Hey there everyone, hope you’re all doing okay in this crazy new world of ours. We are both fine, safe and well and back home in Europe. This is a blog post that I wrote a few weeks ago, about a time when we were cycling in South America even longer ago, when everything in the world was still normal. Due to our blog being quite behind, it actually details events that happened last year. So even though it includes one of us getting quite sick, I can reassure you that (spoiler alert) it was not Covid19, and we are both now healthy and safe at home. Hope you are also okay, and enjoy this little escapism back to the wonderful world of 2019…
PERU, 10th – 21st December 2019
Reaching Cusco, the famous great Incan city of southern Peru, represented a significant milestone for us. Finally we had reached the end of the really big ascents and descents of the Peruvian Andes and could look ahead to some easier cycling on the much flatter altiplano. We would also enjoy a few days’ rest in the old town, although the authenticity of the steep cobbled streets, big colonial churches, and traditional large plazas was slightly ruined by the fact around eighty percent of the people around us appeared to be foreign travellers. There was barely a Peruvian in sight who wasn’t trying to offer us a massage, get us into their shop to buy their colourful blankets, or entice us to pose for a photo with the confused-looking baby llama they carried under their arms.
But being in Cusco did mean we had the chance to meet some fellow travellers, especially at the Hospedaje Estrellita, the place cyclists tend to stay when they stay in Cusco. First of all we arrived to find our old friend Anni waiting for us in the courtyard. The very same Anni who we’d cycled with in Central America and met again at the Casa de Ciclistas in Ecuador. Our reunion in Cusco actually wasn’t our first of the week, however. A few days earlier Dea and I had, having checked into a local hotel for the night in some small town somewhere, gone out in search of dinner. We natually did a double-take when we saw Anni sitting in the first restaurant we came to, along with a mysterious man. Well, the story is a little complicated, but it turned out she had reached Cusco before us by bicycle, but with the border to Bolivia closed at the time, she’d backtracked off to Lima and Nazca, and had then accepted a lift back to Cusco with the man she now sat with, and they had stopped here for a bite to eat along the way, and goodness, it felt like an extraordinary coincidence when we bumped into her there. Meeting her again in Cusco was less of a surprise, of course, and it was great to catch up with her again. And there was an added bonus, for she had just replaced her rear derailleur and she offered me the one she’d just removed, which still worked fine when I replaced the jockey wheels, and hence my bike was once again in full working order, or something close to it. Actually, on that topic it is worth mentioning that my handlebars had been growing increasingly twisty ever since I’d sawn the end off with a cheap steak knife and replaced it with a section of Max’s. Some might call me reckless for taking on the Andean descents with such a set-up, but bear in mind that some people with one arm cycle around the world, and when people with one arm cycle around the world they are congratulated. No one would call them reckless and all I ask is that I might be treated with the same respect for effectively cycling with one arm myself for a few weeks. Anyway, I decided to resolve the handlebar situation in Cusco. Not by buying a new set of handlebars, obviously, but by finding a man of approximately ninety years of age in a little metal workshop. I’d been on the lookout for just such a trusty tradesman, and I handed him my handlebars and indicated that I would like him to drill a hole through the section where they overlapped. I knew there was enough life left in the elderly gentleman to get the job done because on the wall of his dark workshop there was a poster of a bikini-clad lady showing off her buttocks. And of course he did a very fine job, as I knew very well that he would. I later finished things off by putting a nut and bolt through the hole in order to hold everything in place, and my handlebars now gave me no trouble, and I assumed, never would again.
