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Hey let’s ride our bikes from Mexico to Machu Picchu!

Kilometers this post: 130 biked, 1307 in buses, and about 20 hiked without bikes.


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Cerro de Pasco is at 4,330m above sea level. It was hard to take a walk up the block, let alone bike away up over a hump and back to the highway. But we managed, after paying a short visit to its ENORMOUS mine, which is largely responsible for the city’s size. Why else would 67,000 people live up there? From way up high, we had the treat of our first sizable descent in many days of biking, which brought us all the way down to 4,100m. There we cruised along the altiplano (high plains) for several days, wondering at the bleak bareness of the landscape. We came to the realization that our tent is just too cold to allow for camping at that altitude. So, with Aran’s brother’s visit coming up, we ordered a 4-season tent to arrive in NY so that we would have the freedom to camp in the final month of our trip, which we will spend primarily on Peruvian and Bolivian altiplano. In the meantime, we spent the nights in the small, high, windy towns under many wool blankets. Our plan was to make it as far east as we could toward Cusco, and then spend the last day or two on buses to complete the stretch toward Peru’s “cultural capital” so we could meet Kieran in time. Upon reaching La Oroya, another mining town, and spending a bit of time researching how the bus trip would actually work, we made the sudden realization that if we didn’t want to spend 3 days on 3 different buses and risk arriving late in Cusco, that we needed to go to Lima and take a direct bus. This was startling, but not really a problem. Ah, the flexibility that comes with being a bike tourist. Plus, this detour meant spending another lovely night with our friends Ana and Javi in Lima, who picked us up from one bus on Friday and dropped us off at the next on Saturday. The bus ride was impossibly long (23 hours), but at least the movies they showed weren’t B-grade slasher flicks, our seats reclined 160 degrees, and they gave us food. Sort of. Bike touring makes bus travel feel a lot like time travel, but in this case it was exactly what we needed, so fine.

We found the hostel La Estrellita, a favorite with bike tourists (motor- and pedal- bikes alike) with little difficulty and checked into our comfy, albeit bare-bones room. Kieran arrived and we spent a day kicking around Cusco and discussing our plans for getting to Machu Picchu before setting out with a couple of backpacks the next day. It is not an easy thing to visit sites in the Sacred Valley cheaply. In order to visit Machu Picchu, most people either take a train to the town at the foot of the ruins for lots of money, or take a guided trek in for even more money. The trek would have tempted us, but spots were sold out by the time we inquired. We had heard of an increasingly popular alternative, which involves a mix of buses and collectivos that get you as far as a hydroelectric plant, from which you can walk 2-3 hours along the railroad tracks to the foot of the ruins. We thought this option sounded like a winner: money saving and adventuring in one. We also decided we could take two days to make the journey instead of one, and visit some other archeological sites on the way. Of course, in order to visit most of the other amazing ruins, you need to fork out $65 for the “boleto touristico,” which lets you into 16 different sites. You can’t just pay for one. Well, we decided to pass on that privilege, and instead made our way to what seem to be the only places of interest that you can pay for separately.

These were highly rewarding. We took a bus from Cusco to the town of Maras, where we negotiated with an eager taxi driver to take us to one site, wait for us to visit, and then take us to another nearby for only 50 soles ($20). This haggling took a good while, but then we were on our way to Moray. Moray is an Inca site that looks like a series of concentric circles dug step-wise into the hills. No one is very sure what their purpose was, but the theory we heard the most was that it was some kind of agricultural laboratory where they could test different growing conditions (the temperature varies 5 degrees from the top terrace to the bottom) and different plant blends in different microclimates created by different sun angles. From Moray, we pressed on to the Salinas of Maras, where warm salty water that flows from an underground stream evaporates in pools, depositing salt crystals on the bottom. These pans have been in use since pre-Inca times, and are a fascinating, other-worldly sight. One of the women selling snacks outside the Salineras explained to us that at some point a long time ago, the harvesters who had worked under the original owner became the collective owners, and to this day it operates as a collective and the group of families who owns it are descendents of the original workers. We picked our way carefully among the pools and watched workers harvest different qualities of salt in giant mounds that they left to dry in the sun. Then, we hiked down to the highway in the late afternoon, where we hitched a ride with an empty tour van to Ollantaytambo. There we spent the night, and secured the pricey train tickets for our ride back to Cusco the following day. Yes, we could have returned in the same manner as we went, but Kieran’s time was precious to all of us, and, well, we’re all big fans of trains.

The next day was spent entirely in making the trip from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, the tourist hell at the bottom of the mountain upon which sits Machu Picchu. We haggled with more drivers, drove over high passes, secured lunch items for the following day’s adventures (NOT wanting to purchase anything in Aguas Calientes), and hiked along the tracks around the foot of the Machu Picchu mountains. We hit the hay early so that we could get up at 4:00 to catch the early sun’s rays over Machu Picchu. The early morning hike involved an hour of climbing up the “Inca Stairs” before the buses began running. Sounds peaceful, but we found ourselves in a crowd of several hundred people, all slightly disappointed at the number of fellow hikers. Still, we were among the first 30 people in the gates, and the view completely drowned out the sense that we were a few among a mob of people. Yes, standing on the wall overlooking the ruins with the sunlit peak of Waynapicchu as a backdrop is as magical a thing as everyone says. And, once the crowd spread out among the different parts of the giant complex, it did not feel crowded. We strolled through temples and marveled at Inca stonework as we made our way to the back gate, the entrance to the next leg of our hike up to the peak of Waynapicchu. Only 400 visitors are allowed to climb the trail each day, and the reason became clear as we approached the tiny summit via narrow stairways up the sheer face of the mountain. Again, the view was more than we had even hoped for. Blue skies, puffy white clouds (none of them threatening rain!) and the bright green grass and gray walls of the complex below. By the time we got back down, the crowds had grown and we were exhausted. We still decided to walk the stairs back down to Aguas Calientes instead of paying $10/person for the bus. We collected our things from our hotel and shuffled onto the Vistadome train, where we were treated to such fancy things as snacks, a half-assed impersonation of an indigenous dancer, and a fashion show of unique alpaca knitted things.

With Kieran’s remaining two days in Cusco, we visited some museums and sites around the city, and took a day trip to the market town of Pisac, where we did in the end decide to pay for a “partial” boleto touristico (half the price of the full, and good for only 4 sites and 2 days. Tourist math.) so that we could visit the impressive Inca fortress above the town. We were treated to more beautiful mountain views and stunning examples of Inca stonework. So, our week of being super-tourists came to a close and we said goodbye to Kieran yesterday morning, sending him on his way with a bag full of Christmas presents for family and plenty of satisfied grins. We are currently collecting ourselves in Cusco for one last day, and will soon be on our way toward Bolivia.