Culipampa: Andean village life

“Culipampa (4,770m). A shepherd we met just before the village told me ‘Tiene de todo!’ which I thought was a bit of an exaggeration as it only has about 20 houses, but there was accommodation, restaurants and shops.” – route notes

Despite having been fairly warned by this description, in my mind Culipampa is still a crossroads of sorts, where one section of our ride would end, and another begin. However arbitrary this line in the sandy road is, it is therefore a landmark, and therefore glorious things must await. By this stage my standards for ‘glorious things’ are seriously depleted, but one still has hopes.

The light is fading on a long day of riding when we climb to Culipampa, cresting the final little hill to reveal, in all its anticlimactic glory, those 20 buildings. Is that even 20? That might be an exaggeration.

In all its glory

We pull in at the corner of the plaza, a drab and dusty expanse, at a sign promising all of the things, as signs in Peru tend to do. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, tea and accommodation were all on offer, and probably a host of other things.

A woman stands by the sign and we inquire about the accommodation. Yes, she says, but no beds. No beds? Right, no beds. Can we see it? She disappears for a moment to retrieve a key and a broom and we wander to the furthest building in town. A storage room, odds and ends scattered about, on shelves, on the floor, piled in the corners. A bare bulb hangs from the ceiling but there’s no light switch in sight. A run down toilet shack stands 20 metres away, with a jaw dropping view of 6000m snow covered mountains. The woman does a half hearted job of sweeping the room for us while we weigh up our options, or rather, whether we have any. We thank her, and explain that we’ll look around and perhaps come back (if it turns out there really are no beds in this village).

Large fluorescent orange hand lettering on a mud brick building screams Hospedaje, and a woman stands next to this one too. Do you have a room? We ask. She gives us a cold, barely perceptible shake of the head. No rooms, in this here ‘HOSPEDAJE’? We check. A cold, barely perceptible shake of the head. Town seems a little darker than it had a few moments ago. We consider finding some noodles and pedalling on to camp, though leaving would only take us higher into the mountains. Time for a slow pedalling, pondering lap of the plaza.

Dinner? Asks a portly woman with a warm smile from the doorway of her restaurant. Hmm, maybe later, we say. We need a room first. I have rooms, she says, come see. Of course, Peru. Your beds are in the restaurants and your hospedajes have no beds or are just not accepting customers at this current time. Of course. How is this still surprising to me?

Our take-no-shit hostess settles us in to our concrete prison cell of a room and we debate whether this room is possibly worse than the one from a few nights back. Pulling back the woollen blankets on the wildly undulating platforms to reveal old, dirty mattresses and no sheets settles the debate. A visit to the toilet confirms its first place – three sides of ply and a hole in the ground covered by wooden slats that you might just fall through at any moment. It probably goes without saying that any hopes for a shower have well and truly died a cold and dusty death too. But the señora was a good sort, we liked her vibe.

Toilet-like shack and bed-like platform

We do the rounds of the shops to stock up on supplies. Peaches and chocolate from the man across the square who positively beamed at us when we entered his tienda and welcomes us to Peru, and to his village, emphatically and repeatedly. His tin roof has holes and he layers so many pairs of pants and jackets he makes us look like amateurs at this cold, high altitude life. I practice some newly acquired Spanish vocab on him – have you seen other cyclists or tourists here? Here?! No. Never? Never. (Others have certainly blazed this trail before us, but maybe they didn’t pay this fine chap a visit.)

Bread, tuna, instant noodles, biscuits, eggs. The standard village grocery haul is complete after a complete lap of the shops. Time for dinner.

We shuffle in at the long table at the place that promised all of the things. Half a dozen others sit, wrapped up in layers, clutching steaming mugs of tea and passing round the thermos. The usual collection of kids and dogs add a dose of chaos. The room is dimly lit by one guys miners lamp, as the generator isn’t yet on.

Dinner takes ages, and with the door wide open it is bone-rattlingly cold. We chat to a family, and explain that we are cycling. Everywhere. To the bottom of South America. How long? Maybe 8 months, we’re not sure, we like the slow roads. It’s embarrassing sometimes to sit in a poor village, and talk about spending long periods of time and large amounts of money on these silly sounding games of wealthy westerners.

Dinner is remarkably delicious. A huge piece of fresh trout, maybe even two trout, with garlic and a hint of cumin, hand cut chips, fluffy rice, fresh salad with lime juice. It is remarkable because food in these places is generally prepared to be filling. Taste is a luxury and effort is usually spent on more important things, not finely slicing fresh garlic.

Back at the bunker the señora furnishes the room with candlelight, then seeing we’re still using our headtorches, rushes back with a battery powered lantern, then a barrel as a side table. Satisfied with her work, she bids us good night.

We wake to the clatter of small hailstones on the tin roof. While we pack coffee is put on, eggs on the boil, the giant can of peaches is opened – breakfast of champions. Champions who, after seeing the hail has turned to fat, fluffy snowflakes which quickly blanket the hills, eagerly declare this a rest day. Yes, best to give the butts a break, catch up on some reading, and eat some more of that delicious trout. Culipampa ain’t so bad.

We pass the morning watching the snow fall, then melt, and pour from the roof. I think about the man with the holes in his shop roof. We ignore the fact there are probably still enough hours in the day if we left now. The sleeping bags are back out and oh so snug. Peach syrup is slowly consumed (no calorie left behind), books are finished and new ones started, socks and undies are washed, nails trimmed, a thermos of hot water kindly delivered to our room and consumed.

Toilet, mountains, and Andy doing the laundry

We spend the day in the courtyard/compound, tinkering, eating, reading. When the sun comes out the señora brings us tiny stools and we soak up the suns warmth for half an hour before it clouds over and the temperature plummets again. The time comes for another trout, and that sly smile of the cook who finds you’ve returned for a repeat performance. It’s straight to bed by 7.30pm to cower from the cold. Every hour I wake with my mouth completely dried out and leathery from the dry Andean air.

We rise with the daylight and I look out to find sunshine, clear skies and a sheep having its throat cut with a long bloody knife and being bled out into a bucket meters from our window. It’s left lying over a bucket till we leave, slowly things get piled over its body in a vague attempt to cover it. I assume this is for our benefit but Andy assures me there are no such courtesies, they’re just giving it shade to stop the sun from warming the body.

Fried egg sandwiches and large mugs of hot instant coffee for breakfast. The tv in the restaurant runs off a car battery and Barcelona terrorist attacks dominate the news. We understand frustratingly little, and it will be several days before we reach anywhere with a line to the outside world. Time to ride on.

Thanks Culipampa, you weren’t what I expected, but you had a little spark in you.

Leaving town with Culipampa in the background

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