There are two routes from Arequipa to Cuzco: along the main roads via Juliaca – a crowded, frenetic and soulless town – which sees you complete two sides of a triangle; or the more direct route, due north along the third side of the triangle, which crosses the barren Altiplano at about 4500m on gravel roads. I chose the latter. In doing so, I effectively volunteered myself for an uncomfortable night. Knowing that I would not find a hostel en route, I was destined to spend a very cold night in the tent. And furthermore, having ascended from 2500m to 4500m in less than two hours, I stood a good chance of suffering from the altitude. When your breathing slows down as you sleep at altitude, without giving your body the time to adjust, you can wake suddenly with the sensation of suffocation due to the lack of oxygen reaching you lunges. And a dull, persistent headache is almost inevitable.
And so it proved to be. Despite wearing much of my clothing and being cacooned in a down sleeping bag, I had a cold and restless night’s sleep. The water in my water bottle inside my tent froze. And I woke to find ice around the rim of my sleeping bag, where the condensation from my breath had frozen. (Getting up in the middle of the night for a pee takes a lot of willpower in conditions like this!) But I was worth it. I was blessed with a beautiful, still morning – clear blue skies, silence but for the calls of a few birds, and a sense of being miles from anywhere.
It was cold riding across the Altiplano: even when the sun is out, the air remains cold and the 40mph wind generated by driving the bike cuts through your clothes. But after perhaps 150km, I dropped down off the Altiplano and into a stunning valley at 3300m, where I had lunch in Sicauni. By now the air was warm, and I rode the remaining 120km north along this valley and through some of the most breathtaking scenery I have encountered throughout my whole trip here.
I decided to stay in Pisaq, a small town at the mouth of The Sacred Valley, about 30km from Cuzco. Arriving in the town without a place to stay, I stopped up to check the guidebook. As I was doing so, another bike pulled up next to me and the rider called out my name. It was an Israeli rider called Alon whom I had met in Surce two months ago, when we stayed in the same hostel for a few days. You get used to coincidences like this. He was staying in a place above some stables on the edge of town – where you can park the bike beside the horse stalls, and wake to a glorious view of fields and mountains. So I too will be staying here for a few days, whilst I plan my next move.