PERU, 5th -21st November 2019
I stretched the bright blue sports tape around my thumb, rubbed it on thoroughly and tried opening my hand. The tape protected my thumb, like the doctor (a friend of my parents) I had Skyped with the day before had suggested. It felt good. After examining my hand via the screen, she had said she thought I was good to cycle again. I was happy and relieved, and also determined to be careful and do everything right to not upset the injury again. I would only cycle on paved roads and take it easy. All I wanted was to cycle through the rest of South America.
So I set out from Huanuco, immediately feeling the excitement from travelling again. Maybe it was good to have had a ‘settled’ week, now I felt the novelty of every brick, every tree, every street corner stronger than before. I had never been here before and I would, most probably, never come here again, I was just here and now.
After the quiet neighbourhoods I had to cycle on a rather busy main road out of the town, but after 10 kilometres or so it got quieter, and the scenery indicated where I was going: up in the high Andes. The mountains closed in around me, so that the little town of Ambo that I reached after 24 kilometres felt squeezed in between the tall, green walls. Ambo was the goal for me that day, since I both had to spend the night where I could find hotels, as Chris had our tent, and because I wanted to go very easily on my recovering hand, which after this short day indeed felt just fine.
It was different being alone in the little town. I was nervous leaving my bike in the street while I assessed the hotel room and I felt the attention and stares from the locals much more intensely now they were all aimed at me, and only me, as I walked around. I found a new respect for those who travel like this alone. I noticed how the women here fancied an even more extravagant hat style than those of Huanuco. They didn’t only have one plastic flower in their bowler hat, but a whole bunch wrapped in glittering tinsel in all colours. It looked fantastic; unfortunately I was way too shy to ask any of them to photograph it, but I saw two young women clearly charming a young man with their looks.
The next day I had planned a longer ride of 45 kilometres and 1,100 metres of ascending up to the next town with a hotel. I was up and out at 7am, just eager to cycle. The road consistently followed a winding river that cut through the mountains, and the traffic was light, but I stopped completely whenever I heard or saw a truck coming up behind me to let it pass safely on the narrow road. I didn’t want anything to go wrong now and I had all day. The only thing that really disturbed me were the dogs, and unfortunately there were many of them on this stretch of road and they all seemed extremely mad at me. They would bark loudly and sprint towards me, growling with their teeth out, and they scared me a lot. I found myself most confident in stopping to face them with shouts and rocks (which to their luck I was extremely bad at hitting them with), instead of encouraging them to chase me while I tried cycling away from them, which I wasn’t able to anyway. It worked most of the day, only one dog actually snapped at my panniers, but I was shaken and had a sore throat as I reached Huariaca, the town of that day. It was just before the big afternoon rain pour and I found shelter first in a restaurant and then in a nice little hotel. Here I spent the rest of the afternoon reading and hiding from the intensity of the world.
12 kilometres was all I had to cycle to my next and last hotel, so I spent all morning in my room and walking around Huariaca, having my daily fresh orange juice (a part of my recovery plan, which still went perfectly well) outside the Mercado. On my way back through town I photographed the façade of a colourful house, and a woman saw me and asked: “Why do you photograph that house?” I liked the straightforward way of her, how she wondered and how she was not shy to come and ask. Wouldn’t people in many other parts of the world just have shook their head and turned away from the stranger who they didn’t understand? And she listened and took in my answer, that I liked the colours and the flowers. She saw me and how I saw that house that she had probably walked past her whole life, and I felt I became a little less of a stranger to her.
Then I did my little day ride up through an even narrower and more dramatic valley, to find my next hotel room before the afternoon shower. This time it was a rather run down place and a tiny little room with bed with a huge sinking hole in the middle, but with a lovely window view of the mountains. No wifi, so I spend the rest of the afternoon listening to podcasts and looking out at the clouds over the mountains and some pigs in a yard below me. This place was not really a town, just a truck stop, so there was nothing else to do and I began to feel a bit lonely, looking much forward to being united with Chris the following day.
