Higher than Ever
Departing Nasca meant two things: heading into the mountains, and leaving the Pan-American Highway. After two weeks of desert, I was looking forward to any other kind of scenery, even if it was more difficult. And trading headwind for hills might not be so much harder. Leaving the Pan-American Highway though, that's a blessing. Traffic has decreased by an order of magnitude, and the towns are smaller and more spread-out. The lack of noise and people will almost certainly be of benefit to my mental health.
I knew way ahead of time that the first day would be the hardest. Once you're in the mountains, it's ups and downs, but going into the mountains is only up. I vividly remembered my first day in Guatemala, where try as I might, I couldn't log more than 85 km before it got dark, and I spent a large part of the day in my very lowest gear. This might be a repeat.
The last several days have looked like a wasteland. By contrast, the hills looked like a bumpy wasteland.
Unsurprisingly, I did nothing but climb for hours on end. The only thing that surprised me in the slightest was that it was never horribly steep. I never once used my lowest gear, nor my second-lowest; I think the lowest one I ever used was gear #4. Not so bad!
What that meant though, was the hill went on forever. After 100 km, I was still climbing. It had gotten cold and windy by that point. I was tired. I had climbed even more than that one ridiculous day in Guatemala; it was merely spread over about twice the distance.
Just as I crested the first hill of the day, roughly eight hours after I started, it began to rain. On the way down, the terrain finally began to have some vegetation and colors other than gray and sand.
Down, up, down, up, light rain, none, rain again. The hills were steeper now, but getting an occasional break to coast downhill and rest made it easier.
When Puquio was finally in my sights, after 155 km and 11.5 hours, I'll admit I got teary-eyed. I hadn't had a day quite like this in a long time. There were doubts I'd make it before dark all throughout the day, but I'd just barely managed. If everything went according to plan, tomorrow might be just as tough...ahhhhh!!!
I found cheap lodging (about $3.50!) and looked forward to a lot of sleep. Didn't happen exactly...the place wasn't even half-full and yet was an ongoing cacophony, including late into the night. Despite the presence of a family with a kid that shouted everything he said, the worst offender was a room near mine, playing music probably about as loud as he possibly could. At 11:00 PM, I decided to do something.
I knocked on the door.
"Que?" I waited. Some mumbling, then the small window on the door opened. He looked like he was about 14. He also looked like he had either just woken up, or maybe was drunk.
"It is late, and there are other people here. Please, no more music."
I turned to leave. He asked a question; I couldn't understand any of the words, but I could still tell it was a question. This guy garbled everything he said.
I wasn't sure how to be more clear, so I just repeated myself, "There are other people in the hostal, and it is late. Please, no more music."
He mumbled some more. I couldn't tell if he was yielding or telling me to shove off. But either way, I felt that there was nothing else I could do. You don't win arguments with rude people. I walked back to my room. Just as I closed the door, the music got a lot quieter. Success!
Now if someone could tell the owners to turn the TV down. But I figured I'd probably lose that battle. It couldn't possibly be the first time a guest was bothered, and they're still doing it, probably every night.
I woke up at 4:30 AM to the sound of a group of people leaving, taking over half an hour to do so, while shouting everything they said. This was one of the same groups that was making a ton of noise until midnight. How do these people do it? I guess an afternoon siesta goes a long way. And I'm still wondering if Latinos genetically have less sensitive hearing.
Getting from Puquio to Chalhuancay was probably going to be about as tough as getting to Puquio. 185 km, all in the mountains. I had originally planned two days for this, but after getting a day behind, I wanted to catch up, if possible.
Unbelievably, though I was already in the mountains, the first 50 km were all uphill. Not as steep as the day before, but still, how is that even possible?!? After 50 km, I was treated to rolling hills, right into the teeth of a strong headwind.
For the first time, it was clear that altitude was affecting me. I was usually out of breath, something rare for me on a bike (I get out of breath running, but not biking). I could tell that I was slower and weaker, and any hill or other difficulty made me tired a lot faster than normal. But perhaps most noticeably, whenever I changed my breathing, I'd have a temporary surge of dizziness and/or lightheadedness, probably from a sudden rush of oxygen when there wasn't enough. Combining the highest altitude I've ever experienced with my natural anemia, as well as the fact that I don't think I get enough iron these days, things weren't easy. The perennial hills and vicious headwind weren't helping. If something didn't change, there was no way I would make it before dark.
Something changed alright: the weather. I was dealt a thunderstorm, complete with hail. I donned all my waterproof gear and managed to stay mostly dry (feet notwithstanding). But as the storm rolled in, the temperature plummeted. And at 4,500 m (15,000 feet), if anything makes the temperature go down, it gets cold.
