Our ride through no man’s land: Clear blue waters, blinding white salt, and preparing for home

Kilometers this post: 779 biking, 823 on a bus, to save time

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We had reached our “goal” and scaled the Inca steps of Macchu Pichu. What followed has felt like a mix between lost and aimless wandering and a huge bonus: more time on the bikes, another country and culture, the wildest landscapes of our trip. Our ride out of Cusco to the border was full of good biking times, as ever, and Bolivia has offered us a final breath of newness that was welcome after 3 months in good ol’ Peru. We took our time biking away from the Sacred Valley, enjoying some warm nights in our new tent, which was cozy even on the 4,000 meter altiplano, through rainy nights and clear ones. The railroad tracks were our constant companion all the way down from Cusco, up over Abra de la Raya (a pass at 4,318m), and across the high plains to the city of Puno on Lake Titicaca. This meant that the road was never too steep, guiding us up to the pass gently over several days, in true Peruvian fashion. We wish that the drivers were as kind as the climbs. Suffice it to say, our final week of biking in Peru had us really looking forward to the milder traffic of Bolivia. Still, the high, bare landscapes and small Andean towns offered us a fond send-off from a country we’d gotten to know well. Following, the photos march through a day in the life of bike touring. Of course, no two are the same, but some things are quite routine…

And here are some additional shots of our days on the altiplano.

We arrived in Puno on the shore of Lake Titicaca just in time for Thanksgiving, and we spent the day running around town trying to secure visas to enter Bolivia, which we finally did after several hours that went something like this: To the consulate, to the photo store, to the internet cafe, to the copy shop, back to the photo store, to the ATM, back to the consulate, to lunch, to the consulate, to the bank, to the consulate, to the copy shop, back to the consulate. Then, ice cream. You see, for a Bolivian to enter the US, they need to pony up $135 and an insane amount of paperwork including proof of a solid bank account, copies of plane tickets and hotel reservations, passport photos, etc. In 2007ish, the Bolivian president decided U.S. citizens should have to do the same. We suppose fair is fair. But it made for kind of a pain in the butt. We spent one more day in Puno, in which we took a boat out to the floating islands, 5km from shore. As a use of human and natural resources, these islands are impressive. They use the reeds that grow on the shores and in the shallows of the lake to build the things, and they anchor them to the lake floor. However, they are maintained entirely for the tourists these days, and we were less than thrilled at the way they shuttled us in herds from one spot to the next, past spreads of kitschy kitsch and overpriced restaurants. There is no longer anything traditional or authentic-feeling in the Uros. But we like seeing new and different things, and did our best to tune out the touristy-ness.

From Puno, on we went to the Bolivian border, and to another lakeside town of Copacabana. From there, we went to the Isla del Sol, another touristy destination, but with SPECTACULAR views of the sunrises and sunsets. We spent the night so as to enjoy one of each. And the island was big enough that escaping the tourist traps wasn’t impossible.

Bolivia is home to the world’s largest salt flat, and biking across it is an otherworldly experience that is the highlight of many a bike tourist’s tour. We didn’t want to miss it, but were faced with more kilometers than time would allow. No stranger to bikes on buses by now, we decided to high-tail it to the town of Uyuni so that we could be sure not to miss biking on the salt. Uyuni is not just a tourist town, but one with crappy, over-priced hotels, little to no internet, and folks whose interactions with groups of backpackers has soured them on extranjeros in general. We arrived after spending the night on the bus, and didn’t quite have it in us to bike out of town the same day, so we spent the night. We’d decided that after biking on the salt, we would take a jeep tour of the southwest corner of the country through some amazing landscapes including volcanoes, deserts, and lakes of many colors. A woman from a tour agency approached us as we were getting off the bus and offered that we could bike to the middle of the salt flat where lies an island, and her driver would pick us up to continue the tour from there, while another driver brought our bikes and the bulk of our gear back to Uyuni, where we could collect everything several days later.

