Peru's Great Divide

Note: It's been a while. The warnings we received regarding internet speed and availability in Peru were not exaggerated. It simply does not exist in many places. Large chunks of time pass without connecting. Unsettling, yet liberating. When nighttime temps are too frigid to write, the blog takes a backseat to hot liquid consumption, stargazing and sleeping bag cinching. You know it's cold when the only thing sticking out of Aidan's bag is a beautifully frosted beard.
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I was curled up on a lumpy potato sack of dried cow dung inside a shepherdess's countryside adobe abode when I realized that the trip was becoming everything I'd always envisioned. We'd pitched our tent upstream—on the campesina's property—and the encroaching dusk and smoke billowing from the hut signaled it was time for an obligatory drop by. The usual, "Hey how's it going? Cute sheep. Can we sleep here?" These interactions are typically warm, but indifferent. Campesinos living and working three miles above sea level don't view camping as recreational. There's confusion as to why we're asking permission to sleep outside, but they humor us.
 
We've been chugging along on Peru's Great Divide, a notoriously tough dirt route fluctuating between high and really high. 16,000 foot passes have become the usge and previously held beliefs of what constitutes progress, revised. At times, our efforts feel futile. A blue GPS dot frozen in time. Often literally frozen as we wait for the morning sun to do away with the thick layer of frost blanketing everything. Note: We are no longer referring to the sun as the hell ball. It was really hot when we wrote that. Remote mountainous travel is cold and tedious. We set a "record" crossing Pumacocha Pass—at 16,371 feet—when it took us nearly four hours to cover four miles. There's an equation involving that speed, multiplied by miles remaining, equaling an arrival date to penguins years down the road. For however unfathomable the scale of the Peruvian Andes seems, traversing the country's obscure high-mountain roads feels conversely intimate. All who live, work (or cycle) in similarly severe conditions are bound together by a shared sense of vulnerability. We're all just out here, at the mercy of Mother Nature. There's a sense of camaraderie between cyclists and campesinos with [human] interactions boasting more value than actual currency. Not much for sale out there anyway. Even if we wanted to—which I did—we weren't able to buy our way out of uncomfortable situations. It's this reality that often makes Peru feel incredibly far from home. Which, ultimately is the point. Food availability, medical assistance, accommodation, transportation, etc, is what it is. When there are "no services for four days," there's nothing written between the lines. No food translates to no food. The American Dollar will not make a tienda or steaming bowl of soup appear on the side of the road. The campesinos with makeshift shelters and hearty supplies of dung pucks and boiled potatoes are the richest in our eyes. I've gazed longily at many smoking mud huts and thought, "Sure looks cozy."
 
The countryside abode's conical straw ceiling hung like a crawl space's and the square footage equaled that of a queen-sized mattress. Not built to entertain. The shepherdess and I sat facing one another—engulfed in smoke—on separate Andean "beanbag chairs." My right side thawed on the crackling dung fire in the corner. Our hostel room stove-priming bum fires don't hold a candle to this campesina's living room rager. When asked about a chimney, she chuckled and gestured toward the aftermarket hole punched through the straw roof, seemingly by way of bare hands. I laughed to the point of tears. The smoke stung, and the woman's laugh, effectively contagious. Clunky conversation has its side-splitting moments. She howled from under a bowler hat whose brim concealed all her features except her gold-plated grin. We giggled like a couple girls. She humored basic questions about her animals, rattling off the names of all five dogs and the age of her youngest lamb—five days! When the dialogue dwindled, we simply passed my mug of tea back and forth and stared at the mesmerizing fecal-powered flames. It felt natural, comfortable even.
 
The interactions in this country, however bizarre, have felt increasingly more genuine. Salt of the earth country folk are enthusiastic and unpredictable beings. Wacky, but welcoming. They'll offer you a thick glass of milk on a hot climb. Or an entire chicken before 9:00AM. Or heaping portions of dusty jello. Or, at the very least, disorienting conversation. Peruvians are eager to share and we are, in turn, energized by the unpredictable nature of it all. Although more than a year into the trip, we remain clueless on any given day as to what will happen next. Relinquish control.
 
"Es costumbre!" proudly exclaimed the man holding the knife high above his head. Blood dripped from the blade, beading down his forearm. He'd just snuck up behind me and smeared sheep blood all over my face. Gotcha! Overheated and buzzed from the insistent rounds of Inca Kola and rum, the blood was enough to make my stomach turn. Buhhhht in the spirit of cultural exploration, I reminded myself to smile and keep an open mind.
 