But Anni was not the only cyclist staying at the hostel. There were also an Australian couple that Dea and I saw cycling around town on their rest day before we met them. We knew from this that they must be at the start of their trip because no one who had been on the road very long would, assuming they were of sound mind, ever, ever choose to go cycling on their rest day. Indeed, when we met them later we found out that they had not long flown into Cusco to start a short trip in South America. When we’d seen them they had been coming back from a trip out to some Incan fortress overlooking the town. “You must be sick of all this Inca stuff by now, eh?” the guy, Hamish, asked me. “Well, actually, erm, we haven’t really seen any yet.” Ah, true, we weren’t doing a lot of sightseeing in Peru. Frankly it was all we could do to survive the cycling. Of course, ninety-nine percent of tourists who come to Cusco visit the nearby Machu Pichu, but we were put off by the fact that it didn’t sound like you could cycle there, it was very expensive, and would probably be a teensy tiny little bit touristy. We settled for trying to walk up to the Incan fort the next day, but weren’t too keen on paying the £40 it would cost us for two tickets, so settled for the view we had of it from the entrance path.
There was also a Swedish cyclist named Emma, who had cycled up from Ushuaia before getting a job in a restaurant here in Cusco, where she now seemed rather settled. One night she suggested an evening at the hostel together sharing warm red wine, where perhaps the most interesting of all the guests was a guy who was actually travelling by motorbike. His name was Jonas, and he looked a little apologetic about the engine on his bike when hanging out with us cyclists. He’d ridden all of the way down from Alaska with hopes of making it down to Ushuaia, but sadly he’d been in an accident and the plaster cast on his ankle was keeping him from continuing his journey for the time being. Motorbikes are dangerous things of course, and no doubt his friends and family back home would have been worried about something like this happening, and sure enough, now here he was, hobbling around on crutches, although it is worth noting that after eighteen months of motorbiking down through the Americas, Jonas had broken his ankle while out dancing.
Jonas was a tall, slim guy with fairly long, blondish hair, who hailed from Belgium. He reminded me a little of Tom, the Belgian I’d had tremendous adventures in Indonesia and on a cruise to Australia with a few years ago, though Jonas was a little more, erm, shall we say mainstream. He was perhaps something of a cross between my old mate Tom and Ewan McGregor, who, incidentally, was his hero. “When I was young I loved Ewan McGregor so much I got my hair cut like him,” Jonas told me, something I assume he won’t mind me repeating here. There was a lot of passion and life in Jonas, an infectious, friendly warmth to him. He was living his dream, making a long journey by bike just like he’d watched McGregor do all those years ago. And he also appreciated the efforts of us cyclists, telling us he always beeped like crazy when he passed touring cyclists. The room fell silent. “Don’t do that,” someone said. Jonas looked around. We all shook our heads. “We hate that.”
Dea and I left Cusco at 5:30 a.m., a plan designed to get us out of the city while the streets were quiet. It worked extremely well, and we were soon out onto a road with a good shoulder. After thirty kilometres or so we came to our first real Incan site, which we decided we simply had to make the effort to stop and see, because it was right by the side of the road and completely free. It was actually an extraordinary thing, and I call it a ‘thing’ because I don’t actually know what it was. Some kind of aquaduct I’d say, and it was a big wall of giant stones that were cut so fine and fitted together absolutely perfectly. It was a fantastic piece of engineering, and it really impressed me, to think this was here long before any European set foot of this continent, and it looked like it would still be standing for millenia to come.
We smashed through the rest of the day, putting 126 kilometres onto our odometers before stopping for the night in a nice, cheap hotel. It was a great start to what we were loosely calling Power Week II. If you remember the original Power Week, well done, you’ve been following us a long way. That was back in China, when we decided to cycle the last 700 kilometres of the country in just seven days. Power Week II would be following a similar format, based on the fact that we only had one week left before we had to leave Peru. On the upside, we didn’t have to cycle 700 kilometres, only about 560 I think, and after the first day it seemed like it was going to be a complete doddle.
