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Day 99 - 123: Cusco to Machala

10,100kms from Ushuaia

Although this leg may well have surpassed the previous leg in terms of the difficulty of the cycling, it has also made us fall in love with trip again. The final week in the cycle to Cusco well and truly tested all of our resolve with bodies and bikes seemingly falling apart beneath us, and there were definitely thoughts that suggested we had bitten off more than we could chew. However, the rest days in Cusco and a great trip to Machu Picchu with Innes family were all we needed to fully recharge the batteries and by the time we rolled out of town on Day 99 we were once again raring to go. The mentality since leaving Cusco has very much changed, with the end now in sight we are no longer counting up the days, instead we are watching them tumble away as we move ever closer to that finishing line at an astonishingly quick rate. At the start of the trip we were aware that some people had mistaken this challenge as some form of post university “Gap Year”. Over time we have become even more driven to show them otherwise and with this change in mind-set our task has become immeasurably harder. We have made up for the unplanned rest days resultant from our touring teething problems earlier in the trip. We now follow a strict regime of rising before the cockerels at the ungodly time of 4.30am to ensure we are on the bike as soon as light hits the horizon and none of the day is wasted.

The stint between Cusco and Lima was something that had been at the back of our minds for a while. The area is infamous as an incredibly mountainous region of Peru with impossibly deep valleys that drop all the way down to below 2000m above sea level and then sharply rise to well over 4000m. With 12 mountain passes lying between us and the coast we knew that we were in for something truly spectacular. After making our way to Cusco’s colonial plaza to fuel up on Peru’s finest McDonalds we ventured away from the Incan Capital. The cycling did not disappoint and even leaving Cusco required some absurdly steep cycling up narrow streets, swerving and dodging speeding taxis. It was all just a taste of what was to come.

The gruelling days that followed were just about on par in difficulty with the vicious winds we experienced in Tierra Del Fuego all those months ago. Each morning without fail would contain a 1000m or so climb up into the wispy clouds followed by a descent that would freeze the fingers and completely numb the face. Up and down, up and down, up and down, all day every day. Stripping off layers only to layer up again at the summit. Legs turned to lead and knees echoed our bikes with the odd creeks sounding as we finally approached Huancayo and our most highly-prized rest-day to date.

With eleven passes under our belts since Cusco we fancied ourselves as hill-climbers. This was just as well because blocking our way between Huancayo and our descent to Lima was the mighty Abra Anticona pass standing at 4818 metres above sea level. This final pass, our nemesis, guardian of the Andes, had been casting a larger and larger shadow over our minds for weeks. However, showing the resolve that has become synonymous with Upping the Andes, we headed out of Huancayo for our greatest battle yet. We passed mountains of white rock that seemed to be melting, giant slag heaps and processing plants gaining height and losing air quality all the time. After a short sleep in the dismal mining town of La Oroya, the ‘Capital de Metallurgica del Peru’, we pressed on for the summit leaving any sign of organic matter behind. With the snow beginning to fall, just as surely as we know death will one day come for us, the UTA boys reached the summit. The nature of the Peruvian Andes means dealing with incredibly varied temperatures and weather conditions from valley bottom to mountain top, and Anticona as our highest pass inevitably meant our coldest descent to date. Buffs, goggles, jackets, and hoods firmly on, we were buffeted by freezing winds as we began our 150km descent down to Lima. Despite slowly getting used to the truly terrible Peruvian driving and worn-out roads, this was our worst experience. With no hard shoulder, pot-holes dotted around, seemingly oblivious bus drivers blindly overtaking and pushing us off the road, and a string of long dark tunnels, we made our way down to Chosica on the outskirts of Lima. With a slight pang of regret about having to miss out on experiencing the capital city, and with limited local knowledge, we pressed on around the edge of Lima. It turned out that it was the equivalent of cycling around the M25 and then up the M1 – but with no hard shoulder, more road works, and vastly more reckless drivers. So pedalling as hard as our now slightly shaky legs could manage we happily cleared the city without incident.

So began our long road into the desert…

The second half of our Peruvian adventure could not have been more of a contrast. Much of the north Peruvian coast is a totally arid desert that disappears into the Pacific with the occasional river oasis of tropical palms and fertile farmland. While we struggled to adapt to the new heat, we thanked the cycling gods for the prevailing south-westerly wind happily blowing us up the coast. Equally, we had got the bit between our teeth and were absolutely committed to making use of the favourable conditions (and beautifully thick air!) to put down some big mileage. Despite some surprisingly mountainous sections of desert, we found our high-altitude training working wonders. At the top of hills we recovered in seconds, and we were able to push the pace for longer periods without rest, meaning that we reached Machala, Ecuador in only 12 days from Lima.