Hail bouncing off my face, soaked feet, stinging cold hands, and shivering, I resolved to go inside the next building I found. I was only 10 km from the point at which I would finally be treated to a long downhill. In a town that couldn't have more than 300 residents, I spied a cafe/lodging and went inside. By now it was pouring and there were frequent lightning strikes.
"I'm very cold. Is it OK if I rest here?" They graciously agreed.
I took off my gloves and started blowing on my hands. I looked outside. The weather looked even worse in the direction I was going. It was already 1:30 PM. By the time the weather cleared, it would probably be 3:00 at the earliest, and my clothes wouldn't all be dry. And it would still be cold. I would only have a couple hours to log about 70 km if I wanted to make my destination, probably in bad conditions. I decided to stay here and get a room.
By the time I was done changing into dry clothes, at 2:00 PM, it had stopped raining. It looked OK the way I was going. If only I'd had some patience, I could've gotten back out there and logged some more distance. Probably a lot more, since a downhill was imminent. But now with Valeria already inside, and having changed, and already paid, I decided to take the afternoon off. I'd stay a day behind schedule, but so what? Maybe I could make it up later.
I've started to wonder if I'll be getting to Patagonia too early. According to my schedule, I'll start the Carretera Austral on November 21, but I'm not even sure if it's open that early. And considering how much I despise the cold, maybe it would be good to get a week behind and let it get closer to summer. As much as I'd like to finish up, knock this thing out, and go home and eat junk and spend entire days watching stupid YouTube videos, it might be to my benefit to shift some of this back a little. Hard to say at this point. I figured it would work out one way or another.
I still thought making it to Abancay, 200 km away, might be technically possible if the downhill was as big as it might be. I would just have to get an early start. Like 5:30 AM early. So I did.
Before the big downhill I’d been anticipating, I still had to climb for a solid 8 km, then deal with rolling hills, only slightly more down than up. It couldn’t have been more than 5 C (40 F) outside. I would have guessed it was below freezing if I didn’t see puddles every now and then.
I had thought that my combo of long-fingered biking gloves, paired with latex kitchen gloves over them, would be enough for all the temperatures I would deal with. They were not. Nor were my shoe covers. I was surprised about the gloves though, because the latex gloves make for a windproof shell, and that alone usually goes a long way. I put another layer on my upper body, added a second pair of socks, and continued. When I went down the big hill, whenever that finally happened, it would be even colder.
I finally arrived at the edge of the big downhill. I use the word "edge" for good reason. I had barely descended at all, and now I would drop almost 2,000 m all at once, down into a canyon, by means of an incredible number of switchbacks. I was a little upset that I would have to hold the brakes down almost the whole time, and therefore wouldn´t get the full benefit of a good downhill. But still, this was gonna be fun.
By the time I got to the bottom, the sun had come out and the air had warmed up considerably. There were still 150 km to go to Abancay. It was about 9:00 AM. All I had to do was follow this river downstream inside a canyon for several hours...into a headwind.
What is it with Peru and headwind? When I was going SW on the coast, it came from the SW. When the coast turned to the SSE, it came from the SSE. For the last two days, I’d been heading east, and it came from the east. Now heading north, it came from the north. It’s like the air in Peru has a personal vendetta against me.
A steady decline and a steady headwind came out to be essentially a wash. I still made outstanding time, I suppose because it’s been a while since I had a day where the conditions evened out to neutral. The weather was superb, and the views were stunning. I was enjoying today. I kept moving at a swift clip.
At one point, it was clear that not only would I make it to Abancay before dark, but I would make it in mid-afternoon! Just then, my rear tire felt bouncy. Noooooo!
I replaced the tube, pumped it all back up, and squeezed the tire just out of habit. For good measure, I gave the front one a squeeze too, just to see if it was low. It was even flatter than the rear had been. This would make the first time I’ve ever gotten two flats at the same time. #8 and #9, on the same day.
Even after changing two flats, I still managed to make it to Abancay at about 4:30 PM. After showering, I asked around if there was somewhere nearby to eat cuy (guinea pig), a delicacy in the Andes that I still want to try. I was told that I probably couldn´t find it because it was too late. It was barely past 5:00 PM. How could all the restaurants be closed already? It was only the third person I asked that explained that cuy is traditionally a lunch meal and no one serves it for dinner. Oh.
After logging 202 km in one day, I was officially caught back up to schedule. I only had a little under 200 km to get to Cusco, but still planned two days to get there, since it would be impressively hilly. I watched the Royals win another playoff game and went to bed pleased with the world.