A few hours earlier we'd tried to ride past the festivities discreetly, enroute to a (desperate) resupply point. We were head-down pedaling towards the next town's tienda with purpose when enthusiastic arms flagged us into the field. With only cracker crumbs and a rejected can of tuna left in our bags, I wasn't really in the mood to party. Unless that party was a private party with just me and a chocolate bar. Our "never say no" pact forced a sharp, left-handed detour directly into the action.
 
The food fantasies would have to wait because we were now official guests at a farmer's annual ear-tagging fiesta. Tasked with piercing hundreds of sheep and alpaca, the excessive alcohol intake made more sense as the afternoon unfolded. And when instructed that it was a woman's duty to do the piercing, I knocked back a few cocktails myself. Gender roles are nonnegotiable. The men wrestle the sheep to the ground, and once in a vulnerable position, on their backs, hooves hovering, the women drill through their adorable, velvety ears. I stared at the huge needle in my hand, glancing up at hundreds of woolen eyes silently pleading, and then back down at my weapon. Might as well have been a shotgun. Asking the rhetorical question aloud, "Soooo, I stick this in there?" Aidan commented on the lack of color in my face as I fought off a strong desire to collapse onto the ground below. Blood sugar and panic are a powerful combo.
 
"Fun party."
 
Although generous, we established that it was time to go after being handed a heaping serving of LAMB for lunch. Surrounded by little lambs, Aidan snuck both our portions of meat into his pocket, intended for a lucky dog down the road. We backed away, expressing a million thanks, praying for a clean exit. If the intoxicated man with the shears had discovered the shanks in Aidan's shorts, well I just don't know.
 
We pedaled frantically down the road and laughed at the absurdity of the afternoon. Sun blasted and uncomfortably buzzed. Aidan to me, "Your face is covered in blood." My comeback, "Yeah well the meat juice is sweating through your shorts."
 
Aidan made the heat of the moment observation that "Peru is one sick joke after another." The country has been our favorite in many ways, but there are countless moments substantiating that statement. Peru is a land of extremes—topography, poverty, climate, culture, music volume, etc. And nowhere do these highs and lows feel more extreme and the cultural differences more exaggerated than in the middle of high-mountain nowhere.

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Currently: We are rolling out of Cusco in the morning, bound for the Bolivian border. Thanks to Aidan's dad, Philip, and the most extensive tourist infrastructure of the trip, Cusco was a treat. The anonymity granted by touristy towns is a breather we've grown to really appreciate from time to time. We'll miss the impressive selection of vegan food and espresso joints, but not the inflated prices or massage hawkers.

 The road switchbacking up to Punta Pumachocha topped out at 16,371', the highest (and most demanding) pass of the trip so far. 

The road switchbacking up to Punta Pumachocha topped out at 16,371', the highest (and most demanding) pass of the trip so far. 

 On the descent from Pumacocha Andean flamingos speckled the lake. An avid amateur birder, Aidan didn't get more than two steps off the road with his camera before they took off in fear. For those interested in a number of heavily zoomed, blurry flying flamingo photos, hit him up on WhatsApp.

On the descent from Pumacocha Andean flamingos speckled the lake. An avid amateur birder, Aidan didn't get more than two steps off the road with his camera before they took off in fear. For those interested in a number of heavily zoomed, blurry flying flamingo photos, hit him up on WhatsApp.

 Our one year anniversary on the road coincided with Peru's Independence Day—July 28th. Bikes adorned with tiny, yet patriotic Peruvian flags, we ventured out for a peaceful camp rather than endure another brass band all-nighter. 

Our one year anniversary on the road coincided with Peru's Independence Day—July 28th. Bikes adorned with tiny, yet patriotic Peruvian flags, we ventured out for a peaceful camp rather than endure another brass band all-nighter. 

 You don't have to go far to find a good camp pampa. Hidden by the subtle contours of surrounding hills, it's best to consider the sunrise locale when setting up as these fields are blanketed in a thick, morning frost. 

You don't have to go far to find a good camp pampa. Hidden by the subtle contours of surrounding hills, it's best to consider the sunrise locale when setting up as these fields are blanketed in a thick, morning frost. 

 Too cold to hold. 

Too cold to hold. 

 Frosted feces.

Frosted feces.

 Every morning and evening, the cooking process begins with a near-overflowing cup of tea. At over half a liter of hot liquid, the "tea challenge" effectively combats altitude while ensuring plenty of middle-of-the-night stargazing breaks. 

