You say Iceland to any cycle tourer, no matter if they are a hard-core bike packer to a leisurely weekend road tourer, all will have some opinion of riding there; it is a country that appears on many a cyclists bucket list for one reason or another. I was no different. I had been captivated by the other worldly images of lunar landscapes, of volcanic backdrops shrouded in venting steam and of natural isolated hot pools. All these combined led me to book my flight for a four week trip to see what I could experience for myself.
This trip was unique for myself as it would be my first proper trip solo, Jess, who has been with me on every trip I’ve done by bike so far didn’t have the funds for this adventure, that coupled with a girls trip to Italy with her mum and sister meant I bit the bullet and went to see if I would enjoy a bit of solo travelling for a change.
With the trip being a shorter than my usual escapades some element of route planning was done, this subsequently went out the window as soon as I landed in Keflavik!!! I originally planned on bussing to Reykjavik; building my bike there and storing my bike box for my return, upon arriving I decided to save the extortionate bus prices as well as the crazy storage costs and to ride from the airport. You could say the trip started well, I had been told about how expensive Iceland was and here I am saving money on my first day!
I built my bike in the bike shed provided, a great facility out of the elements with basic tools to get your bike built, I shared it with 4 other tourers all with different aims and time frames for their Icelandic adventures. I rolled out and made it a whole 5 meters before a puncture made it a rather anti-climatic depart.
With my false start out the way I was off in search of food, this is where my previous planning came in, I knew there was a bonus supermarket in Keflavik and as any cyclist/ backpacker, in-fact, just about anyone you ask in Iceland will tell you, this is the cheapest place to shop. It was also at this point that I learnt my first lesson of solo touring. You don’t need as much food, nor can you carry as much. I also learnt that a bike-packing set up needs you to be far more tactical with how you store food, that means it was everywhere on my bike, looks like this trip is going to involve a lot of learning…
My first day was spent on tarmac making my way to a paid campsite, it always takes a little while for me to figure out the way of a country and on the ring road there didn’t appear to be many places to set up camp, I also didn’t have the luxury of darkness as it was light until about 12/1 am.
After visiting some sights I had had on my bucket list for some time; the plane wreck, the rustic open air swimming pool and the famous Skogar falls it was time to some of famous Icelandic gravel roads, from here out I would be spending most of my trip off the tarmac.
The route started well and before long I had left signs of civilisation behind. The mountains opened up in front of me and I slowly began to realise what all the fuss was about riding here. Eventually I came parallel with the Laudvager route and, when the river separating my route and the trekking route allowed, I crossed over and began taking on the Laudvager trek on two wheels.
This route entailed slightly more than I had bargained for, that and my first real experience of just how fickle the Icelandic weather can be made for some real type 2 fun. The real challenge come just after Alftavatan, the most horrific hike a bike I have ever done, not helped by the 10 days worth of food I had on the bike meaning I couldn’t shoulder the bike, I was resigned for pushing an unfavourable amount. It was also on this hike-a-bike that the notorious Icelandic weather unleashed on me. Snow, hail, wind and rain were the order of the day and after far too many hours of pushing I emerged at Landmanalauger for a much needed hot pool, no need to change into swim ware, I was as wet as I could be so opted to go fully clothed, we’ll call it laundry day.
After the punishing route in, with minimal views I opted to take an extra day in order to trek and revisit what I should have seen yesterday. I also managed to get some route advice off some cycle tourists coming the opposite way.
With a rest day of sorts in my legs it was once again back on the road, this time I would be heading towards the F26. A road known for is barren landscape and treacherous unbridged river crossings but after the Laudvager trek how hard could it be?!
The route out of Landmanaluger is phenomenal, the text book green and black volcanic mountains with gravel roads and minimal traffic. This is what I came to Iceland for. Eventually I hit the tarmac and made my way onto the F26; tarmac, pfft, this road isn’t all its cracked up to be. The scenery had become distinctively lunar, the greens and blacks had faded to every shade of grey you can imagine, and this is how it was to stay for the foreseeable future. The tarmac gave way to gravel but the riding was good, windy but dry, why is this road renowned for being so tough!
I set up camp with an obstructed view of snow capped mountains and glaciers and settled in to sleep. Around 2am I was awoken by the wind, praying for a tail wind a rolled over in the hope it would blow it self out. By 8am I had given up with sleeping, the noise was too much, the concept of cooking breakfast in such an exposed spot wasn’t very appetising either. I did my best to pack with a plan to find some form of shelter for breakfast. (This is also where I realised just how useful it is to have a travelling partner, trying to pack a tent on your own in the wind in no easy task.) My day only got tougher. The wind only got worse, at its best I could just about ride, at the worst I was pushing downhill. The longer the day went on the tougher it got, the lack of shelter meant for a limited breakfast and sitting wasn’t much pleasure either so lunch was a rather sorry affair, this wasn’t helped by a passing Land Rover experience trip. I was curled up behind a rock trying to hold onto my socks after crossing yet another river. They came through in their posh cars, got out in their super thick warm jackets to take some photos of their group coming through the river behind them. They then jumped back into the luxury 4x4 and drove off smiling and waving. It was at this point that I didn’t want to be here anymore.
Wind in the UK can be bad, but there is always a lull, a brief moment of peace, I didn’t get that out here, from 2am it had been noisy and it hadn’t stopped. I was still pushing and dragging my bike at 5pm; I hadn’t passed a single spot that I was able to hide from the wind never mind try and pitch my tent. I knew there was a mountain refugio some way ahead, I was just praying that: 1 – I could make it there and; 2- They would have some form of sheltered camping. I eventually hit a sign post that told me I was close to the refgio, what I hadn’t realised is that the road had one more river crossing left in store for me, by now I’d been pushing for about 9 hours and I had made less than 30km, this river crossing was tipping me over the edge. The white horses were wiping up off the water and just taking off my socks and shoes I was getting soaked from the spray coming off, not only did I have to negotiate a river but I had to do so in a wind that was making it difficult to walk on a normal path never mind through a glacial river.
