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2001-10-10 - 8:04 p.m.

There is nothing quite as exhilarating, after 1000kms of jarring gravel, as silently weaving your way down a smooth, paved road at 50km/hr. The snow-capped peaks of the Andes surrounded us on all sides, and we sang, whistled and generally sailed our way downhill for some 60kms before climbing again.

One afternoon, with more than 4 weeks and 1600kms of mostly remote, gravel mountain roads and rural villages behind us, we rounded a bend and found Cusco, capital of the Inca empire, sprawled out below us. It looked exactly as Che Guevara described it in 1952:

'...Cusco, of red-tiled roofs, it's gentle harmony broken by the capola of a baroque church...the native people in their traditional costumes, all the local colours. Cusco invites you to become a reluctant tourist, to glance at things superficially and enjoy yourself under the beauty of a leaden wintry sky.'

As we rode into the city centre, someone ran out of a shop and began to chase us down the street. It was Toralf, our German friend last seen in Huaraz. We sat in the historic central plaza and compared notes from the road. Evidently, he'd taken defensive weaponry even more seriously than we had, and boasted of a 60cm machette! (Not surprising really, given his horrific experience with the gun-toting bandits of Ecuador).

Walking our bikes to his hostel, we had our first taste of Cusco's intensive tourism. We made our way up a narrow cobblestone street (known locally as 'gringo alley'),lined with trendy restaurants and internet cafes. Every second person would attempt to gain our attention with a determined "excuse me!" followed by the product they were trying to sell. "internet?" " cigarros?" "postcards?" "horse trekking?" "hotel?" "lunch?" "phonecards?" ... "excuse me!"

I could feel us quickly becoming Che Guevara's 'reluctant tourists'.

Apparently, at least some Cusco businesses had worked out ways to deal with 'reluctance' as well. Walking across the plaza that night, a dozen teenage girls accosted us, shoving a multitude of flyers, tickets and free drink passes into our reluctant hands. Realising that we weren't convinced, four girls then grabbed each of us by the arms and literally dragged us towards a bar. The bar was aptly named - Xcess. Matt gave me a look of disbelief, and we grudgingly conceded that we had no choice but to celebrate (to eXcess) our arrival in Cusco. After an eXcessive number of free drinks, we decided we'd had enough for a Wednesday night, and needed to recover from about a month of hard cycling before indulging further. But Xcess had other ideas. As we tried to leave, a group of girls blocked our exit. "Have another drink! Free! Special for you!", they chorused. I looked at Matt, and back at the girls.

"Let's get this straight. You won't let us leave, until we drink more FREE drinks? And you don't expect us to pay for anything?"

"Si! si!", they replied. I looked again at Matt.

"There's some pretty unusual business philosophy here mate."

After an eXessive amount of rum and coke, we returned to the hostel, eXcessively drunk, and slept in eXcessively late the next day. By Friday night, the process was becoming eXcessively dangerous, so it was just as well that come Saturday, drinks were no longer free.

Finally savy, and better equipped to ignore the postcard sellers and nightclub girls, we finally found time to appreciate the Inca foundations that underly modern-day Cusco. When the Spanish arrived, they quickly set about catholicising, looting and destroying everything Inca, including what must have been magnificent temples and monuments, which they replaced with churches. However, so substantial and superior was Inca stonework to their own, they left (or couldn't move!) a great number of walls, streets and foundations, and examples of the perfectly cut, precisely interlocking stones remain in just about every street and colonial-era building in Cusco.

With wetted appetites, we got on the bikes once again, for a ride into the 'sacred valley', home of the famous Machu Picchu (literally 'old mountain' in the Quechua language). After some 30kms, rain was threatening, and after an extended lunch stop in a village restaurant, it was clear that the weather was setting in. Determined to get as far as possible that day, we threw the bikes on one of the many tourist buses, left them in a police station at the next town, and caught the night train to Aguas Calientes - a small, predictably touristy town at the base of Machu Picchu.

At 6.00am the following morning, we started up the steep 3km trail leading to the site. Our first view of Machu Picchu was from the southern end - the classic view depicted in photographs - with Huayna Picchu (young mountain) in the background. The early morning sun highlighted the ruins brilliantly, with a clear blue sky above. We sat for half an hour, mesmerised by one of the most breathtaking sights in all of the Americas. While the ruins themselves are impressive, the setting, with a 300 meter drop to a river, and a ring of mountains encircling Machu Picchu beyond, is awe-inspiring. It's no surprise that the sight sheltered the last survivors of the most powerful indigenous race in the Americas; the 300m drop makes Machu Picchu impenetrable on 2 sides, while a narrow gorge provides the only access from Huayna Picchu. The conquering Spaniards never even realised it was there.

By the end of the day, I'd hiked to just about every part of the site, from Huayna Picchu, to the temple of the moon (two caves), to the sun gate, and staggered back to Aquas Calientes feeling like I'd summited a 6000m peak.

The following morning, we arrived at the train station at 6.00am, only to be told that the cheapest $10 tourist-class tickets had sold out, and the only seats remaining were in first class, costing US$27 for a one hour train ride. Our frustration must have shown, for moments later a station guard approached Matt and took him to one side. I sensed a shady deal in progress. Sure enough, the train guard told us to wait until the last moment, then jump on one of the local carriages. The price would be $10, payable to the train guard in person. We did as he suggested, and found ourselves squashed into a carriage with the local indigenous people, carrying sacks containing everything from corn to guinea pigs. They paid about 30 cents for the same trip. As we handed over $20, it was hard to know whom to respect most; a train system which so blatantly rips off tourists, or the train guard that blatantly rips off the system.

Back in Cusco, the postcard boys and nightclub girls were out in force, as was the Lonely Planet back-packer's brigade. Days slipped by in a haze of internet cafes, cheap travellers' restaurants, and artsy movies at a cosy cinema. A day was spent visiting Pisac - an enormous Inca fortress perched spectacularly high on a mountain overlooking the valley below.

After 2 weeks in Cusco, it's time to leave. Too many late nights and lethargic days are taking their toll, and if we stay any longer I might do something really stupid like buy a postcard. Also, word has it that the Inca chiefs have finally had enough of the central plaza nightclubs, and given them 2 weeks to relocate or close down. It seems nightlife in Cusco has reached an eXcess.

- Amount world spends on golfing each year: $30 to $40 billion.

- Amount spent annually on cigarette advertising in the US: $30

to $40 billion.

- Average DAILY total of military expenditures worldwide: $30 to

$40 billion.

- Estimated annual cost of providing adequate health care,

education, nutrition and clean drinking water to every human being on

earth: $30 to $40 billion.

Total Distance Cycled: 19980km

 


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