Winding my way up and out of Cusco I let my mind drift. Drifting through the history of this Andean city, wondering how life was during the Incas and how things changed after the Spanish Conquest. And then how Cusco was practically forgotten for hundreds of years as the sea-faring Spaniards found Lima to be a more suitable capital and point along the colonial trade route to Quito and Cartagena. I think I gave Cusco my best, but still feel I could have spent more days there enjoying the good food and colonial and Inca architecture by night and cruising the Sacred Valley of Rio Urubamba by day. But I must press on. Already caught in the Andes in the middle of the rainy season, I don’t want to jeopardize my goal of reaching Ushuaia before bad weather makes this an impossible goal to attain safely.
We hoped to make it to Bolivia today. But the gentle curves and fairly good condition of the road that passed through tiny villages, hot springs and along a river where the locals were bathing, doing their laundry and otherwise making a riverside celebration. The colorful clothes laid along the riverbank and the tiny naked bodies of children wallowing made for a peaceful and serene scene as we cruised along. Rolling into the small pueblo of Quiquijana a couple hours south of Cusco, Jeremiah signaled he was feeling a bit drowsy at the wheel of his Dakar so we pulled into town amidst a market day.
A lot of bustling about by the local people, mini-busses dropping and picking people up. Dozens of people milling around the covered yet open air market. Looking for a cold drink we quickly learned there was barely a refrigerator or ice in town. With our bikes parked in front of the busy market I had a good feeling and sensed that our bikes were safe. Far from anything that resembled a tourist stop along the highway toward Puno and Bolivia, Quiquijana is perhaps mostly viewed by travelers through the scratched windows of a bus, but traveling with the freedom of our own transport our time in Quiquijana turned out to be quite interesting.
Sucking down the last drops of Fanta orange soda and a few crackers from a nearby store, I tried to engage in conversation with a few people who stopped to look at the bikes. Most simply didn’t take notice and moved about their business. I found the people hesitant if not unfriendly at first. I pointed to a gentlemen’s baseball cap which sported the team logo of the Boston Red Sox and told him in Spanish that this was a famous baseball team in the United States. Then the convergence started. A small group gathered and just watched. A few men engaged in conversation. And the crowd grew larger. Soon it was spilling both into the market and out into the street. Enough that busses and cars had to slow down and jockey to let vehicles from the other direction pass. I mentioned that I really loved the hats the local people wore. A few “hatless” folks gestured that they didn’t have hats because they were from the town here and that the local people from the villages in the hills wore hats.
Next thing I was handed a very decorative and intricate designed wool hat adorned with beads. It took the man more than a month to make this hat. I tried it on but it was a bit small. Everyone laughed. The crowd grew to a huge circle of 7 or 8 people deep and surrounded us. Another hat was tossed my way. This one a bit larger. But I expressed that I must have a big head. More laughter. Then the questions came flying. I guess my initial impression was wrong. It just took longer to break the ice with these friendly people than others I encountered. But like all good things, this time too had to pass. We started up the bikes and as if on cue the crowd opened a pathway and we cruised on amidst a mass of smiles, waves and cheers.
Several hours later at the border of the departments (like our states) of Puno and Cusco high at more than 15,000 feet we shared another lengthy encounter with locals who set up shop high on this pass to sell to busses and cars passing through but taking the time to gander and enjoy the beautiful vista of snow capped peaks and green valleys. We’d passed through the Altiplano to get here and climbed. Most of the livestock in the lower highlands were sheep and goats. But as the elevation grew we encountered more llamas and alpacas. These vendors were selling sweaters, slippers and other souvenirs of alpaca – a type of llama differentiated by the softer coat and smaller ears.
Each of the vendors wanted to have their photo taken with the motorcycle. And even high in the mountains at 15,500 feet and hundreds of miles from the larger towns of Puno and Cusco did one of the vendors have an email address. Photos were promised. One gentleman wanted to trade slippers or a sweater for my camera, my iPod or just about anything else he could spot that was impossible for him to find in his remote location. But traveling light I just didn’t have anything extra. Nothing to trade.
We never did make it to Bolivia. But rolling into Puno along the grand Lago de Tticaca (Lake Tticaca) we settled into a nice hotel where I almost took out the glass doors as I hopped two large curbs to get the bike into the lobby and losing balance and letting the bike fall gently into the door frame. Close call. Nearby a pedestrian street catering to tourists venturing onto the lake called our name as we dined on llama filet and listened to live music from an excellent band — ahhhh Music from the Andes. This is Peru.