Back to Peru: Copacabana to Cusco (feat. Rainbow Mountain)

Cycling days: 151, 152, 153, 154, 155, 156, 157, 158 & 159

Copacabana to Juli (Peru!)

We both woke up with dodgy tummies this morning but, despite numerous trips to the toilet, we were determined to leave Copacabana.

There had been a large protest in Copacabana yesterday and all the shops and restaurants were closed behind metal shutters. Shopkeepers were worried things might get out of hand. For us this meant there was no bread to be found in the morning and breakfast was a little bit meagre.

We left town at about 10:30 and came across some fresh bread in a roadside tienda just out of town. It was a lovely day with good weather and pretty views as the road undulated along the lakeside.

After about 10km, we arrived at the border with Peru. We had a few forms to fill in but it was all pretty painless and speedy. There were a couple of tourist coaches passing into Bolivia as we were leaving and some of the passengers were very intrigued by our bikes and our journey. We can’t help but feel a bit proud when we describe where we’ve been.

As we entered Peru, the road continued along the lakeside, passing through farmland that was bustling with activity and friendly locals. There seemed to be a lot more going on here than in rural Bolivia and with the road flat and quiet, we found our attention turning to the goings-on in our surroundings.

Just before lunch we passed 3 touring cyclists. A Bulgarian couple and an Italian girl who had joined forces on the road to La Paz. We chatted for ages, swapping tips for the road ahead.

We carried on for a few kilometres and then stopped for an energy hit (avocado and paté sarnies). We positioned ourselves by a pool of water complete with flamingos for entertainment. It was turning into a very nice day.

The road remained flat until the short climb into the town of Juli – where we decided to call it a day and stayed in a very cheap hotel recommended by the touring cyclists we met earlier. We had planned on completing more kilometres today, but as we weren’t in any kind of rush to get to Cusco (we have 2 weeks until Sarah’s parents arrive) we decided to take it a little easy.

That night we found a tasty and filling 2 course dinner with tea for under £1. It felt good to be back in Peru.

 

Juli to Puno

We hadn’t planned on staying in Puno (as we will likely visit it with Sarah’s parents in a couple of weeks) but as we had done a shorter day than planned yesterday, it ended up being our destination today. The touring cyclists from yesterday had said it was the nicest city along the upcoming stretch of road.

We left busy Juli and quickly got back into the rhythm of pedalling along good, flat tarmac. Again, there was lots going on and therefore lots to look at. At one point we were passed by several minibuses with (live) sheep simply strapped to the roof on there way to/from market.

Later we passed an area where people were weaving wool. One man was particularly friendly and even gave us a demo, encouraging us to take photos. It reminded us of Katrin’s weaving in Frutillar (Chile), but on a much bigger scale.

The road moved away from the lake for much of the day and (to be honest) got a little bit tedious.

Just before Puno there were a few small climbs and we rejoined the lakeside, making for some more interesting riding.

By 14:30 we arrived in Puno having cycled some 80km. We felt this was adequate for the day and, after finding a very reasonable hotel (£6), we went to a big supermarket. It was the first time in several months that we had been to a supermarket so big and so cheap and we got a little giddy, buying things like chocolate milk and pizza bread. Yum!

That night we ate an enormous plate of chifa (South America’s take on Chinese food) before getting a pretty early night.

 

Puno to Pucara

After a good night’s rest, and with more flat riding ahead, we felt like we should do a much longer day today. We were on the road by 8am to begin the short sharp climb out of Puno.

There were nice views of the city as we left, saying goodbye to lake Titicaca in the process.

As we headed towards Juliaca, the road flattened out, but best of all the road was being widened. The new carriageway was perfectly paved but closed to vehicles. We decided the barriers didn’t apply to push bikes, so enjoyed 20km of traffic-free riding. Without the subconscious worry of overtaking traffic it felt like we were going faster when on our private road and we made very quick progress. Sadly, the new road eventually dissolved at Juliaca and we were thrust back into the traffic.

Juliaca is a pretty large and dirty city and cycling through wasn’t particularly pleasant but nowhere near as bad as other people had made out. Having cycled in London for many years, the two of us really don’t mind city cycling. In fact, we kind of relish the challenge that comes with weaving through traffic and racing to beat the lights.

As we emerged from the other side of Juliaca, we stopped for a first lunch – Leroy would have been proud. While eating, we attracted the attention of an elderly gentleman who wanted some of our valuable second lunch – but we gave him some sweets instead. He seemed pretty satisfied and placed a handful under his cap.

We quickly re-entered the countryside of the Peruvian Altiplano down ‘petrol station alley’ (there were so many it was obscene). The landscape was pretty and some hills even appeared, though the road remained flat.

There were much fewer people here than around the lake, but flying flocks of flamingos kept us entertained.