Eventually, in a pitiful state I stumbled into the refugio, by this point I’d taken to lying down in the stronger gusts and just holding onto the bike. This by far was one of the toughest days I’ve had in the outdoors. The refugio warden took pity on me and made me a cup of hot chocolate and let me dry out and recover, she then showed me to the pitiful camping shelter they had, it was at this point I handed over my credit card and opted for a night in the refugio, after this day I was over camping. I shared the rufugio with some long distance hikers and a family who were touring in their rented 4x4 it was a toss up between who was th most hardy out of the cyclists or the walkers, I still think the walkers are pretty insane in Iceland, they would be on the f26 for roughly a week, if it wasn’t for the current weather I was experiencing, it would only take me 3 days, and even that would have been slightly tedious. The refugio was a welcome brake and relative peace and quiet, the ability to cook on a real stove rather than huddled in my tent was also rather nice.
All night we could feel the building shift and flex as the storm raged outside, it was also at this moment that I began to regret not locking my bike to anything. In the morning the storm hadn’t eased, in fact it had gotten worse. The park rangers came to our humble abode and gave us the latest forecast and explained that she couldn’t stop us leaving but she was asking us to stay put due to safety concerns, to be honest, the moment she said same wind direction increased speed I’d already resigned my self to another night in the pent house suit. At this point she explained that the road had been closed to all vehicles trying to venture into the interior, another reason to stay put.
As my second day drew to a close I went back to the ranger to check the weather forecast, not sure my credit card could take another pent house hit, I was reassured that tomorrow the wind would be dropping and there would be no rain, ideal, tomorrow I ride!
Well, she wasn’t lying, the wind dropped over night and there was no rain, she did fail to mention that snow was on the forecast! Slightly unnerved after my ass kicking in the wind I left the refugio rather reluctantly. One bonus of the temperature drop was that the glacial rivers were a lot lower than normal, the lack of wind was also a pleasure to ride in. After only 15minutes of being back on my bike my nerves were gone. I was loving life, and the fresh white makeover really improved the 50 shades of dull that I had become accustomed to. I was having so much fun I opted to take a small back road that would lead me to Asjka. The road warned of remote passes for only specialised off road vehicles. Sounded perfect.
The track was well marked and wound its way between old lava flows. The fresh falling snow making for an even more atmospheric ride. I saw only 4 people on this route, 3 trekkers and one German cyclist, it was at this point that I realised my set up was far better suited than that of a normal touring set up. He explained how he had been pushing for the the last 7 hours as he was unable to ride in the current conditions. I was able to ride most of the way to the shelter with relative ease, I was enjoying the riding compared tot he suffer fest my German friend had been experiencing, this was definitely down to our set up rather than riding skills.
Askja is a main tourist stop and I saw more people at he campsite than I had seen for a long time. Riding solo means I’m usually overly keen to chat, taking the extra days also meant hat food was starting to dwindle, I was expecting to be in Akureyri by now but the rough going and challenging weather had put me behind schedule. It seems that mother natures ass kicking had earned me some karma points, these were cashed in in the form of NASA. They had a team out monitoring the latest volcanic eruptions, their trip was coming to an end but their food supplies were not. For an evening I was fed an array of deligths and then loaded up for my remaining days on the road. They even packed me off with a grilled cheese and lamb sandwich, which I must say is still the best meal I’ve eaten in a very long time. I’m not sure if NASA read blogs but if you happen to stumble upon this, thank you, you made a real tough stretch of my trip that much better.
With the bike at bursting point I rolled out of Askja with the sun, my 2nd day of sun so far this trip! From here it was onto Akureyri via the ring road for a resupply.
After a day off the bike and now stocked up with basics I rolled out of town in search of more mountainous roads, gluten for punishment I know but the ring road just didn’t hold any appeal, even after my ass kicking. The forecast was once again for dismal weather but with time on my side I could afford a few shorter days and stop early if the weather was particularly foul, and if the wind direction stayed the same as it had been I would be experiencing an amazing tail wind… (first rule of cycle touring- never expect a tail wind it only make the frustration of having a head wind all the worse)
Before long the familiar sound of wheels on gravel returned and the noise of close passing cars was but a distant memory. The road was a gradual climb taking me closer and closer to the blanket of cloud that engulfed the surrounding peaks. The next few days were riding with limited views and intermittent rain, but when I did get the brief glimpses of what I was riding through it made it all worth it. Taking shorter days meant the wind wasn’t beating me up too much and I always seemed to be able to find some form of wind break in the evenings so my nights weren’t too hectic trying to sleep through the barrage of wind.
I had refreshed and soaked in the hot springs at Hveravellir and was feeling good, I opted to take a smaller trail away from the f35 as the forecast was respectable and the trail looked intriguing.
Quickly I was riding single track trails with only the occasional hiker for company, I had struck gold, this is what people came to Iceland for – blue skies, epic scenery and good tracks. This lasted half a day. The weather turned and it was back to full water proof getup and the occasional scream of anger as the winds played me. By the time I was back on the F35 I was cold and soaked. I decided some more hot springs would make me feel better so pointed my wheels and pushed hard.
I made it 3 hours towards my end goal before coming across a café- cold and soaked I de-layered in the entrance foyer doing my best not to flood their floor, I failed. A bowl of 15 pound mushroom soup and home made bread sat next to a radiator did a lot to lift my spirits and after a few hours of asking myself why I was here and what I was doing and I was ready to hit these hot springs. 6 hours riding in rain I arrived at the camp site to be told the hot springs are a 3 mile hike along a muddy path. I gave in. I had been cold and wet, I didn’t want another hour of it. I sat in the kitchen and once again began the process of drying off my sodden kit.
The rain didn’t relent, my leaving the next day was delayed as long as possible but eventually I was back soaked and riding. By now I was pointing my wheels towards Reykjavik and If I really needed to, and the weather didn’t ease, I could be there in under a week. Luckily the rain did give in and I found my self once again being tempted by small side tracks to take me away from the ever busy F35. I wound my way on quiet back roads enjoying the peace and the scenery before hitting the main drag into Reykjavik. From here it was time to find a bike box and to recuperate after an amazing ride.