We had agreed to meet in a small village, La Quinua, at midday some 20 kilometres below the mountain pass of Cerro de Pasco, where he had spent the previous night. Again it was a short ride for me, and I was on my way too early, eager to get there. As I took a break halfway up by the river, that was now more a little stream, an old man came down from the mountain with his sheep. He came over to me, and I felt a short jolt of nervousness being a solo woman out there alone, but when he reached me and shook my hand I immediately felt safe, sure he only had good intentions. We had the usual conversation about what I was doing there, and he pointed out the house up by the stream where he had lived his whole life, a beautiful place and a simple, hard life I imagined. Despite the immense differences in our lives (and our languages) I sensed a genuine interest and understanding from this man too, and that was exactly what I was beginning to truly respect of the Peruvians. They were at once so bound to their place on earth and yet so curious and open to the foreigner like me, an admirable attitude that I hoped to learn something from myself.
I was an hour early for our rendezvous in La Quinua, but time went fast as I fell into conversation with yet another Peruvian, a former teacher of the little school in town. While we chatted I kept looking past him at the little road Chris, hopefully, would come down on anytime. It was actually closed half of the day due to some road work, but people in the village had told me he would be allowed to go past it on a bicycle. I hoped they were right, otherwise I didn’t know how and where we would meet. We didn’t have any way of contacting each other here, we just had to stick to our date. It was almost midday.
The road I had planned to take from Cerro de Pasco to meet with Dea was indeed closed, but fortunately there was another one running parallel to it. It was an easy downhill through a gorge that led me out to the main road that Dea had been ascending for the past few days, and it was wonderful to see her again, waiting patiently for me at the side of the road. We celebrated our reunion with lunch in a nearby restaurant. As we took our seats and began catching up, we could see through the open door a stray goat wander over to our bikes and start sniffing them. It seemed harmless enough, until it got a packet of cookies out of my basket and started dragging them away. Not one to give up my cookies easily, I ran outside to scare the cheeky goat away, but it wasn’t the least bit scared of me. It kept coming back to the bikes and jumping up on them, like it fancied having a go at biking around the world itself. Sorry buddy, but applications for The Apprentice are closed.
Fortunately the goat got bored after a while and moved on, and Dea and I had a nice enough lunch before we continued cycling together. The road was not too busy and after a few hours of steady ascent we found a nice place to camp down by a stream. Some locals came by and told us to watch out for rocks falling off the cliffs above us, but they were very friendly, and were in fact out walking a single sheep on lead, as if it were a dog.
We’d made camp at 3,800 metres and were up early to climb the rest of the way to the top of the next pass at 4,400. It was a nice, gentle climb on a road with a good shoulder, until the road got busier past the main turn for Cerro de Pasco, when the shoulder shrank. We survived it to the top of the pass where we were greeted by some waiting llamas, then descended a little. By this point the shoulder had narrowed still further and Dea confessed that she was scared by the traffic. The idea of switching to a dirt road came up, but Dea was nervous of risking her wrist on the bumpier surface. But when the shoulder shrank to nothing, the risk-of-a-bad-wrist versus risk-of-death balance had shifted, and we decided to get off and give it a go.
Initially the road was paved to a small town, after which we were worried about how bad it was going to get. But it was actually a very fine dirt road, with a compact surface that wasn’t a big problem for Dea’s wrist, especially as it was very flat now. We were riding on a plateau around a huge lake. “This is what I wanted,” Dea said, looking around at the flat plains, 4,000 metres above sea level, that we had all to ourselves. “I’m so happy!”
We decided to make camp when some dark clouds formed overhead in the late afternoon. We pushed our bikes through a field of sheep to do so. Before long these sheep were rounded up by a couple of friendly lads on a motorbike, along with a herd of llamas (I mean, the llamas were also being herded up, they weren’t also sitting on the motorbike). It really did feel great to be out in this remote location. The cycling now was a lot easier and I just thought it a shame young Max hadn’t continued his journey a little longer to see if he would have found this a more enjoyable experience. But he’d by now made up his mind that cycling around the world wasn’t for him, at least not at this time in his life, and was going to continue his travels in a different way. It was a bit of a shame things didn’t work out, but it did seem like the best thing for him.