As we biked out of town, we realized we’d left ourselves far too much time before we were to meet up with the tour, but we’re also no strangers to taking our time, so we spent one entire lazy day biking 25km to the next town north where there was an entrance to the flat. We spent the night camping at an abandoned hotel made of bricks of salt, and all of the next day biking on the great white salty flat. There were jeep tracks we could have followed directly to the island forged by the now myriad tours that cross the Salar daily, but with time and our GPS, we figured we had the freedom to weave around as we pleased. We spent the night in our tent on the salt with nothing in view except salt, mountains, and sky. The sunset was perhaps the most amazing we’ve seen because you could turn around 360 degrees and watch the entire sky change colors. When it got dark, the wind died, the silence was the most enormous and thorough that either of us had ever experienced. The following day, we finished our leg to the Isla Incahuasi, where we recovered in the small restaurant there, with beers and a good meal. We camped directly outside the registration office, and woke before the first tour jeeps arrived to watch the sunrise, enjoying a last hour or two of peace before joining the crowds of backpackers and 4×4’s.

Our driver and four traveling companions arrived mid-afternoon, and what followed were two days of incredible sight after incredible sight. Sometimes we wished we were still on our bikes, but only when the roads weren’t some combination of deep sand, gravel, and washboard. Which was most of the time. We’ll just let the pictures tell:

We decided that the Salar de Uyuni was an excellent place to lay down our bike touring days for the time being. We could have taken a few more days to bike a stretch in Bolivia, but at the price of feeling rushed at the end of our trip and missing a few sights we were very interested in seeing. So from Uyuni, it was another bus to the city of Potosí, where for some crazy reason, you can take a tour of the still-working mine there. This is an amazing place. The mine is owned by the government, but they rent it to the cooperative of miners that works in the mountain. Miners become full members after working for 3 years, at which point they are granted health insurance for them and their families, and the opportunity to retire with a small pension after they lose half of their lung function. The thing is, it only takes about 10 years for them to develop lung disease. Life expectancy for a miner is 42. Miners do not get a salary, but make whatever they can selling what they pull out of the mountain, minus %14 for the coop.

Our tour began in the miners’ market, where we were told that while the mine is a cooperative, the miners still need to buy all their own gear and supplies. At the market we were encouraged to buy as gifts things that the workers need in the mines, including dynamite, which you can buy freesale only in Potosi for about 75 cents per stick. Other necessities include water, coca leaves for chewing, cigarettes, and 96% alcohol. For drinking.

Down in the mines, we got to crawl around frighteningly disorganized, dark, narrow passageways. We visited a shrine to the character the miners worship named Tío, who receives offerings of none other than coca leaves, cigarettes, and pure alcohol. He is said to bring the miners luck: fewer accidents and rocks rich in silver, zinc, tin, lead, and all things mine-able. There is no organization of when and where blasts will happen in the mine, which makes the tour kinda unnerving. But we lived to tell the tale. And how else is word supposed to get around, we guess.

Tonight, we take one last bus to La Paz, from where we fly home in less than a week. Yes, we will bike tour more one day. But the truth is that right now, we are ready for home. Surely there will be some startling readjustment, but we will welcome our own bed, not packing and unpacking our bags every 24 hours, and most of all our families and friends. We’ve missed you. Thanks for all of the encouragement.

Hey let’s ride our bikes from Mexico to Machu Picchu!

Kilometers this post: 130 biked, 1307 in buses, and about 20 hiked without bikes.

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Cerro de Pasco is at 4,330m above sea level. It was hard to take a walk up the block, let alone bike away up over a hump and back to the highway. But we managed, after paying a short visit to its ENORMOUS mine, which is largely responsible for the city’s size. Why else would 67,000 people live up there? From way up high, we had the treat of our first sizable descent in many days of biking, which brought us all the way down to 4,100m. There we cruised along the altiplano (high plains) for several days, wondering at the bleak bareness of the landscape. We came to the realization that our tent is just too cold to allow for camping at that altitude. So, with Aran’s brother’s visit coming up, we ordered a 4-season tent to arrive in NY so that we would have the freedom to camp in the final month of our trip, which we will spend primarily on Peruvian and Bolivian altiplano. In the meantime, we spent the nights in the small, high, windy towns under many wool blankets. Our plan was to make it as far east as we could toward Cusco, and then spend the last day or two on buses to complete the stretch toward Peru’s “cultural capital” so we could meet Kieran in time. Upon reaching La Oroya, another mining town, and spending a bit of time researching how the bus trip would actually work, we made the sudden realization that if we didn’t want to spend 3 days on 3 different buses and risk arriving late in Cusco, that we needed to go to Lima and take a direct bus. This was startling, but not really a problem. Ah, the flexibility that comes with being a bike tourist. Plus, this detour meant spending another lovely night with our friends Ana and Javi in Lima, who picked us up from one bus on Friday and dropped us off at the next on Saturday. The bus ride was impossibly long (23 hours), but at least the movies they showed weren’t B-grade slasher flicks, our seats reclined 160 degrees, and they gave us food. Sort of. Bike touring makes bus travel feel a lot like time travel, but in this case it was exactly what we needed, so fine.

