In this 534km journey over nine amazing days, we rode from Cusco up to the La Raya Pass at 4335m and then onto the Altiplano plains and then finally along the sapphire blue jewel of Lake Titicaca. After 3 weeks off on a family vacation with Pat and Bill, Bryan’s parents, it was a little tough riding again especially with the high elevations. The first 30km or so out of Cusco was flat and gently downhill… though a good portion of that was navigating the crazy congestion of traffic in the city and its numerous suburbs. Finally, we were out of the smoke and dust and into the open green valley covered with little farms and Andean villages. A hidden little gem is the colonial church built by the Jesuites known as the Sistine Chapel of the Andes in the unassuming little Andean village of Andahuaylillas. Every inch of the cathedral is painted from all the rafters to all the walls. The ornate carved and gold painted alterpieces have beautiful paintings in them. The town itself is so unassuming for such a gorgeous, ornate church that must have taken so much money, time and effort to decorate in such a fashion and I wonder why here? From Andahuaylillas, it is a slow but steady up, which really climbs into the mountains shortly after the city of Sicuani with its mad rushhour style chaos of bicycle rickshaw taxies in the market area.
We climbed over 4000m and I was really huffing. However, there was an amazing reward of Agua Calientes (literally translates to hot waters) hotsprings up before the La Raya Pass. We stayed at the basic hospedaje right at the hot springs which were open 24 hours. It was magical to finish a day of riding with relaxing in hot mineral waters, watching the steam rise up into the millions of stars overhead and see lightning flash across the sky back in the direction of Cusco.
The next day, we tackled La Raya pass, which was a little farther from the hotsprings than we anticipated – about 11km of 4000m plus climbing through breathtakingly stark high elevation scenery.
At La Raya Pass, we intersected with bus loads of tourists who jump out to take in the view and stare curiously at us on our bikes.
After La Raya pass, it was a bit of downhill but not as much as we climbed up to the pass as we dropped onto the flat Altiplano hovering at around 3800m. We have read blogs where they flew on this part, doing incredible distances like over 150km all the way to the city of Juliaca. Unfortunately, we had a mighty headwind that really picked up in the afternoon and it was more fight than flight for us. It was a tough ride from our lunch spot at Santa Rosa to the city of Ayaviri when 40km across flat roads took us all afternoon into dusk. We were really tired from the fight and heartily appreciated the hot, hot shower at the hotel, which was worth every sol (Peruvian currency) of the room. The next day, it was a completely different story in the morning and we flew over the gorgeous flat plains making over 60km in distance before lunch. The Altiplano is truly a special place covered with stiff and pokey grasslands, blue skies stretching from horizon to horizon and winding rivers reflecting the vivid azul skies. We stopped at a sandy beach sandwiched between tall yellow grass which covers the Altiplano plains and a beautiful meandering river. It began as only a lunch break but it was so beautiful to just watch the birds and ducks and the increasing afternoon wind make ripples on the water that we decided to call it a day and camp there. Why push it to make it to a dusty, busy city when we could wild camp under the stars in the beautiful Altiplano?
Turns out it was a great idea. Juliaca has a bad reputation and in my opinion, definately led up to it. It didn’t seem dangerous but it was just hellish to ride from the garbage strewn dog graveyard highway leading into the city, the dirt road busy mayhem around the market, the busy downtown core with buses and rickshaw vying for the precious little space and then a 30km ride out of the city to Puno on a nice highway but through basically a garbage dump from dead sheep to big bags of stinky stale grease all along the sides of the road. The last 10km or so, we were in some hills where we got a little wet snow! Then, we decended into Puno and the shimmering blue jewel of Lake Titicaca.
From Puno, it was a long and rewarding day cycling 84km to Juli starting with an amazing lakeside ride out of Puno with the shimmery saphire blue waters and the clear baby blue sky. The lakeside is lined with farms that fade to reeds with passages worked through for small boats. After Chucuito, the saphire dream of the lake started to fade as the road goes inland a bit bypassing a pennisula section. There is more and more sand on the road until there is just ribbons of black sticky asphalt, melting in the unrelenting sun, between small sand dunes. After the town of Acora, the sand and gravel invades the whole road with thick piles of gravel on the side. Though the road seemed really quiet on the lakeside ride, the terrible road in this section seemed overwhelmingly busy. The sand and gravel is apart of some construction project though I’m not completely sure why they needed to gravel a 30km section. The road is narrow and the traffic whips down the road blasting us with sand and gravel. I was really worried about my glasses since gravel hit them a few times with a loud ting! The trucks would kick up clouds of dust where Bryan would disapper in before my eyes making me concerned about if the other traffic could see us. After Ilave, we were out of the trucks and gravel hell and though it was already 3pm and it was over 30km to the next town, we decided to keep riding. Bryan especially wanted to keep going. I think it was in part a desire to get some distance between us and that terrible road.
Juli calls itself “the little Rome of the Americas” because for this little out of the way town on the shore of Lake Titicaca, it has an incredible number of grand old cathedrals. There are four old cathedrals, all looking like they were constructed in the 16th and 17th centuries and in various forms of crumbling down. The Templo de San Pedro is on the main square and has some lovely fresco painting under some of its arches remaining. On the other side of the square is an old home with ornate doors and a row of arches like in the old Roman style. We also walked to another cathedral which had an impressively ornate tower and a stand-alone arch. Like the “Sistine Chapel of the Americas”, I wonder why here? Why have not one but four grand cathedrals in a town that seems hardly big enough for one. It makes me wonder about the history of this place and its importance pre-colonization. I can see why they call it “the little Rome” because of the style of architecture though I would call it a pretty loose comparison. The town has a real Andean feeling with men and women dressed traditionally and speaking Amayara to each other. Our hospedaje was right infront of the city market and in the front sidewalks were devoted to colourful flowers.
After Pomata, the approx 10km to the junction flew by as the road was straight, slightly downhill and we had a strong tailwind gusting behind our backs. As we turned at the junction with the road to Yunguyo, I wistfully looked further down original highway but that would lead us to basically just a truck border crossing. Cocapabana is apparently much nicer and safer. We fought the sidewinds and headwinds along a very rural section that took us away from the water a bit. We climbed up a hill and returned back to the water on the other side. We went down a dirt road thinking that there might be a good camp spot on the shore tucked in behind the hill we just went over. Well, there was a beautiful beach with limestone cliffs full of caves. Unfortunately, the caves were also the washrooms for the many locals who come to this beach to swim, chill and party. I asked one group of people if the beach was safe at night to camp and they said that it was – “tranquillo!” but then giggled and said to watch out for lake monsters. Hmm…maybe a second opinion would be good. I asked another man who rode to the beach on his dirtbike and seemed to have trout take-out for a scenic lunch. He said the beach is dangerous after 5pm. To further make his point, he looked to his watch – “You have about 2-3 hours” Well, we decided not to take the chance, especially on a Friday night, and returned back to the highway. It was a delightful lunch break anyways on a sandy beach where the waves echoed on the limestone cliffs and caves making it sound like the water surrounded you. We also dipped our feet in the water but it was a little too cold for me to jump in completely.
We rode for another half hour or so and then reached the last town of Yunguyo for our last night in Peru!