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La Paz to Lima – By Bike


This whole escapade began over six years in a spectacularly dull lecture at Edinburgh University. Clearly sensing my less than devoted concentration Rob leaned forwards and passed me a note. To my great lack of surprise the note was not about advanced mathematics. Rob too, it seemed, was not particularly enthralled by proceedings as I read his Eric Newby-esque note, “Do you fancy riding from Pakistan to China in July?” The rest is history…

Now Rob had come to join me for a few weeks once again, and we were going to ride together from La Paz to Lima. So, Rob was in La Paz. Unfortunately his bike and all his stuff were still in Venezuela… But by an odds-defying miracle Rob and bike were somehow emotionally reunited and we hit the road.

La Paz is the highest capital city in the world (3600m) and to leave the city you have to first climb a winding 13km road to over 4000m. Sufficient to say that by the end of the first day Rob was in considerable discomfort from the altitude and fell asleep in the tent before I had even begun cooking. Sweet revenge for that absurd note back at Uni, I reflected happily (and perhaps a little harshly) as I ate double portions and embarked on the sizzling literary masterpiece that is David Batty’s autobiography. White mountains filled the near horizon. The sun set and the temperature plummeted. Tomorrow we would reach Lake Titicaca.

We were woken at the first frost of dawn by a pair of policemen in terrorist style balaclavas and flak jackets. Their brown eyes and gold teeth smiled as we emerged sleepily from the tiny tent. We were an unusual beginning to their day and they enjoyed watching my small stove slowly turn ice into coffee. They did just manage to remember that they were scary, official policemen in time to decline my request to take their photograph. We shook hands and Rob and I rode off towards the lake.
There are two Copacabanas in the world. One is a beautiful beach with bikini girls playing football beneath sun-kissed mountains. The other is a chilly village with an extravagant, gaudy gilded church with hungry beggars outside. We were at the second one. Never mind. Alleged miracles in Copacabana have led to it becoming a pilgrimage site for drivers to have their minibus-taxis blessed. The vehicle is covered in garish paper decorations, a priest splashes holy water over it (water which, incidentally was for sale at a higher price than mineral water), firecrackers are let off, the wholly merry shebang is toasted liberally with a few bottles of beer and then the drivers roar off, convinced of their invincibility, to drive ever faster on ever balder tyres and beep their horns ever-louder at the gringos on their bicycles. I have rarely been less convinced by a religious venue.

Lake Titicaca is famous as the highest navigable lake in the world (3800m). Her beautiful turquoise waters were, unsurprisingly, sacred to ancient people. Inca farming terraces stripe the steep yellow shores and further away the huge white peaks of the Andes reach for the sky. The sky was a deep, deep blue and the clouds as fluffy as can be. It made for a delightful scene, a beautiful ride and a foolishly cold swim.
The Bolivian Navy potters around the lake, a quaint and poignant hark-bark to the days when Bolivia had a coastline before Chile nicked it all. Swathes of reeds lay in fan shapes on the shore to dry in the sun. The ancient reed boats of Titicaca were made famous by the expeditions of Thor Heyerdahl. Today, though rare, you can still see sturdy old men poling these buoyant boats of tightly tied bundles through the shallows.

Juliaca (Peru) was a busy town of blessed beeping taxis and swarms of bicycle taxis: modified machines with a couple of seats in the front and colourful decorations all over. Like most things Latin the bicycle-taxi drivers are very macho, racing daringly amongst the traffic. One that I overtook obviously thought he was el grande queso (the big cheese) of the streets judging by the bold slogan painted on the side- “OH HOW YOU SUFFER AS I PASS YOU!”

A round-the-world bike

When Rob and I ride together we always find ourselves covering absurd distances. Encouraged by a story of some natural hot springs where we could spend the night we rode over a mountain pass into the night. I pointed out to Rob the Southern Cross constellation as he had not been in the southern hemisphere for years. A thin smile of a moon sank gently as we climbed up to 4300m. In the dark I saw one man chopping wood with a hefty axe. It was too dark to tell whether he was still in possession of all his toes. It was freezing cold and silent except for confused barking dogs. Occasional curious torch beams picked us out from scattered unlit mud huts. At night present fears are less than horrible imaginings and the yappy little mutts are easily supposed a bear!

Hurtling down the other side of the pass towards lurid red bush fires and hoping there were no potholes in the road (a daft hope in the developing world), I came within inches of being puréed by a truck and we were both freezing. The promised thermal baths appeared just in time for a glorious nocturnal wallow before we crawled, tired and unusually clean into our sleeping bags.

The misty dawn saw us zipping down a valley between high yellow, terraced hills. Trout rivers raced us and the first green trees for weeks were a welcome sight. We crossed the Urubamba river, a tributary of the Amazon, and shortly after reached Cusco. Cusco is the gringo hub of South America and the base for visiting the world famous ruins at Machu Picchu. Sipping a beer in the Irish pub is the traditional cultural behaviour of visitors to Cusco. Sitting on a balcony in the bustling Plaza looking over a hillside of warm red tiled roofs and the gaily fluttering rainbow flag of the Incas (coincidentally, and a little confusingly, the same flag as the gay flag) was a very pleasant activity that required several afternoons devotion.

The ride from Cusco down to the coast was absurd. An innocuous looking distance on the map plus our being at over 3000m led us to believe it would be a nice cruise down to the beach. Having already traveled that road twice before (hitch-hiking and bus a few years ago) I should have known better. But the reality of motorized travel is that, unless you are driving (and in many countries even if you are driving*) you pay very little attention to the road and so I had but dim recollections of the odd big hill here and there along the way.

