The people of Peru

In Antwerp we know only one peruvian guy. He works in our neighbourhood and is always, always happy. Rain or shine, whenever you see him, he’s smiling, and will make you smile too. After only a few weeks of travelling in Peru, we start to think it comes with nationality.

– Peruvian Jorge, working as a courier in our neigbourhood – pic by Charliemag –

We started our trip in Peru in Cusco. Very touristic Cusco, as it is the capital of the Inca’s and the doorstep to visiting world wonder Machu Picchu. The entire year we haven’t seen any city so filled with tourists, tour agencies, tourist restaurants and thousands of souvenir shops. OK, we’ve been to places in Asia where we weren’t alone either, still Cusco feels like (one of) the biggest. But while those other hotspots sometimes worked on our nerves (you were constantly offered tours or souvenirs, prices were high and service low), this didn’t happen in Cusco at all. The local people were kind and happy, in a relaxed way. Not pushy at all. What a nice surprise!

– so many souvernir shops, still no hassling. What a difference with Asian souvenir markets –

This first impression continued. While in Aguas Caliente, the village at the entrance of Machu Picchu and even more focussed on tourists, we had a similar feeling. The receptionist from our hotel gave us super advice for our visit, without any sense of selling us the most expensive deal, rather the opposite. Just honest, friendly and helpful. Nothing fake or pushy, simply refreshing!

– Machu Picchu is very very touristy –

We left the touristic part of Peru by bicycle, heading north through the big and beautiful mountains. The rides were tough, but the many villages on the way were great for a stop, delicious and cheap food, and friendly faces. Kids were waving or starting a conversation. Elderly people on the side of the road all said ‘buenas dias/tardes’. And besides some weird looks and giggles at us, the white giants cycling, we felt relaxed and safe and very welcome.

More than once we were invited at people’s home. And at each occasion the peruvians quickly offered a tea, roasted mais, soup or cheese. These people are poor, living on paved soil, all still cook on wood (and not all have an extraction hood so the fumes stay in the room to be enhaled), some have a toilet but definitely not all. But while they’re poor on money, they’re rich in smiles and hospitality.

– peruvian country side kitchen –

– even when the people are poor, the table is always full –

A lot more is still possible here. While some countries are overregulated, in Peru ‘todo puede’. With a little money (very little), there’s always somebody willing to help you with the smallest thing. I really love it when people are still flexible, creative and entrepreneurial, instead of hiding behind the rules. Whether it goes for transporting our bicycles or guiding us around.

All this makes us question how good all this ‘evolution’ in our western countries sometimes is…

– sharing a meal with Octavio and Hugo, our guides in the beautiful valley of Choquequirao. No big advertised tour, just a Warmshowers host and his friend making a little money while showing us one of the nicest areas of Peru –

– It’s not easy to make the peruvians smile for a picture –

Before coming to South America, we had some small worries about how safe it would be on this continent. And while the TV in restaurants show a lot of criminality (especially in Argentina), so far it just seems a lot of blabla. Of course there are things going on, mostly in the big cities, like in any big city (in Europe too). But the countryside feels really relaxed and safe. We could easily trust strangers with all our goods and money. So if you hesitate travelling down here for that reason, hesitate no more!

– one of the many lovely murals –

Off the bike in Bolivia

Bolivia is not exactly known for being the best cycling country in the world. Or you cycle on the endless sleep-inducing Altiplano, or you cycle on really really bad dirt roads. None of this is very appealing to us, still we had big plans. But they already changed 10 km after crossing the border.

– stunning lagunas and volcanoes when you enter Bolivia –

The south west of Bolivia is extremely pretty: the National Park Eduardo Avorao has some of the most out-of-this world landscape, with snowy volcanoes and lagunas in the most bizarre colours. You can see wild flamingos and you exit it via the famous Salar de Uyuni. There’s a notorious cycle route going through the park, called the Ruta de Lagunas. This ruta is pretty challenging, due to extreme bad road conditions, the high altitude, the strong headwind and freezing nights, and the lack of inhabitants (read, no shops and hardly any places to stay for about a week). Still, after 8 months on the bike, we tought we were as trained as ever possible to make this beautiful expedition a success. Albeit with some doubts whether it was not too demanding and slightly out of our reach: a rough route is one thing, but not being able to recover at night in a warm bed or be secured of enough water and food, is another.

But OK, we decided to go. And so we entered Bolivia via the National Park. And then I got a lumbago. And the next day (after a night in an ice cold refugio) I got a sore and infected throat. And then it started hailing.

Maybe our worries upfront were not that exagerated. And the body was giving signs that the mind maybe didn’t want to listen to.

After a rest day in the ice cold refugio, it was still hailing. And the back and throat weren’t improving. The guts started protesting too. And homesickness found its way to my mind. No way we’d start our expedition like this. It was hard to accept, as we were at the start of one stunning ride. But it was time to listen to the body, rest and take a break from the bike. Somewhat longer than the regular day off.

A long day’s ride in a jeep with the bikes on the roof and we were in Uyuni city, checked into a hotel and stayed for a few days of recovering.

– seeing nothing but 4WD cars in the National Park confirmed our feeling. This is one remote and rough ride –

Still the Salar de Uyuni was lurking. We definitely want to cycle that one. The salt flat is over 100km wide and the biggest in the world. You can cross it completely. Or you can cycle 10km into it, and have the feeling of having the world for your own too. So that’s what we did, put up our tent, and enjoyed a very special night.

– Camping on the magical Salar de Uyuni. For sure we weren’t the only ones around, still there was enough space to have the feeling. –

The next day, while cycling back, we were chased by a dog (the daily struggle of every cyclist) and Dave fell. Some serious abrasions meant another hick-up in our cycling life. His knee suffered worst, and so we were forced once again into some more rest. After a busride to La Paz, we checked into a cute little campspot and hung out there for a week. Taking Spanish lessons, discovering the crazy city of La Paz, and just being lazy.

It did both of us very very well.

Being off the bike did well. Doing something else or not too much at all did well. No daily planning on where to cycle, sleep or eat did well. Being around the same people for a few days did well. Doing an organised tour to the Amazon did well.

– the Amazon is definitely worth a visit too. So different from the South America we’ve seen so far –

All in all we did not cycle for over 3 weeks (with exception of the 50 kms on and off the Salar de Uyuni). And I believe we accidentally picked out the best country for this break. Maybe some cyclist like cycling here. But it just isn’t my cup of tea. It’s too strenuous. Still I have the highest admiration for those cyclist crossing the National Park.

Even after all these months, I’m still a Sunday cyclist just looking for some smooth roads and lots of sunny terraces to go for a drink. And that’s just fine. Dave on the other side still gets a kick from strengtening his leg muscles and endurance. He’s getting more and more addicted to feeling fit. And that’s fine too.

And when it comes to homesickness, we’re a little bit different too. I’ve had numerous moments of these feelings over the last year, while I’ve never suffered from it before. Meanwhile Dave hasn’t had it at all. Chances are he’ll have ‘travelsickness’ when we get home in August.

So maybe one day Dave will be back in Bolivia with another bike set-up and other cycle partners to cross the National Park. In the meanwhile I’ll be enjoying our sunny terrace. Did I already mention you really get to know yourself better during a gap year?