I’ve been experiencing distance as time for months now. Instead of thinking about an expanse of land between two points in terms of kilometers, I instead calculate (or feel) the hours, days, or weeks of cycling between those two points.
For example, Cusco is 3 days from Abancay, where I sit now, writing. Apparently the Americas are about a year and a half long from tip to tip, give or take a couple of months.
Maybe this has something to do with the way the people we’ve met in Latin America seem to interpret road travel. Since entering Mexico in December, every time we’ve asked “how far away is X”, the answer has invariably come in terms of hours rather than kilometers.
Something funny has happened to my sense of distance and time, however, since we started cycling the sinuous, unpaved roads that connect the cities and towns that lie in the heart of the Peruvian Andes.
We seem to be caught in a vortex where time and distance have no meaning.
For example: after rolling out of Ayacucho, Lucie and I faced a punishing, gear-grinding ride with a thousand meters of vertical gain on some of the worst roads we’ve ever seen. We put in a full day, climbing at 4 or 5 km/h and descending at a brain-jarring 10 km/h. To go any faster would have meant risking losing bolts, breaking spokes, snapping our racks and cracking our frames. At the end of it all, after setting up the tent and eating supper, we were treated to a lovely evening view of… Ayacucho! We could see each of its lights shining distinctly. I swear I could hear a brass band playing.
Another example: yesterday morning we spotted a sizeable city in a valley not 10 km away. Strange, I thought, we have about 45 km left before we get to Abancay, and there are no other towns on the map. Guess what? We were over 45 km away from the city, whose buildings and streets we could clearly distinguish. Or rather, 45 km of road lay between us and the city at our fingertips. It was well over three hours of riding; on a paved, straight road, we would have been there in about 30 minutes.
The map has become an utterly useless tool for gauging how long it will take us to get somewhere. In North America, we’re used to fairly straight roads that take you as close to “as the crow flies” as an army of engineers, some heavy equipment and a few billion tons of dynamite can get you. Not so in Peru. Two points that look like they’re a couple of hundred kilometers apart are in reality well over six hundred. There’s the vertical loss and gain that give the mountain roads an accordion effect, adding a surprising amount of extra distance. Then there’s the fact that the roads weave and wind their way through valleys and over mountains in a maddeningly circuitous manner, as if those who originally built them were paid by the meter.
Then there are the road conditions. If your front wheel is rolling over a big jagged rock, your back wheel is probably on a boulder. In the spaces free of whiplash-inducing washboard, there’s loose sand waiting to grab your front wheel. The surface deteriorates into washed-out stream beds in every second corner, and corners make up most of the road.
The road surface multiplies the time it takes to get somewhere by two. The vertical gain also multiplies the time by two. And voilà! Suddenly it takes exponentially longer to get somewhere than we think it should.
Is it worth it? Of course it is. The dirt roads let one into what I dare to call ¨the real Peru¨. We met great people, found amazing camping spots and probably saw as many alpacas as we did automobiles. For all my whining, we really enjoyed this last stretch and feel fortunate to have seen this part of the country.
Now that we’ve hit Abancay, we’re back on pavement for the first time in a while. The elevation chart looks flat as a crepe. We’ll soon be in Cusco in the company of good friends Darcy and Julie, just maybe the last familiar faces we’ll see this year. Machu Pichu and a new country (Bolivia) are just down the road. How do we handle so much adventure? you might ask.
One day at a time.