We found the hostel La Estrellita, a favorite with bike tourists (motor- and pedal- bikes alike) with little difficulty and checked into our comfy, albeit bare-bones room. Kieran arrived and we spent a day kicking around Cusco and discussing our plans for getting to Machu Picchu before setting out with a couple of backpacks the next day. It is not an easy thing to visit sites in the Sacred Valley cheaply. In order to visit Machu Picchu, most people either take a train to the town at the foot of the ruins for lots of money, or take a guided trek in for even more money. The trek would have tempted us, but spots were sold out by the time we inquired. We had heard of an increasingly popular alternative, which involves a mix of buses and collectivos that get you as far as a hydroelectric plant, from which you can walk 2-3 hours along the railroad tracks to the foot of the ruins. We thought this option sounded like a winner: money saving and adventuring in one. We also decided we could take two days to make the journey instead of one, and visit some other archeological sites on the way. Of course, in order to visit most of the other amazing ruins, you need to fork out $65 for the “boleto touristico,” which lets you into 16 different sites. You can’t just pay for one. Well, we decided to pass on that privilege, and instead made our way to what seem to be the only places of interest that you can pay for separately.

These were highly rewarding. We took a bus from Cusco to the town of Maras, where we negotiated with an eager taxi driver to take us to one site, wait for us to visit, and then take us to another nearby for only 50 soles ($20). This haggling took a good while, but then we were on our way to Moray. Moray is an Inca site that looks like a series of concentric circles dug step-wise into the hills. No one is very sure what their purpose was, but the theory we heard the most was that it was some kind of agricultural laboratory where they could test different growing conditions (the temperature varies 5 degrees from the top terrace to the bottom) and different plant blends in different microclimates created by different sun angles. From Moray, we pressed on to the Salinas of Maras, where warm salty water that flows from an underground stream evaporates in pools, depositing salt crystals on the bottom. These pans have been in use since pre-Inca times, and are a fascinating, other-worldly sight. One of the women selling snacks outside the Salineras explained to us that at some point a long time ago, the harvesters who had worked under the original owner became the collective owners, and to this day it operates as a collective and the group of families who owns it are descendents of the original workers. We picked our way carefully among the pools and watched workers harvest different qualities of salt in giant mounds that they left to dry in the sun. Then, we hiked down to the highway in the late afternoon, where we hitched a ride with an empty tour van to Ollantaytambo. There we spent the night, and secured the pricey train tickets for our ride back to Cusco the following day. Yes, we could have returned in the same manner as we went, but Kieran’s time was precious to all of us, and, well, we’re all big fans of trains.

