Encounters with guinea pigs: Cusco to Urcos - South America: a first time for everything - CycleBlaze

September 8, 2013

Encounters with guinea pigs: Cusco to Urcos

Where super-models go to die...
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THERE IS a painting of the Last Supper in the cathedral at Cusco. It is remarkable for two things. The first is that Judas, who of all the disciples has his face most turned to the artist, has the face of the leader of the Conquistadors who destroyed the Incas and their culture.

And the second is that they are eating guinea pig.

I'm not sure the Bible ever said what they scoffed that night but why should this painting insist it was guinea pig? The answer is that the artist had to show to an audience not yet convinced of Christianity that this was a significant meal - and it´s guinea pig that Peruvians ate on a good night out.

These days, to the misfortune of guinea pigs, much of their significance has gone. You see the little beasts, skinned and white, turning slowly on roadside spits. They were being prepared in an open-sided brick kitchen when we stopped for a late-morning drink this morning. The chefs, women of a certain age, wore white hats somewhere between a society top hat and the full white chimney that chefs de cuisine wear as the stripes of status.

Roast guinea-pig, anyone?
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We sat, the traffic rumbling behind us, and watched with western curiosity. The dozen or so workmen in blue overalls and orange neckerchiefs who arrived just as we were leaving showed none of the same fascination and resistance. They had come to eat guinea pig and guinea pig they would get.

It hasn´t been an uneventful ride this morning. Cusco, we´ve heard several times, has doubled in four years. The airport, which like all sensible airports was once on the outskirts, is now firmly within the suburbs. The city has surrounded it. It used to be that folk took a spin to the country to watch, as we did, planes turn round a mountain almost on wingtip before lining up with the runway and dropping out of the sky. It was enough of an attraction that cement grandstands were built for them, three of them, big enough to induce jealousy in hard-up sports clubs.

No one was sitting there when we rode past this morning and they probably hadn´t for some time. The airport´s owners, I suppose it must have been, built a wall between the grandstands and the first grass of the airfield. It either spoiled the view or people grew blasé about planes once they began screeching over their roofs.

The striking growth of Cusco has left stretch lines. There are potholes; long stretches of road have been left unsurfaced; grills the width of the road have tyre-wide slots running in the direction of travel; and the railway line that crosses the road has been so battered that the rails lie in wheel-tempting trenches.

The consequence was slow progress. Slow progress caused by flat tyres, falls on grills and a spectacular and skin-scraping chute at the level crossing.

"I did everything right," Lizzie said as she collected herself from the road and sympathetic car drivers gave unneeded directions to the nearest hospital, "but everything went wrong."

This wasn´t a long ride today but getting out of Cusco took half of it, at least so far as time was concerned.

Our target was more ruins, although this time older even than the Incas. We pull out of the suck of Cusco and its near-intolerable traffic - worsened by the Peruvian habit of tooting before overtaking - and get into a flat-bottomed valley of stone-walled fields and late cropping and early sowing (although the distinctions are less clear here in the Tropics, where the seasons would be more rightly Hot And Dry, Warm And Dry, and Cool and Wet).

Elbows tucked in, we push against the hill and the gusting wind
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This meteorological confusion treats us to a sudden and group-shattering wind. Into our faces, of course. We tuck in our elbows and concentrate on a rhythm. And then the road turns sharply to the right, begins to rise above the valley, and the wind drops.

The ruins are along an unmade track to our left at the top of the rise. We regather and bump along it, pausing briefly at the only building, where a caretaker with the world´s most relaxing job sits outside and, in answer to our asking where to leave our bikes, suggests we prop them against the ancient walls. He reasons they have been here since ancient days and survived rain, wind, vandals and the occasional visitor and that saddles and handlebar tape aren´t going to spoil them much more.

Pushing up to the pre-Inca ruins and hoping they're worth the effort
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The man in this house has one of the world's most relaxing jobs. Want to park your bikes? Just prop them against the ancient remains, he said
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So we did...
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There wasn't that much to see, frankly, but we weren't going to come all this way without having a look
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Urcos is a workaday town not used to tourists. Four kilometres out we see armed guards staring sullenly through metal gates twice as high as they are. Behind them, in a sports field, people mill or stand in a routine we can´t fathom. Others enter and leave through a side gate but our presence makes the soldiers uncertain. We are not a threat to proceedings, of that they and we are sure; but we are not in their instructions for the day. They don´t know what to do, taking half a step in whichever direction we move, finally saving their dignity by telling us to go away.

On the other side of the road, behind a grubby three-table café with an inappropriately glamorous name, a hoarding explains that we are missing the latest intake into the army, navy, air force, and possibly the police as well. We make out that they are proud of the numbers they have recruited, that nowhere else has done better. And the purpose of the hoarding can only be to encourage us to join the celebration.

Read all about it: it's the best you'll get because we got shooed away from the actual celebrations on the other side of the road
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But we are gringos and, as I said, Urcos is sufficiently unaccustomed to them that we are looked at with gentle curiosity as we wander about the market on a sloping square beside a civic building on which a striding statue holds an impressive flag.

Of course, it could be they were looking because it wasn´t every day their lives were disturbed by gangly folk in bright cycling Lycra. But I like to think we blended in...

Workaday Urcos, glorious in its South American ordinariness
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