Every morning and evening, the cooking process begins with a near-overflowing cup of tea. At over half a liter of hot liquid, the "tea challenge" effectively combats altitude while ensuring plenty of middle-of-the-night stargazing breaks. 

 Current kitchen.  

Current kitchen.  

 On more than one occasion our long ascent into the seeming wilderness was interrupted by the existence of a multi-national mining operation scraping off the top of a mountain. Mina Raura is pictured, scarring an otherwise breathtaking landscape. 

On more than one occasion our long ascent into the seeming wilderness was interrupted by the existence of a multi-national mining operation scraping off the top of a mountain. Mina Raura is pictured, scarring an otherwise breathtaking landscape. 

 Two tone under the blue dome.  

Two tone under the blue dome.  

 When the view out does the lunch. Splitting a single can of tuna leaves something to be desired.  

When the view out does the lunch. Splitting a single can of tuna leaves something to be desired.  

 Our cheerful campesina host for the evening. Hut to the left is her bedroom and, to the right, the kitchen. 

Our cheerful campesina host for the evening. Hut to the left is her bedroom and, to the right, the kitchen. 

 Indulging a gawking gringo. 

Indulging a gawking gringo. 

 Whispering Portland relocation offers into its velvety little ears.

Whispering Portland relocation offers into its velvety little ears.

 It's strange to be in a place where the peaks of 17k' mountains aren't even referenced on your map. This scene copy and pasted to the horizon, mountains on mountains on mountains. Lagunas, too.  

It's strange to be in a place where the peaks of 17k' mountains aren't even referenced on your map. This scene copy and pasted to the horizon, mountains on mountains on mountains. Lagunas, too.  

 Sparkling cobalt lagunas and vaulting glaciers make for long lunch loiters.

Sparkling cobalt lagunas and vaulting glaciers make for long lunch loiters.

 High altitude headrush. 

High altitude headrush. 

 Waiting for the feeling to return to extremities.

Waiting for the feeling to return to extremities.

 In addition to being iconic to Peru, llamas—pronounced yah-ma's—are known for being stoic and independent creatures. They hold their ground on the side of the road and maintain uninterrupted eye contact as we ride by.

In addition to being iconic to Peru, llamas—pronounced yah-ma's—are known for being stoic and independent creatures. They hold their ground on the side of the road and maintain uninterrupted eye contact as we ride by.

 Conversely, alpacas are shy, timid creatures that never let us get too close. No amount of affected voice coaxing convinces them otherwise.

Conversely, alpacas are shy, timid creatures that never let us get too close. No amount of affected voice coaxing convinces them otherwise.

 Puya Raymondi is the world's largest Bromelid (pineapples are also Bromelids). They are both hardy and fickle, growing in the specific altitude range of 3000-4800 meters in Peru and Bolivia. Hardy, in the sense that they thrive in such a difficult environment. Fickle in that due to changes in climate these slow-growing, long-living plants are dying off at alarming rates. 

Puya Raymondi is the world's largest Bromelid (pineapples are also Bromelids). They are both hardy and fickle, growing in the specific altitude range of 3000-4800 meters in Peru and Bolivia. Hardy, in the sense that they thrive in such a difficult environment. Fickle in that due to changes in climate these slow-growing, long-living plants are dying off at alarming rates. 

 If you're into rocks, Peru's your place. You can admire their incredible morphing power to shape mountains, or spend what we imagine to be years piling them on top of eachother making stonewalled corrals.  

If you're into rocks, Peru's your place. You can admire their incredible morphing power to shape mountains, or spend what we imagine to be years piling them on top of eachother making stonewalled corrals.  

 After the sun arrives but before the wind. 

After the sun arrives but before the wind. 

 Like living on the side of the highway without an on-ramp.

Like living on the side of the highway without an on-ramp.

 The way, the truth and the life, we hear. 

The way, the truth and the life, we hear. 

 Empty promises. 

Empty promises. 

 Out with the old, in with the new...ear tags. Nervously awaiting their annual color update. Given the tedious nature of re-tagging hundreds of sheep and alpaca, it's no wonder the villagers make a day's fiesta of it.

Out with the old, in with the new...ear tags. Nervously awaiting their annual color update. Given the tedious nature of re-tagging hundreds of sheep and alpaca, it's no wonder the villagers make a day's fiesta of it.

 Sheep squad hard as flock.

Sheep squad hard as flock.

 Hooved peace sign. 