We might have overdone it a bit on day one. A mere 29 kilometres into the second day we were both feeling completely exhausted. I can hardly ever remember feeling so tired. We stopped for lunch in a small town and consulted. One final pass was ahead of us out of this town. Nothing too crazy, but enough to put fear into us in our current state. We decided it would be better to rest in a hotel and try and regain some strength, and tackle the pass with fresh legs in the morning. It was kind of a pathetic state of affairs. After snoozing through the afternoon we discussed our predicament. We were only halfway through South America after seven months on the continent, and we now only had two and a half months left to get through the second half, all the way to Buenos Aires for our boat home. It was a daunting prospect. “I’m so tired,” I said, “I just can’t do this any more. I can’t do the things I used to.” Ah yes, the glory days, when I could ride across continents at 100-kilometre-per-day pace. What had happened to me? One long day and I’m exhausted?
“You’ve just been doing this for too long,” Dea said. “You need a proper rest.”
I knew she was right of course. Ten years is a long time to ride a bike. The tiredness I felt wasn’t normal tiredness, it was a tiredness that had sunk deep inside me and wasn’t going to go away with a good night’s sleep. I needed to stop doing this and give my body a proper chance to recover. And yet, I couldn’t do that. Not yet. The challenge was on to make it to Buenos Aires in time. No matter how many times I reassured Dea that it was “Just a week in Peru, a week in Bolivia, a month in Chile and then a month to get across the very flat and easy plains of Argentina,” the truth was it felt like a challenge as tough as any I’d ever faced. And the miles ahead of us were weighing heavily on Dea too, she was even talking about taking a train across Argentina. But first we just had to get through the rest of Power Week. “Let’s just get over the pass tomorrow,” I said, “and see how we do when it gets really flat.”
We left early the next morning and got on with the climb. We were both still struggling, but thankfully the gradient wasn’t too steep, and overall it was quite pleasant cycling conditions, with snowy mountains around us to look at and a good shoulder on the not-too-busy road. After 30 kilometres of effort we finally reached the top of the pass and could relax a little, with a 400 metre descent leading us down to the really flat altiplano at last. Altiplano means high plains, and we were still almost 4,000 metres above sea level, but with a helpful tailwind we continued to make good progress. Flying along at 20 kilometres per hour, suddenly the ride to Buenos Aires didn’t seem quite so daunting.
Over the next few days our progress across the broad plains were interrupted only by the big, ugly towns of Juliaca and Puno. The latter sat on the shores of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, and it was another milestone to tick off, even if it brought more traffic to the road. The shoulder had disappeared past Puno and the traffic increased. There was gravel at the side we could dive onto if traffic came both ways at once, indeed we had little choice for there was no chance of a Peruvian braking for us. “I’m just sick of having to get out of people’s way, who have no respect or consideration for me,” Dea said, her stress levels rising.
We were at least now on top of Power Week, so the next day we had the time to try small roads to avoid the highway. This was always a little risky, and one of the first we tried was barely a road at all, just grass and rocks that got so rough we ended up having to get off and push. But with this area beside the vast lake being farmed there was some reasons for having small roads, and they soon improved. Indeed, it turned into some pleasant cycling, with us being able to ride along together and, rather than constantly having to look out for traffic, we could instead look out for animals, in a way we’d once done in Australia when we made a game out of spotting kangaroos. This time I challenged Dea to a game of spot the pig, donkey, llama, cat or kangaroo. Although there weren’t any kangaroos, it was nevertheless a high scoring game, with donkeys being especially prevalent in this part of the world for some reason, and importantly I won.
That night, the sixth of Power Week II, we reached the small town of Juli, 65 kilometres from the Bolivian border. As usual we found a cheap hotel close to the plaza and then went out in search of food. It was during this search that we spotted an unusually white face coming down the street towards us. Naturally he was as surprised to see us as we were to see him, and we soon found ourselves in conversation. The young man was Connaire (pronounced Connor, in case you’re imagining he was named after a classic Nicholas Cage movie), a Welshman who was cycling from Lima to Ushuaia. He was a friendly, easy-going guy, and we ended up eating dinner together, and making plans to meet up the following morning to ride to the border.
