Off the Gringo Trail: A
Bicycle Trip Through Central Peru
"I wasn't designed for this country!" (Yo no fui diseñado para este país) I groaned to myself, as I tried to find a comfortable position for my weary head and restless legs on the overnight bus I was taking from Lima to Cerro de Pasco - one of the highest towns in the world at over 4338 meters (14,098 feet) above sea level.
A light-skinned, oversized Gringo in a country of bronze-skinned, enviably slim natives, I was finding it almost impossible to get the rest I would need for the following day, when my friend and guide César Ortega and I planned to start our bicycle tour of the Central Highlands of Peru, which is far less visited by foreigners than the much more popular Cuzco-Titicaca-Arequipa and Huaraz-Cordillera Blanca regions.
Tourists and curiosity-seekers like me generally avoid this arduous trip because of its altitude and inaccessibility; the 300 km (188 miles) from Lima to Cerro takes about eight hours in a sturdy bus on a fairly well paved highway. And guidebooks tend to ignore this region - both Lonely Planet and Let's Go only cover it in a few pages.
But as a professional economist who seized the opportunity to work out a midlife crisis by advising the Peruvian government on telecommunications policy, I felt that I should get to know as much of the country on a personal basis as possible, and I knew no better way to do that than on my bicycle.
In Cerro de Pasco, we headed immediately to the rustic guesthouse of a shepherd who lives at the entrance of Bosque de Piedras ("Rock Forest") a huge nature reserve of unusual rock formations. Cristobal fired up his root- and dung-fueled oven to cook us pan de la sierra and then served us mate, an herb tea of local wildflowers.
Cristobal lives with no running water, no electricity (except for a car battery that he uses to power his radio, recharging it once a month by carrying it to the nearest village and paying five soles) and the company of only the sheep and alpacas he raises for wool and the guinea pigs he raises for food. When there are no guests in his hostal, he spends his hours in the field weaving and knitting blankets and playing the quena, an Andean instrument that is a cross between flute and recorder.
Like many of the people César and I would meet on the trip, Cristobal spoke Spanish as a second language and had a distinct accent detectable even to my gringo ears. His first language is Quechua, Peru's second official language commonly spoken by many descendants of the Incas. This accent is a clearly enunciated version of Spanish that is easily distinguished from the rapid-fire, jargon-filled coastal accent that is so common in Lima - sort of like the difference between an American Southern or Midwestern accent to a Bostonian or New York (Noo Yawk) accent.
Our next stop was to Bosque de Piedras, also known as Huayllay ("wai - YAI" to rhyme with "Hawaii"), an unusual landscape with thousands of almost tantalizing (almost eerie) rock formations. Walking on the moor-like pampas, we encountered numerous naturally formed creations, including a huge cobra.
During the dry season, very few plants grow higher than shrubs on the high pampas. But since we traveled during the rainy season (from December to May) we were treated to a green carpet of grasses splotched with dark green and the grays and browns of the rocks.
From Huayllay, César and I traveled along a deeply rutted farmer's track of road to the town of Pari on Lake Junín. A primitive town with no services except for a public telephone operated by Gilat - an Israeli satellite telecom operator who specializes in providing services to highly remote areas - Pari boasts a beautiful ancient church on the grassy Plaza de Armas.
In Pari, we had to decide whether to continue on what the developed world would consider a dirt road but in Peru is somewhat humorously called a highway (carretera), or to forge our own uncharted way along the shore of Lake Junín. We opted for the more difficult lakeshore route, fighting our way through totora reeds, swamps, and pesky dogs that protected the herds of sheep and alpacas along the shoreline pampas.
While Lake Titicaca is commonly referred to as the highest navigable lake in the world, Lake Junín, at 4300 meters, is just as navigable but 500 meters higher! Although Lake Junin has its share of fishermen, its altitude and remoteness make it less attractive for most tourists to navigate. Clearly, that was our challenge!
After struggling our way along the shore, we finally reached Ondores, a sleepy little town with an ancient church built about 500 years ago when the Spanish first conquered Peru. In the town square, we ate Sublime bars - an excellent Peruvian product of Nestlé's consisting of peanuts and chocolate - and watched two pigs rooting in the grass in the Plaza de Armas.
