Los Andes

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After almost two weeks in La Paz it felt good to be back on the road again – then again it always does. Having cycled solo for almost a year I was thoroughly enjoying the company of Alex; a heavily bearded and rather jolly Austrian. We met at the casa de cyclistas in La Paz. As the only two fool’s stupid enough to be headed north, into the immense mountains of Peru during rainy season, we decided to team up. It’s hard not to like the bloke given how amicable he is. Alex is eight months into a monster ride the length of the Americas, from Patagonia to Alaska.

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The people in the region north of La Paz were exceptionally friendly. As Alex and I cycled through fertile plains drivers of passing cars honked and locals working the land stopped to give toothy grins. This reached an unusual climax as Alex and I neared the shores of Lake Titicaca. People lined the road for several miles, cheering us as we cycled past. Unsure exactly what to make of this I began liberally giving the royal wave, much to the amusement of the Bolivians.

Alex and I had a rude awakening when a police car pulled up and an officer gruffly told us to get off the road immediately. It transpired that the leaders of the prestigious Vuelta a Bolivia (Race Across Bolovia) were just a few minutes behind us and rapid approaching. All the locals were packing the roadside to get a glimpse of the heroic competitors clad in lycra rather than two smelly Europeans on overloaded bicycles.

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Copacabana is a sleepy, sun drenched town on the southern shores of Lake Titicaca right on the border with Peru. After a day of rest and a good night’s sleep there, beardy and I took a boat to Isla del Sol (island of the sun). Arriving at mid-afternoon we explored the northern end of the island and enjoyed an incredible sunset. Incan mythology claims the sun originally rose out of Lake Titicaca – having seen a sunset there I can understand how this myth started. Alex and I then set up a great camp spot right on the northern tip of the island.

We broke camp in the morning and walked the length of the island. It feels like a place frozen in time. There are no cars and the pace of life is very slow. They live very simply. People still work the land with oxen but they look happy with their lot in life. They certainly have none of the stress or distraction of modern city life.

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Entering Peru felt like a big milestone; it leaves just three ´exotic´ countries in South America before finally returning to the familiarity of Europe. On a map it looks like the majority of the distance covered in South America. However this is deceptive. Peru has a near domination on the high passes of the Andes, containing a landscape of rolling 4/5,000 meter mountains that can only be equalled by the Himalayas.

A few days after arriving in Peru, Alex and I had to climb our first pass. Late in the day we scaled Abra La Raya. At 4,338 meters it was a serious challenge but we were still on the alitplano so only had to ascend 500 meters to reach it. Far more difficult climbs lay ahead. The ascent sapped our energy so we were very happy to find a thermal baths on the other side of the pass. We made camp and early the next morning we indulged in a long soak in the reviving waters.

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One night Alex and I found ourselves fighting a strong headwind as menacing black clouds gathered on the horizon. We decided to seek shelter in a small village called Raqchi. Well off the tourist trail, there were no hostels in which we could shelter from the approaching storm. A local lady appeared as I was sizing up a derelict house for camping opportunities. She invited us into her home for the night just as it began to rain. This was soon accompanied by brilliant lightning and deafening thunder.

After a good night´s sleep in a comfy bed I wandered outside to find Porfirio watching the sunrise. In his seventies, but with a weather beaten face that made him look much older, he was still remarkably sharp. After a traditional breakfast of lentejas, cooked by his daughters Andrea and Selma, we decided to take a photo to mark the occasion. Andrea appeared in full traditional garb holding sombreros and ponchos for Alex and I. A hilarious photo session ensued.

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Cusco is a World Heritage Site and jumping off point for Machu Pichu thus making it an international tourist destination. It´s cobbled streets boast colonial splendour steeped in history. Alex and I spent almost a week visiting the cities churches, ruins and museums as well as indulging in a pizza or two. As I spend most of my days out on the open road on the bike or in rural villages, well off the ‘gringo trail’, there is always an element of culture shock arriving in an urban centre. Cusco is a destination for tourists from all over the world. So it took time for me to adapt to seeing locals in traditional clothes with llamas on leads waiting for tourists to pay for photos of them.

