Every day riding the dirt roads of the Peruvian Andes is special. With so many passes to topple and deep valleys to launch into, it’s a landscape that is forever offering new and seductive dialogues. And the people, on those days when there are people, are generally warm and gentle folk touched by an edge of good humor. Peru is the most incredible place to ride a bicycle. A sentiment typified by the route I recently rode north-west out of Ayacucho. This traced a horseshoe south and then east through Lircay, Licapa and Chuschi before eventually depositing me amongst the Inca ruins of Vilcas Huaman. Dramatic in places, gentle in others and generally more nice than gnarly, this tasty little roll went from arid basin to icy pass, through deserted highlands and into canyonesque lowlands. I’ve been gawped at in numerous small village squares and warmly ingratiated by the smiles of countless brightly dressed shepherds and shepherdesses. There has been sun, clouds, rain, snow and everything in between. Temperatures well below freezing and way above 30 degrees Celsius. Seldom especially challenging but usually relatively involving, it’s been fun and I’ve been as happy in myself and my riding as I can remember. But despite all this a darkness has persisted in trying to peck its way through the positivity.
During my time here in Peru I’ve been struggling with a small minority of the population who’ve done a fantastic job of really pissing me off. I try so hard to be positive and understanding about how people act towards me but things keep happening that continue to draw me back into my insular little cocoon. A place where I forfeit the warmth and friendliness of the majority for protection from the enduring dickishness of a few. It is in my nature to enjoy the freedom of solitude and become easily frustrated by the interference of others. Maybe not the best disposition to carry into a world where I’m forever an outsider and a culture that repeatedly throws the same quips and thinly disguised insults my way. I think even the most hardened of ‘people persons’ might find some hairline cracks appearing in their tolerance after a few years.
In line with the strong stink of Catholicism that has clouded my travel for the last three years, it’s my time for confession: My name is Nathan Haley and I throw stones at children. Actually that is exaggeration, I threw a pebble in the direction of some youths I had no intention (or ability) to hit. But the sentiment is the same. Whatever the circumstance you don’t abuse your position as a guest in someones country by throwing stones at them. What kind of idiot throws stones at people anyway? Well a minority of Peruvians it seems. Plenty of rocks seem to have been propelled my way in the last week. This is only storyworthy because it is not usual. Please don’t go thinking that Peru is an aggressive place where tourists are under constant attack, because that is very far from the truth. But on my day out of Lircay a gaggle boys who I suspect to have been around 12 years-old thought it was a good idea to try hitting me rocks as I passed harmlessly on the road beneath them.
You know how boys egg each other on. I’m also sure you have a moral line beyond which you view certain behaviours as dangerous and antisocial. After the third and largest stone from these kids raised dust on road beside me I saw red. My temper took me and fury took over. Flinging my bike to the ground I growled a string of English insults, grabbed the nearest stone and launched it upwards. They clearly weren’t expecting retaliation. The girlish giggles dropped out of them (probably through their arses) as the realisation quickly dawned that they’d taunted a monster. Faces dropped into fearful surprise and the young men scurried away, apparently terrified.
Released from my tormentors I sheepishly picked up my bike and continued onward up the hill I’d been riding all day. As my pedals spun the fury subsided only to be replaced by a weighty remorse. Looking over my shoulder I could see the boys had fetched their mothers. The group stood like model railway people intently watching me disappear up the switchbacks. I was starving and it started to rain but fear kept me plugging up the climb, intent on finding a secluded lunch spot well beyond the danger zone. As I ate the images of angry fathers on motorcycles vengefully roaring up the road to find me were slowly replaced by a craving to understand the episode. One thing I was sure of is that only a fool targets a cycle tourist just before lunch when he’s at his most vulnerable to the hunger anger.
I was and am really disappointed in myself. I stopped throwing stones at dogs a few months ago after accidentally hitting one on the head. It wasn’t the aggressive one I was aiming for I hit, but a docile bitch who was sloping around in the background. The hollow ‘clock’ of that stone hitting her innocent skull still reverberates around my memory. It sickened me and I am still burdened with remorse, often imagining her subsequent brain tumor and slow decline into painful death. I vowed to stop throwing stones at dogs and have stuck to it. Just because you’re in Rome it doesn’t mean you have to become a Roman. Unfortunately my abstention didn’t extend to people. Those youths managed to flick my switch, something that is unfortunate on so many levels. But there is one angle to all this that I find particularly upsetting.