Although I got my ass kicked in Iceland it really is an amazing place to ride. The winds are relentless at times but it almost makes the good days all the better. There was a lot of type 2 fun on this trip, especially doing it solo but its one I don’t regret doing for a second- well not now that I’m back home and recovered!
The Lagunas Route
With bellies and taste buds satisfied and all necessary jobs complete we set off along the rail line that would lead us to San Juan and the start of the Laguna route we had been anticipating so much.
The first stop came a mere 3k outside of Uyuni, an old train graveyard that promised ample opportunities for photos, unfortunately we didn’t take advantage of the desolate surroundings when we first rolled up and before we realised it hordes of jeeps had deposited their tourists who consequently filled every available space. This harem of individuals slightly ruined the experience and so with the un-welcomed crowds growing we made an early exit hoping to make good ground before the fabled winds picked up.
With our first day turning up minimum winds we were in good spirits and looking forward to riding a long day. That was until Jess and I went on a little route finding expedition that turned out to be a far bigger adventure than we anticipated. Not wanting to take the road that looped around we decided to follow some train tracks instead, thinking this would save us valuable kilometres and time. What we didn’t account for was the soft, energy sapping terrain we would be riding through. This quagmire like terrain then took on a whole other level. Jess’ bike sank. You may be wondering what I mean by sank, but her bike sank. It sank into the thick paste we had done so well at avoiding. It sank so far down that it was able to remain standing unsupported, no easy feat for a fully loaded touring bike! An even more challenging feat was removing the bike form its unorthodox position…
We finally got Jess’ bike out of the quagmire and eventually found the road we had snubbed earlier. Arriving into a small town to the smiling faces of Johnny and Ryan. The road had been a dream; our route had not!
To add insult to injury as we sat drinking a hard earned smoothie the fabled winds began to materialise. For the next 27km we rode into a head wind of Patagonian standards. By the time we made it to San Juan we were done, not to mention a slightly ashen colour form the numerous dust clouds that had engulfed us on the route in. Another rest day was in order!
With legs refreshed and food supplies for 10 days packed into whatever free space we could find, we were ready to go. A relative easy morning and then the road surface deteriorated and the gradient increased, with the first pass done we opted to camp in what little shelter we could find.
We awoke after probably our coldest night to date, Johnny’s thermometer said -15 at 6am. Breakfast and de-camp was done with constant hand warming breaks. It was here we think Ryan realised just how little food he had brought with him and before long he had left us in search of a Refugio and some kind Jeep tourists who could help him out. What he didn’t know was that at the first laguna we came across most Jeep tourists stopped for lunch, here two friendly Brazilians fed us ham and cheese sandwiches in exchange for our stories!
As the Jeeps all rolled out we savoured the last few crumbs we could find, this is where having a beard at homeless man level came in handy; any morsel of food that isn’t inhaled often finds its way into the tangled mess for later consumption. Once all the Jeeps had left we were also left to appreciate just how beautiful and surreal a place we had found ourselves. The obligatory photos of the flamingos and we were off following the faint dust clouds of the Jeeps.
Although route finding on this stretch of the trip wasn’t overly difficult due to the sheer numbers of Jeeps leaving a guiding trail of dust, what we did have to decide was which Jeep track would prove the easiest to ride, a challenge that often left one of us cursing as we pounded the pedals while watching someone else cruise by on some mystical hard packed track. Leaving the Laguna Jess an I opted to take the high road hoping that we would then have minimal climbing later on, Johnny, loving the flamingos and the lake opted to stay low. Johnny it turned out made the correct route choice, our Jeep tracks took us well out of our way and by the time we had back tracked to a track we thought would take us to our night’s destination Johnny was just another dust cloud in the distance. We crested a small rise to see the faint outline of Johnny, we had caught up with him we could see the mirage of two other cyclists;
“Ah haaa, we have caught the French again, pfft, look at them with their fat bikes barely able to stay ahead of us….”
Again we were wrong, it turns out Johnny had made some new friends who had joined the laguna route from another small entry point that we couldn’t even make out, they had had a pretty tough time getting onto the main drag due to deep sand and were looking as beat up as we felt.
We rolled into the refugio as a 5 and re-joined the French and Ryan, he had made good use of the tourists stocking up on fresh water and leftovers. We filled up with saline water and decided what the plan was for the evenings accommodation. At times like these the refugios hold a very strong attraction, four sturdy walls, out of the wind as well as creature comforts such as running water and possibly even electricity!! Unfortunately, our budget did not stretch to the astronomical prices the place was charging and even with a small room available for cyclists there was too many of us. Jess, Johnny and I opted to keep riding and try and find shelter elsewhere for the night.
We waved good bye to our new friends and pushed out into an increasing head wind, maybe we should have put up a bit more of a fight for that cyclists’ room…
A tough hour or so found us in an area of some kind of shelter so with little hesitation we set up for another night in this surreal landscape.
Ryan found our primitive shelter the next morning and we rolled out. Today was tough, the tracks seemed to climb endlessly at a gradient that played with the mind. It did not appear all that steep, in fact when riding the only inclination that you were in fact going uphill was the painfully slow speed. Luckily the roads weren’t too soft and for the most part we were able to stay in the saddle and ride. The most difficult part of this stretch was again, deciding on which Jeep track to follow, each of us had our own technique and ideas behind which one would take us on the path of least resistance; each one of us realised more often than not that it was more a game of luck than skill. We also realised that it wasn’t so much finding a track that would be good, just finding one that wasn’t as bad as the route your friend was one. We were all locked in a secret race that non of us were ready to admit we were playing. I was even less inclined to admit I had been racing when Johnny pulled way ahead and stopped to wait for Jess and I.
It was then apparent that our grumblings over the false flat were little to be upset about, as if hearing our distaste at climbing without seeing, the adventure Gods decided to up the threshold. The road kicked up and when it wasn’t slightly soft it was a boulder alley; again I’m not sure which we preferred, or should I say detested, the most!?
