Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Cusco to Santa Teresa, Peru

Climbing the pass to Abra Malaga from Ollantaytambo

Rode my bike down the steps of "Hostal Familiar" and out into the streets of Cusco at 7:30 this morning. Carrying a few essentials for a three-day ride into the back country: maps, flashlight and tools, rain gear, tent and sleeping bag, camera, change of clothes, hiking boots, water and some snacks.

Climbed into the hills, past the sprawling ruins of Sacsayhuamán. I'll need to return to wander this site. Turned east toward "The Sacred Valley", then reaching Pisac, with its ruins high on the rib of a mountain, drove north, following the Rio Urubamaba towards the selva.

In Ollantaytambo, the paved highway ends, and one enters an old city with cobblestone streets. I stopped on the plaza for some lunch, being waved into "Inti Punko", one of the numerous restaurants desperate for some customers. A young boy befriended me. He spoke some English. Ordered a ham and cheese sandwich. A few moments later, a boy dashed across the street to another restaurant, and returned, partially-concealing the package of ham he had "borrowed". Bought a sandwich for "mi amigo" and another one for the road.

Asked where I could fill up on gas and was directed to a small unmarked grifo (gas station) a couple blocks off the plaza. It was just a little work shop. The owner was repairing a bicycle when I pulled in. I asked if he sells gas and he enthusiastically replied "si, si!" He asked how much I needed.

"One and a half gallons."

He went into his shop and came out holding a metal pitcher, telling me that it holds one gallon. From a plastic jerry can, he measured out roughly 1-1/2 gallons into a plastic pail.

He inserted a funnel into my gas tank and was about to pour, when I stopped him.

"I don't want the fly."

With a pliers, he picked the fly out of the gasoline.

At Ollantaytambo, the Rio Urubamba continues northward toward Machu Picchu, but no road follows it; only trails and the railway access Aguas Calientes from this side. Exited town on the dirt road to Puerto Malaga, a high pass leading to the interior and the tropical selva.

I thought my progress would now slow dramatically, but after a short distance, the pavement started again and the ride up the pass was excellent.

High in the mountains, road construction is underway and passage is controlled. It looks like soon there will be an excellent highway to Quillabamba. But for now, there's about ten miles of construction, and though they permit vehicles to pass, you must skirt around heavy equipment and road crews working all along the way.

Puerto Malaga is another of those 14 or 15,000-foot passes. I've been across so many in Peru, that it's hardly an event now. Beyond the construction zone and another control gate at the summit, the road turns to dirt. High to the left, up in the clouds, are glacier-covered peaks, with white-water cascades flowing down steep rubble-filled canyons.

From the pass at Abra Malaga, looking out towards Quillabamba and the selva (the tropical forests)

The smoothest path for riding this road is a strip about 18" wide along the shoulder, but it doesn't leave much room for error, or sightseeing.

Brad had warned me that there are many creeks to cross on this route. After descending the "backside" of Puerto Malaga for a half hour or so, I came to a creek that I think I recognized from one of his photos. When he had passed two weeks ago, it appeared the water was up to the top of his boots. Today it looked knee-deep. I couldn't see the bottom, but watched a bus pass through first. Then a VW "Bug" pulled up and the driver asked if I thought he could make it. But before I could answer, he had talked himself into it and plunged in.

The first of a number of obstacles along this route, crossing a creek. I watched the bus do it first. They needed to rearrange a few rocks to pass.

He waited on the other side to watch me go through, but I was taking my time. He continued on. Finally, I told myself there was no benefit in procrastinating. I drove back up the road fifty feet or so, then picked out the straightest line I could get with a running start. Started rolling, standing on the pegs and leaning back, then gave it the throttle and hoped for a good outcome.

I wasn't about to be upstaged by a Volkswagen! I followed right behind him. I plowed through and was completely drenched. The bike stalled out on the far side. The Volkswagen kept on going. (10/28/11 update: Whoa! It appears a bridge may have been built over this stream! Photo posted on Panoramio.

UPDATE: Puente la Serena has removed the challenge of crossing the creek.

The creek bottom was all cobble, but the BMW, with enough momentum rolls right across it. Momentum is the key. I plunged in and a wave washed over my head, drenching me, but I was across! Then the bike stalled. It took several attempts to start it, but I was soon on my way, invigorated (and refreshed) - ready for the next adventure.

Less than a mile on, another creek crossing. This one was not as full, and I didn't even stop to surveil it, just rolling on the throttle and charging through. I can handle these little ones!

All tolled, there would be 10 to 12 streams to cross and many concrete washes, so there was plenty of practice taking the bike through water.

There were a few large buses making the passage, and getting around them was a challenge. They weave frequently to avoid the numerous potholes, so there may be a path around them at one moment, then none the next. I followed one bus for a couple of miles along the winding road, eating his dust.

I honked several times to advise the driver I was right behind and looking for an opportunity to pass. He continued to use the entire road. On a straightaway, I made my move to pass. He nearly ran me off the road, swerving left into my path. I barely cleared his front bumper. Outraged at his oblivious behavior, I "flipped him off", though I don't even know if "the finger" means anything here!

