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Ayacucho to Cusco and the Sacred Valley, Peru

PERU | Thursday, 8 July 2010 | Views [5415]

Ayacucho to Cusco and the Sacred Valley of the Incas 12/6/10 to 29/6/10        606 km (total 24200 km)

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When we rode out of Ayacucho we knew we had a huge task ahead of us to reach Cusco on this notoriously difficult stretch of the ‘mountain route’, four times over 4000m passes and three times dropping to rivers below 2000m in between those passes. All on dirt roads until Abancay, competing with blood sucking zancudos in the low hot valleys and then the other extreme of freezing cold nights high on the puna above 4000m. 

It didn’t help that I was still suffering from a virus and a scratchy throat when we headed out through the polluted suburbs of Ayacucho and the dusty first climb past roadworks. After 45km of grinding away on the long slow climb we finally reached Abra Tocta at 4200m, however as we headed left towards Andahuaylas the road only pointed downhill for a short moment before it continued its climb higher up onto the golden puna. 

Just as the sun was disappearing behind the mountains we settled on a stone corral used for stock as our backyard for the night. The only problem was we hadn’t encountered a water source in the past hour, so in the last minutes of light I walked deep into the valley to the spongy green cushion plants where there was water tied up in the plants soaking my already cold feet but still no running water. Eventually in my desperate state I found a small running stream and filled our water bag litre by litre from a nalgene under the small dripping stream. Not perfect water, but it would do for the night with some serious treatment. Water was already freezing under our bottle lids and water bags while I fumbled around preparing dinner in the freezing cold...it would be an extremely cold night up there with our pots full of water freezing solid under the clear night sky.

Anna wheeling back up to the road from our freezing high puna 'corral campsite' near Abra Tocto

The next days would be down to the wide hot valley of the Rio Pampa at 1950m with its opuntia cactus and desert vegetation

..then back up to the alpacas and prickly puna cactus at Abra Soracocha at 4250m, before plunging down on a smooth dirt road, (ready to be paved) to the town of Andahuaylas at 2900m.

After another long climb out from Andahuaylas, Anna assessing the view of the Cordillera Vilcabamba from Abra Huayllacoya 4100m. It's a tough life I know!

Well and truly potato growing country up here above 4000m with plowed ‘chakras’ patchworks over the golden puna hills.

A long 'white knuckle' dirt descent down to Puente Arhacacha at 1900m before the hot afternoon climb to the city of Abancay (2500m) where we rested up for a day feasting on good ‘chifa’ (chinese food) and watching some world cup action with Australia and the Netherlands both playing on the same day...how convenient! 

With the last of the dirt roads behind us from Abancay the climbing became easier, one more time over the magical 4000m mark before a smooth rolling 2000m descent to the Rio Apurimac, stopping overnight on the way down in Curahuasi at 2700m where we met Anna and Peter from Germany heading the other way to Nazca...the first cyclists we have met on the road in Peru (outside of the Casa de Ciclista)!!!

Climbing back out of the Rio Apurimac canyon, this would be our last time at 1900m until somewhere in northern Argentina. Note the stone foundations for an Incan bridge that once spanned the Apurimac here, one of only a few remaining in all of Peru. 

After climbing for the best part of the day from 1900m up to 3550m over 44 km we were getting desperate for a camp spot and the small villages and houses seemed to continue the higher we went until eventually at near nightfall we found a small track heading off the road to a relatively flat grassy campsite among some low shrubs and eucalypts, high and hidden from the road below and with a spectacular view of Nevado Salkantay as a backdrop.

Our only visitor was an indigenous campesina who yelled something at us from the top of the hill before disappearing in flight before Anna could catch up with her to talk. Kind of strange, but otherwise a hidden camp with no other visitors, glowing Salkantay, a full sky of stars, and all only a small pass and short day away from Cusco.

Morning view of Nevado Salkantay from our hidden campsite at 3600m on the last pass to Cusco

The past eight days on the bike had been some of the toughest and longest of our whole trip averaging between 6.5 to 8 hours on the bike (or maybe we had just become soft in the past months?) just to make it our destination each day between 45 and 80km. on a couple of occasions riding until almost nightfall. We had pushed ourselves to the limit, but were pretty proud of ourselves.

Cresting the final modest pass of 3700m and looking down into the valley of Cusco with its terracotta red tiled rooves, stone colonial churches, surrounded by ancient ruins and golden hills and the glowing icy peak of Nevado Ausangate in the distance, we felt like we had really made it to the centre of South America.