Hooved peace sign. 

 The sheep, on the whole, didn't seem too thrilled with the process, but look at this little lady! 

The sheep, on the whole, didn't seem too thrilled with the process, but look at this little lady! 

 Gender roles are strictly adhered to. Men wrangle and hold the sheep while the women pierce/thread tassels through the ears. Tara nervously prepares her oversized needle in the foreground while Aidan happily adheres to tradition, taskless.

Gender roles are strictly adhered to. Men wrangle and hold the sheep while the women pierce/thread tassels through the ears. Tara nervously prepares her oversized needle in the foreground while Aidan happily adheres to tradition, taskless.

 Resistance is futile.  

Resistance is futile.  

 The ringleader and master of ceremonies. He was the one to wave us over from the road. And put plastic cups of rum and Inca Kola in our hands. And ensure that we felt included. 

The ringleader and master of ceremonies. He was the one to wave us over from the road. And put plastic cups of rum and Inca Kola in our hands. And ensure that we felt included. 

 We felt included. 

We felt included. 

 Classic Great Divide landscape.

Classic Great Divide landscape.

 Roads closed for construction are among our favorites.

Roads closed for construction are among our favorites.

 Mounds of minerals.

Mounds of minerals.

 Roads are built for a purpose. Often, on the more remote roads, that purpose is to extract the resources that lie at their distant ends. When you dump-truck drive the same 20 miles for a lifetime, you think little of dusting lost gringos.

Roads are built for a purpose. Often, on the more remote roads, that purpose is to extract the resources that lie at their distant ends. When you dump-truck drive the same 20 miles for a lifetime, you think little of dusting lost gringos.

 These gentlemen pulled over for the requisite  from where  and  to where  line of questioning. When they hear a name they know, they inevitably gesture their hands towards the horizon proclaiming how close or far away we are. An underestimation every time, we've learned to double or triple what we're told. Tacoma is packed with alpaca hides headed for market.   

These gentlemen pulled over for the requisite from where and to where line of questioning. When they hear a name they know, they inevitably gesture their hands towards the horizon proclaiming how close or far away we are. An underestimation every time, we've learned to double or triple what we're told. Tacoma is packed with alpaca hides headed for market.   

 Most roadside interactions end with a smartphone-armed photo request. Everyone seems to have one. There's a photographer rotation that happens, ensuring everyone gets their photo with the gringos. New rule is that we always pull out our camera and ask the same.

Most roadside interactions end with a smartphone-armed photo request. Everyone seems to have one. There's a photographer rotation that happens, ensuring everyone gets their photo with the gringos. New rule is that we always pull out our camera and ask the same.

 We met Rodney in Huallanca during the 2017 Inca Divide Bike Race. He's holding up the sadistic ultra marathon course map/elevation profile. The race ultilizes the Incan road network from Quito, Ecuador to Cuzco, Peru and totals 208,000' of climbing over 2,000+ miles. The race is fully self-supported and absolutely the most savage thing we've heard of. Out of money and food when we met him, Rodney gladly accepted our (meager) emergency snack stash of almonds and raisins and a few big chugs from my water bottle. We were not surprised to hear that he'd won the race six days later. What an animal.

We met Rodney in Huallanca during the 2017 Inca Divide Bike Race. He's holding up the sadistic ultra marathon course map/elevation profile. The race ultilizes the Incan road network from Quito, Ecuador to Cuzco, Peru and totals 208,000' of climbing over 2,000+ miles. The race is fully self-supported and absolutely the most savage thing we've heard of. Out of money and food when we met him, Rodney gladly accepted our (meager) emergency snack stash of almonds and raisins and a few big chugs from my water bottle. We were not surprised to hear that he'd won the race six days later. What an animal.

 July 28th is Peru's Día de la Independencia and much of the population ventures out to celebrate in the countryside. Just like the States, this means all sorts of city folk ambitiously following Google maps directions far out into the mountains. Two wheel drive Carollas, packed with picnics and families of six, spun their wheels in the gravel. Lost Limeans asked US for directions as to what lay ahead. And due to the 15,000'+ roads, sea level-accustomed vacationers were actively tossing their altitude sickness cookies. We helped where we could and even ditched the bikes to help push a car over the last pitch of the pass. Nice to get knocked out of the "most out-of-your-element tourist" position, if only for a day. 