Despite being a well trodden and established road, the route from Lircay to Licapa (on the Ayacucho/Pisco highway) doesn’t appear on any maps. The northern most section exists but I had to follow the progress of this road south on Google Earth to ensure it went through. Probably as a result of this the route is ignored by cycle tourists. I’d be surprised if it hadn’t been cycled before but the reactions I received and conversations I had suggested other cyclists didn’t live in the collective memory. When arriving in the small town of Carhuapata for example, the kids ran away and the adults laughed nervously. The stares were more intense than usual and their general incomprehension of me all too obvious. For places like this where tourists are seldom seen I have a responsibility. Many communities harbor a misapprehension of who ‘gingo’s’ are and what we want. Often we’re like mythical creatures, details of our limitless wealth and undesirable qualities passed down through generations. Gringo’s are sometimes associated with negative mining practices, all apparently come from the USA and we speak only English (a language invented in the USA). How I act and react feeds and becomes this folklore. I have the power to either smash or reinforce stereotypes, I can perpetuate the myth or I can reveal it to people for what it is, just a myth. Angry Gringo’s throwing stones lays the foundations for such myths to flourish and does a disservice to other cycle tourists.
Unfortunately the stone throwing youths do not offer an isolated incident on this leg of cycling. They say bad luck comes in three’s and it did for me. I experienced another unfortunate situation on the stretch of paved highway I rode east out of Licapa. There is traffic here but it is sparse. The highway is in great shape, it is wide and each side has significant shoulders. I was riding the line between road and shoulder on my side of the highway when a car travelling the other direction seemingly decided to try and hit me. With no other traffic or distractions around it veered from the opposite lane, across my lane and into the shoulder on my side, coming straight for me the entire time. I was forced off the road and off my bike. Why he (I saw the driver) did this I cannot fathom, it was incredibly dangerous and even more incredibly pointless. I think justifiably this bought my fury back; picture a helmeted cycle tourist in the middle of the road huffing a poetic stream of f-words and c-words whilst liberally throwing around middle digits and bizarre crotch grabs. That man played with my life and I desperately wanted him to come back so I could let him know how I felt about that. After Mr. Swerve-driver I suffered one more memorably negative experience. The third notable incident happened on the climb up to Totos when an idiotic shepherd boy decided to use me for pitching practice. Once again I found stones raining down from the hill above. This time, despite my hunger, I just ignored him and cycled on, my lesson learnt.
Every country seems to harbor an obnoxious minority intent on targeting their twisted thoughts or pure ignorance on outsiders. We all harbor abhorrent racists in our societies and every culture includes good parents, bad parents, good kids and bad. These are realities of the human ability for choice and diversification, they are not products of poverty or opportunity. You’re as likely to find an idiot in Eton college as you are rural Peru, it’ just how this idiocy is channelled that differs. Life here is different, there is different context and with it come differing perceptions of acceptability in most aspects of life (although just because its accepted doesn’t mean it’s necessarily condoned). For example, you wouldn’t think of throwing stones at dogs in the UK, but that sentiment doesn’t transfer to Latin America where dogs live alongside humans with no owner other than the streets. Hurling rocks at aggressive packs of stray dogs is a necessary of self-defense, a situation that doesn’t arise in more ‘developed’ countries where people only usually see the animals as docile and lovable pets. At home most people would be repulsed by putting soiled toilet paper anywhere but in the toilet, in Latin America you never flush the paper. And in our cultures reheating rice is dangerous and refrigerating dairy products standard. Knowledge ignored here where virtually all my restaurant meals rise from a base of halfheartedly reheated rice and where refrigeration is an unaffordable luxury. Life is lived on a different standard, a situation that pervades law, order, expectations and mindset.
Incidents like I’ve described here are not unique to Peru, I have been hit by sticks in Guatemala and had stones thrown before. What most of these incidents have in common though is that it is kids that are the perpetrators. If it were adults I suggest things would be a whole lot more serious. Also, if I rode my bike around the dive estates of Europe or North America I am sure I would attract a great deal more trouble. So I do not judge and now the red mists have dispersed, I do not harbor resentment. All these episodes mean is that I become more isolated, increasingly blinkered in my interactions and almost exclusively focused on my riding. That said, it is not lost on me how for every negative interaction there are many many positive ones, some of them being quite profound.