Cusco was the centre of the Incan empire and the centre of the Americas, it’s name derived from the Quechua ‘Q’osqo’ meaning the umbilical, or the navel, the centre of their civilisation.

Today it’s the centre of Peruvian tourism and we had been warned to expect something completely different to the rest of Peru, an ugly place overrun with tourists and harassing salespeople. Yes, it’s full of tourists, tour operators, offers of massages, street vendors competing for your soles and probably irreversibly damaged by unplanned tourism but you can’t deny that Cusco is an amazing city. A melting pot of its Inca and colonial past with Inca stone foundations and immaculate stone walling underlying many of the colonial buildings, churches and monasteries in the old centre of town. The most striking being the Santa Domingo church built directly on top of Qorikancha, the most sacred of Incan temples in their ‘sacred city’ of Q’osqo.

For us Cusco marks roughly the halfway mark for South America (we hope...!), 7 months from Cartagena and another 7 months to Ushuaia and therefor the centre of the Americas for us too. After the long haul from Ayacucho and surviving the infamous mountain route we were in need of some much needed rest and recovery.

We arrive into the hectic traffic, car fumes and narrow cobblestone streets and were happy to roll into ‘La Estrellita’ an extremely friendly family run hostal (Francisco and family, Avenida Tullomayo No 445) which is famous among travelling cyclists, kind of a makeshift Casa de Ciclista here in Cusco with big groundfloor rooms, a huge sunny courtyard (for the mandatory bike maintenance after the hard haul from Trujillo), tv for the world cup, hot showers and breakfast included....a great deal for Cusco at 15 soles (US$5.50) per person. 

La Estrellita (Travelling cyclists take note - we would thoroughly recommend this place! They also have storage for bikes and gear for off bike jungle trips, Machu Picchu trips etc...)

We had also timed our arrival into Cusco for Inti Raymi, an Incan festival celebrating the winter solstice and to give thanks to the sun god ‘Inti’ for providing crops, and to make offerings to the gods to provide favourable conditions for the year ahead. The Incans were in touch with the seasons (only two here though - the rainy season for growing crops and the dry season for building and construction and harvesting and storing their crops), and their natural environment so didn’t take these things for granted but made offerings to the sun to provide for them the following year. Inti Raymi took place on the 24th of June, (i think traditionally on the winter solstice of the 21st of June) with dramatic reenactments at Qorikancha, and the Plaza de Armas to tribal drum beats and andean flutes, with a lot of colourful costume, dancing and parading of the Incan King (The Inca) and Queen, mummies, and golden statues of the puma and condor.

Bring out 'el Inca' - the Plaza de Armas, Cusco and Inti Raymi

The festival culminated in the final ceremony at the ruins of Saqsawayman (pronounced ‘Sexy woman’) with the letting of blood from a sheep or llama and the reading of the smoke, although we didn’t make it up there due to the crowds and overpriced tickets... and for the letting of blood! 

Anna hanging out with the local ‘footstrap weavers group’ in Loreto, Cusco

After the festivities of Inti Raymi had subsided it was pretty clear that we were still exhausted and abandoned any idea of riding into the Sacred Valley, instead opting for the public transport to get us down the Urubamba/Vilcanota river valley to Pisaq, Ollantaytambo and eventually Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu.

The Sacred Valley and the ruins of Pisaq and Ollantaytambo

Religious centre and temples, Pisaq

Famous for its agricultural terracing, the extensive ruins of Pisaq including a hand dug tunnel through the sheer rock, left of picture

Dramatic fortress of Ollantaytambo at the head of the Vilcanota/Urubamba valley which leads downstream to Machu Picchu

Ceremonial double stone doorway and trapezoidal design, Ollantaytambo

The terracing and fortress of Ollantaytambo

The Machu Picchu experience...

The hordes of tourists lined up to take the bus up the 8km dirt road carved into the hill below Machu Picchu, but we opted for the more genuine ‘as the Incas would have done it’ or ‘mini Inca trail’ experience of setting off in the dark at 4:15am under misty mountain peaks and hiking up the 3.5km stone stairway through dripping wet cloud forest to the ancient Inca mountain top citadel along with a hundred or so other backpackers keen to be in line for the 400 places to climb Wayna Picchu. We were there in time, but after the sun came up the morning mist never burnt off as we had hoped for and instead turned to heavy rain. My wish to see Machu Picchu in the mist had backfired! We still made it up Wayna Picchu in the cloud and rain through beautiful cloud forest, hummingbirds buzzed around the bromelids and dripping green of the forest, occasionally the clouds would part to reveal Machu Picchu below us, or the steep drop into the river canyon, or the impossibly steep rock walls of Wayna Picchu rising out of the mist. 

