Archive for July, 2012

High Times on the Altiplano

July 26th, 2012 by Ian

A respite has finally arrived! I’ve landed upon the high Altiplano (high plains) of South America after one of the biggest pushes of the trip so far, covering 710km in 5 days from Cusco, Perú to La Paz, Bolivia. It has been an epic ride to the almost treeless flats with a gorgeous cycle around Lake Titicaca and into country number 13 of the journey.

6 days in Cusco was plenty although I never intended as much. I was warned by Dave Cassidy, the Waterford owner of famed party hostel Loki that it would be dangerous and foolish to visit there for a drink the night before I intended to leave as he could all but guarantee I’d never pedal off the next morning. He has obviously witnessed this naivety on a grand scale before and therefore wasn’t the least bit surprised to watch me dance ungracefully on top of the bar to some thumping music later that night.

Needless to say I learned my lesson but did eventually cycle out of beautiful Cusco one day later, still jaded from an over-exuberant evening. On my way out I met Bruce, a Canadian motorcyclist who bought me breakfast a couple of days earlier. He has been travelling south since Vancouver, destined for Ushuaia like me but unfortunately his journey was over there and then on the side of the road. With passport and documents stolen while fixing his bike, the Canadian authorities now refused to issue new motorcycle papers and was the first instance of immediate theft I’ve come across on the trip. It was another reminder to be extra careful and vigilant here with less than 3 months remaining until the end.

The perfectly paved road from Cusco rises gently over 800m to Abra La Raya Pass about 110km away, which is just about perfect compared to the previous months climbing in the Peruvian Andes. While the landscape remained dry and rocky with little vegetation except hardy plants, I did see what looked like pine trees for the first time in months, adding some much needed colour to a predominantly brown canvas. Up and over the pass, it became less exiting in terms of life but the beginnings of the Altiplano had a special grandeur all of their own. Coming higher to the snowline, not so distant mountains were dusted in white and agriculture seemed to multiply on the more favourable terrain, albeit in a parched fashion as the rainy season departed over 5 months ago and won’t return for a similar time either.

The most striking aspect of riding at 4000m is that its cold. Damn cold. My first night up I pitched the tent behind the walls of an abandoned farm building and beside the railway tracks which the road had paralleled all day. I was warned it’d be rough after sun-down but I never imagined the temperature would drop almost immediately. Luckily I heeded advice from other cyclists and was inside my sleeping bag by 6.30pm, already chilling nicely and with a shallow breath visible, panting in the thinner air. I awoke several times over the night not just from the temperature but also as my sleeping mattress deflated slowly from old puncture wounds suffered in Baja California, Mexico. However, I had made sure to put the tent in a position open to the east, across from a dip in some hills so I’d catch the first rays of morning. With my water bottles completely frozen I cracked some ice out with a spoon, enough to make a breakfast coffee on the stove which I enjoyed with bare feet exposed and warming to a slowly rising sun. All in all though, it was pretty great as I was forced up at literally the crack of dawn and was completely awake for the first kilometres. A fresh morning like this really can make you feel so alive out here.

Lago Titicaca is the largest lake in South America and a majorly impressive sight to behold. It can only be truly appreciated from above but unfortunately my first opportunity for this was squandered by an after dark arrival in Puno the previous night with 110miles (176km) on the clock – my biggest day yet. However, I did plan to cycle between Lago Titicaca and Laguna Winaymarca the following day which involved a 10km climb up to 4200m and with breathtaking vistas right out over this huge body of water. The magnificently lengthy Cordillera Real stretched along the eastern horizon too while alpacas and sheep grazed in the middle-distance on the far side, giving a three tier scene of lake, agriculture and mountains.