When we had about 20km left to Pucara we stopped for second lunch with the addition of a chocolate milk and crisps – a real treat!

At around 4pm we reached Pucara having completed 106km.

We found a very adequate room for a mere £3.50 before going out for a £1 dinner. The cheapness of accommodation and food in Peru is insane.

 

Pucara to Ayaviri

After 3 egg sandwiches and two cups of coffee we began cycling to Ayaviri. The road was flat and pretty uninspiring for the 35km but the town was nice and well stocked.

We ate lunch in the square (which was supplimented by a couple of hefty slabs of cake) before deciding to call it a day. We knew it was a bit crazy to stop so early but, like we said earlier, we are in no rush to get to Cusco and we were feeling a little tired from yesterday’s efforts.

We found a cheap bed in an extremely cold hotel on the central plaza, but it had WiFi which was a nice bonus.

 

Ayaviri to Santa Rosa

We both woke up feeling tired and were tempted to spend the day in Ayaviri. However, we had already walked around it quite a few times yesterday and we knew we would get bored, so we decided to do another short day and spend the afternoon in a different town.

We were both lacking energy and the slight headwind that we had been cycling into the last few days seemed to be even stronger today.

After only about 45km we reached Santa Rosa. We kind of wished we had known this place had existed yesterday so we could have done a longer day then – but oh well we weren’t in a rush.

After eating lunch in the quiet central square, we napped all afternoon. We ventured out into the village for dinner and afterwards found a lady making the most incredible fresh donuts in the back of a rickshaw.

 

Santa Rosa to Aguas Calientes

We woke up feeling like different people today and were ready to ride! As we left Santa Rosa we began a very gentle climb. Having only really done flat roads for the last few days it was so nice to be climbing – even if it wasn’t particularly strenuous.

The sky was very overcast, but it made the wide, u-shaped valley very misty and it felt a bit like we were in the Lake District in the UK. We were both really upbeat and having a wonderful morning. We passed lots of locals as we pedalled through roadside villages and everyone waved and cheered us on. A light rain began, so we donned the waterproofs.

After 30km we reached the top of the Abra la Raya. A little strangely, there were quite a few ‘artesania’ stalls at the top and bus loads of tourists with carrier bags full of tat. We stopped briefly for photos before beginning the long descent over the otherside.

Soon enough, the heavens suddenly opened further, making the descent a little less enjoyable. Then, it began to hail which was incredibly painful for our exposed mitts and noggins. It wasn’t long until we had completed the 15km to the small settlement of Aguas Calientes, but we were freezing by this point.

Luckily, Aguas Calientes, as the name suggests, has natural hot pools! For the small sum of 5 soles (£1.20), we were soon dunking ourselves into the hot water and feeling much, much better!

We decided to spend the night there and, with unlimited bathing to enjoy, we soon resembled large, wrinkly prunes.

 

Aguas Calientes to Pitumarca

After a good night’s sleep, we got up early and both had one last dip in the hot pools. It was a cold morning at over 4,000m and while the ground was thick with frost, the air was thick with steam. It was a great way to start the day – not least because we were the only ones in the entire complex! Steamy solitude!

With nowhere to buy breakfast, we cobbled together a meagre affair from what we had left in our food bag (an orange and half a bread roll with dulce de leche) that would tick us over until the next town.

Weather-wise it was a much better day than yesterday – there were blue skies and it was pretty warm, definitely shorts weather (for Sarah at least).

The day’s cycling began with a lovely 30km descent to Sicuani. The road weaved through gorgeous countryside and we couldn’t take our eyes off the goings-on in the roadside farming communities. Luckily, there wasn’t much traffic.

We were quickly in Sicuani where we found a hearty cooked breakfast of rice, chips, a piece of beef, salad and a fried egg. We had a couple of cups of coffee before heading downhill for a further 25km or so.

We continued to make quick progress as we passed through pretty villages. There was still lots to look at, so the day passed very quickly.

By 13:00 we had reached the large village of Checacupe where we had a tasty almuerzo in the central square.

From here we then took a picturesque (and very fragrant – due to the many eucalyptus trees) 7km road uphill to Pitumarca, where we stopped for the day.

We found some basic accommodation with a great outside area for storing bikes. Alongside her hostel and restaurant businesses, we discovered that the lady owner also bred guinea pigs in one of her outbuildings. We peered in at the little fluff balls for ages, enjoying that irresistible guinea pig purr. Sadly, being in Peru, there was only one place that these animals were destined for… the dinner plate.

Wanting to walk up to the rainbow mountain the following day (and too lazy to do the out-and-back cycle) we discovered that a local truck headed up to the trailhead at 3am every morning – well, we did want an early start!

