PERU, 22nd November – 8th December 2019
“I’ve done it!” I shouted out as Dea pedalled up towards me. We were nearing the top of the highest pass of the trip, around 4,800 metres above sea level, high in the Peruvian Andes. It had, I assume, been a long and tough climb, although I hadn’t actually noticed it myself. I’d been too busy stuck in my own head, as way back down at the start of the climb I’d suggested playing a round of The Word Game. Usually this very fun game involves us both saying a random four-letter word, then trying to connect those two words by a chain of other words, with just one letter being allowed to change at a time, but for some reason this time I’d suggested using five-letter words instead. The words we’d come up with as starting points were ‘catch’ and ‘stare’, and if you want to try and connect them yourself feel free to pause reading and give it a go, although I don’t really recommend it as I’m sure you have better things to do.
“Catch-watch-witch-winch-wench,” I began.
“What’s a wench?”
“It’s a slang word for a prostitute I think. Wench-bench-beach-peach-perch-porch-torch-touch-tough-rough-rouge. I think rouge is maybe a French word, but it’s like a colour of lipstick or something.”
“Yeah it’s make-up I think. It’s a word.”
“Wow, Chris. Well done. You need to write that down, put it in the blogpost.”
“Yeah, people need to know about that.”
Well, I don’t know if you really needed to know about that extraordinary 28-word chain, but I can certainly recommend the game as a good way to get up long climbs on bicycles. By the time I completed my chain of words we had less than a hundred metres of ascent to go, and the final stretch was itself improved by a huge herd of llamas that, for some reason, felt the need to run away from us. Being surrounded by hundreds of galloping camelids (it’s a word) was fun, as was watching them as they stopped and settled by a lake near the top of the pass. Being above 4,800 metres with no one around except for hundreds of funny-looking creatures (and Dea), colourful patterns on the peaks around us, was truly a special moment. A short while later we reached the summit of the pass. 4,825 metres above sea level according to the sign at the top, 4,845 according to Dea’s phone, but either way it was the highest point of the trip and our lives.
The descent was a less enjoyable affair. The weather took a turn for the worse, and we began to be pummelled by hailstones that were the size of golf balls, if you can imagine someone for some reason playing golf with tic-tacs. We had nowhere to hide and chose to keep riding, but we soon became cold and wet, and so we stopped and got out the plastic sheeting we’d until recently been using as a makeshift tent flysheet, and we made a temporary shelter to hide under, shivering. After a while the weather improved and we were able to ride on, but the delay meant that we weren’t able to get down as low as we wanted before it was time to set up camp. We had to do so at around 4,500 metres, the highest night of our lives. Not long after we got the tent up, it began to snow.
We awoke to a beautiful winter scene, with snow all over the mountain peaks around us. It was an inch thick on the ground around us too, but fortunately the road wasn’t too bad and we were still able to cycle. The sun soon came up to warm us, and altogether it made for a beautiful morning ride. We soon came to some high altitude lakes, where we were a little surprised to see flamingoes in the shallows.
“I really didn’t think such a pink bird would be such a trooper,” Dea said, admiring their cold tolerance. “I thought they’d be hanging out in Costa Rica or something.”
I was just impressed that Dea knew the word trooper.
Long climbs and long descents were becoming our routine now, and the next day we found ourselves winding up a series of elaborate switchbacks through even more colourful mountains of bare orange and yellow rocks. There were no trees and nowhere to hide if the thunder and lightning that seemed to always be nearby should hit us. We got to the top around midday, and at over 4,700 metres it was the highest either of us had been since the day before yesterday. It was the wet season in Peru, but so far that seemed to mean rain would come in the evenings, but today the storm caught up to us early and it began to rain and hail on us just as we began our descent. We rolled down into this awful weather. I found it exhilarating to ride through the storm, thunder crashing around us, shapes of mountains through the gloom that grew more snowy with each moment, but it was extremely tough also. Our hands and feet soon froze with the cold and the wet. Water was splashing up off the road onto our feet and this was especially tough on Dea, who had only running shoes for protection. She was soon in agony, as her feet felt like they would freeze off. We stopped and I tried my best to help, warming her feet with my breath and wrapping them in plastic bags to keep them warm and dry as best we could. We continued on down, praying desperately for a restaurant or somewhere we could escape to dry off. After what felt like an eternity we descended down into a narrow valley where a village appeared, and finally a restaurant. We got ourselves inside, dripping wet and looking miserable. I would go so far as to say we looked like drowned rats, if rats were almost six feet tall, wore clothes, and looked like humans.
The waitress, who wore a traditional outfit involving a very tall hat (all Peruvian women wear hats), and a blanket tied around her neck like a cape, took our order, which involved a lot of hot coffee. The restaurant was not especially warm, but it was dry, and we stayed for many hours, watching sopping wet llamas and dogs through the cracked window pane, the sound of the rain pummelling the corrugated roof above us keeping us in our seats. At one point two German girls, riding motorbikes from Colombia to Ushuaia, arrived. The advantage of having combustion engines on your bikes was revealed when they said they would press on to the next town of Ayacucho for a hot shower and a hotel room. That was out of our reach, but eventually the rain eased enough for us to head back out and find a place to pitch our tent.
