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Our last ride - La Paz to Cusco

Full of gratitude from our experiences in Bolivia, it was time to head northwest to Cusco, Perú, on the final bicycle leg of our trip. It served up the best of everything bike-touring for us: lots of interaction with the locals, beautiful, mostly quiet roads, challenging ripio and mountain climbs (as well as some pushes), all through spectacular landscapes. We couldn’t have asked for a better cycle touring finish!

Leaving Bolivia

The ride from La Paz began by fixing a flat tire at the guesthouse, then rolling each loaded bike onto an aerial tram car and ascending 500 m (1,600 ft) to El Alto, then 7 km laterally over El Alto’s rooftops! From there, we climbed onto our bikes and headed out along the altiplano, treated to a spectacular view of the Cordillera peaks we’d just hiked among.


We chose the rural route along the northern edge of Lake Titicaca (link to a view of the lake from space), enjoying signs of country life, including a man-made reed island and hut. We stayed in and passed through a number of smaller Bolivian towns, reminding us why our bikes are our favorite mode of travel transport, even with occasional flat tires.


We spent our last night in Bolivia in Escoma, in one of the grimmest guesthouses of the trip, where we shared a bucket-flush toilet down the stairs with 4 burly truckers. We met a solo French bike tourer heading the opposite way, so over dinner we compared notes on the roads we’d each be traversing in the coming days. Being a regional border hub, Escoma is known for its large market, which was colorfully in swing as we left town.


We pedaled with almost no automobile traffic through small Bolivian villages along the lakeshore, and had some friendly kids run us down to take selfies with us as we labored up a hill. 


In Puerto Acosta we found Bolivia’s border station closed, without explanation, so at the suggestion of locals, we set off into the village to look for the officer at his wife’s store. The store was closed, so we checked out the local church, and then returned to the station to find the jovial officer now “in”. He has a portion of one wall devoted to photos/stickers/cards from passing bicycle tourists, to which we added our own.


Leaving with our Bolivian exit stamps, the pavement ended and a challenging no-man’s-land ripio road took us up a mountain to panoramic views of Lake Titicaca. Pavement unexpectedly appeared when we crossed the invisible international border, and we coasted easily down into Tilali, Peru’s border town.  


We found the Peruvian immigration office wide open to the town square, but it, too, was unoccupied!?! When the immigration officer returned, he couldn’t process our entry into Perú due to a power outage, so he suggested we stay at the guesthouse next door, and said that the power would surely be on the following morning. The next morning we still had no power, but finally a can-do officer arrived and pulled out some old paper forms and stamped our passports.


Back in Perú

Four days after leaving La Paz, we had an incredibly scenic ride along the remainder of Lake Titicaca’s north shore, finishing at the town of Huancané where, even though it’s in Peru, a majority of the town’s 7,000 people still speak Aymara. Before going to bed, we tucked into a vintage “chicken-thirty” dinner.


The next day we took a classic “shortcut” to the town of Azángaro on an extremely rural dirt road where we rolled through tiny altiplano villages with sheep, cows and alpacas; pushed up a steep jeep track alongside ancient stone walls; rolled over a 10-km long plateau pass; then dropped into the next valley, blinded by the setting sun. We were slowed down the entire day by wonderfully curious and welcoming residents, police, and shepherds along the way, all who wanted to take their picture with us. 


The combination of challenging riding and everyone’s delightful interest made this day the first of our entire bike trip when we ran out of daylight before reaching our destination. We rode by headlights for the last hour down a sandy dirt road, passed occasionally by slow-moving motorcycles with dim headlights, or no lights at all. Even when we got to town, people’s curiosity remained high, so Clark ended up riding a few circles in the street so that the gathering group could figure out how those darn recumbent bikes work!


Even though we were exhausted, we were compelled to stay up after dinner because the town had just begun their celebrations for their patron saint, the Virgen de Asunción. The cathedral was packed, and it was the staging area for marching bands and dancing cowboys in shiny boots, all heading out on parade.



The party resumed early the next morning. At 6:15am we were awoken by the sound of a marching band playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons! The town’s band had hiked partway up the Stages of the Cross trail on a nearby hill and then pointed their instruments towards the town and delivered a concert for 20-30 minutes. Apparently no one is supposed to miss this important celebration!


Another beautiful day of riding, including an unexpected stop at a small-town church, ended in Ayaviri, which also had its own celebration going, this time a parade of giant plastic and paper mache dinosaurs made by the school children. Once again we’re finding that the Andean cultures never miss a chance for a party!


As we headed deep into the Peruvian Andes, we encountered a young couple of German cyclists at a natural hot springs resort near the top of a pass, where we all had a nice soak and camped for the night.