July 28th is Peru's Día de la Independencia and much of the population ventures out to celebrate in the countryside. Just like the States, this means all sorts of city folk ambitiously following Google maps directions far out into the mountains. Two wheel drive Carollas, packed with picnics and families of six, spun their wheels in the gravel. Lost Limeans asked US for directions as to what lay ahead. And due to the 15,000'+ roads, sea level-accustomed vacationers were actively tossing their altitude sickness cookies. We helped where we could and even ditched the bikes to help push a car over the last pitch of the pass. Nice to get knocked out of the "most out-of-your-element tourist" position, if only for a day. 

 One of the higher and harder passes of the trip. Hike a' biking on the steeper gravel sections made for slow progress, an inevitability of the Divide route.

One of the higher and harder passes of the trip. Hike a' biking on the steeper gravel sections made for slow progress, an inevitability of the Divide route.

 Horizontal miles are nearly irrelevant against incessant vertical gain.  

Horizontal miles are nearly irrelevant against incessant vertical gain.  

 Snack stops mandatory. 

Snack stops mandatory. 

 Peru-sual.  

Peru-sual.  

 Camping with new friends, Amanda and Andrew. Or "the Canadians." They've been riding since Alaska on a three year epic and have plenty of stories to share. In addition to carrying a violin and a guitar, they were also toting a liter of chocolate milk and a bladder of pisco. Commiserating together over a few stiff cocktails made it feel a little less frigid outside. 

Camping with new friends, Amanda and Andrew. Or "the Canadians." They've been riding since Alaska on a three year epic and have plenty of stories to share. In addition to carrying a violin and a guitar, they were also toting a liter of chocolate milk and a bladder of pisco. Commiserating together over a few stiff cocktails made it feel a little less frigid outside. 

 Andrew explaining the pisco to chocolate milk ratio. 50/50. 

Andrew explaining the pisco to chocolate milk ratio. 50/50. 

 At altitude, finding a strategic east-facing tent nook speeds up the morning thaw. Using his iPhone compass and mountain man instinct, Aidan has chosen many-a-early-sun spots. Or so he insists.

At altitude, finding a strategic east-facing tent nook speeds up the morning thaw. Using his iPhone compass and mountain man instinct, Aidan has chosen many-a-early-sun spots. Or so he insists.

 Dawn thaw.  

Dawn thaw.  

 Sometimes it's too damn cold to cook outside and we fire up the stove from the comfort of the bags.

Sometimes it's too damn cold to cook outside and we fire up the stove from the comfort of the bags.

 Kinkones, or sugar burgers as we call them, are a mysterious but delicious snack staple. Like a cookie-newton-muffin hybrid. Aidan warming his 'burg over the stove.  

Kinkones, or sugar burgers as we call them, are a mysterious but delicious snack staple. Like a cookie-newton-muffin hybrid. Aidan warming his 'burg over the stove.  

 Sugar burger meets savage beard + blades. 

Sugar burger meets savage beard + blades. 

 Day six, no shower. Aidan finally asks to borrow the deodorant. Lipstick on a pig?

Day six, no shower. Aidan finally asks to borrow the deodorant. Lipstick on a pig?

 Hood ornament.  

Hood ornament.  

 Miles outside of Huallay, on a desolate road, we were passed by a truck full of men in suits. When we rounded the corner, they were standing in the road waiting for us. What was surely a mafia assasination in the works turned out to be a group of local politicians looking to land some free gringo marketing. Here, Tara invites ALL fellow Americans to come to Huallay for the Independence Day celebration occurring in a few days. 

Miles outside of Huallay, on a desolate road, we were passed by a truck full of men in suits. When we rounded the corner, they were standing in the road waiting for us. What was surely a mafia assasination in the works turned out to be a group of local politicians looking to land some free gringo marketing. Here, Tara invites ALL fellow Americans to come to Huallay for the Independence Day celebration occurring in a few days. 

 Tara proved to be the better interviewee. I was asked to invite turistas to the town in Spanish for the camera, but, convinced they had just formally invited me to the festivities, I just repeated "muchas gracias" into the camera 2-3 times before they panned over to Tara. Muchas Gracias. 

Tara proved to be the better interviewee. I was asked to invite turistas to the town in Spanish for the camera, but, convinced they had just formally invited me to the festivities, I just repeated "muchas gracias" into the camera 2-3 times before they panned over to Tara. Muchas Gracias. 

 Aidan—in Diana's chair—adding scale to our kindergarten classroom campstite. 

Aidan—in Diana's chair—adding scale to our kindergarten classroom campstite. 

 And lastly, this.  

And lastly, this.