Once again it was sunny in the morning and we were able to dry everything out. In truth the weather wasn’t too bad considering it was the wet season, and we usually had quite bright skies in the mornings. And so for the next ten days or so we continued east towards Cusco, constantly rising and falling over one mountain pass after another, the elevation profile for this part of the journey looking very much like it belonged on a hospital heart rate monitor. We travelled through lush green mountains, often farmed, with people living in simple homes along the way, shepherds with animals. Other times it was more remote, where llamas roamed freely. And although we were following the main highway, the 3S, it rarely had very much traffic on it. That wasn’t to say it was completely safe though, for Peruvian drivers are surely some of the worst in the world, and we continued to be irritated by their tendency to drive on the wrong side of the road. They would cut corners so completely that they would often come right at us the wrong way around a bend, and it was a curious phenomenon unique to Peru that we had more close passes from traffic going in the opposite direction than from that going the same way as us. How we got through the country without seeing a head-on collision I will never know.
One highlight of this time was meeting another touring cyclist for the first time in Peru. We had expected to meet a lot more in South America, so it was nice to encounter one after so long. We first noticed him when we took a break on a long climb, and looked back down the switchbacks we had just ascended to see a truck moving slowly up towards us, with a cyclist gripping onto the back. We wondered if he might prefer to continue this free ride all the way to the top, rather than stop to chat with us, but as he got close and saw us he let go, gave a wave of thanks to the driver, who I’m quite sure had no idea he was there, and came over to us. He introduced himself as Ruslan, from Ukraine, and he was a big, tall, outgoing fellow with a lot to say. Over the course of five years he’d biked down through Africa, across Asia, and then down here from Alaska. But he did it six months at a time, then went back to his home in Odessa to work each summer. “My way is better,” he said, “because people remember you when you go back. If you go for years they forget you. They want photos, they want videos.” It turned out Ruslan was a bit of a celebrity in Ukraine for his travels, with 15,000 Instagram followers helping him gain sponsorship for his travels. He was certainly an interesting character, but he took exception to one thing. “I hate it when they call me gringo!” he protested, saying he got angry whenever a Peruvian shouted it out at him, that he would give them the finger, or stop and give them a good telling off. The frequent shouts of gringo could certainly get a little irritating, but the people in Peru were on the whole extremely friendly, and there would always come a wave or a smile from those that shouted out to us. Well, Ruslan said he planned to be in Cusco in four days to meet up with a friend. It would take us eight, but I guess it’s a little easier if you get towed up the hills. As we watched Ruslan go off ahead of us to blaze a trail, us following along behind, I said, “I guess we’ll get called gringo less now. But probably get fewer friendly waves too.”
Over the course of this long stretch of one pass after another, I neared a tremendous milestone. I had cycled almost 100,000 kilometres since Paris, and was therefore closing in on being able to tick off one of the seven challenges I’d set myself. It would be just the third I’d completed, and the first since rolling into Mori over a year and a half earlier. But with less than a hundred kilometres to go, my bike decided it had had enough after 99,900 kilometres, and broke. The rear derailleur for some reason mysteriously stopped pulling back as it should. I say mysteriously, I’m pretty sure me kicking it to try and get it to shift into my lowest gear had something to do with it. Anyway, with the loss of tension it was no longer functional, but I came up with one of my trademark unorthodox repair jobs, and tied one end of a bit of elastic cord (that had been kept from our old tent for just such a moment) to the derailleur, and the other to my rear rack, and the derailleur was once again just about useable, at least in a couple of gears.
By the next morning we only had seventeen kilometres to go to reach my goal. It was thankfully mostly downhill, although there was one short uphill section which required me to stop and adjust the derailleur. Then there was more downhill, then the last couple of kilometres were flat, and the derailleur needed adjusting again, but I couldn’t be bothered so I was just kicking myself along on the ground like I was riding a kick scooter, limping pathetically towards my 100,000th kilometre. But then I thought, no, this is not going to happen like this, so I adjusted the derailleur, and rode my 100,000th kilometre like a proper cyclist might. It was through beautiful mountain scenery, taking me past a dog lying in the road, a family ploughing their little field with two cows, things I’d seen a hundred thousand times before, but the things that make travelling special, and on to my goal. It was a nice moment to reach the landmark distance, a feeling of relief to have finally achieved something I’d been working on for over six years. I celebrated by eating a mango.
But the show must go on, and we carried on with the descent all the way down to 1,850 metres, where we crossed a river and began the last of our long Peruvian ascents. It was one of the longest though, being about 2,000 metres of altitude gain. It was especially tough as I could no longer use my small front chainring for reasons best known to my rear derailleur, and so I was stuck in one far-from-ideal gear. It was also pretty hot, with plenty of flies, and that gave us motivation to get back up high. There were also tarantulas down at this altitude, and since finding one in the tent porch a few days earlier we’d been staying in cheap hotels (for unrelated reasons). This night was no exception, and when I got on the Wi-Fi I began looking more into my seven targets, especially those that remained. I knew that Peru was roughly opposite Southeast Asia so I looked for a mapping website that would make it easy to see antipodal points, and soon discovered that cycling 100,000 kilometres was not the third of my challenges to be completed, but the fourth. I could see that just a few days earlier we’d cycled through a point on an Andean road that was exactly opposite of a point on a Cambodian road I’d ridden on back in 2015. My goal to pass through antipodal points could also therefore be ticked off. After completing only two of my goals in the first six years, I’d just got another two in less than six days!
Which leaves me pursuing three challenges. I only need to visit Africa to have cycled on all the inhabited continents, and, while we won’t be doing an extended trip through the continent this time, I’ll probably be able to pop over to Morocco and tag it on the way home. As for riding in a hundred countries, Peru was only number seventy-four, and getting to another twenty-six, not very likely to happen I’m afraid. And then the last challenge, return with more money than I left with, that remains very much in the balance. But even if I don’t make it to a hundred countries, or come back with a tidy profit, don’t worry, there was also something about a special bonus challenge, which is one challenge I remain confident about.