“I told my girlfriend about your trip last night,” Connaire said as we cycled up a short hill out of Juli, “and she told me I better not dare to go away for that long myself!” He had told us about his girlfriend already, an actress in a Welsh soap opera, who didn’t quite have the same desire to travel that he had. We reached the top of the hill and Connaire whizzed ahead on his light bikepacking bike. We caught up to him a short while later when he stopped at the side of the road. “I think I want to make a round the world trip too!” he announced.
“But what about your girlfriend?”
“Oh, she’ll understand.”
Naturally the news that Connaire was thinking about going around the world by bicycle himself had me very excited. Because of course it meant that The Apprentice was back for a second season. Sure, things hadn’t quite worked out with Max in Season One, but maybe Connaire was the man for the job, the man I could offer the benefit of my experiences to, the man to pass the baton on to. He was certainly capable of doing the cycling, at least, if the way he disappeared, batonless, off ahead of us not to be seen again was anything to go by. Dea and I kept plugging away, hoping we might catch him up, but eventually we simply had to stop and take a break on a patch of grass. “I wonder why he just left us like that?” we asked ourselves, until a few minutes later Connaire came along the road and joined us. It turned out he’d stopped for something to eat in a town along the way and we’d been the ones cycling away from him. Well, it was good to be reunited, and we were soon joined by a local man whose garden I think we might have been sitting in. He was very friendly, and only curious as to what we were doing.
After a little while we all rode on together. All apart from the man from the house I mean, he didn’t have a bike. We were riding on the highway, the only road to the border, and there was no shoulder at all so we had to be very careful with the traffic. Connaire was wearing a green and black check shirt, which made him just about perfectly camouflaged, and had no mirror or helmet. I’m always a little surprised by cyclists who don’t want to take basic precautions to lower their risk of getting flattened by a truck, and have generally always tried to recommend simple things like being more visible, but some cyclists just don’t want to know, or get offended, or find it annoying. So I broached the subject with him carefully. But Connaire wasn’t like that at all. He listened to what we had to say, and seemed to take it all on board, saying he would try and get a high-viz vest and a mirror as soon as possible. He saw how Dea and I watched the traffic in our mirrors carefully and pulled over when vehicles were coming in both directions, or not pulling out and giving us enough space. The previous day Connaire had been complaining about the number of close passes he’d had on these roads, and we’d shown him how you can avoid them just by having a mirror and using it, and he was lapping it up, taking it all in, saying he would do the same. It really seemed like he was basically just perfect Apprentice material.
A clearly intelligent fellow, Connaire told us he was the owner of two houses back in Wales, despite the fact that he was still only 26 years old. He told us about how he’d bought the first one cheap after it had burnt down. He’d had it rebuilt and was now renting it out for a tidy profit. It was a similar story with the second property. “There are lots of old run-down properties that aren’t being used but aren’t on the market. I just find out who owns them and make them an offer.” It was all very impressive, but I couldn’t help thinking that with this entrepeneurial spirit, young Connaire might have accidentally applied for the wrong Apprentice show. The real Lord Sugar could surely use a guy like him. “After the second house was done, I was automatically looking for the next one to do up. But I just thought, no, I want to do something else, something different.” And so now here he was in Peru, on a bicycle, doing something different.
We rode through the afternoon on the highway. With every car that overtook towards me head-on I was counting down to the end of Peru, and the end of the idiotic Peruvian drivers. Some of the worst in the world, surely. But finally the border town of Desaguadero arrived, and it was the sorriest looking town in all the world, all run-down, half-finished brick buildings. Lots of potential for Connaire to do up properties here, if he’d still been in that game. But as we reached the border area itself we came across the most extraordinary market scene. It felt as if there were a million people suddenly, bustling about, trading, smuggling, selling goodness knows what. We somehow found immigration and it was a breeze, we had our exit stamps in seconds. Then we had to join the crowds that were crossing a pedestrian bridge that linked Peru and Bolivia. It was all rickshaws and people walking with heavy loads, bright colours, and shouts of “Paso, paso!” from those trying to squeeze through gaps. It was a fascinating place, but you couldn’t pause for a moment to take it in or you’d be trampled for sure. We moved with the flow until we were safely on the Bolivian side, where the market continued on down the street. It was the most open border I’d seen outside of Europe, and no one was stopping us, so we decided to find a hotel first, then worry about finding immigration later.
