Bs 10 plus Bs 5 for the bikes) and get a lift to El Alto. From El Alto is an easy and scenic downhill to La Paz.
- In La Paz there's the once-called Casa de Ciclistas, which unfortunately nowadays operates like a hostel without being one, with a fix Bs 20 per person per night fee (more on this on our next blogpost).

22 October 2014

Ayacucho to Haquira: A scenic way of bypassing Cusco

After some restful time in Ayacucho (and of course another 24-hour bug for Lucy, it being impossible for us to go more than a few weeks in Peru before one of us gets sick), it was time to keep heading South, trying to stay ahead of the impending start of Peru's wet season. As much as possible, we sought out ways to avoid the main road (3S) from Ayacucho, to Cusco, and onwards to the border with Bolivia (especially as we had no need to go into the city of Cusco itself, having been there already with Alberto's family). In some ways it was challenging to deal with a route that was less stimulating than what had come before -- but there was plenty to enjoy as we found ourselves in an area unexpectedly full of colonial constructions and (less unexpectedly) teeming with friendly people.

We left Ayacucho as a group of three with German Joerg in tow. Instead of the 3S, we took what we thought would be a dirt road alternative via the town of Tambillo. Turns out it is all paved, shorter distance, and climbs less high than the main route - what more could a cyclist ask for?

Having had a late start from Ayacucho we only made it about 40km before it was time to set up camp. We found a great spot above the road with a view overlooking the valley
Continuing on the 3S alternative the next day, we were passed by a school trip... looks a bit different than the ones we remember as kids!

At the top of the climb  our road rejoined the 3S for a fast (and luckily very quiet) descent to Ocros. Arriving into town, we were invited to sleep in the secondary school.
Little did we know the school was having a party that night in honor of "Dia de la Juventud" (Youth Day). Obviously having three cycling gringos at the party added a sense of gravitas to the occasion. Lucy was in popular demand for a dancing (here with the director of the school)...
...and everyone wanted their picture taken with Alberto and Joerg.

The following morning we descended the rest of the way to the sandfly-infested river valley, then wasted no time in climbing up the other side until we reached an sandfly-free altitude. No stopping for pictures on the climb as you would literally have to pay for any breaks with your flesh!

We spent the night in bustling Uripa, where we were impressed by the ingenuity of the local plumbers.
We reached Andahuaylas the next day. Suckers that we are for markets, we got stuck there for a day off (Sunday) exploring one of the largest small-town markets we have seen yet (with election time approaching, the market stalls were also decked out with political propaganda).

We said goodbye to Joerg, who had a flight to catch giving him a tighter schedule...
...and spent the day checking out what the market had to offer.
From Andahuaylas we soon turned off of the 3S again and onto dirt, past the Laguna Pumacocha

We stopped for a gaseosa in Quillabamba, where even the kids' bikes were sporting political banners...
Then it was time to descend into another river valley (ahead of climbing up the other side of course!)

And continued downhill where we met these guys, who wanted a photo to add to their collection of (basically) photos of gringos that they have seen/met. They lived in Matapuquio, halfway up the climb on the other side of the river, and told us that cyclists had stayed in the municipalidad there. They were on motorbikes and said they would go ahead and tell the mayor to expect us, so we decided to carry on to the town despite knowing we probably wouldn't make it before dark.

The benefit was that we got to see the amazing sunset.

Of course, when we arrived in town in the dark the municipalidad was closed and no one was expecting us. Still, we managed to find someone with a key to let us in where we enjoyed the rare luxury of eating dinner on an actual table.
On the climb out of town in the morning, some school kids asked for a lift to their school, 100 vertical meters above the plaza. When we told them we already had too much weight and couldn't climb with more, they changed their tune and decided to push us up the hill. It really helped!
At the top of the climb, we turned onto a paved road and met a motorcyclist with a flat tire who asked if he could borrow our bicycle pump. It barely did anything for him, but he was still grateful enough that he wanted to share his breakfast with us -- fried cuy (guinea pig), which we had never tried before, despite it being a delicacy in the Andes. Our verdict: relatively tasty, but an awful lot of work to find the meat in between all the bones and cartilage.
We spotted a sign for an archeological site off the side of the road and a small dirt track, so decided to see where it led. Soon we found ourselves totally alone with a pretty awesome pyramid. Peru is so full of ruins that ones like these barely even register. We have passed many signs for archeological sites as we ride through Peru and now we wonder what was behind them all!

After lunch in Huancarama and a short climb, it was time to descend, descend, descend, losing 1200m of altitude over the course of a few hours. We reached the main road, which joins Cusco to the coast, and camped in the garden of a restaurante campestre along with Neil, a northbound cyclist who we happened to meet just before camp o'clock.
Our climb the next day followed a river valley for a while...

... until a sudden thunderstorm meant we stopped our day early in Lambrama, much to the amusement of the local kids who wanted to hear all about our journey.

We finished the climb to Abra Llullita (4650m) the following morning and then began the long descent to Vilcabamba.
Lower down, we enjoyed some warm riverside riding...and ended up camping in Vilcabamba due to the lack of any good spots alongside the river

The following morning we climbed to Ayrihuanca for lunch, with an impressive colonial church that the shopkeeper was able to get opened for us to see inside.

After a night in the dingy mining town of El Progreso, we passed the newly-built concrete and brick village of Fuerabamba, which we later learned will house the communities that new mining operations will displace.A truly weird place in the middle of nowhere, with brand new roads and European-style housing - the power of the mines once again
Then arrived in Haquira, another colonial town, where we opted to take a day off to see the colonial prison built into the rock face.

Our day off also coincided with election day in Peru, so the town was bustling with campesinos who had come down from the surrounding area to vote (it is obligatory in Peru).  
Route notes:
- Ayacucho to Andahuaylas: Asking for Tambillo will get you on the alternative to the 3S. The road is all paved, mostly one lane, with plenty of villages along the route (and some traffic due to these villages). The road is rolling, but overall does not go as high as the 3S. You rejoin the 3S already on the downhill to Ocros. The 3S itself was surprisingly quiet as well and never felt unsafe (and was all paved).

- Andahuaylas to the Carretera 26 (Nazca-Abancay road): About 7km after Andahuaylas we took the dirt road turnoff signed for Laguna Pumacocha. The road is mostly in good condition. At the top of the main climb, the road rejoins a paved road (which is apparently the 'new' 3S in this section), with roadworks still ongoing around Huancarama. From there the road is paved all the way.

- Carretera 26 to Haquira: Coming from Andahuaylas / the 3S , you need to make a left onto the 26 (towards Abancay) for a few km before a sharp right (just in front of a gas station) which is signposted for Grau. This section coincides with an Andes by Bike route from a few years ago with useful route notes. The main update to their notes is that it is now paved from the turnoff until the town of Chuquibambilla, then unpaved for about 120km until about 10km past the town of Chalhuahuacho, at which point the paving starts again and continues to Haquira (and beyond). In addition, Chalhuahuacho now has at least one ATM (Interbank, which charges S/.14 per withdrawal).