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Cusco is the touristic center of Peru. Not strange at all as there is a lot to be seen in the city and its surroundings. Especially attractive are the famous Inca sites, available in large numbers because a couple of centuries ago this was one of the most important areas for the Inca empire. It is a place where Spanish and Inca culture have come together. Because Cusco is so touristic you can expect quite a lot of hassling. When you walk around the main plaza there is a constant noise of Peruvians young and old, trying to sell you something: "Cigarettes. Eat in my restaurant. Visit the Inca sites." If you are a bit on budget, like we are, you better don't eat in the surroundings of the plaza, just a little bit out of the center you will find great food for half the price. We indeed visited the Inca sites, however, we did it by a little self-arranged tour. We rode our bicycles in a one-week trip through the Valle Sacrado, visiting the nearby ruins, Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Machu Picchu, the ancient salt pans that are still being used and Moray. The tour shops in Cusco don't only offer tours to those Inca sites, you can also book plenty of trips to explore the jungles. It is because Cusco is situated on the edge of the Andes that it becomes relative easy (by plane) to visit the jungles in the northeast, towards the Brazilian and Bolivian borders. Most of the agencies focus on the famous Manu national park, which is awfully expensive. Too much for us. But still we wanted to visit the jungles and its wildlife because we hadn't seen much of it so far during the South-America journey; we have cycled in the past months in the highlands of the Andes. More affordable jungles can be found at about 250km east of Manu, in the province Madre de Dios, near the city Puerto Maldonado. To make it even more affordable for us, we didn't use the plane but took our strong bikes to get there.

It is known to be difficult to reach Madre de Dios over land. The road must be in a rather bad state, especially in the period we wanted to use it because February is in the middle of the rain season. To make it worse, this year the Madre de Dios province (and many other areas in South-America) suffered from extraordinary bad weather, apparently due to El Niño. The rain flooded the land so bad, that the state of emergency was declared. Houses were destroyed and people died… We read this news in the papers and it seemed a bit inappropriate to go on happy holiday into a disaster area. However, several people reassured us that in our intended district the situation was not so bad. We had good help from a travel agency called Peru Discovery, which organizes bike trips into this area (in the dry season). Also Paul and Ilona who did this trip several months earlier and Brad, an American bike fanatic who lives in Puerto Maldonado were positive. We even heard that the road was in a relative good state. Well, why not give it a try!

Disturbing the gathering

Looking on a big map of Peru while eating a pizza it seemed that Cusco is located on the edge of the Andes, but when we were sitting on our bikes we couldn't really agree with this anymore. First a couple of passes had to be taken. In Peru, like in Bolivia, we spent not too many nights in our tent, because almost everywhere are people what gives a slightly unsafe feeling during the nights. We try to find a village or a house where we can sleep. On the second night in our way out of the Andes, we reached just before dark Colquepata. A little village like many others. The main street is made out of concrete while the rest of the roads are just muddy sand. Little shops that all sell the same things (like cans of milk, cookies, spaghetti, …) are found on every corner, and in between. While we entered, we were being told that there is no alojamiento (a simple hotel) in the village. This happens often, and in general the people are so friendly and helpful that it gives no problem at all to find a place to sleep. Some weeks earlier, in a different village but in a similar situation, the toothless mayor found us a perfect spot inside a room of his municipalidad (town hall). So we decided to start our quest this time again at the municipalidad, the central building on the little plaza. A few people who were hanging outside couldn't really help us, but one woman asked why don't you go inside. Tore opened the door of the municipalidad a little bit and saw that some kind of meeting was taking place. Then suddenly he was pushed inside by the same woman and stood in the middle of a room filled with about 100 men and women, surprised looking up to the tall gringo. "Come further", said many of them, directing Tore towards the main table on which the local authorities (the alcalde and his friends) where sitting. After shaking hands Tore had to address the group, telling about his journey, about his land. The mayor gave him his congratulations, but then more serious asked what motive brought him to join in this important gathering. "Huuuhhh, well, I'm looking for a place to stay, actually," said Tore a bit ashamed to having disturbed the meeting. Well, that was no problem at all; of course we could sleep in the municipalidad. Tore left, but the meeting still continued for several hours, and wisely we looked for (and also found) a second place where we could sleep and where we didn't have to wait that long.

After the last mountain-pass the landscape changed from bare hills (apart from the eucalyptus trees; fast growing trees used for cooking), which we are used to, into dense tropical vegetation although we were still far above the 3000m above sea level. On this last slope of the Andes grows the so-called cloud forest. This is forest which is often covered in clouds and light mist, making it a very wet place, an excellent habitat for certain types of plants (like epiphytes) and mosses. When we were entering this mountain forest we thought it could just as well have been called an ordinary rainforest, because beside all the clouds it was just pouring and pouring rain out of the sky. In those showers we managed to descent only a few kilometers. As soon as we reached a little hut we decided that it was enough for that day. An old man next to the little building seemed to be accustomed to the rain. With a blue plastic sheet wrapped around his shoulders, he was cutting grass untroubled. He gave us permission to stay in the shed for a couple of soles. While we were making ourselves comfortable inside, four other guests arrived; we were not the only ones in need of a shelter. In their way up from the lowlands, they had to stop their journey because the car couldn't pass a landslide. They had just walked up for about one kilometer to find their home for the night. We shared our spaghetti and they shared their fried bananas.