Descending into the selva with its tropical vegetation, the temperature and humidity became intense. "I don't think I want to go all the way to Quillabamba." I had enough of the tropics in Central America and was not ready to return.

Intending to keep my gas topped up, stopped at one of many small towns along this highway. Another pump-less gas station. Again, I asked for 1½ gallons. The woman proprietor disappeared into a back room, emerging with a bucket of gas, a funnel and some cheesecloth. At least she filtered the gas before it entered my tank. Based upon miles traveled, her measurement was right on.

Down the road, I stopped for some water and to ask directions to Santa Teresa. The bike drew a small crowd of students. I took my time before moving on, trying to answer their many questions.

Further on, I came to a tractor working on the road, clearing away a slide. He indicated when it was safe to pass. But the road wasn't clear - he had pushed soil into mounds at the far end. I went over them and nearly crashed coming down the back side.

Beyond the town of Santa Maria, I stopped once again to ask directions to Santa Teresa. I was told I had to go back. I had overshot the turn-off, which was an obscure dirt road that came in at Santa Maria

The road from Santa Maria to Santa Teresa is a wild ride, a single-lane dirt path hugging the edge of cliffs, winding back up the Rio Urubamba valley, climbing out of the tropical forests. It was full of surprises: loose rock and gravel, slides, mud and pools of water, streams to ford, pueblitos with their rutted, muddy centers and mad dogs, and the occasional unexpected on-coming truck.

Going to Machu Picchu "through the back door" is certainly not the most efficient way, but it's a good riding adventure.

To a mind accustomed to thinking in terms of "a mile a minute", it's amazing how long a 21-mile ride (from Santa Maria to Santa Teresa) can take. An hour and a half after leaving the highway, I came around a bend and beheld a welcome sight: the town of Santa Teresa spreading below.

I drove around the dirt streets of this very modest village, looking for a hotel or hostel, but seeing nothing very obvious. A polleria on the (I think) main street also had a hospedaje sign overhead, so I pulled over to ask if there were a room available.

The chef said "si", and walked ahead as I followed her on the bike to a concrete and corrugated steel house a couple blocks away. The "shelter" contained three two-bed rooms and a small bathroom. Very basic, not real clean, but options appeared few in Santa Teresa and the cost was about $2.50 per night. "I'll take it."

Just a typical view window shopping in Santa Teresa: cow's head draining over the sidewalk, its stomach hanging next to it.

I was "in among them" now and had to surrender to the conditions I found myself in. The chef is Natividad Guitierrez, owner of this hospedaje and the polleria. She had to get back to start cooking chickens for dinner. She asked if I were going to Machu Picchu.

When I said I was, she told me her brother Hernan (who joined us in the bungalow) could guide me.

"How much?"

"100 Soles" (About $34!)

"Too much!"

"Okay, 50 Soles."

It was still far too much, but I agreed. Hernan would come for me at 5:00 a.m. tomorrow. Natividad said it's a 2½-hour hike to Aguas Caliente (the town of Machu Picchu).

On the left, my hostel in Santa Teresa. I don't even know the name, but it's connected with the only polleria (restaurant whose specialty is chicken) in town

Out the back window of my Santa Teresa hostel. The family who operates the hostel and the restaurant live in the shed on the right. My bike is in the shed on the left.

At 5:45, I sat down with a soda at the polleria, and just watched life in the streets of Santa Teresa. So many kids in town! And they were all in engaged in various games and activities up and down the street.

The "Coke" distributor, using a small dolly, wheeled crates of full bottles to various establishments down the dirt street and empties back up. Women paired up to carry a propane bottle to be filled.

Now I got to watch the dogs (all little things!) chase others. Anything moving faster than a person's walk appeared to be fair game.

Sports clothes (such as Nike) are very popular casual wear. Infants are carried in slings across women's backs. No strollers here - not practical, even if they were affordable.

As night fell, a full moon rose, while high in the west, Venus glowed brilliantly in the twilight. Music, radios and TVs blared throughout village, creating an incongruous din in this otherwise serene mountain valley.

Sitting at an outside picnic table with my soda, people passing automatically greet me, "señor, buenas tardes." This defuses an instinctive encounter, in which I might just wordlessly stare at a passing person. Instead, it forces a different, and far preferable interaction.

I thought I was the first one seated for dinner, others not showing up until about 7:00, but was about the last served. Was it my status as a gringo? But I soon forgot the delay. The roasted chicken was excellent and I was very satisfied and comfortable just sitting out enjoying the evening, and the sounds of laughter and singing.

Late in the evening, six northern Europeans arrived with their Peruvian guide and took a large table nearby. It's strange how the tourists often tend to barely acknowledge one another. It's as though we tell ourselves "I'm out on this unique adventure, immersed in the indigenous culture." We don't want to admit that millions of others have had the same idea.

Before going to bed, I packed up my "Ortlieb" waterproof bag. It would double as my day pack for tomorrow. Camera, raincoat, hat, fleece, flashlight, water and snacks. From my Lonely Planet guide, I cut out the pages on Machu Picchu and included them in the bag.

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