The hotel was a miserable old building, filthy and grey, but it would have to do for the night. We went out and found immigration, and soon had our entry stamps for Bolivia. Connaire then decided to walk back into Peru to withdraw money, and Dea and I embarked on a pathetic search for pasta. There were so many shops and stalls everywhere lining the streets, but none of them selling anything we might want to eat. Oh, if you wanted some greasy chicken, a piece of Chinese plastic crap, or a dead llama baby, that would be no problem, but pasta, no, no one has pasta. People here were not friendly, it felt like a desperate place, an unsafe place to be. We couldn’t wait to head out into the emptiness of the Bolivian altiplano.
But before we could do that we really did have to do some shopping, so the next morning we all headed back over the bridge into Peru. Technically we might have been doing so illegally, but I can assure you that nobody around here could have cared less. The shopping in Peruvian Desaguadero was barely any better than in Bolivian Desaguadero, but we at least found some pasta and some peanuts. Back in Bolivia we went to a market away from the border area, and found a decent enough selection of fruits and vegetables, and some white crusty bread that actually turned out to be pretty tasty. With these supplies we rode out into the vast empty nothingness of the Bolivian high plains.
It felt great to be away from civilization. We were riding on dirt tracks, but they were smooth enough most of the time that we could keep up a decent pace, especially with the help of a nice tailwind. For a while there were still farmed fields, where Dea spotted quinoa being grown. “Do you know quinoa is grown almost exclusively in Peru and Bolivia,” she said. “They used to live on it, but now they export it to Europe for profit and eat rice themselves.”
“Which is probably imported from Asia,” I said. Sometimes the world seems really silly.
It wasn’t long before the farmed fields ended and we were out into real empty nothingness. Just vast sandy grasslands where we occasionally saw herds of llamas being tended by presumably very lonely people, but otherwise it was just the three of us, making our way across this empty land. It was the kind of place Dea and I had longed for. We’d hoped for more of it in Peru, but there we’d mostly been forced to travel through populated farmland. At last we were away from all that now. We turned off onto a worse road, where the traffic decreased from one or two vehicles an hour to no vehicles an hour. This road was in a sorry condition, all bumpy and rutted and full of puddles, but it was fun to weave in and out and make our way deeper into the wilderness.
We’d ridden 70 kilometres from Desaguadero when we decided to stop and make camp. Because of the troubles in Bolivia, and because the wet season was about to flood the salt flats, we were only cutting through a small corner of the country, and were keen to keep up a good pace to reach Chile in time to celebrate Christmas, and 70 kilometres felt like a good start. We made camp in amongst the shrubby plants close to the road. It didn’t matter, there wasn’t anyone around to see us. Once the tents were up, Connaire and I cooked dinner down in a nearby dry riverbed to get out of the wind. I was doing the cooking as Dea was feeling tired and unwell. I just got a pot of food made before the rainstorms reached us, and hurried back to the tent with it. I found Dea looking very poorly, and she couldn’t face eating anything. I felt her forehead. It was red hot. Thunder roared all around us, lightning lit up the sky, one bolt struck frighteningly close to us. But the nightmare was just beginning for Dea as she reached for the tent zipper. It was just the start of a very long night for her, a long, long night of constantly throwing up everything she had inside her. Her body was unable to hold anything down, not even water. It was the most awful timing, the first night we’d camped out in weeks, the first night away from civilization. And we really were a long way from civilization. What were we going to do?