We finally reached what we hoped would be the top of a climb and began a super soft decent, to add a new element of difficulty into this we came head to head with the wind. As the roads deteriorated and the wind increased our periods of pushing started to become greater than our stints in the saddle, by lunch we had made it to a junction where we knew we had to ride in order to get water. 6km down this “road” was a hotel which we had heard was happy for cyclists to replenish water, we just had to hope they hadn’t changed their minds as no water here would leave us in a tricky situation. From this junction we could also see the horrible moral sapping climb into ever softening tracks that lay ahead, I say see; we could see when the wind stopped trying fill every orifice with sand and grit. With eyes streaming and legs aching we took the decision to try and camp at our water stop, hell, if the price was right we would get a room to escape the hellish wind that was now smashing us. Ryan, who still had his supply of fresh water from the Jeep tours didn’t fancy a 12km round trip so decided once again to forge alone. We waved goodbye and made as hasty retreat towards some form of civilisation. We found the hotel and were granted water, we were also teased with the luxurious rooms with hot and cold showers and shelter from the unrelenting wind.
It’s here I would like to say that we remained strong willed, got our water and then rode for a place to camp, but I would be lying! After smelling the food and seeing the red shimmer of the ice cold can of coke sitting in a fridge we enquired about a room. Maybe if it was quiet and they would give us a cyclists discount? Or maybe they too would have a small room like the previous establishment we passed and let us stay for free? We played out all these scenarios in our minds but no such luck! Upon asking about a room and being quoted a price that I thought was steep in bolivianos, 120, I was then informed with a slight chuckle that he was in fact quoting the price in dollars. Pfft, I’ll take that little patch of dirt then you offered me before, out by the staff accommodation. Within a few more hours the rest of the cyclists had arrived and we went about setting up camp in whatever wind shelter we could find. Tomorrow we all hoped this wind would subside allowing us to ride what lay ahead.
After a cold night and an equally cold morning we were up and off. The climb was once again a system of trying to choose the path of least resistance, again in all honestly all paths were soft and heinous to ride. Things were made all the worse when the French with their 3.8 inch tyres came bimbling past while Jess and I fought to stop our bikes from sinking too deep, a losing battle that we eventually succumbed to. As we pushed we watched the French slowly disappear into the morning sun. Once we had given up with the act of trying to show the French we could keep up with them, and excepted what lay ahead of us, we actually didn’t mind the tedious chore of lugging the bikes. The infinite tracks that spread before us left no end of route choices, all woeful, couple that with the stunning landscape and the day wasn’t turning out all that bad.
By midday we had ridden and dragged our bikes to the infamous ‘Arbol de Piedra’ or ‘Stone Tree’ to those less linguistically gifted folks. This is a major tourist stop for the Jeeps and I was excited to see we had made it with only one Jeep in sight, even better that Jeep was just leaving as we pulled in. For a good hour we climbed and jumped and played around the rock formations that have been shaped by those same hellish winds that have been hindering our ride, we had the place to ourselves and it couldn’t have been more surreal. Eventually, the dreaded dust clouds began to appear on the horizon, and from them appeared the swarms of tourists. Jess, Johnny and I decided this harem of tourists had somewhat squashed the magic of this place so retreated to a sheltered spot to watch from a distance, we had made up our mind that we had to camp here if only to experience this majestic place in peace once again.
For two or so hours we watched the tourists with odd satisfaction, how different their experience of this place was to our own. Queuing to get that photo and then having to rush to take it so the next person could get their shot before their Jeep left. The constant angle adjustment trying to find the shot with the least people in it. Watching this spectacle play out before me made me realise just how lucky we were to be experiencing this route, this country, this continent even, by bicycle. Yes, no doubt about it, we have had our asses kicked on more occasions than I care to remember by mother nature. Yes, we have laboured and struggled to deal with the terrain in order to get here. Yes, I was envious of those rich guests checking into that 60 pound a night room with their hot showers and running water. But, I did get to experience this place like non of those people would, and that I realised, especially sat watching them all, was worth every curse word; every sore muscle, every cold night and every pining look at that can of coke we couldn’t afford or carry!
We set up the tents as the last of the tourists made there exits, getting the pegs in was somewhat of a challenged in such a sandy location but if mother nature was kind we would be sheltered from the wind, Johnny, always one for view, had decided to drag his bike an extra 100m up a steep sandy ledge to get the penthouse suite, Jess and I however, were more than happy just a mere 20meters from the main route through the rock formations. As the sun set the three lads had one last run around getting any snaps we could while the girls decided they had seen enough and took comfort in a tent full of down. This always seems to be the case and I still cannot decide if Jess is being stupid in missing the sunset and the unbelievable light display mother nature puts on each day or sensible as I always bustle into the tent in a half frozen state struggling to get into a warm sleeping bag?
We survived the night with either our tent position being perfect or maybe there was just no wind over night, the one downside was that we were very much in the shade when morning broke. I cooked a good 100m from the tent to try and suck any warmth I could from the sun and slowly moved the kitchen ever closer to the tent as the sun tracked closer. As we de-camped we went to check on Johnny who it turns out had enjoyed his penthouse suit so much he had overslept and was just about out of his tent and cooking. We agreed to push on and meet him a little further down the trail where we were sure he would catch us.
The track out was easy going and slowly but surely it became some what firmer until the soft sand was a distant memory and we were back bouncing over horrible washboard and rocks, this condition took us all the way to the border of the national park where we once again had to fork over our money in order to be allowed passage through. Again this is something I’m not sure I agree with, paying in order to see a natural sight, to be allowed to experience nature seems wrong to me coming from the UK where all our national parks are free to enter. Then again if this money I pay goes towards preserving this beautiful place then surely it is a good thing, my only question is, how much of this money actually goes back into the park and how much of it goes into the pockets the government? Judging by this horrible road we were now on it doesn’t go towards that!!!!