Our next stop was Junín city, just south of the eponymous lake, where we found a local entrepreneur who manufactured powdered maca, an Andean nutrient. We bought several kilos of the powder to ship back home to Lima. None of the hotels in Junín offered even so much as hot water, but César and I found a local establishment that, for a few soles, showered us with scalding water.
The next day, we left Junin and began the long bike trek on the main highway leading to Tarma. We passed the monument to the Battle of Junín - a crucial event in Peru's War of Independence from Spain. After stopping in the middle of the pampa where the obelisk stood, we found ourselves on the dirt road leading to San Pedro de Cajas, a town that is noted regionally for its woven artesanía as well as its Inca well.
Among its many charms, San Pedro de Cajas boasts an academy for teaching its children about artesanía. While any tourist (or native) can spend many hours browsing the fine shops near the Plaza de Armas for the products it offers, a disadvantage of touring by bicycle is that the cyclist cannot possibly carry away all of its treasures.
Frustrated by this limitation, César and I reluctantly continued our descent toward Tarma. But I made a mental note to return here with my wife Karen with suitcases that could accommodate such a wealth of craftsmanship.
About halfway down the dirt carretera to Tarma, we encountered the Gruta de Huagapo, known to be one of Peru's deepest caves. Local legend has it that the source of some of the underground rivers found in the cave is near Cuzco, nearly 800 kilometers away. With a guide, it is possible to enter at least some of the sights, most of which are classical formations of stalactites and stalagmites. In our case, the cave offered us a welcomed relief from the heat and dust of our long descent.
But I still wondered, in all of the places that César and I visited, what would happen if something drastic happened to us? What if one of us fell down or had an injury while we were trying to navigate a shelf inside the cave? Who would pull us out? How would they get us to a hospital? Where would that hospital be? What would the training of the doctors be who operated on us? Fortunately, I have not had the need to find urgent answers to these questions, but they are nonetheless sobering. The fact that there are no answers is a grave flaw in the infrastructure of Peruvian tourism.
Each year, the U.S. Embassy in Lima reports at least one or two fatal accidents involving American or European adventure travelers in Peru. Common sense can go a long way in keeping oneself from being one of these statistics, but there are certainly factors outside the tourist's control.
Throwing such sobering thoughts to the wind, César and I arrived in Tarma after a sweaty but exhilarating ride. We found simple but adequate quarters across the street from the town's cathedral. Tarma is known as the "Pearl of the Andes," a moniker it does not quite live up to, at least at the start of the rainy season, but it is a friendly, charming place with a convenient location for exploration either higher up in the mountains or farther down in the jungle. Not to be missed in this or other high-altitude towns is the chance to try a caliente, a hot, sweet drink made with spices and pisco, the Peruvian national drink, which is a fiery grape brandy.
We first opted for the jungle destination, but decided that discretion was the better part of valor when we considered the effect of the Chanchamayo province's famous red mud during the rainy season on the workings of our fine cycling machines. So we opted to take a colectivo, a shared taxi, to the lively high jungle town of La Merced, and left our bicycles in the care of our friendly innkeepers in Tarma.
La Merced, one of Peru's major coffee market towns, is somewhat unremarkable but blessed with good restaurants and a number of accessible destinations. We followed the river downstream in a taxi from the town and visited a settlement of Amerindians of the Ashininka tribe. The Ashininkas welcomed us in traditional beige cotton robes and facial paint and invited us to walk through their village where they displayed their fine handmade jewelry, all beautifully constructed from local jungle products like seeds, hard berries, and a bamboo-like wood. Again, we had to steel ourselves against taking any extra items on our already-overloaded bicycles. A flock of parrots had descended on La Merced while Cesar and I were taking in the sights, their vibrant green plumage almost indistinguishable from the surrounding flora.
Further downstream, we took a two-hour taxi drive to visit the locally famous waterfall of El Velo de la Novia (Bride's Veil). The trip involved leaving the paved highway and following a very muddy, rutted dirt road as it wound past banana trees and other jungle foliage to a splendid waterfall.
Our guide explained that there were two types of rain in the high jungle: macho (male) and hembra (female). Macho rain is explosive and causes mudslides and destroys homes; hembra rain is endless drizzle that is not destructive but can ruin anyone's day. Our rain was only hembra, but I could definitely see how it earned its reputation.