 

Pitumarca to Cusipata (via Rainbow Mountain)

Our alarms went off at 2:15am and it was like being clobbered with a sledgehammer. We had to pack up our stuff and get ready to catch the truck at 3am.

We left the hostel at about 02:50 and the driver was already hurrying us into the back. We were shocked to see the back of the vehicle was already full of colourfully dressed locals, sitting on bales of hay. Everyone was really friendly and made room for us both so we weren’t sitting on the metal floor.

The doors then closed and we were in complete darkness for the next hour and a half as the truck slowly made its way up the mountain. The experience was a little surreal. It kind of felt like we were being voluntarily smuggled in the most polite and friendly way. We had no idea of anything beyond the walls of the truck, save for the occasional appearance of stars through a small chink above the back door. Inside, everyone wrapped up and dozed off as best we could.

At around 04:30 we reached the car park at the start of the rainbow mountain hike. The doors swung open and everyone made their way down the ladder at the back of the truck with their hay strapped to their backs. It was still pitch black when we began heading off, shivering as we went.

A man from the truck stopped us and told us that it was too cold and dark to start the walk, so we should go back to the truck and wait until the sun rose. Being so cold, that sounded like a brilliant plan to us. Unfortunately, all the other passengers had gone and without their body heat it was a bit chilly in the truck – but better than being outside. We worked out that all the other truck passengers were locals that guide tourists up the mountain on horseback. They get up the mountain early to feed and prepare their steeds for the day ahead.

After an hour, the sun had begun to light up the valley and so we got going. It was still pretty dark and we had to use a head torch to guide our feet. The path was pretty obvious though.

Soon into the walk, we passed through a herd of sleeping alpacas that were covered in frost. We both found a new level of respect for these hardy animals. This was enough confirmation for us that camping here would have been incredibly uncomfortable with our +5 degree sleeping bags and we were glad to have taken a lift rather than cycling and camping.

The walk to rainbow mountain is only about 5km long but it is all uphill from 4,450m to 5,035m. It wasn’t easy, but we both enjoyed it a lot. It was lovely seeing the icey valley slowly light up as the sun rose and then completely thaw out.

We were the first people to start the walk that day, but when we got to the top there were a couple of groups of people, who were doing multi-day treks in the surrounding mountains. One group told us that they had a experienced -20 degrees last night! These groups soon left and we then had the view point to ourselves for the next hour. It was absolutely stunning and a treat to have no one around while we enjoyed the view.

We then began the decent and were encouraged to stop for a tea by a man who had set up a cafe on the hillside. That’s when we saw the trail of tourists climbing the mountain towards us. There were hordes!

Before long we were surrounded by people and decided to make our escape back down the mountain. The snaking line of Cusco day-trippers continued almost all the way to the carpark. It was insane.

Back in the carpark, now jammed with buses of all shapes and sizes, we started the hunt for a lift back to Pitumarca so we could be reunited with our bikes. We spoke to a few bus drivers who said they weren’t leaving until 3pm and it was only around 11am at this point.

We took the opportunity to have our lunch and began the long wait. At about midday a bus with a small group of tourists passed and offered us a lift to Pitumarca. Woop woop! The road down to Pitumarca was absolutely stunning (we hadn’t seen anything from the truck this morning) it would have made a great cycle.

At about 2pm we arrived in Pitumarca, sank a litre of Inca Cola, and then got back on our bikes. We planned to only cycle the 7km to Checacupe, but the weather was so nice and we were really enjoying ourselves that we rejoined the road to Cusco and continued to Cusipata.

 

Cusipata to Cusco

We woke early, but it took an age to get going and then find breakfast. Eventually we found two ladies serving food in the local market. Originally, they offered us chicken soup – which Sarah had had enough of over the last few days. But as disappointment spread across our faces and we began to turn away, we were soon offered eggs with fried yuka and a mound of rice. It was just what we needed – if a little greasy.

The beginning of the day was a nice downhill through a pretty valley. There weren’t many cars at this stage, so it was pleasant cycling and we were in great moods.

Three short climbs followed and in between the second and third one, we stopped for an almuerzo in Andahuaylillas. The final climb was probably the longest, but it was all very manageable.

With time to kill, we planned on splitting the ride to Cusco from Cusipata into two days, but as we passed through Oropesa, Peru’s bread capital, we weren’t particularly impressed (by either the bread or the town) so decided to push on to Cusco.

From here the traffic increased a lot, but there was always a decent shoulder. As we reached more central Cusco, a cycle lane opened up in the centre of the road. This was much more enjoyable.

We arrived at hostel Estrellita at around 4.30pm. This is the hostel used by most cyclists in Cusco. There is plenty of storage for bikes and it is a lovely quiet space within the hustle and bustle of Cusco.