The road turned out to be a fiend. Beautiful but fiendish. The map was a mere 200km shy of reality. We whooped down descents of 30, 40, even 50 kilometres then hauled ourselves back up the other sides of the valleys. At 4000m the world was bleak and silent, llamas looked at us without interest and the nights were freezing. In the grey sleepy dawn the soft whoomph and dancing yellow flame of the petrol stove brought light and warmth (and coffee) back to the world. Down at 1800m streams chattered and villagers called out to us as we passed. In one village the gathered crowd asked me if I wanted to buy a small child. I said that I would be delighted to as in my country we enjoyed eating small children. The crowd laughed and two terrified small children burst into tears. Green parrots shrieked and swifts carved the air. In the valleys the days were hot and the nights warm. It was like crossing the Alps repeatedly.

We relished any opportunities for engaging in the noble art of ‘truck surfing’ or grabbing hold of an overtaking truck and being dragged up the mountain behind it. It has the advantages of being entertaining as well as dangerous and it requires courage and initiative. We loved it. Being dragged by one arm behind a smoky, noisy truck up 1000m of steep Andean hairpin bends whilst dodging potholes and oncoming traffic at uncomfortably high speeds is not as easy as it sounds. And for anyone who thinks that it sounds like cheating they should try it- the searing agony in your arm makes cycling seem like the easy option. However, it is considerably more exciting and faster than cycling. With the aid of some good truck surfs and over 120km of downhill I notched up a new trip record of 220km in one day, arriving in Nazca well after dark for a well-earned beer. (Nazca, of course, is famous for the ancient ‘Nazca Lines’- mysterious huge outlines of animals in the desert that can be seen only from the air.) The ride down into Nazca was a surreal highlight. By the bright light of a full moon we raced down 80km of constant downhill. The land was utterly empty, with mountain after mountain rolling down ahead of us, monochrome in the moonscape as we swooped and curved round the contours, the air growing ever warmer as we dropped from over 4000m to just 600m above sea level. Side by side on the edge of the sand, we rode in the light of the moon, the moon, we rode by the light of the moon.

A round-the-world tent

As I slowly move north across the planet I see the moon changing. In the north of the world you see the man in the moon. In the deep south there is a rabbit instead. I have been watching the rabbit gradually change into the man in the moon and the Southern Cross sink ever closer to the horizon. By the northern hemisphere it will have disappeared.

Rob is good company- he is comically scared by chasing dogs, frequently disappearing into the distance at high speed in an attempt to shake off his four-legged pursuer, yelling and squirting water at it. Upon seeing a brass band procession one day he let rip with a joyful cheer. At that very moment the coffin appeared round the corner, borne solemnly on the shoulders of mourners. High in the Andes he was fearful as we camped beside a river about the possible appearance of the lesser-spotted (never spotted?) Andean crcocodile. His moustache was even sillier than mine, rendering him into a gay-looking Ned Flanders (from the Simpsons). (Mine made me look like a very weedy Asterix by the way). And you should have seen him squeal on the night when a tiny mouse was running around our camp! He assures me that his revenge for my writing this will be all sorts of scandalous revelations when I eventually get a book published.

Continuing my percipient anthropological observations on the important things of life I acquired a taste for Inca Kola, the bright yellow-green fizzy drink that is everywhere in Peru (I have even heard it referred to as Peruvian champagne). The interesting thing about Inca Kola, apart from it’s extraordinary hue, is that there are only two countries in the world where Coca Cola is not the top-selling drink: Peru and Scotland. This is where it gets really interesting (at least, hyped up by fizzy pop, I think so): Inca Kola and Scotland’s Irn Bru taste identical. Irn Bru is a weird orange to Inca Kola’s alien yellow but the surreal bubble-gumminess is the same. Odd, huh? My Scottish friends at Uni swore by Irn Bru as the only hangover cure suitable for the spectacular excesses of Scottish students. I remembered this as a kind old man bought us a large noon-time shot of pisco in Pisco and hoped that Inca Kola would do the trick too.

There are any number of advantages to riding with company. An inevitable and early rebellion by my companion against the monotony of banana sandwiches and a consequent diet of Pepsi and chocolate being a major plus. Another aspect of travelling with company is how much it dilutes the experience. For me, in short bursts, this is a wonderful break. From total immersion I now found myself only half in Peru for the other half of me was anywhere else in the world, jabbering in English about England and what I have been missing on TV and whether McDonalds have brought out any new flavours of ice-cream recently. If I was too tired to ask for directions Rob could do it. If I couldn’t be bothered to answer the same questions that everyone asks all the time I could let Rob do it. It was great!

The PanAmerican Highway runs along the coast to Lima through a grey depressing desert, past vast sand dunes and uninteresting towns. Occasional oases relieve the suicidal air a little with bright colours and fragrant crops but there was little incentive to delay and we quickly ate up the kilometers into Lima and a surprisingly hospitable welcome from the school despite last month’s incident on the salt flats…! (And, with my conscience getting the better of me, perhaps it may have actually been me, not Rob, who was a teeny-little bit scared by that mouse…)

Al Humphreys is riding round the world by bike to support a worthwhile British children’s charity, and is available to give talks, write features, and raise money. Find out more at his website http://www.roundtheworldbybike.com/

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