In amongst all of this, I entered Bolivia through Copacabana and scratched another country from the list. Although I’ve only been here a few days (La Paz in just 155km from the border) it might be possible to discern a few things about the country. It definitely looks and feels a little poorer thus far – if I can deduce that from the greater amount of clay brick houses that seem to be in a reduced condition, smaller and drier amounts of land connected to them and the rock bottom prices of food and other commodities. My first huge lunch of rice, meat, potatoes, salad and a coke cost just €1.20 where you would pay more for just the latter in many countries. Saying that however, ‘life’ has increased yet again over a border. The dresses are bigger and brighter on the women, the bowler hats have gotten bowl-ier and I passed by 2 town festivals with traditional dancers, brass instruments and singers on my cycle into La Paz. Not for the first time on this trip, I’m beginning to believe that the true measure of poverty shouldn’t always be defined in terms of economics because if the colour of life were included these could be amongst the richest people on earth.

I’m going to hang around in La Paz for one more day before heading to the giant, white desert of Salar de Uyuni – one of the most anticipated sights on the ride south. I’m also excited to visit Fundacion Arco Iris tomorrow, an organisation working towards improving the lives of street children in La Paz. Áine, my girlfriend, worked with them and lived here for one year so turning her old stories into reality is sure to be an eye-opener but also a great privilege as I get to meet some extremely inspiring people.

Total miles/km: 13,400mi/21,565km

Current location: La Paz, Bolivia

The Lost City

July 17th, 2012 by Ian

Great expectation can be the ruination of occasion. It can also be an ideal appetiser to the grand spectacle. So, I wasn’t sure what to expect in the days preceding my visit to Machu Picchu – the ‘Lost City of the Incas’ – as I would need to battle swathes of tourists in a place that I imagined should deliver one of those ‘life moments’.

Before visiting Machu Picchu, I was a touch afraid of becoming too excited at the prospect of arriving to one of the world’s most incredible archaeological and cultural sites. Maybe the crowds would take away from what otherwise could be a spiritual experience? Would I feel that much talked about energy? Would I simply be just…. amazed? Sometimes one can think just a little too much.

I arrived to Aguas Calientes, the little tourist fuelled town at the base of Macchu Picchu in late afternoon and disembarked Peru Rail’s 3-carriage Vistadome to a maze of tacky souvenir sellers, expensive restaurants and overpriced hotels. The town is solely sustained by the 2,000 or so travellers that arrive daily for what lies just a few kilometres away on a slender ridge overlooking the roaring Río Urubamba, hundreds of metres below.

Determined not to miss an opportunity of being one of the first through the gates, I awoke at 4am and quickly devoured a tuna sandwich and bar of chocolate for energy as no food or water is permitted onto the site. Unsurprisingly I wasn’t the only one with such a bright idea and I entered the bus line of shivering site-goers as local women paced the street, unmercifully plying us with coffee and coca leaf tea. Along the 20 minute bus journey to the gates, headlamped walkers appeared along the roadside in groups of 2, 3, 5, 10 and more – many struggling in attempt to arrive earlier but altitude and the grade of the road clearly proved sufficient contest to their objectives.

At 5.48am the gates clicked open and the first of thousands descended upon the great Quechan city lost until just yesterday in historical time. I knew where I wanted to be and made my way with haste to the Hut of the Caretaker whose surrounding terraces provide one of the most impressive vistas over the entire complex. I was also motivated by the fact that my Dad had mentioned a short while ago that he would love a photo of myself and Machu Picchu as he saw in another visitor’s report. With my parents sowing the seed of travel in me long ago; I wanted to capture just an instant of the day for them, as an instant may be all I’d have anyway. And as the sun has repeated for hundreds of years on this city, it rose over the jagged eastern mountains and cast soft rays over temples, thatched houses and verdant green plazas. The ‘moment’ truly was all you could wish for.