A road in the toilet

In the morning we woke op with smoke whirling through the cracks of the wooden floor. Several women were cooking under our little house on little fires made of wet wood. In the early morning they also had walked up from the landslide, where the truck that carried them couldn't pass. Apparently they were used to this because they didn't seemed to be bothered at all and some of them were already preparing for a long walk to the nearest village, some 50 kilometers ahead. There were enough people to tell us that we couldn't pass the landslide with our bicycles. Of course we didn't believe this. If they, with their entire load, could pass it by foot, we surely could pass it too.

The road was completely gone. Flushed away by a small stream which had become many times bigger during the heavy rainfall. It was not even safe to try to walk next to it. Fortunately, the road was zigzagging over here and the landslide happened to be near one of the curves. It was possible to shortcut the curve through the woods and in this way avoid the impassable stretch. While many people were walking up through the muddy forest, we were sliding our way downwards with our bicycles and panniers hanging over the shoulders. The landslide looked seriously bad and it seemed to us that it would take quite some time before it would be repaired. To our surprise people told us that it would take much more longer than we could imagine. There was apparently nobody who wanted to pay for the gasoline that the bulldozers would need to do their repairing job.

There is no flat land like home flat land

In heavy rain we continued our downhill. Every time it started to rain, the road or the tracks became rivers in less than a minute. Downhilling through this combination of water, sand, and stones made our brake-shoes disappear before our eyes. What's worse, we noticed that the metal of wheel rims was disappearing almost as fast as the rubber; hopefully they will last a couple of months more. The further we went down the more we were surrounded by a thick green vegetation and covered by a blanket of hot and humid heavy air. At an altitude of about 700 meters above sea level the scenery suddenly changed; we left the hills and mountains behind us and entered a new flat landscape. Now and then, especially around the villages, we pedalled trough empty fields without trees worth mentioning. The forest was gone, chopped away for the wood industry. Curiously, the whole scenery felt rather familiar. The villages with its small wooden houses, the roads made of red yellow sand, it all resembled Ghana quite well. Even the mosquitos were present to make the picture complete. In one of those villages we slept the fourth night (safely behind windows with fine mosquito screens). Here we were the messengers. Still not much was know about the landslide, the only thing people had noticed is that no trucks had passed and therefor they were curious to hear the uphill situation from us. A simple answer with the following keywords was sufficient: "rain, road disappeared, no gasoline, no bulldozer, no road."

It was still one and a half day to the place (Shintuya) where the road stops to be a road and oddly disappears into a river: 'Rio Madre de Dios'. We rode our bicycles over sharp hills with good views on the first section of the Madre de Dios river. This river receives a lot of water from many branches and our road liked to cross them as much as possible. As long as the water level is low it is workable to make some speed and just cycle through it, but there were many rivers far too deep for such an approach. Instead we had to unload the bikes and carry everything to the other side. Quite exhausting actually, because of the large number of high rivers due to the rain season. It took only a couple of those river crossing before we understood that it didn't make sense stopping every time to put on and off our water sandals. We just waded through the brown water with our cycling sport shoes. Because of all the water, rivers and rain, the bicycles were suffering more then ever and we had to lubricate the chains every single day.

Waiting for things to come

As said, beyond the small village called Shintuya it is not possible to continue traveling north over land. All transport into that region is done over water. As a passenger you can get to your destination by hitchhiking on cargo boats. At the time we arrived there were several boats, however, without any load to carry. Because of the landslide, still no truck had arrived and therefore the canoes (this is how the locals name the boats, and they are accurately not more than a canoe) wouldn't leave. So we had to wait for the cars to arrive (or we could rent a complete boat ourselves but this was beyond our budget). We were not the only ones who were waiting for transport. We soon met a woman who was stuck already for 2 days in Shintuya with all her merchandise (avocados, watermelons, cheese…) that she planned to sell in Boca Manu, a village about 75 kilometers downstream. She was a bit worried that her food would decay in this heat and therefore she did her best to sell whatever she could in the village while waiting for a boat.

We camped outside under a roof of the school building (no classes because of holiday) next to the playground. In the nights there were very heavy thunderstorms and in the days we had to take shelter in the tent against biting insects. The most annoying one of the insects was a very very small fly, that eats away little parts of flesh. At the moment it bites, you don't really notice it, but afterwards it starts to itch horrible, for days or even for weeks. They are especially fond of attacking feet and the lower parts of the legs. Many locals have clear scars on their bodies, caused by those flies and we met even one boy whose shinbones were a complete mess of raw flesh with a constant swarm of flies around it, making it worse and worse.