The next day was spent entirely in making the trip from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, the tourist hell at the bottom of the mountain upon which sits Machu Picchu. We haggled with more drivers, drove over high passes, secured lunch items for the following day’s adventures (NOT wanting to purchase anything in Aguas Calientes), and hiked along the tracks around the foot of the Machu Picchu mountains. We hit the hay early so that we could get up at 4:00 to catch the early sun’s rays over Machu Picchu. The early morning hike involved an hour of climbing up the “Inca Stairs” before the buses began running. Sounds peaceful, but we found ourselves in a crowd of several hundred people, all slightly disappointed at the number of fellow hikers. Still, we were among the first 30 people in the gates, and the view completely drowned out the sense that we were a few among a mob of people. Yes, standing on the wall overlooking the ruins with the sunlit peak of Waynapicchu as a backdrop is as magical a thing as everyone says. And, once the crowd spread out among the different parts of the giant complex, it did not feel crowded. We strolled through temples and marveled at Inca stonework as we made our way to the back gate, the entrance to the next leg of our hike up to the peak of Waynapicchu. Only 400 visitors are allowed to climb the trail each day, and the reason became clear as we approached the tiny summit via narrow stairways up the sheer face of the mountain. Again, the view was more than we had even hoped for. Blue skies, puffy white clouds (none of them threatening rain!) and the bright green grass and gray walls of the complex below. By the time we got back down, the crowds had grown and we were exhausted. We still decided to walk the stairs back down to Aguas Calientes instead of paying $10/person for the bus. We collected our things from our hotel and shuffled onto the Vistadome train, where we were treated to such fancy things as snacks, a half-assed impersonation of an indigenous dancer, and a fashion show of unique alpaca knitted things.

With Kieran’s remaining two days in Cusco, we visited some museums and sites around the city, and took a day trip to the market town of Pisac, where we did in the end decide to pay for a “partial” boleto touristico (half the price of the full, and good for only 4 sites and 2 days. Tourist math.) so that we could visit the impressive Inca fortress above the town. We were treated to more beautiful mountain views and stunning examples of Inca stonework. So, our week of being super-tourists came to a close and we said goodbye to Kieran yesterday morning, sending him on his way with a bag full of Christmas presents for family and plenty of satisfied grins. We are currently collecting ourselves in Cusco for one last day, and will soon be on our way toward Bolivia.

We take a deep breath and we get real high…

Kilometers since last post: 212 biking, 13.4 in a station wagon taxi, 291 in buses, and about 65 hiking (without bikes).

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The last time we spoke, we had just arrived in Caraz, the city at the northern end of the “Alley of Huaylas,” the road that runs down the valley on the west side of the Cordillera Blanca. The range is known for being the highest in the tropics with 50 peaks over 6,000m. They are gorgeous, rugged, and covered in glaciers. After spending a day visiting a colorful market in Carhuaz, we set out for the major city in the region, Huaraz. As we biked south and snowy peaks emerged like popcorn on the horizon to our left, we realized that bikes are not exactly the best way to see the Cordillera Blanca. So, once in Huaraz, we booked a trek with a great agency, Huascarán (name of the national park that covers the range, as well as the highest peak in the park,) that would take us up some valleys, near some glacier lakes, over a pass, through some meadows, and over to the other side of the cordillera. It’s the most famous hike in the park, called the Santa Cruz – Llanganuco trek.

Trekking with a company in Peru is definitely out of the ordinary for us. We’re fairly used to fending for ourselves. We always keep food on hand for camping, know how to set up our tent in a few minutes, and are very used to carrying everything we own. Hiking with Huascaran, it’s different. We packed all of our clothing and things we wouldn’t need during the day into a huge duffel bag, and took day packs with water, an extra layer, and rain gear. Our team then handled the heavy stuff, and we were free to walk the trail virtually unencumbered. Our team consisted of Roger, the guide, who led us up and down the trail and explained things we saw including plants, the river and its changes, mountains, and pretty much anything we wanted to know. Cristian was our cook, and prepared excellent, piping hot meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Oh, and usually a snack, including much appreciated hot drinks, when we got into camp, too. Our arriero or helper/burrow driver, Julian, was a good-natured, hard working local who broke down camp after we left for our walk, packed all our stuff onto the backs of the three burrows and one horse, drove them to the next campsite, and got it set up before we arrived. Pitched the tent for us! It was all quite deluxe, delicious, and while cold, made quite pleasant by the dry spaces and proper equipment that came with us. We were lucky to have a small group as well. Our only other fellow hikers were an awesome couple from Australia, Mike and Natalia, on a 6 month hiatus from doctoring. We got on like a house on fire!