The next day Dea and I continued to follow the dirt road around the lake, and it continued to be extremely pleasant. The highlight was seeing flamingos out on the lake. There were big flocks of them, standing around, strutting around, occasionally flying around, and it was very cool to see such beautiful birds out in their natural environment. At one point we could see llamas on the land right next to the flamingos and as well as providing us with excellent photo opportunities it was a very cool reminder of what a great place we were in.
Unfortunately all of this loveliness came to an end at the small town of Junin, where we were forced to rejoin the main highway, the shoulder of which remained uncomfortably narrow. There were enough trucks travelling this route to make it a dangerous place to be on a bicycle, and we rode on a gravel road parallel to the highway as much as we could. We made camp by this, out in the wild again, with a plan to get up very early when the highway would hopefully be less busy.
We woke up before five and got ready, but our efforts were rather futile as the road was already busy with trucks. So we stuck to the gravel roads as much as possible. After a while we had no option but to rejoin the highway, although by this stage it had developed a large shoulder and we enjoyed a fairly long downhill on it in the direction of La Oroya. As we began to approach this town, however, the traffic increased a lot and, as we entered a winding, narrow valley, the shoulder vanished completely. Suddenly we were stuck in a dangerous situation, with traffic flying around the blind corners at great speed and us having little space on the road. It proved too much for Dea, who became extremely distressed, pulling off the road and shaking with fear. It pained me so much to see her in such a state, just genuinely scared for her life. That wasn’t what this trip was supposed to be about. I sat her down and looked for a solution.
I was seriously considering whether or not we could push our bikes along the railway line that ran alongside us. We hadn’t seen any trains on it and bizarrely it seemed like the safest space in this narrow valley. But then I noticed that there was a footpath just starting up on the opposite side of the roadway, and decided that was probably a better place for pushing a bike. So we did that, and thankfully the path continued all the way into the mining town of La Oroya. Here we checked into a hotel and rested for the remainder of the day, trying to find a solution to our dilemma. There were gravel roads up in the mountains that would have almost no traffic on them, but Dea’s wrist meant we were reluctant to take them. So we did more research into the paved highways and found that they should have shoulders on them most of the way through the south of Peru, which was of course a great relief. There was just one section coming up on the next stretch where we could see there would be no shoulder at all and tight corners through a narrow valley, and this, of course, was something that concerned us.
The next day was better. The road was wider, and took us through a stunning landscape where the mountains and cliffs of the valley came in a wide variety of colours, stripes of purple, red, orange, yellow and green. There was also a little less traffic, which was good because what traffic there was drove very badly, making risky overtakes and constantly taking corners on the wrong side of the road. I had never before seen anywhere where drivers took such risks, or had such an affinity for being on the wrong side of the road. I had also never before seen a stretch of road with so many roadside memorials alongside it, the correlation between these two things apparently lost on the maniacs behind the wheel. It was certainly enough to have us fearing the shoulderless section of road that was coming up, and we stopped early and made camp just before it, hoping to find the road quieter in the early morning. We set our alarms for 4:40 a.m.
The road was unbelievably busy when we awoke. If anything there was more traffic on it than there had been the night before. What it was all doing out on the roads at such an hour I could not guess, but there was no way we were going to ride sixteen kilometres on a narrow road with no shoulder here. It simply wasn’t safe. The problem was that there were no other roads. No real roads anyway. I had seen while we were doing our research back in La Oroya that the satellite imagery on Google showed some kind of tracks going up the mountain away from where we were and reconnecting with some roads up there. I had actually dismissed it as being too difficult, but now we decided it had to be worth a shot.