This entry gate was our next chance to stock up on some food and more importantly, water! It was also our roughly agreed meeting point with Ryan, he was nowhere to be seen, luckily there was a tap for fresh water! We also found the French, they had opted to take a rest day here before taking on the final stretch of this Lagunas route. We got what limited supplies we could and pushed on. From here the going got tough, although Laguna Colorado was beautiful we were becoming a bit de-sensitised to these stunning views after being spoilt for so much of the route previously. We also knew we had a tough climb ahead of us and were keen to try and crack on with it and hopefully camp at some geysers.
Long story short, we didn’t make it to the Geysers. We had one of our toughest day on the bikes to date with the wind once again kicking our asses. All started well even if we were on a horrifically steep climb at 4100m. The going was slow but we were making progress. After one particularly steep section in which I had taken Jess’ bike from her to help her with the worst of the gradient, I returned down to my bike some 300m lower down this precipitous climb when a tourist from a jeep tour came running up the road to me. A brief conversation followed which ended with him apologising for having nothing more and handing me a Banana. I’m not ashamed to say I was choked up, we were now getting smashed by a wind, the hill was unrelenting and we were struggling. This guy was apologising that he had nothing more than a fresh piece of fruit for me. Little did he know just how good this slightly browned banana was in my eyes and it gave me a much needed moral boost to get back on my bike and churn the gears to try and catch Jess and Johnny to share my good fortune. Jess it turned out wasn’t overly keen on bruised bananas but Johnny and I were more than happy to take some much needed sustenance on board. This is another perk of cycle touring, even the smallest of things that people take for granted are seen in a new light. We couldn’t find any fresh fruit or vegetables for this entire route, and here this guy was with too much and not seeing just how good it was, to this date it is one of the best bananas I have ever tasted!
Unfortunately, the moral boost didn’t last all that long, we had overcome the steepest sections but the road was still climbing and our legs were feeling the strain. Adding insult to injury was the wind, before long our slow pace had dropped to walking pace and even slower. Pushing became near impossible as we battled with heads down. As the hours ticked by the Kilometres barely moved. We were running shuttles in order to move the bikes over the terrain all the while trying to find any form of shelter to get the tents up. The landscape was bleak, there was no where to get out of the wind and after what felt like hours we were spent. Spying what looked like the remains of some other unfortunate souls shelter we decided this was as good as it was going to get. We got to it trying to build the shelter up to provide as much protection as possible from the ferocious wind. After too long we had a very primitive shelter, if you can call it that, but all that was left was to get the tents up. DAMN. Our shelter wasn’t big enough for two tents, no matter how we shifted them it just wouldn’t work. With Jess already taking refuge inside our tent Johnny bit the bullet and opted to move his tent rather than make Jess re-emerge. With both of us fighting with the tent and the wind we managed to get it into some form of a semi-respectable spot, got the four biggest rocks we could to stop it from disappearing over the horizon and then began tensioning. It was here disaster truck as with a combination of cold weather, strong winds and over zealous movement we managed to rip the fly.
It’s a times like this Johnny shines. He has had more than his fair share of unfortunate incidents with either his tyres or his petrol soaked sleeping bag, but now with his tent. Still calm as you like he took it on the chin, stuck some gorilla tape on rip and accepted the fact that it had happened. He was into his tent without little more than a shrug. Its funny, take the wind and the cold and where we were could of been beautiful; instead, we were miserable, the whole place was noisy, cold and generally difficult. If the shoe had been on the other foot I’m not sure I could have dealt with this set back quite so calmly.
With the stress of the previous night we were rather lacking in motivation to get going the next morning, even when we were awoken by some passing tourist jeeps who honked and cheered while we stayed cocooned in our tent. When we did finally emerge and begin with the standard routine the tourist train was in full flow. Two jeeps even stopped to allow their occupants time to snap the perfect photo of these idiots camping in such a desolate and barren location. We obliged with the raised coffee mugs to show just how sophisticated we were. Little did they know that our coffee mugs were in-fact empty and up to this amusing moment we were actually struggling to motivate any form of smile or movement. Still, this slight deception and the obvious awe in which these tourists were showing us brought about a realisation of how lucky we were to be here. Yes, last night had been tough, the legs were tired and we still hadn’t made the top but people were actually amazed and jealous by what we were doing and the experiences we were having, both good and bad!
,With that our moods lifted, helped by our empty mugs now being full of hot steaming cowboy coffee, or hot chocolate in Jess’ case, we decamped and were back on the road knowing that it couldn’t be too much further to the top.
As we crested the hill we finally saw how close we had come the previous night to the geysers. We also saw that the camping wouldn’t have been much better than were we were due to the tourists using the best bit of shelter as a toilet!
As we rolled in the last of the tourist jeeps pulled out leaving us to experience the geysers in solitude. The constant roar of the gas escaping the only sound. The geysers were well worth the added few kilometers and we spent a long time playing in the steam clouds and watching the mud bubble and spit, last nights trials and tribulations all but forgotten!
From the geysers we had a long down hill to some hot springs, somewhere we were looking forward to camping at and making the most of the warm waters. What we didn’t expect was the number of tourists that would also be there, I don’t know why the sheer number of tourists kept surprising us?! We arrived to what can only be described as a car park. At least 20 jeeps were haphazardly parked in any flat space that could be found and hundreds of tourists splashed or lounged around the pools. We opted to do a spot of people watching and wait until the rush died down before we tried to squeeze our grotty bodies into the pools.
We decided that camping at the hot pools was the best decision and a late night dip was on the menu, we also, after trying to pitch our tent in very soft sand in strong wind decided that we would take the restaurants offer of to sleep on their floor. Johnny was keen to spend another night under canvas and managed to find some half decent ground to secure his tent. We were joined inside by the French and, much later, another lone cyclist rolled in looking rather worse for wear. He had just done a huge day from the stone tree to where we are now, but was more concerned about his friend he was apparently riding with! Apparently he had lost sight of him on one of the climbs and had been pushing on ever since to try and catch up with him. Looks like in his rush he must have passed his mate who no doubt got his tent in a sheltered spot and called it a day, I mean it was nearly 8pm, very few cyclists would be riding at this time in this wind.