Given the huge appeal of Machu Pichu and the flood of international tourists who visit, sadly there is something of a circus around the ancient site. A return ticket for the 17 mile train ride to the ruins will set you back more than $100 – a small fortune on my budget. It has become a cash cow for the Peruvian government but in spite of this a visit to Peru without seeing Machu Pichu would be incomplete. It`s famous for good reason. So Alex and I decided to go on the cheap. We pedalled 70km to Ollantaytambo where we left our bikes and walked the 17 miles along the train tracks to Aguas Callientes.

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Steam was rising from the lush green jungle. It gave the view out of the bus window a mysterious, adventurous feel. The one way, 20 minute ride to Machu Pichu cost a staggering $10 – nearly as steep as the side of the mountain we were climbing – but at that moment it was not what was on my mind. I was trying to imagine how Hiram Bingham might have felt when he became the first westerner to discover the ancient Incan city. When he reached this site in 1911 there would have been no road up the side of this mountain, just thick, impenetrable jungle. What did he think when he first laid eyes on the ruins? It felt epic to me despite the fact that I was flanked by a thousand other tourists.

Alex and I spent a day exploring Machu Pichu and scaled another mountain, Huayna Pichu, which gave great views over Machu Pichu:

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Shattered from days of exertion Alex and I decided to take a series of minibuses back to Cusco rather than to walk and cycle. During one stage of the journey we were packed into a cab with three Peruvians. I assume that the late rally driver Colin McRae is popular in Peru given how many people attempt to imitate his racing style. On this particular white knuckle ride the man at the wheel was careering along a dirt road carved out of the side of an impossibly steep mountain with no barrier and a thousand meter sheer drop. As he skidded round blind corners he ensured our safety by repeatedly honking the horn in a bid to alert other road users to his `time trial` effort. Alex and I held on for dear life, deafened by the 80’s classics on the stereo, watching the road in sheer terror. The three Peruvian passengers meanwhile, slipped gently into a peaceful sleep.

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Cusco sits at the northern end of the altiplano. North of here Alex and I would be cycling over rolling mountains. We would need to take on the highest roads and biggest climbs in the Andes. In less than 900 miles we would have eighteen 4,000 meter passes, an eye watering 46,000 meters of total ascent (more than five times the height of Everest). The road is stunningly beautiful though and despite the tremendous challenge it presents Alex and I were excited. Our sense of adventure was piqued by Pikes on Bikes* and Cass Gilbert who had just ridden this route in the opposite direction and shared with us amazing stories and photos to inspire us.

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Given the number and size of the climbs that lay ahead Alex and I decided to each post on 6kg of kit. Having the bikes as light as possible would make those never ending climbs much more manageable. It would also give us the option of taking more adventurous off road routes.

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The first stage took us from Cusco to Ayacucho. This 320 miles stretch included five 4,000 meter passes and over 20,000 meters of ascent. On one particular day we woke up at 1,900 meters, climbed for ten hours to over 4,000 meters then descend 1,600 meters in an hour. The following day we began a two day 2,500 meter ascent. The change in landscapes we could see in a single day was fascinating. From humid, steamy jungle up to glaciers and freezing mountain tops then all the way back down to the jungle again.

It took eight days to cover the 300 miles to Ayacucho. We rolled into town stinking but with huge grins on our faces, pleased to have overcome the first hurdle. We still had more than 500 miles of this madness to reach Huaraz. At that stage though we were happy to just enjoy the simple comforts of a bed and a good meal, oblivious to the fact that the next few days would force us to each make dramatic changes to our journeys.

* The Pikes have a fantastic website with a huge amount of info and detail on some of the most challenging but beautiful rides through the Andes. If you are riding through South America or planning a ride it’s essential reading.

2 Responses to “Los Andes”

  1. Neil says:

    Love a good Peruvian climb!
    Thanks to the links to our sites amigo, and happy pedalling (2000-4000-2000-4000 etc)!

  2. Monumental climbs!! Hope you’re both well, and continue to enjoy the passes! Look forward to hearing about your Columbian journey!

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