Our detour began on a decent road, but that soon ended and we had to descend to a narrow pedestrian bridge over a little river. A section of flat grass was next, which was easy enough. So far, so good. But then came the steep track which switchbacked up the mountain. Indeed it was very, very steep, and a rocky surface to boot. I left Dea with the bikes and walked up it to see if it was possible, decided it just about was, and we set to work. For the next hour we pushed each bike up a section at a time, both of us working together to move each bike over the difficult terrain. A few locals passed us, and we were obviously a very unusual sight, but they were all friendly and surely only wondering what the hell we were doing. I asked Dea if she thought any other cycle tourist had ever done this. “No, I think they just ride through on the main road,” she replied, which was probably true. But this was a real adventure, and looking down at the heavy traffic on the road down below us was a good reminder of why it was we were doing it this way.
Eventually we struggled our way up to a tiny village, mostly populated by donkeys, at which point we could join a gravel road and get back upon our bicycles. That led us east to Jauja, where we rejoined the highway. It now had a shoulder and we made fast progress across a flat plain, taking the chance to ride on parallel side roads through villages whenever we could. This led us to the edge of Huancayo, where we took a cheap hotel outside of the big city. The next day we took a rest from the bikes, and I walked into the city centre to get supplies at some supermarkets, a walk which confirmed to me that we’d made the right decision in not trying to cycle in. It wasn’t a very nice place and the roads looked busy and dangerous. And we had a perfectly nice hotel, with an excellent pizza restaurant nearby where we ate two nights in a row. Pizza was a good meal for me, as I still had some nasty sores on my lip, I assumed from the sun, that were simply not healing, and it was easier to eat without a fork (that was my reasoning anyway).
The following day our decision not to ride into Huancayo was further vindicated as we were able to cycle around it on a lovely, quiet bypass instead. From there we completed another long climb, and began on another long descent. We were riding on another highway, but this one was pretty quiet. One of the vehicles that passed us was a motorcycle with panniers. I saw it in my mirror slow down so that the rider could offer Dea a high-five, before he came up to me and pulled to a stop. I noted the bike had Ohio plates, but the rider just looked at me dumbfounded for a moment from behind his helmet as if unsure of what to say. He then blurted out a muffled “Ola!” before gunning the engine and heading off down the road.
We continued our own descent, on a series of exciting switchbacks through towering mountains. Dea got ahead of me as I stopped to take photographs, and when I caught up to her I found her sitting next to the motorcyclist, who had stopped to enjoy the views with a coffee, a banana, and a joint. He stuck out his hand and introduced himself as Dan, riding from Ohio down to the bottom of South America, and who knew where from there. I took a seat and listened as Dan told stories for the next half an hour or so. He was the kind of guy who could just talk and talk and talk, but I didn’t mind at all, because unlike a lot of people who just talk and talk and talk, he was actually a very interesting guy to listen to.
“I’m fifty-nine now. Thirteen years ago I had a messy divorce, and I decided to try and get custody of our son, which was a mistake. In Ohio the mother always, always gets custody, unless you can actually prove that she’s a danger to the child. Well, his mum has problems with alcohol and such, and I tried to prove she was a danger to him, but it was tough. After two years of legal battles I gave in and signed the divorce papers. Altogether it cost me something like 150 grand.” Dan paused for a moment to take a drag. He explained that he used to smoke weed a lot when he was younger, but couldn’t do it for decades when he worked a corporate job. “I’m really getting back into it now though!” He was a fascinating man really, a big guy, long grey hair tailing out from under a dusty cap, a messy, whispy beard of sorts. It wasn’t easy to imagine him in a suit.
“So I was just working and working, corporate life, and most of my paychecks were going to pay off this debt, and I said to myself, when it’s all paid off I’m leaving. I’m going. I don’t know where, but I’m gone. Then Trump got elected! It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The night he got elected I said that’s it. I handed in my notice the next morning.”
And now Dan had been riding for a couple of years, first going around the States and Canada, and then south. “On my budget I’ve got 360 days left, then I’m broke. I won’t have anything. I don’t know what I’ll do then, and I don’t much care,” he laughed. It was the laugh of a fifty-nine-year-old man smoking a joint at the side of a road in Peru, and probably feeling like a nineteen-year-old, a free man, a man living for the moment for the first time in decades, perhaps.