The first and second day we hiked up the Santa Cruz river into a huge valley surrounded by snow-capped peaks. We then took a side trip up to the base camp for folks who climb Alpamayo, one of the most photogenic peaks in the area. From there, a short climb took us to a lake with a glacier sliding down into the far end of it. At that point we were at 4,200m (ft) and it was raining, with 2.5 hours to hike to the campsite. Cold. And our feet hurt. But when we arrived there was popcorn, hot cocoa, hot soup, hearty dinner, and dry tents. The next day we climbed over the pass at 4,750m (ft) and across the continental divide into the amazon watershed where it is markedly greener and moister. Also, it was snowing! The first (and maybe the only) snowfall of our trip. After the pass we walked through alpine meadows, and on day 4 reached a small town where we caught a bus back to Huaraz. We decided it had been a great way to spend money and time.

After a few days letting our sore calves recuperate and getting our clothes cleaned, we continued our ascent by bicycle. The rainy season has begun in earnest now, so every afternoon around 14:00 it clouds up, and at some point it unloads wetness. Huaraz is at 3,000m, so it’s already plenty cold and oxygen-poor, but from there we needed to go around the end of the park and climb over a pass at 4,600m (ft). This is hard work. We climbed for 3 days, stopping early to avoid the cold rain, and reached Conococha (4,100m) with some difficulty. Aran is more effected by the altitude than Andrew, but we were both plenty tired when we rolled up to by far the highest point we’ve biked. From there we called it and hopped on a bus over the pass to La Unión, and caught another bus to avoid a road rumored to be dangerous and rough dirt. They’ve paved the road, at least one lane wide, but it’s still a lot of up and down to Huánuco, at 2,000m (ft) the lowest we’ve been in a while. However, that put us at the bottom of yet another climb which we’ve been chugging up for the last three days. This makes 13 biking days in a row that have been all climbing, and before that it was flat on the horrible Panam highway. It’s time for something different, so we caught a bus for Cerro de Pasco today (4,400m, (ft) the highest city of it’s size in the world). Tomorrow we’ll go down to an altiplano and roll along nearly flat for a few days before descending to Huancayo, and another bus to Cuzco to meet Kieran, Aran’s brother, who’s coming to visit us and Machu Picchu.

Here’s a series of photos showing the afternoon clouds while we sat around at the toll booth.

So what’s it like biking through the mountains of Peru, you ask? Well, the roads themselves are better for biking than many we’ve seen, with a maximum grade of less than 10%, usually around 6 or 7% (that’s 60 or 70m of rise over each kilometer). The dirt roads can get pretty rocky, but nothing as bad as we saw in Ecuador. The drivers, however, are the worst of the whole trip. At least 95% of them are: 1) male, and 2) assholes. OK, maybe they’re not assholes in the rest of their lives. In fact, we’ve talked to some who are perfectly pleasant, even while driving. But as far as behavior on the roads goes, Peruvians behind the wheel are obnoxious maniacs who can’t help but honk the horn at anything that moves and MUST be first in every situation. The behaviors get worse for drivers of mototaxis, taxis, large straight trucks (tractor trailer drivers are generally the most courteous group of drivers we’ve encountered throughout Latin America (true, the worst are in Peru)), and max out in aggressiveness with local and rural bus drivers, and drivers of small 4-door Japanese pickup trucks. BUT, the traffic here is just considered a fact of life. While some passengers and folks by the roadside complain, no one seems to think that it could be any other way. The culture, too, is different than we’re used to. The people in the highlands are a little insular, and while some places are full of folks who say hello, others are not. Even with other Peruanos, there isn’t the same sense of respect that we assume in North America. When a crowded bus stops and people try to get off, people getting on are in just as big a hurry, and climb through and around the people getting off without “excuse me” or anything. We’re standing in a pharmacy, waiting to be served, and someone walks in and starts talking to the clerk who’s already helping someone else while we are clearly in line, and we never get a turn. It’s hard to get used to the fact that it’s not disrespectful here, people don’t mean to be rude, that’s just how the culture works. So, it’s different. It’s different everywhere you go, and that’s a pretty good reason to keep going.

However, we can’t do that indefinitely either. So, we’ve picked a date, and booked some plane tickets for the end of our bike tour! We’ll be in Lancaster from 16th of December until after Christmas, and then NYC for a while. Uncertain plans await, but we do have plane tickets to Bogotá on the 24th of February. We like the idea of returning there to find jobs (gulp) or something. We’ll see what happens, and so will you!