Just as we had convinced the German cyclist, who we had previously shared a room with it turns out in Cusco, that his friend was probably already asleep a lone bike-packer rolls in all smiles and loving life. Hell, what is this guy on, he looked positively fresh after a humongous day in the saddle. The restaurant floor was now filling up quickly as our group of 4 was now a 6 but they were happy for us all to stay as along as we were up and out before the first jeep tour came for breakfast, 7am!
Turns out the lone bike-packer was another cyclist we knew, or at least knew of… We first came across his name with Phillip and Nicci in Colombia, we even sang happy birthday to him down the phone, we then heard his name mentioned by Dean and Dang who we rode the Peru Divide with. Funny just how small the cycle touring world is. It also explained why such a huge day wasn’t a concern to him, this was a normal day for Scott, we had heard countless tales of his epic days in the saddle on the dirt.
A rather social evening followed as we all cooked and ate and then ventured into the hot springs for a late night wash, turns out some of the jeep tours stay in a hotel here so our plan of a quiet dip was ruined by hordes of beer drinking 18 year olds but it was still worthwhile to just soak away the weeks worth of grime. Jess had decided that it would be far too cold to go in the dark and had made a wise decision to use the pools when they were empty earlier on, having a far more relaxing time than I achieved…
With an early start so that the we were up to see Johnny taking a morning dip, we agreed we would set off and he would once again catch us on the trail. We said goodbye to our room mates as we all left in dribs and drabs each with our own plan for the day ahead. The road was relatively easy going with only the train of Jeeps causing any major issue, some didn’t seem to understand that if they drove passed us at brake neck speeds we got sprayed by gravel and stones, a few angry exchanges we made that went a small way to making us feel a little better about our predicament. Not all the jeep drivers were crazy though, lots slowed down if only to allow the tourists to get a decent shot of the idiotic cyclists riding up a long sandy hill, again one jeep even pulled over so the occupants could clamber out to get a better snap shot of us as we sluiced through the occasional deep patch of sand.
As the day progressed Johnny still hadn’t caught us and with the wind picking up we took shelter in an old abandoned house to wait for him, it was here that Jonas, the German cyclists, joined taking a welcome rest from the hellish wind that was starting to cause us no end of problems, turns out all those photo stops were coming back to bite us in the ass!
From our sheltered perch we eventually saw the distant bike shaped dot that we hoped was Johnny, we were wrong. The French who we had passed earlier were making there way down but rather than taking our track they jumped ship, opting to cut the day short missing Laguna Verde. It was here that Johnny appeared and not seeing us presumed the French were blazing the trail for him, off he went blissfully unaware that his day was about to become a whole lot shorter if not a little less exciting. Seeing this we waved goodbye to Jonas who was planning a siesta and we rode off.
Back to just Jess and I for the first time in a long time it was nice to just be in each others company again, eve if it did mean me sitting at the front getting smashed by the wind while she tried to use me a moveable windshield.
All the effort of riding was wroth it when we crested a slight rise to see Laguna Verde tucked away. It was like looking at the Caribbean Sea, only, it was freezing. The salt crystals gave the effect of a perfect white sandy beach and the wind was creating sizeable waves to really make the image complete. All that was missing was a palm tree or two, instead these were replaced by a volcano as a backdrop!
We snapped some obligatory photos and then resumed our battle with the wind. We had heard about an abandoned hostel somewhere round this section so with eyes peeled we rode steadily onwards along the shores of Laguna Blanco.
As the wind increased our hopes of finding this abandoned shelter seemed to get blown away and before really realising where we were we had made it to the newer refugio and the park exit. It was here we spied the Frenchies bikes and also Johnny with a big grin wondering why we had emerged from the opposite way to him. We opted to hide from the wind and take some respite in the refugio and here we stayed for the next two hours, the longer we sat the more intense the wind became. Just as we were mustering up the motivation Jonas practically crawled through the door, he had taken his nap and awoken to this wind, he had then gone on to try and ride into it. More sitting and a bottle of coke later and we had resigned to the fact we were making no more headway today. All that was left was for us to try and locate some form of shelter, Jonas was the first to check out a possible location only to return glum faced, the big storage shed we had hoped we might be allowed to put our tents in was locked and they were park wardens were not prepared to open for us. The second option involved camping around the back of the refugio we were currently taking shelter in, again this didn’t fill us with much desire to get up as it was where they dumped their bins.
After much deliberation we gave in and asked for the price of a room, a deal was struck where we could, if we could get the necessary funds, sleep in a room that was usually for the jeep drivers; 8 mattresses and the refugios generator as a way to lull us to sleep. We worked out if we all put our money together, and Jess and I could use some Chilean money and some Argentinian money that we had found buried deep in one of our panniers we could stay. Our luck was in, they rather reluctantly accepted our mish-mash of currencies and we were shown to our humble abode for the night. The French had opted for the room much earlier and even went for food, we however would be cooking in the back, much to the amusement of the staff and other guests.
Turns out the majority of the guests were part of a tour group from an adventure company based in the Lake District and as the night went on, and the wine began to flow, for them, not us, conversations were started. One lady was an avid cyclist and was amazed at the trip we were all on, she even went about smuggling food supplies from her table to us. She even pilfered half a bottle of red wine which went down a treat! They were supposed to be doing an acclimatisation trek the next day and hangover was the last thing most of them wanted!
With the aid of the red wine, the knowledge that this would be our last night in Bolivia and the last 10days brutal effort we were all quickly asleep and very unwilling to wake up the next morning and brave the elements once again; the generator fumes may also have had something to do with our rather groggy nature.
Once again we were the entertainment as we set up our stoves and pulled out the last dregs of food we had remaining after countless days with no chance of a re-supply. Porridge with a spoonful of sugar was all we had left, luckily our friend from the previous night was on hand to pass us some smuggled pancakes as an added motivator.
From here it was our last climb of Bolivia; a stinging uphill all the way to the border. As we crested we were met with looks of admiration from the queue of tourists who had either passed us previously or who were just commencing their Lagunas trip. It was also here that we heard of the exit fee that was being charged… This did not bode well, we literally didn’t have a coin after having to cobble together every last cent to get the previous nights accommodation; we nervously observed each tourist as they went and got their stamp, seeing each one get asked for the money.