Dan then addressed the question of how he had managed to fund his trip, and he did this by introducing us to the previously mysterious world of Pokemon cards. “My boy, he’s twenty-six now. When he was about eleven or twelve he got really into Pokemon cards, so I thought I’d better get into it too.” For most people that would probably involve buying their son some cards, maybe getting to know what they were, perhaps even being able to play the games against their son. For Dan, it meant something else. “So I got a job with Nintendo, with Pokemon, I was making the cards, I was one of the judges for the tournaments. My son got really good. They have these big tournaments, and he was one place away from the world series, two years in a row. You know, there were something like 4,000 kids playing in this tournament, and he got down to the final table, the last two, and he lost, two years in a row, to this same kid from Kentucky.” (Whose Dad, we can only speculate, was the other judge). “And after that second defeat my son said, Dad, I don’t want to do this anymore. I said fine, it cost me a lot of money anyway. Those cards, some of them were worth a hundred bucks, and you needed four of them, no you needed eight of them, to make a good deck. They were based on the elements, earth, wind, fire, you know, and you needed to have them all to build a good deck.” Dan got a bit carried away explaining Pokemon cards to us at this point. I was already very lost by the time he uttered the phrase, “you can’t poison her, she’s asleep,” but eventually he did get to the point. “And then years later I found this suitcase full of Pokemon cards in the back of my wardrobe. I hadn’t thought about Pokemon for years. Suddenly I had an idea. I went on Ebay and sold those cards, they made ten thousand dollars in six weeks.” (this Ebay story actually took at least ten minutes, I’ve edited it into a sentence for your benefit.)
As well as providing us with plenty of great stories, Dan also had some worrying news for us. He’d tried to enter Chile a couple of weeks earlier, and had been turned back at the border due to the protests that were taking place there. With political unrest developing in both Chile and Bolivia, our onward route beyond Peru was beginning to look a little tricky, and could easily become blocked altogether. Hearing another traveler say they’d been unable to enter Chile was certainly not a good development.
Dan eventually stopped talking and climbed back onto his giant bike. “What’s on the music next?” he said, reaching for his headphones. “Oh, Mozart!” And that would have been a great way for him to ride off into the sunset. But he couldn’t do that, because it was one-thirty, and because his bike wouldn’t start. He looked concerned for a bit, unable to figure out what was wrong, until he realized he had disconnected the gas. “Oops! That’s what happens when you smoke marijuana!” he laughed, before heading back to the road.
We followed the road ourselves down to Izcuchaca where we were briefly held up by a landslide, which seemed like it must be a fairly common occurrence on many of these roads carved into the mountainsides. From Izcuchaca we had a choice of three routes south and we’d decided that the best option for us was the furthest west, the 26 to Huancavelica and the 26B out the other side. The 26 was a well-paved, not-too-busy road that involved a 900 metre climb, a descent, and then another 600 metre climb. Such variation in altitude was becoming the norm and would remain so for the next few weeks, something our increasingly tired bodies were not super crazy about. But we worked our way through these climbs and descended down into the touristy Huancavelica, arriving in an afternoon rainstorm.
We got a hotel room and checked our emails. There was one message that caused us to freeze in shock and sadness. It was from Ludo, the lovely Belgian man who had, along with his lovely wife Alda, invited us to stay with them at their home in Turnhout on one of the very first days of this journey back in 2017. It had been a great experience to meet and stay with them, one that had given us a fantastic early taste of the kindness of strangers. We remembered them both so fondly, and we’d kept in touch with them ever since. But we knew that Alda had been sick for a while and Ludo was writing to tell us the heartbreaking news that she had lost her long battle with cancer. We were naturally terribly upset by this news. We’d known that Alda’s cancer was terminal but she had seemed to be doing well and we had been really hopeful that she would be there when we returned to Turnhout in a few months. We were both so sad, and could only hope that her suffering was over, and that she was in a better place now.