Intending to watch the World Cup final in Vilcas Huaman I’ve found myself with time to kill. So, I split the days ride from Cagallo to Vilcas in two, settling on breaking the ride with a night in the small town of Vischongo. There I was attracted to Hospedaje Rosita and into the life of a remarkable man, Pablo Misael Limaco. At 70 years old, Misael is the grandfather in the Limaco Hinostroza family who own and run the guesthouse. Within minutes of my arrival we’d had conversations about football, organic farming, the second world war and China’s current position in the world. The sweetest man I can ever remember meeting, Misael was a teacher who lived and worked most of his life in Ayacucho. This area suffered horrifically during the time of the ‘Shining Path’ so I shudder to think of what this man has seen and experienced in his life. He has lived a long life in times and circumstances a million miles from my own existence. Yet in Misael I found a kindred spirit, I met my own ideals, beliefs and ambitions, I encountered a man who reminded me that despite my recent lapses I am taking my life where I want, in a good direction and with positive intentions I can be proud of.
For this leg of my journey I was once again joined by hardy English cyclist Cherry. During an enjoyable and relaxing week together with extremely accommodating couch surfing hosts Jan and Ellen, Cherry and I had concocted a plan to ride together until she turned north to Cusco and me south towards the Colca Canyon. Here is the story of my journey around the Lircay horseshoe, Ayacucho to Vilcas Huaman…
Be aware that distances and elevations are taken from my bicycle computer and barometric altimeters, thus they are in some ways an approximation.
Ayacucho to Licapa
4 days, 129 miles (208 km), 15,387 ft. (4,690 m) of climbing
A fun little route that takes riders from low semi-desert up through the vibrant little town of Lircay to a high point of 15,800 ft (4,815 m) and then down to Licapa on the Libertadores Highway. Dovetailing perfectly with Neil and Harriet Pike’s route through the mountains from Licapa, it’s a great way out of Ayacucho back up into El Silencio.
- Following distances cumulative from the turning off the paved highway from Ayacucho onto dirt towards Liracy
- 10.5 miles (17 km) village of Ccayarpachi, tiendas & municipal building
- 15.4 miles (24.8 km) Caramate, tienda
- 22.8 miles (36.7 km) flowing water source (on left of road)
- 25.7 miles (41.4 km) High point (11,540 ft, 3,517 m)
- 26.8 miles (43 km) Julcamarca, shops, restaurants & accomodation
- 34.6 miles (55.7 km) Secclla, shops, restaurants & accomodation
- 37.6 miles (60.5 km) Atuna
- 37.8 miles (60.8 km) continnue straight for Lircay (right goes to Chillama)
- 40.1 miles (64.5 km) turn right (left is an alternative route, going to Ayacucho not via Secclla)
- 48.1 miles (77.4 km) Abra Pampamali (14,650 ft, 4,465 m)
- 71 miles (114.3 km) Lircay
- Following distances cumulative from Lircay
- 2.5 miles (4 km) turn left, sign ‘Banos Termales de Huapa’
- 6.6 miles (10.6 km) Tucsipampa, tienda
- 7.4 miles (12 km) continue around to the left (right to Pampacancha)
- 9.5 miles (15.3 km) Carhuapata, a few shops
- 11.6 miles (18.7 km) Allpachaca, tienda
- 15.3 miles (24.6 km) Occopampa, tienda
- 16 miles (25.7 km) Pass (15,800 ft, 4,815 m)
- 25 miles (40.2 km) Pucarumi, water taps
- 32.6 miles (52.5 km) continue straight (right for Licapa-Vizcachayooc-Yurallasa road)
- 34 miles (54.7 km) Licapa, shops, restaurant and hospedaje
Licapa to Vilcas Huaman
5 days, 189 miles (304 km), 23,610 ft. (7,196 m) of climbing
An up and down route that Neil and Harriet Pike detail on their excellent Andes by Bike website. See their ‘Licapa (Libertadores Highway) to Santa Rosa (Nazca-Abancay Highway) – Peru’s Great Divide‘ page for route notes.
- Note: There is now two route options out of Totos. Either take the toughish climb up into some amazing landscapes or the new longer but flatter road that skirts the Rio Pampas. Ask in town for details.