There is something I think we should clarify. It seems to us that many people have the impression that we are doing something particularly difficult. It is not the way we feel. We read the blogs of bike tourers that do longer distances, higher passes, in tougher weather, camp more often and survive on instant noodles and packets of cookies. Admittedly, they might be younger than us but really we are on easy street in comparison.
We had high hopes that we were going to take the Teleferico up and out of La Paz up to El Alto and ride from there but no such luck (they wouldn’t accept our loaded bikes). We ended up taking a bus to Copacabana, the small tourist town on the shores of Lago Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world (3860 M) and the largest lake in South America. Titicaca is the source of much myth and legend. It has also been at the heart of thousands of years of Andean civilizations. Ancient ruins abound. Copacabana is the access point for Isla del Sol, the largest island in the lake and the origin of the mythical founders of the Inca civilization. It is also a major tourist draw with numerous ‘energetic’ centres that attract seekers from around the world. Ironically, a feud between two communities on the island (a lot of negative energy) has resulted in 70% of the island being off limits to visitors. Despite the limitations we took the long, slow boat crossing to the island, meeting some interesting fellow travellers along the way and managed to do a great hike that involved some interesting off piste wanderings.
The following day we were off to Peru determined, come hell or high water, to ride to the fabled city of Cusco. But first we had to get used to Peruvian roads/drivers. The roads are notoriously dangerous and if all the roadside memorials are an indication the notoriety is well deserved. The drivers are aggressive, impatient and take undue risks and horn honking is the third language of the country. Regrettably our first day riding in Peru, a dog was run over by a bus right in front of me. It was a disturbing introduction to the country. The video below of traffic in Juliaca gives some indication of just how chaotic it can be. Many of the other riders we meet share our concern about the roads and hopping buses seems to be the common response. On the other hand, the feared dog attacks are relatively rare and, in my opinion, are all bark and no bite. Claire swerves to avoid them which is far more dangerous than the dogs but she’s getting better with exposure.
We find the Peruvians less reserved than the Bolivians but there are many parallels amongst these two Andean cultures. Quechua is the first language of the villages we frequent and often I struggle to be understood. We find the people honest, very hard working, stoic and very proud of their Incan heritage.
Riding at altitude continues to be a struggle. Our pace when going uphill is a crawl. I still need to ride with some sort of lip protection (my lips refuse to heal) but breathing through a surgical mask is too hard in the thin air. Both of us have trouble with our hands going numb, probably something to do with prioritizing blood flow. The swings in temperature can be quite dramatic, from hot midday sun to very cool nights. From what I can tell there is no tradition of heating in Andean homes (presumably from the lack of fuel, firewood, etc.) and all beds have min. 4 thick, heavy wool blankets…kinda nice to snuggle into.
The ride to Cusco has taken 8 days, only one of which was moderate, namely the ride into Puno. The rest were a grunt. We hit Puno on market day and before we knew it we were at a standstill. The market was vast, filling many city blocks, noisy and crowded with vendors, produce, buyers and transport of every kind. It was a challenge working our way through but nonetheless a wonder to behold. We got to our hostel, stashed our gear and headed straight back to a ceviche stall we had seen. That evening my bowels were in an uproar but considering our laissez faire attitude towards street food we have been remarkably healthy gastrointestinally.
The ride got progressively more beautiful as we neared Cusco. Hearing about the hike into Winicunca (Rainbow Mountain) we did the short side trip into the village of Pitumarca and organized a ride up to the trailhead for the following morning at 5 AM. The hike is a major tourist attraction out of Cusco but, unwittingly, we had chosen a much less traveled route to the mountain. The 1.5 hr drive to the trailhead in a small van overloaded with us, Oxana, a strong young woman from Moldavia and a few too many campesinos (country folk), was beautiful in and of itself. The hike, on the other hand, was truly stunning (yeah, I know too many superlatives….but really it was awesome!) The first 6 km, climbing to Winicunca (5010 M) was just the 3 of us and 2 Brazilians. As we neared the famous multi-hued hill our trail intersected with the standard route from Cusco and a steady stream of maybe 500 hikers! Despite the hordes it was an impressive sight. Instead of returning the way we came and trusting in our GPS app (MapOut), we did a very seldom used trail back to the Pitumarca road. It traversed a gorgeous open bowl dominated by huge, red coloured scree slopes, over a wind swept ridge (4850 M), descending into an alpaca filled, green valley where we met a shepherd and his two sons, the only people we saw in 3 hours. At one point I stooped to run my hand through a low lying shrub, untouched by the alpacas (duuhh!), and received a painful electric-like shock. The irritation lasted for hours (it was ‘ortiga’, a type of nettle). Hopefully some of our pictures adequately portray the grandeur of the landscape.
We are posting this from Cusco after completing the 5 day Salkankay Trek to Machu Picchu. We will leave this tale until our next post.