As it came our turn we opted for the age old tactic of play dumb, we got to the front handed our passports and waited for the awkward moment when we confessed we had no money to give them, all we got however, was a quick question about whether or not we were cycling and a cheery goodbye; looks like we are exempt from the exit fee, maybe they have had this problem with weary, dirt encrusted, over tired cyclists before and realised we often don’t have much left, either way we left smiling.
Smiling for maybe the next 2 minutes before the route into San Pedro revealed itself. Ok, so it was all paved but the road climbed and climbed, this was probably one of the toughest climbs we have done, I don’t know if it was just the unexpectedness of it or the fact we thought it should have felt easier than it was proving to be because it was paved. Whatever the problem we were damn near broken when we finally saw the downhill. We also couldn’t work out where to get our entry stamp for Chile, the only building we had seen was still being built and we really didn’t want to have to venture back they way we had come.
With nowhere to go to get the stamp we began the decent, for the next 45minutes we would travel at speeds only dreamed about for the last 2 weeks. We dropped from near 4000m to roughly 1000. We set off in gloves and jackets and before we reached the bottom we were delayering in the tropical heat. We briefly saw one poor cyclist going the other way, he whooped and cheered for us as we charged past him, unable to get the breaks on and stop in time.
We bottomed out at a bridge and before us saw another slight climb; with groans and grumbles expecting the same performance we had all witnessed near the top we dropped gears and tried to maintain as much pace as we could. Before we new it the climb was behind us, turns out there is a hell of a lot more oxygen down at this altitude and this, what would be zesty climb, had been demolished in our oxygen saturated states.
We rolled into San Pedro on a high and went in search of a cash machine, food and accommodation, in that order. Disappointed by the cash machine that charged to withdraw and a meal that wasn’t as extravagant as we were hoping for we set off in search of accommodation.
The next few days were spent enjoying the relative luxury of San Pedro, well I say enjoy, I unfortunately had to pay a trip to the dentist as the tooth that had bothered me in Argentina, Chile and Brazil had decided he wasn’t happy again. Turns out a root canal was in order so the next four days saw me receiving hours of treatment while the rest of the crew enjoyed the beers. San Pedro also marked the end of our time with the other cyclists. Jess and I were catching a bus to Santiago for a friends wedding, Johnny would be flying home to Ireland for Christmas, the rest of the cyclists would be carrying on south.
It was a some what bitter sweet occasion, we had now made it all the way around south America, we had pretty much finished what we came to do but at eh same time we were now saying goodbye to a bunch of guys we had spent the last 2/3 months with. We had shared campsites, hotels and even rooms. We had laughed at each other and with each other. We had carried one another’s bikes when we were struggling. Its weird, 2/3 months isn’t all that long, but when you’re going through the experiences we were sharing this acts as a pretty strong glue to hold the friendship together. We waved goodbye with promises of future adventures to be had and off we went our separate ways
For the next month we will be playing backpacker!
Sajama- Macaya- Sabaya- Salar de Coipasa- Lilca - Salar de Uyuni- Uyuni
With a day’s rest in our legs and our food stocks well and truly re-filled, most of it it seems in my bag, we were ready to make our way towards the Solars. Something I have been looking forward to since dreaming up this adventure.
We left our accommodation knowing we had two cyclists just ahead of us. Two Swiss cyclists who we briefly crossed paths with in Cusco we knew had made an early jump on us and for most of the day we followed the distinctive tyre tread of their Mondials (thats a type of tyre Mum), using them as a make shift GPS guide, as well as an early warning sign for any spots of deep sand that we could see they had been caught up in. It was on this stretch that we were truly grateful for the new rubber we had put on our bikes, both of us had opted to go with the age old saying of bigger is better. Jess now had some chunky 2.1 inch tyres while I had a 2.35 for some added cushioning and floatyness through the deep sand we hit. Both seemed to be working perfectly as we made short work of a gradual descent while our friends with the slimmer Mondials, including Ryan, found themselves sliding out on more than one occasion.
We caught the Swiss as they were setting up camp, this was to be our first of many days chasing them down but camping as a group. It was also our first experience of Bolivian wind as we camped. A rather noisy night but we all survived to ride another day, well mostly, our inner tent zip has decided that now would be the perfect time to break, we are now opting for maximum ventilation by sleeping with the door half open!!!
We waved goodbye to the Swiss in the morning, they were up and packed befor ewe had even started breakfast, it's true what they say about Swiss efficiency!! Our aim for the day was to catch them, this time before camp. We once again set out following their tracks but today we did have a brief spell of route finding when the Swiss pulled the oldest trick in the book; a river crossing to disguise their tracks. Jess wasn’t deterred and without even waiting to take off her shoes Jess charged straight in and made the crossing cleanly, ok, she got wet feet but that didn’t stop her riding it out till dry land! That set the tone for the rest, not wanting to loose face we all ploughed in following in Jess wake. We caught our comrades’ shortly after our refreshing foot spa, turns out it wasn’t a fair race; one they didn’t know we were racing, and two, Severen was ill so riding at half pace.
Opting to trail blaze for our new friends we forged ahead and made it to Chinchillani. The Bolivian food supplies still haven’t improved however we have mastered the art of looking worse for wear and managed to convince the only shop owner to rustle us up some fired egg sandwiches, again the quantity we wanted seemed to have her confused, why on earth did we want 13 egg sandwiches, there was only three of us eating them?! Trying to explain a cycle tourists hunger is difficult when you speak the language, it’s near impossible when you only have the equivalent of a toddler’s skills to communicate with! Even more confusion was added when the Swiss rolled in and consequently ordered 6 more, we hastily paid and left before things got even more confusing.