The news was naturally very distressing, but it also was a jolt to me for another reason. The sores on my lips were still not healing and were in fact getting worse. They had been a problem for five weeks now, since down in the Amazon, and I was worried. I was especially worried because when I googled ‘sores on lips that won’t heal’ every single result came back with lip cancer. My lips looked like the photos of lip cancer, and the fact that the disease was most common in males that spend a lot of time outside was hardly reassuring. I had almost never bothered to put any sunscreen or lip balm on my lips over the years, and the possibility that I might have cancer as a result was suddenly a frightening possibility. Alda’s passing was the worst kind of reminder of what the consequences could be.
The next morning we were at the hospital in Huancavelica. At the gates we were advised to head for A&E, and this we did. There a doctor quickly whisked me into a room and asked me to step on a very old set of scales, then stuck a thermometer under my armpit. “Erm, it’s actually my lip that’s the problem,” I said, pointing at the sores. The doctor then took back the thermometer and marched us through a long corridor to the main part of the hospital, where he knocked upon a door. It opened, and he explained my situation to a couple of nurses. Their response was to point to a queue of people. The line stretched down another long corridor as far as the eye could see, and was full of sick-looking locals many of whom were gesticulating wildy that they very much believed I should head right to the back of the line. While I didn’t expect any favours just because of being foreign, this looked like a hospital that was more likely to make me sick than better, and I didn’t fancy a whole day in it, so we decided it would be better to simply leave.
I decided to give my lip a proper chance to heal. It had constantly been trying to form a scab over the sores, but this would just get broken up and fall off every time I ate, so for the next couple of days I lay in the hotel room and didn’t eat. Chocolate milk, juices, yoghurts and even soups were consumed through straws, and I waited patiently for the healing to take place. A scab formed and stayed for a couple of days, but on the third day it came off and the sores underneath were revealed to be as bad as ever. It was a desperate moment. There was a very real possibility that I had lip cancer and I needed to go home. I’d resigned myself to it by this point anyway. I didn’t much trust the doctors in Peru, and if there was a chance I had cancer I couldn’t wait any longer. I needed to fly home and get the treatment I needed before it was too late. And a bus to Lima was my only option. Cycling there would take time, and mean going up over 4,800 metres again, not something I could feel good about doing after two days of malnutrition. It was over. 99,387 kilometres and it was over. Everything was falling apart anyway. Bolivia had stopped allowing tourists into their country too. With Chile and Bolivia both blocked we couldn’t keep cycling beyond Peru. I’d wanted to do the whole thing by bicycle and boats if I possibly could, but there comes a time when you need to do the sensible thing. Dea asked me how disappointed I would be to fly home and then find out it wasn’t cancer, that we could have actually stayed. “Not as disappointed as if we stay and carry on and then it does turn out to be cancer.”
We were both pragmatic about things, we knew this was probably the right thing to do. But before starting on the journey back to England we tried one more thing. Dea had noticed a pharmacy in the town that had an on-site doctor, and she persuaded me to go to see him. We also emailed some photos of my lip to Sara, Dea’s sister, who as a dentist we thought might have some valuable opinion on things. The Peruvian doctor was a middle-aged man who seemed fairly professional as I entered his small clinic behind the pharmacy. He examined my lip carefully, removing the scabs and cleaning out the sores. After a while he declared with some degree of apparent certainty that the sores were caused by a herpes infection. He prescribed an antiviral cream to apply to the sores, and told me to stop stressing so much. “And you must eat!” he said, after hearing what my own home remedies had been.
Back at the hotel a reply from Sara saying ‘looks like a severe herpes infection’ added comforting weight to the doctor’s diagnosis. I myself had ruled out herpes because of how bad it was, and because nowhere online could I find it written that such an infection would last as long as five weeks, but no doubt cycling up steep mountains in the oxygen-deprived high altitudes had done little to speed up the healing process. Of course it was an incredible relief to realise that I didn’t have cancer, having been so convinced that I did. And that we were now going to be able to continue our journey, at least as far as the Bolivian border. And the antiviral cream worked miracles – the sores shrank within a day, were gone almost completely within a week. But I had learnt some valuable lessons. No longer would I be going out in the sun without adequate sun protection on my lips for one thing. Oh, and I would probably put a bit more faith in the medical professionals now, stop trying to self-diagnose myself in future.