Anna on the way up a wet Wayna Picchu, lucky the clouds kind of obscured the sheer cliff drop to the right!!!

It was incredibly dramatic in the rain, clambering through rock tunnels and down steep stone staircases among the ruins of a fort that sit atop this rock pinnacle.

While we were cold and wet, this was the Machu Picchu we had hoped to see, in the dramatic mist and it wouldn’t be cloud forest without the clouds!

Not the classic postcard shot but pretty dramatic in the clouds and rain taken from the 'Hut of the Caretaker of Funerary Rock'.

Unfortunately given the commercial nature of the site the only place to get out of the rain and warm up was the ‘Sanctuary Lodge Buffet Restaurant’ where you could only enter if you coughed up the US$36 (that’s right $36 for lunch...in Peru!!!). So after coughing up the extortionate entrance fee for foreigners, you get no visitor facilities, no where to escape the rain and cold, and they even charge you to use the toilet! So even though the rain had eventually stopped we were frozen to the bone and after exploring some of the religious centre, the ‘hut of the caretaker of funerary rock’, and the main gate to the city we had to leave a little prematurely and descended the quiet stone stairs back to Aguas Calientes. 

Machu Picchu is an amazing archeological site, maybe more so due to its location perched on top of an impossible mountain surrounded by impenetrable lush cloud forest and its (supposed) inaccessiblity. We were glad to have visited it once in our lives, (warning rant about to begin...) but the circus associated with getting there, entrance fees, train, and ugly Aguas Calientes left us with a slightly bitter taste in our mouths. It is exploitation of a natural and cultural site in the first degree, that we have never seen first hand ourselves. 

Maybe one day the site can be left to peace for those that hike the Inca trail, or brave the elements getting there by foot as the Incas would have done. Get rid of the road, the buses, the ‘Sanctuary Lodge’, the extortion and have a more sensitive and natural approach to visiting the ruins. We don’t like to say it, but maybe one day a natural disaster and landslide like what happened in January will cut off Machu Picchu from the rest of the world, will stop the unplanned ugly development of Aguas Calientes and it will return to the hard to access mountain citadel that the Incans had built it for (end of rant).


Just a short ride from Cusco lies Saqsaywaman, an Incan religious and military fort perched on a hilltop overlooking the city. The Quechua name given by the spanish conquistadors to the site was ‘the Satisfied Falcon’. After the final battle where the spanish ended an Incan rebellion, and retook the fort, Manco Inca retreated to Ollantaytambo but thousands of dead Incan forces littered the site attracting huge numbers of Andean condors...hence the name. But maybe then it should have been 'satisfied condor'?

The impressive huge stone walls and zig zag ramparts of Saqsaywaman 

And Anna found the 'Inca carrying the stone'...in among the stonework at Saqsaywaman!

We are still resting up and enjoying Cusco one of favourite cities we have spent time in on our whole trip. A great vegetarian restaurant ‘El Encuentro’ for lunch, Anna is feeding her interest in weaving and textiles by shopping, spending time talking with the women and supporting a local farmers weaving cooperative called ‘Nustaqunaq Awanan Wasi’ in Avenida Tullomayo No 280, a friendly cooperative away from the main tourist shops with quality weavings. And a cyclist gathering of sorts (we have met more cyclists here in and around Cusco than nearly all of our time in South America) meeting up with those heading north like Christian (Swiss), Monika (Swiss) and Parys (Polish) exchanging route info, and maps.

...and most importantly refuelling the tanks eating giant sandwiches! (Monika, Christian and Anna)

Not to mention the Netherlands just beating Brazil 2-1 this morning...!!! I guess we'll be staying put until at least the semis against Uruguay!

Next stop for the slow train that is ‘the Fuego Project’ is the altiplano, Lake Titicaca and the hard dirt routes of Bolivia...that is if we can drag ourselves away from ‘La Estrellita’, the world cup on tv and Cusco. Stay tuned..

Thanks for sharing the journey

Hasta pronto y hasta Bolivia

Ali y Anna

Tags: cycling, peru

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