Part of the reason for setting such a blistering pace was down to warnings about the safety of this section of coast, but we reached Trujillo with nothing more threatening than the usual shouts of ‘HEY GRIIINGO’. Trujillo is home to the world-famous (in cycle-touring communities that is!) ‘casa de cyclismo’. Lucho, an ex-professional Peruvian road cyclist, has hosted over 3000 tourers including Mark Beaumont and Heinz Stuke and has become somewhat of an icon, safe-haven, and advisor. Indeed, we feel very humbled to be part of such a great international community that has formed around this innocuous little dwelling. It was on the way to Lucho’s that we met a pair of cyclists on their way south who had been robbed only a week ago. Held up by three armed men they thought they had lost everything, but a group of Peruvians happening on the scene began to chase the thieves with the cyclists in tow. Soon after being joined by the police a shoot-out followed and one of the robbers took a bullet through the knee, two were captured, and the cyclist got most of their belongings back. Lucho took the guys in and took them round to all the local radio and TV stations to tell their story and raise awareness of cyclists in the area. Similarly, in a place called Paijan, just up the road from Trujillo, a large number of cyclists have been robbed and, rumour has it, even tour-buses have had tyres shot out and its tourists relieved of their valuables. Leaving Lucho’s feeling a little more wary than usual we tried to stop as little as possible in towns and camping took a back-seat.

Luckily for us it seems that the police have cracked down on the area and stories of armed hold-ups remain rare though they perpetuate a kind of ‘gang-mania’ mind-set among many Peruvians themselves who think that everyone is out to get you. Despite the things we’d heard on the grapevine all over South America, we never felt very threatened in Peru bar one village drunk brandishing a large rock at us. The Peruvian people in general were friendly and kind though often weirdly interested in the price of our bikes! However, there is no doubt that the roads in Peru are dangerous for cyclists – though not enough to be put off!! Most drivers do not register cyclists as obstacles worth moving for, and the dogs (and cows as Guthrie found out) can be incredibly aggressive. Though once we were used to dogs rushing headlong into the road to engage in combat, gearing ourselves for battle became more a game of who – human or dog – could be more aggressive, and casualties were kept to a minimum with Guthrie’s rear pannier the only prize taken by our canine antagonists.

Largely our desert experience passed in a blaze of heat and sand. It was perhaps fitting that on Tom’s birthday we completed our longest day of the challenge. 181kms across the Sechura Desert to Piura, the ‘city of eternal heat’. We followed this up with a second 180km day in succession to be rewarded by cerviche and chicharron de mariscos in the beach resort of Mancora, the first of a number of very nice beach towns on the north coast of Peru.

Immediately on reaching Ecuador, the climate, flora and fauna have undergone another massive change. It is even hotter and far more humid. Gratifyingly leaving the desert behind, we cycled towards Machala through rolling green hills, tropical trees, and banana plantations, passing the squashed remains of a slightly alarming number of snakes and iguanas on the road. However, we reached Machala on Friday afternoon dripping with sweat, a little sunburnt, but otherwise unscathed and over 200kms ahead of schedule!

In Machala, we have been hosted by Willy White, who has been incredibly generous to us weary travellers after a physically tough section of the trip and we are now rested and raring to go. Massive thanks to Willy also for organising for us to meet the local Prefect Esteban Quirola Bustos. Esteban is a very keen cyclist and runs a monthly initiative called El Oro Sobre Ruedas (‘El Oro (the province) on wheels’). So yesterday we joined around 50 local cyclists and the Prefect for a short ride around the city complete with local Press and TV and a police escort to clear our path and today we will be joined for our ride out of town by a local cycling team! We certainly expect now to be heralded wherever we go throughout Ecuador, for the roads to be lined with adoring fans and to be greeted by the president himself (rumoured to be a cycling fanatic) and a large entourage into Quito…but we’ll see…

We are nearing the final stages of our trip so please keep those donations coming, each and every one is very special to us and our charities. Thank you and please do have a look at the latest galleries as well!

All the best

The UTA team!

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