The Machu Picchu site occupies a ridge central and high in the Urubamba river valley. The sound of the river can be heard far below when all else is quiet enough. Layered upwards, almost in patterned sequence are rougher cut mountains that appear as aspirations to the beautiful four faced form and style of Wayna Picchu which guards over the northern aspect of the complex. Far off, some snowy peaks sit quietly in the background. Walking amongst the ruins themselves, accents the world over reverberate around the ancient walls while small streams, perfectly canalled by the Incans into residential areas trickle downhill where alpacas cool off on the dozens of agricultural terraces.

With noise and crowds on the rise, I started to wonder what it must be like empty. Then again, during the brief 100 year lifespan of Machu Picchu and its natural state, it wouldn’t have been anyway. However, I was reminded of Teotihuacan, the pre-Aztec city of pyramids close to Mexico City which I visited absolutely devoid of others in January and which a gaze backwards in time seemed almost impossible not to experience. Still, with Machu Picchu full of others like me, it retained an air of grandeur. I explored temples filled with rock carved condors, an astronomy overlooking the main plaza and some roofless buildings that held intriguing circular basins in the floor meant for reflecting stars but I figured my face would suffice as it was daytime!

I didn’t envisage I’d write a blog entry recounting just 4 hours from last Sunday morning but it’s no wonder that this is one of the most special places on the planet. Its stunning location must define its popularity nowadays but the cultural significance of the place as Peruvian or world heritage doesn’t go unnoticed either. In the former’s sense too, I can – for the umpteenth time – count myself extremely privileged to come here when the vast majority of Peruvians will never have the financial means or time to worry about witnessing perhaps this most treasured masterpiece of their cultural inheritance.

And so, 1 year on from departing Prudhoe Bay in tundric northern Alaska, I spend the anniversary in Cusco. With a wealth of friends made, American experience had and 21,000km pedalled, it has been a pretty indescribable year.

Total miles/km: 12,958mi/20,855km

Current location: Cusco, Perú

The short road to Cusco

July 13th, 2012 by Ian

The big Andes of Peru are over for the time being and not in the fashion I had hoped for. The rear wheel’s rim has cracked again for the 3rd time on trip meaning the ever unwanted bus journey. However, I have arrived to Cusco and there’s probably no better place to spend the repair time.

When I heard the clunk, clunk, clunk approaching the 4150m mountain pass Abra Soracocha, I immediately suffered a flashback to Costa Rica just 3 and a half months ago when the same sound heralded the end of that particular road. This time round, I didn’t even need to look down as I was 100% sure the supposedly stronger Velocity Chukker rim had split. All I could do was munch on a packet of pretty decent Peruvian biscuits, stick the thumb out and wait for a passing truck or bus.

The road from Ayacucho in south central Peru to Cusco, 550kms further east was one of the most anticipated of the journey. 5 big mountains passes, all stretching to over 4000m were stuck between me and some proper rest time in Cusco, where I had intended to take 4 days off the bicycle – an unusual extended period but one my legs were overexcited about. Although it scares the hell out of you when looking at the route profile of this particular route, there’s also the knowledge upon finishing that you’ve probably completed one of the toughest sections of terrain you’ll ever ride and therefore the achievement is magnified. Unfortunately, that will have to challenged some other time and now I turn my mind to getting the right parts (Velocity USA are shipping a new heavier rim free of charge) and the right bike shop to rebuild it.

Before all this, the road had proven pretty pleasant. I spent a day cycling uphill on pavement followed by a night downhill on dirt after I mis-calculated the distance and time to Ocros, a town I could see in the fading evening light far off in a valley. A few cuts to my tendon and bruised morale was the price paid as I rode into town to find not a single room available in the 2 hotels as road construction workers had them booked up for months. As the fire station, school or police station are decent bets for charity after 8pm, I went in search of the latter who had a bed made for me on the floor before I even unpacked my bicycle. And for the second time I began reading Dervla Murphy’s Full Tilt: Ireland to India by Bicycle, proving to me just how easy I have it (the roads of Persia and Afghanistan in the 60’s wouldn’t be wished upon even your worst cycling enemy!).

