Back to Cusco: the hill without end - South America: a first time for everything - CycleBlaze

September 7, 2013

Back to Cusco: the hill without end

Peru: way of death for rich people...
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...and for poor people
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THEY ALWAYS SAY a road looks different the other way. And it's true. We left Ollantaya in light morning sun, the headwind that had hindered us two days earlier having turned to be sure to hinder us back the other way. But we took our time because things looked different. We descended - on foot again - the cobbles that had tormented our last moments the time before, and we bowled along the valley, noting rather than admiring the political slogans painted on every third building.

Political slogans are everywhere - to the point of despoiling whole villages
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Democracy came uncertainly to Peru, as it did to much of South America. Now it's here, though, it's pursued with an enthusiasm that shames jaded societies of the more established world. These signs take the entire wall of a building, written in primary colours in letters a metre high. Some are bright and new, for elections still to come or recently held. Others have started to fade in the sun.

The most enthusiastic painters are the folk of the Popular Front, which we think is the workers´ party. They have such a strong symbol that they rarely bother with words. Instead they paint, sometimes several times in a row, a black shovel on a background of red and white.

The Popular Front knows about work, the signs suggest, and insist that those who labour rarely claim the rewards due to them. It is a feeling I have on long and soul-destroying climbs. And today we had one of those. It started where we had lunch yesterday, at a green-posted turning to the right which marked the start of virgin territory.

We were worried about it but not as much as Helen and her friend, Sally. Helen, a tall and perpetually laughing blonde with a hint of a New Zealand accent after emigrating there from Britain more than 30 years ago, was ill.

"She can barely turn the pedals," Sally said with a glum face as we caught them a couple of kilometres before the turning. And Helen did indeed look bad.

"I just don't even know if I'm alive," she whispered. "There's nothing there."

We shepherded her into a bar, where a sugary drink could help, and we talked over options. She could try to ride the hill, or she could hitch a lift or she could hire a taxi. The first was out of the question; the second was feasible and Sally promised to stay with her; the taxi looked more difficult because we'd need help with the phone call and the only staff in the café was a girl of nine who looked at us as others must have looked at the conquistadors.

We settled on Steph and I taking much of Helen´s luggage. She and Sally could then ride more gently and we could reunite owner and possessions that evening in Cusco.

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We climbed and we climbed, sometimes past isolated houses, once through a village... but always without the end coming in sight
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The problem was that the hill went on... and on. Someone had said 12km. Lunch, we knew, had been agreed at 64km, or close on 4 000m. But it wasn't 12km. That came and went. And so did 20km. In the end, exhausted, desperately hungry and more than keen on drinking, we got to lunch after 24km of climbing.

There were rewards, of course. The countryside wasn't as beautiful as the first day´s - more plateau moorland of brown soil and rock with fields of cropped corn and, lower, the distinctive ridges of new potato fields. We passed a gang of teenage boys building with mud bricks and we could wonder at the snow-topped mountains not so far away and not, it started to seem, all that much higher.

Boys muck in to build a house of mud
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Dried mud is used everywhere round here, including in roadside walls
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We caught stragglers having an even tougher time than us. We kept telling ourselves the summit was round the corner. We felt drained, struggling with the thin air, a tyre-clutching road and then a rising wind. We reached a village of houses that looked as miserable as we felt. And the road began to drop. We sang hallelujahs. But it rose again. And, worse, we could see traffic rising again at 90 degrees to the road and quite possibly at 45 degrees of gradient.

I pushed my bike to the bend, drained. Steph rode on, hardly any faster. A tiny shop improbably in this mountain wilderness furnished two bottles of water, our first since we left Helen and Sally in the valley hours earlier.

New friends at the top of the mountain
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We sat, we drained cold and heavenly water, and then something extraordinary happened. Helen, Sally, another straggler and the bags of a fourth rider all arrived in a white taxi van. Helen and Sally had abandoned the ascent when reality bit at the first steep bend and they´d hired two taxis, the second to return from the lunch stop and pick us up in appreciation of our carrying Helen´s luggage.

And so, in some grandeur if packed among bikes, wheels, bags and bodies, we pulled into the café at the summit just as the others were leaving. It wasn't glorious but sometimes needs must.

Crowds turn out in the streets of Cusco to celebrate our safe return...
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