Shintuya is a poor village (with Hepatitis in water system) that lives mainly on cutting wood in the surrounding forests. We found the people that live there of a strange kind. In the days we staid there, most of them gave us an impression of apathy, disinterest, and indifference. A lot of waiting while nothing happens. Maybe it had to do with the lack of traffic, because of the landslide. With those people Tore had to integrate and ask every now and then what the situation was. He had to make friends with the boat drivers in order that they wouldn't forget us when load was eventually arriving. The saleswoman was lobbying too and selling and eating her food. The cheese had to be cleaned with salty water, otherwise it wouldn't survive the coming time. Three peddlers (travelling vendors) gave some distraction. After walking from village to village they had reached Shintuya, showing and selling the cheap city stuff like electric clocks, calculators, plastic toys, …

Fresh fuel to travel

In the late afternoon of the second day finally a truck arrived, carrying about 14.000 liters of gasoline and to our surprise on top of this explosive load we saw about 20 people. Those people were traveling on the upper part of the truck where there is plenty of room. Gasoline is wanted in the jungle for the boats and in wooden beams have to be carried back. Therefor, the truck has a special design. The bottom part is a tank with a capacity of 3.400 gallons with a rectangular shape. On top of it can be place many beams or persons. The arrival of this truck didn't mean that the landslide had disappeared. Namely, the truck had passed the damaged road already one day before us. After that, it had been delayed for several days in one of the villages, because something had broken down which reparation needed considerable time. At least there was load again. The next day we left in a boat of 15 meters long, 2.5 meters wide, sitting on a filled 200-liter drum surrounded by another 4000 liters of gasoline. Yes, we are flexible persons; we were adapting fast to the Peruvian dangerous lifestyle. The saleswoman didn't come with us. After waiting for so long she had sold and eaten all her goods and now had to wait for transport back to Cusco.

We went downstream on the big river, with plenty of things to be seen. Fascinated we were watching how a local on a small raft peddled clever over the waves to a certain place on shore, selling his 2 big bunches of bananas. The heavy rainfall had made the river swell and its incredible force had uprooted vegetation of the waterside. That was the reason why we were surrounded by floating trees, plants and branches. The driver had to make sure to follow the original course of the river carefully and not to strand in shallow flooded islands. The destination was Boca Manu which we reached in about 3 hours. The first fifth part of the total distance over water was made.

A moving village

We had to wait not less than 4 nights in Boca Manu, a bit long but certainly not an unpleasant stay. The whole ambiance was in quite a contrast with Shintuya. This village is remarkable ordered and even pretty clean. One reason is that its living, besides building wooden boats, is based on tourism: it's an entrance to the expensive park Manu. Another reason that it looks so new is that the whole village has moved several times in the past decades, because the river is eating away the village fundaments: river erosion. We stayed in a nice hotel, or better a nice inn (the 'Albergue') which, like all other houses is build completely out of wood and stands on posts about one meter above the ground to keep the animals outside. In every house hangs a strong smell of petroleum, which is used to impregnate the floors in order to keep the wood worms outside. The roofs are made of braided leafs, best made by natives that live in a nearby village called Diamantes. As said, most animals are unwanted in the houses, but the frogs that live in the roofs crouching through the thick layer of leafs, are very welcome because they eat all the insects. Tore discovered the roof fauna when he was cooking in the Albergue and a frog fell out of the sky just missing the pan. The boy of the inn advised us not to touch the green animal because on its back it excretes a sticky liquid which is very irritating for the human skin.

In this jungle area all transport is done by boats and all communication by radio. We witnessed how this all worked pretty smoothly because the Albergue is the radio basis for Boca Manu: free radio access for the villagers. We ourselves were also depended on this medium because via the radio we heard whether boats were coming or not. First nothing concrete until it seemed that we could leave together with 2 men in the morning of the third day. All packed we stood on shore but no sing of the men. After a short search, Iris finally found the boatman. It appeared that he had discovered some problems with his boat. That was definitely an understatement, the boat was clearly threatening to sink in every moment. We all agreed that he had to find a new one and that he should take time for it. Next morning we finally left in a small empty boat of about 1.5 meters wide, which seemed safe enough. In heavy rain we went for 6 hours downstream with a chugging little motor in the back. We passed a famous clay lick for parrots (macaws), but because of the rain we didn't see more than 20 or so.

The last bit of water

We were getting nearer to our destiny, Puerto Maldonado. Our little boat didn't go further than Puerto Colorado where we encountered a familiar mixture of petroleum smell and shiftless people. After lunch (the most common Peruvian meal: soup, white cold rice, chicken, fried potatoes, onion tomato salad), we could climb in a regular passengers boat to continue our journey east. In the evening we ended up in San Juan: gold, mud and smelly puddles covered with wooden planking. As in Peru the sun doesn't rise before 5:45 in the morning, we were a bit surprised that already at 3:30 in the night we were awakened by the boat boy. He hurried us to leave our strange hotel; its upper floor was divided in numerous compartments of 1.9 by 2.5 meters, each which with 2 small beds and mosquito nets of soft blue toweling. An early start, a perfect day for the final stretch, 5 hours boat and 50km cycling to go.

To be continued ...

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This page was last updated on Friday July 29, 2011
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