For breakfast the following morning, I had the most important meal a cyclist could ever have – a 30km perfectly graded downhill. I was also in pursuit of Gerard, a Dutch cyclist I met in the town square that morning and a guy with more guts than me as he sped off down the gravel road, meandering between crossing goats and local children playing football. At the Río Pampas which marks the end of the descent and beginning of the climb to Uripa, I overtook Gerard and we agreed to meet for dinner in town that night. None of us made it however, Gerard finding a car to take him to Andahuaylas and I felt the all too disheartening twinge in my left knee, last felt in Canada and for which I had 2 months of physiotherapy to relieve prior to Alaska. I reckon if the rim hadn’t got, the knee was waiting in the wings! Dodging angry anti-government protests in Talavera and riding my bike through broken glass after, well, their anger spilt to the streets, I made Andahuaylas in time to catch an overnight connecting bus the 300 or so kilometers to Cusco.

Instead of cursing some bad luck, it’s time to look at a very bright side. I have the Sacred Valley and Macchu Picchu to visit (will wait a few days for the knee to repair), an incredible city in Cusco to get lost in and copious amounts of coffee to be drunk. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a high tourist to native ratio in my life either. Looking out this cafe window towards the Cathedral right now, all I can make out are camera’s flashing, wide brimmed Panama hats and a swathe of energetic teenagers dressed to the hilt in North Face.

Total miles/km: 12,958mi/20,855km

Current location: Cusco, Perú

Canyons and Cordillera

July 7th, 2012 by Ian

What a couple of weeks of riding. Peru has thrown down the gauntlet since Trujillo but in return I have had a pretty spectacular path at 4000m+ altitude. Although I’m getting less air for my breath, it would probably have been taken away by this landscape anyway.

It will be quite difficult to describe in detail the varied amount of terrain that has been crossed in the 2 weeks since I left the coastal confines of Trujillo. In a very basic geographical sense, I wound eastward through stunning and bone chilling canyons until I appeared at the base of the Cordillera Blanca – the world’s 2nd highest mountain range after the mighty Himalayas. From there I took on some of the roughest and dare I say it, unrewarding roads I’ve ever cycled into an Alpine feeling countryside until I met asphalt again in busy Huánuco. It was an easy and uninterrupted path south then which involved one slight uphill gradient, a restful day on the treeless plains and a quick descent to Huancayo before further deteriorating roads led me through drier river valleys and towards the colonial gem that is Ayacucho.

For me, Peru really didn’t get started until I made my way to the snowy peaks of the Cordillera Blanca. However, preceding that was Canon del Pato – a narrow river gorge so steep that it denied much daylight grace its foundations. Unfortunately for me, I struck the canyon at the worst possible time, arriving late with night falling and therefore camp space in short supply apart from man-sized holes bored into the walls of the 20 or so tunnels that permitted the road passage. The majesty of Canon del Pato seemed multiplied by night, feeling almost claustrophobic, penned in by rockface that could only be sized by the narrow slant of space above allowing a few twinkling stars make their presence felt. Thankfully, it’s not that long and upon exit I was offered space to camp at the back of a housing block owned by Duke Energy who manages dams on the Río Santa river. I even made a new friend – Diana – a small and hysterical dog who hung around my tent until the small hours and for the first time helped me regain some faith in canines who are more used to attacking my panniers as I cycle past!

The next week was a picture-perfect, postcard Peru. I based myself in Caraz instead of the adrenaline fuelled, hiker mecca of Huaraz further south and was glad for the quieter atmosphere. I even stretched some previously unused muscles as I took a morning and afternoon stroll around Lago Llanganuco close to Yungay and spent a decent amount of time watching the European Championships in cafes close to the town square. It was needed however, as the coming days cycle were bound to test me as much as any other on the trip so far.