After we finally returned to Tarma, a good night's sleep prepared César and I to mount our assault on the highway to Jauja. Tarma sits at an elevation of about 3,050 meters (9912 feet), but the carretera crosses a pass into the high pampas at well over 4,500 meters (14,625 feet) before dropping back down into the Río Montaro valley. Ascending from Tarma, we entered Tarmatambo, a pueblo with a little-known Inca ruin.
Climbing up the mountain, the next pueblo we encountered was Huaricolca. Here, tourists can feast their eyes on the beautiful offerings of the local microclimate; we opted instead to feast our tummies on more Sublime bars and César decided to eat lunch out of a can in the form of tuna fish.
The road continued brutally upward and the high altitude made me so dizzy that I had to dismount my bike and lean on it for balance as I pushed up the hill. While I was not suffering from soroche, altitude sickness, it was clear that even the few days of previous biking were not quite sufficient to prepare me for this climb.
Having again reached the high puna, I finally got back on my bike. César and I attempted - successfully - to outrun a formidable mountain storm taking shape in the pampas. Our thrilling thousand-meter descent landed us in the lush, green Río Mantaro valley town of Acolla, a few miles from the main town of Jauja. We spent the night in the town of Concepción, in the center of the Montaro valley.
In our final day of touring these almost forgotten enclaves and mountains of Peru, César and I visited the Monastery of Santa Rosa de Ocopa near Concepción, a Franciscan order whose mission has been to convert native Peruvians to Catholicism for more than 300 years. In one of its courtyards was an olive tree, planted by the order's original founders, that no longer bears fruit but still sprouts green leaves every year.
The library of the Monastery, while small in size, contains volumes in a multitude of languages and subjects: I found an autobiography of Glubb Pasha, the British founder of the modern Jordanian army, as well as a Hebrew prayer book and a copy of the Bible in Syriac.
Before we began our trip, César and I knew that we were taking our chances in entering this voyage immediately before the serious rainy season was about to begin. Sure enough, on our last day on the road in the Mantaro Valley, we experienced a torrential "hembra" downpour. Exhausted but also exhilarated by this rare opportunity to visit the "real" Peru, we loaded our "luxury" bus back to Lima as our bus drive wended his way through treacherous winding roads.
This trip is not for everyone. If riding a bicycle on dirt roads in a third-world country is not your bill of fare, you won't enjoy this type of journey. My wife Karen, for example, adventurous as she is, was happy to enjoy this experience vicariously through the e-mails I sent home.
However, for anyone who is in reasonable physical condition and capable of enduring some physical hardships but also of enjoying a multitude of once-in-a-lifetime sights and scenes - I am living proof of that it can be done! Costs are quite moderate, particularly if you can go in a group.
Food. A typical restaurant meal in this part of Peru costs no more than $2 to $5 unless you want to drink alcohol, and even then it is almost impossible to imagine spending more than $10. Vegetarians like me experience few problems - vegetables are fresh and plentiful, and while locals might think it odd that you don't wish to sample the local delicacies like alpaca steak and fried guinea pig, restaurateurs will readily accommodate what they perceive to be your idiosyncrasy. While there have been those who criticize my lack of total acceptance of local customs, after a year in Peru I have not yet fallen victim to hepatitis or other serious stomach disorders.
Accommodations. In the most basic hostales, accommodations can be had for as little as $5 or $10 per night or less if you look around hard for a bargain. In this part of Peru, there are few luxury accommodations available outside of the major towns. Of the places mentioned in this story, only Tarma offers more than very basic hostales. In some places, hot water is a luxury and you might have to find a neighborhood ducha (shower) service. Cleanliness can be an issue if you are not careful - locals are used to washing up in cold water, but local standards may not be equivalent to first world conditions. But services are always delivered with a friendly smile.
Guiding. Qualified guide services are somewhat costly, but I suggest that it's worth paying more, given what's at stake in a journey of this nature - not only in terms of your guide giving you "the best" information about the places you want to visit, but also about the functioning of your bicycle as well and your physical health and safety. For those interested in experiencing the thrill of bicycling through the fascinating Andean countryside, definitely contact César, who speaks Spanish and English, at www.perubike.com.
To contact Mark