The heart of the Inca empire

We knew we were getting close to Cusco because of the ever-grander Andean mountains and valleys, more and more restaurant advertisements for “cuy” (guinea pig), and the increasing number of historical and archaeological sites. 


The first of these was Raqch’i, a primary control point on a road system originating in Cusco. It is a vast complex with dozens of round storage buildings, multiple small temples and the grand Temple of Wiracocha. The temple was built to appease the Inca creator-god, Wiracocha, who was believed to have rained fire on the community (via the nearby volcano Quimsa Chata). This was our first views of the amazingly precise Inca stonework, getting us excited for more to come in Cusco!


Now within 100 km of Cusco, reasons to stop and sightsee along the way become frequent. We overnighted in the town of Checacupe with an Incan rope bridge and a statue sporting a striking Carnaval costume. 


In a span of just 8 km, we visited three special churches in three separate villages, each with elaborate frescoes and carvings in the Andean Baroque style. They were periodically overrun by flocks of tourist buses visiting on day trips from Cusco. At the second church, during a lull, we got to see a funeral procession complete with marching band on a beautiful mosaic stonework plaza.


After a welcoming greeting by curious locals in Andahualillas, we set off on our last riding day. The valleys were smokey from a runaway field fire. Along the way to Cusco we visited two archaeological sites: Rumicolca, a Wari aqueduct turned by the Inca into a ceremonial gate, and Pikillaqta, a large, pre-incan Wari walled settlement.


After fixing our last flat tire of the trip (!!) we headed up the valley to Cusco, calming our mindset as the traffic increased. Along the way, dilapidated buildings hinted of an earlier time of flourishing industry, before tourism took over. We got onto a cycle-track as we hit one of the city’s main boulevards, and wound our way up through the ancient city to our Airbnb, located on a very narrow street in the Old Town.


Cusco

Before diving into Cusco, we spent a couple days finding, customizing, and filling up boxes with our bikes and all of our gear, getting them ready for the upcoming plane flights.

Having visited Cusco and Machu Picchu about 9 years ago, we were surprised to see how much change has come to this UNESCO world heritage site. The old town has really gotten spruced up, with manicured buildings and well-lit streets. The amazing Incan stone work found at the base of so many buildings is now cleaned up and lit dramatically at night, on streets with every type of restaurant, from backpacker budget to international gourmet, and countless stores with everything from high-end mountaineering gear, to fine alpaca clothing, to funky bicycle shops, to artisanal metallurgy, and of course lots and lots of kitschy tourist schwag.


As touristy as it now is, we found the dressed-up Cusco to be a really special place, even compared with all of the wonderful cities we have visited over the last 15 months. A dramatic mountain setting, winding, narrow streets full of beautiful historic buildings, informative museums, plazas of all sizes and levels of grandeur, all steeped in history and culture -- we really enjoyed it here!



Even though we’d seen it before, the Incan stone work blew our minds, again and again. It utilizes massive stones, some as big as small buses, interconnected in impossibly intricate shapes, with no mortar, and no spaces between the stones. We just couldn’t get enough (or take enough pictures) of this unique-in-the-world craftsmanship!

Even though it’s known as the gateway to Machu Picchu (which we had the pleasure to visit years ago) Cusco’s valley has a vast array of amazing archaeological ruins in its own right, a host of which can be seen in a single day hike. We hiked up to the impressive Sacsayhuaman fort, and spent the rest of the morning walking around its vast grounds, dazed and amazed by the Inca’s ambition. 


A short taxi ride took us up to the water garden at Tampu Mach’ay, at the top of the valley above the city. From there we walked down a loosely designated trail past the sites, all the way back into the city’s old town. We walked through Tampu Mach’ay, Puka Pukara, Wayllarqocha, Chuspiyoq, Laqo (Templo de la Luna), Salapunco, Kusilluchyoq, Sillarumiyok, and Q’enqo (Grande and Chico). What an abundance of riches for a single day hike, mostly downhill, right back to Cusco’s Old Town!


Transitioning... from bicycles to suitcases

The speedometer on Kacia’s bike computer gave up the ghost somewhere during our ride in Patagonia, but the odometer worked to the bitter end, logging every one of the 8,162 kilometers (5,072 miles) that we rode in South America.

From Cusco we flew back down to Argentina to meet friends, beginning the “suitcase” phase of our trip. (Everything you see in the boxes eventually went home with our friends.) We spent time in Northeastern Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and finished the trip in Colombia, full circle from where we began in June 2018. We’ll be covering those journeys in our next, and final post(s).


We’re currently at Kacia’s parents' house in Northern California enjoying their new puppy, Rosie, and will be moving back into our house in Portland in February. To see a map of our whole journey, check our Track My Tour page. You can also review past social media posts on Clark's Facebook and Instagram accounts.