It was our first full day of biking in over a month. A curiosity to explore different methods of traveling had taken us from boating through the silty rivers of the Amazon, to bussing through the icy peaks of the Andes. Trying out these new styles of movement made our experience of Peru almost entirely motorized thus far. Back on the bicycle seat, the familiar rhythm of pedaling reminded me of a favorite riding meditation: reflecting on the recent past.
Riding past a family sitting in the shade outside of their adobe brick home, the tenth or eleventh “Gringo!” call of the morning sounded off with a familiar ring. Peruvians seem to be among the most excited peoples to identify us when we pass by. The reasons are still unclear to me as to what the big deal is, but they seem to really enjoy being the first one in the group to announce our presence. Occasionally it will be to ask for a gift of some sort (which inspired us to ask my parents to bring Alaska flag pins when they came down to visit us in Huaraz), but usually it’s just to direct everyone’s attention toward how different looking we are.
These days we’re used to the attention; four bearded gringos on bicycles is a circus-like spectacle no matter where you are in the world. But in Peru it seems like there is more of a culture of expecting us to act in a certain way. We received a ton of excited hailings in Colombia as well, but after more than a month in Peru, I had developed a hypothesis: The major difference was Colombians were often trying to give us something, while Peruvians often wanted us to give them something.
However, on this first full day of biking in Peru, already halfway through the country, my perception soon changed. It started when we stopped in a small town called San Rafael to take cover under the shade of a black tarp where a woman was selling fresh fruit. She and her neighboring vendor refused to let us pay them for our selections, and another friendly local treated us to mandarins on his dime. His friends told him not to, pointing out that we obviously had enough money to pay for the fruit, but he was persistent. Who knows why they gifted us, maybe it was the bicycles, maybe just a different region of the country, but this was enough for me to put my cultural theory to rest for the time being.
One thousand meters of elevation more and many degrees of temperature less, we arrived at our destination for the night. Cerro de Pasco is the highest city in Peru and likewise boasts the highest urban altitude in the world. Cerro had been recommended to us by another bike tourer on the grounds that it is such an ugly place, it is worth a visit. Short of breath and fighting the shivers, we pedaled toward the entrance as the last rays of sun slipped from the peaks of green pastures covered in flocks of sheep and llama.
After riding through such pleasant alpine beauty, the contrast of the edge of the city was harsh. A neighborhood fortress of grey lined the ridge, like a castle wall without the spectacular architecture. Houses of glass-less windows marked the beginning of Cerro. Rolling over the last hill of the day, the pit of the city revealed itself before us. The dark grey buildings below matched the cold ominous clouds above. Even the rust-colored roof tiles matched the muffled sunset. Oxidizing rebar poked out from every structure, as if part of an endless construction site, but it seemed more likely that most projects had simply been abandoned. The unfinished buildings had a callous quality to them, lonesome and hazardous. The crater where the “bomb” had landed dominated the city, the surviving neighborhoods teetering on the edge of the hole. It was actually just an urban mining operation, but if we hadn’t known better the place could have easily been mistaken for a recent war target.
We didn’t really know what to expect from the people who were living in this cold dirty hole, but I can’t say I was very optimistic. Beyond just the tough, chilled and windy environment of the area, the thick piles of street garbage and unattractive appearance of the city suggested to me that the citizens of Cerro would likely be a bit harder than most. It seemed that finding a place to stay for the night might become a tough task.
But again, my theory got shelved. At a road block on top of the ridge, a group of police officers hailed us to take a photo with them. For some reason they wouldn’t let us hold the shotgun for the photo, but they did offer to escort us into town to the fire station where we could ask to spend the night. We didn’t know what we would find down there, or how we would be received, but as bicycle travelers we’ve found that it’s generally best to just go with the flow and accept generosity when it comes to you, so into the heart of the abyss we went.
Following the squad car down a maze of broken, bumpy roads, the receding glaciers of the distant mountains disappeared behind abandoned buildings and mine tailing moraines as we descended into the pit. Empty turned over lots, neighborhood trash dumps, and a radioactive-looking lake were among the highlights along our tour into town. Flashing lights and the whoop-whoop of the police siren turned heads and elicited many “gringo” calls from the residents.
An unknown number of turns through the maze finally landed us at the fire station, where we were invited inside without even introducing ourselves. Snacks and hot cups of tea awaited us, and we soon learned that we’d be sleeping in bunk beds with wool blankets that night.
Our refreshments were complemented by a long conversation with the “commandante” the chief of the fire station. Señor Wilber told about his life growing up in this place. How the snow doesn’t pile up like it used to and how his mother taught him the basics of English. He rarely gets to practice his English because tourists don’t come to Cerro. The only foreigners who ever visit Cerro are bike tourers, passing through on their way somewhere else. Luckily many of them come knocking on the fire station door, as we saw in the guest book.
Wilber gave us free reign on the kitchen, so we set out on the town to get groceries. The visual shock of going back out into the city was even more intense than the unexpected hospitality at the station. We were pretty sure that we had stumbled upon the set for a post-apocalyptic zombie movie.
The yellow-grey light of the street lamps enclosed by the dark sky gave off an eerie aura, making it seem like eternal darkness was the usual, as if daylight never entered the city. We walked past ravenous packs of street dogs and street pigs, some foraging for scraps in the gigantic garbage piles burying the sidewalks, while others patrolled the street market for leftovers. We made sure to steer clear just in case.
Adding to the apocalyptic movie scene, the citizens all appeared to walk with random purpose, as if extras on a set who had been directed to look lonely and empty. Yet everyone we encountered gave us cheerful welcomes, asking about our travels and wishing us luck. The contrast between the warmth of the locals and the solemn surroundings was fascinating and allowed us to appreciate the novelty of the place even more. Intrigued to be visiting, but glad we didn’t have to live there, we walked the spooky, but friendly, streets with wide eyes and open minds.
We returned to our cozy home at the fire station to find another great surprise — the TV in the common room picked up ESPN and was showing Monday Night Football. Cooking an All-American meal of spaghetti with meat sauce, we had a great evening sharing our culture with the firefighters. It was their first American football game and their first American spaghetti feed. Outside the “radioactive zombies” crawled out of the tailings pond and banged on the door, but they couldn’t get past the heavy gates of the station. We celebrated the Bengal’s victory and tucked into three layers of wool.
Almost six weeks into our Peru experience, one day of biking made me toss my cultural theories in the trash as if it was food for the dogs and pigs. People were as friendly and giving in Cerro as almost anywhere else; it just takes the right situation to bring it out in them. Perhaps the harsh environment of the town brings people together, breeding the necessity for friendliness. But I’m not going to lay too much stock in any theories after only one day there. All I can say is that Cerro de Pasco is worth the visit, if not for the spectacle, then for the people.