Punta Olimpica Pass is 4900m and the highest motorable road over the Cordillera Blanca. Ever since the inspiration of a previous cycle journey’s photo album, I had to tackle this path which would see me reach my highest altitude yet in an area of frequent snowstorms, freezing temperatures and almost perfect wilderness. It took a day and a half of full climbing and constant dizzying switchbacks to reach the top where I also ran out of food but luckily not water as a constant supply was dripping from glaciers bounding the road. I was even lucky enough to be fed fish, rice, potatoes, oranges and soup at 4600m by a construction crew that are upgrading the stony surface to asphalt. Although I’m usually delighted to see an improvement in road surface for it leads to far easier cycling, it does rid areas such as this of a certain untamed, truly wild element. Then again, I suppose any road would do this to an extent.

And what goes up, must come down. It was a steep 35km descent into the town of Chacas and the ride is remembered for only a few things – the numbness in my extremities, the dramatic snow and ice fields crawling down the mountainsides and the atrocious road surface. The latter was to continue and get far worse of the next few days as I came face to face with the realities of touring in such a large and poor country.

For most cyclists, headwind probably ranks number one on the list of things most hated. However, the road surface I encountered heading east away from the Cordillera must come severely close and was by far the hardest road cycled on the entire trip. Although agriculture reappeared at healthier altitudes and what I can only call a very Swiss landscape came into view, I was constantly cursing the surface. Huge rocks, sometimes a foot wide, were randomly scattered with sand and dust polvo filling in the cracks. Smaller stones shunted my wheels from side to side and I became all too familiar with the grass verge to stop and calm. My recently ordered Schwalbe Marathon Touring tyres couldn’t come soon enough but for now I realised I’d have to struggle on with the smaller, more unsuitable ones I was running. They are due to arrive in Cusco next week and from what I read, the 560km road from where I am now to there isn’t exactly a doddle either!

Eventually the pain subsided and pure earth replaced the scattered stones and eventually paved surface replaced all that. I was surprised at how fast I travelled from Huánuco in Central Peru to Huancayo, a direct 340km run through a sometimes narrow, sometimes wide valley. I got my first kick from the altitude too in Cerro de Pasco which claims to be the world’s highest city at 4330m and I was nobody to argue as I shivered and limped into a mid-town hostel at 8pm. That night was pretty uncomfortable, waking on and off feeling queasy and for once sure it wasn’t the chicken dinner I had earlier in the evening.

What looked like Altiplano (High Plains) guided me onwards the next day as I gradually regained breath and morning sun permitted removal of thermal gloves. The scene was spectacular. Short grass, treeless flats and alpacas grazing by Lago de Chinchaycocha almost seemed surreal; anticipation I was saving until Bolivia where I should run into some long distance flat ground at equally challenging heights. Finally, it felt as if it was becoming more remote again, something I have craved ever since leaving Canada. It has been a very rare occurrence since that time – almost 10 months ago – that open space devoid of human activity could be pedalled through and I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a longing to be back in that physical and mental space. It seems that surrounding the equator population density is greater – limiting wild ground, fresh water, roaming animals and anything else that adheres to the notion of an untouched place. Further south should see that all open up and I can’t wait.

I’m now in Ayacucho, a charming colonial town that has only recently welcomed back the visitors as it had been the base for terrorist activities against the Peruvian government in the 80’s and 90’s. When I arrived yesterday it felt alot like Tepic, Mexico the first town I instantly succumbed to. It’s small enough to feel country and large enough to keep occupied. I also met 2 German cyclists last night coming from Argentina and have now blue scribbles all over my maps with top-notch info on everything from road conditions to isolated non-service areas to sights to see. In a couple of days I set off towards Cusco and close from there lies perhaps reward incomparable at one of the most visited sites on the South American continent, Macchu Picchu – The Lost City of the Incas.

Total miles/km: 12,830/20,648km

Current location: Ayacucho, Peru

  • 350 south on facebook