With food in our bellies we hit he road, thankfully the sand relented, only to be replaced by the dreaded washboard. The going was slow and tempers were fraying. The soft patches of sand could be funny, one minute you were riding the next you were wresting with the bike to keep it in a straight line, this caused great amusement, especially if it wasn’t you wrestling but the person in front of you. Jess had taken to hitting prolonged sandy patches with increased speed and just hanging on. A technique that although unorthodox, and visually entertaining seemed to be working surprisingly well for her, most of the time that is! Washboard however was a different story. All you could do was hope to find the line of least undulations and try and stay in the seat without being bucked off as the bike jittered and fitted its was through. This kind of riding is miserable and uncomfortable, it didn’t help when I managed to take my eyes off the task at hand to check the view only to hit a rough patch and get a pinch flat. After a slow fix, having no desire to start riding the road again, it was catch up time, Jess had pushed ahead to try and slow the boys down. When I finally caught up well after our designated time to find camp Ryan was gone. He had somehow missed Johnny who had gone to check a possible camp spot. While we debated whether to go after him the Swiss rolled in, we opted to stay put, Ryan was to fend for himself for the night while we made the most of the natural wind protection our current camp spot offered.
Ryan hadn’t got too far and we caught up with him the next day, and continued on. We hoped to make it to Sabaya and if the amenities were available, i.e. a hot shower and wi-fi, a rest day was on the cards. The roads didn’t improve and the riding was challenging mainly to our patience, Ryan found the going tough without the help of a fizzy drink and after passing through three small towns with no shops to speak of his patience was done. While we stopped for a lunch of stale bread and jam he pushed on to meet us at the next available store with a sugary drink. We caught up with him, and luckily a fizzy drink, another 25km down the road.
Here we learned from the Swiss that we were out of luck accommodation wise, they had also been planning a rest day but with not much on offer we all decided the best option would be to push on saving our hard earned rest days for something with a few more commodities. We rode out after stuffing our faces with chicken and chips to an increasing wind, Bolivia is really putting our tents to the test and this night was no exception. With no option of shelter, we did our best at predicting the wind direction for the evening and set up camp. It wasn’t one of our best and at 4am we were awoken to our tent flapping madly as one of the pegs had pulled out of the soft ground.
With a bad night sleep in all of us we were somewhat earlier to leave, the Swiss’ head start was reduced to a mere 30minutes compared to the usual hour and a half they have over us in a morning. I’d like to say it was group effort but the reason we were so early was due to the fact that for some reason Johnny was up and decamping before the rest of us had gotten out the tent. He still wasn’t the first ready but he definitely set a new personal best for time to de-camp!
Today also saw us get our first taste for salt if you will. The road led us to Solar de Coipasa, a smaller and somewhat less famous little brother to the Salar de Uyuni. The road led straight on to it and before we knew it we were cruising over hard pack salt with nothing but a blinding glare reflecting up at us. It was a surreal feeling riding across the salt flats, there was a road of types but its was only there because off the constant comings and goings of vehicles from Island Coipasa had compacted the tracks to follow. These tracks led us to a small island and a shop that for the first time in Bolivia stocked pasta sauces! We stocked up on what as left and once again headed back onto the Salar, not before packing a handy sized rock into our already over loaded bikes. Our intentions were to camp on the salt but trying to get a peg in wold be impossible without a little help.
The second section of the Salar was even more impressive than the first. Less tracks and before we knew it we were in the middle of an expanse of salt. We set up camp and sat back to take in our surroundings, that was until the winds picked up forcing everyone to retreat to their tents for another noisy night, at least this time I was confident our pegs wouldn’t be coming out, I wasn’t even sure if I was going to be able to get them out the next day never mind the pesky wind pulling them out.
Salar de Coipasa was a warm up for things to come with the Salar de Uyuni. This is somewhere I have been excited about riding to since we dreamed up the trip. To camp on the Salar de Uyuni was the reason we have taken so many buses, the reason we have had to skip stretches due to time. It was all to get to the Salar before the rainy season hit and it flooded. I was now a mere day away from realising this dream. All I had to do was get off the Salar de Coipasa, which was no easy task. We set off on the harder than concrete salt but before we knew it our tyres were sinking and the riding had a similar sensation to trying to ride through super glue. Brutal isn’t the word. We pumped our legs as hard as any mountain climb, as any head wind but progress was practically non existent. Slowly, very slowly we cold see dry land edging closer. In some sadistic way it was quite enjoyable, the pain of riding this soft but not too soft terrain, I was a challenge, I wasn’t impossible to ride, it was just very very close to that, and the more time we spent churning the legs the harder it got.
After a leg busting stint we hit hard surface once again, it felt like we were flying, our pace was probably only 20kph but it felt like I was riding at a Tour de France pace on a carbon fibre bike. I suppose that’s the joy of the tough sections, they make the good sections even better.
Once back on somewhat firmer roads we pushed the pace and made it Llica, here it was a hot shower of sorts, more a bucket of sun heated water but it felt great to wash the salt of us and also a scrub down of the bikes which were also supporting a new white layer crusted onto every inch of available space
The next day and it was a mere bimble to the long awaited Salar de Uyuni. We left our hotel and before we new it our surroundings had taken on a somewhat whiter appearance. We were there, I had made it before the rains flooded the place, now all we had to do was not take the wrong road and make our way towards cactus island. A slight tail wind and a super flat hard, as concrete surface, saw us making great progress until we realised we had in fact followed a rogue Jeep track, not to worry, a quick crunchy ride off road if you will and we would intersect the correct road in no time.
Crossing various tracks, we kept up our crunchy cross country route knowing we had to make at least 4km to be back on route. What we didn’t realise is the tracks move each season, what we had previously written off as far too soon turned out to be the road we were in fact looking for. Another about turn and finally we were back on track.
The rest of our day was spent riding into the never advancing horizon finally making it to the island to replenish our water supplies. We rejected the offer to pay 30 bovs (just over 3 pounds) per person to camp on the island and instead, pushed on aiming for a 100km day. From here we found the first jeep-track free spot we could and set up camp for another night on the salar.
Another windy night but with our trusty rock at hand the tent held strong and the morning dawned calm and bright, Johnny, enjoying his time on the salar so much opted to take a lazy morning and then find a scheduled spot for himself. Jess, Ryan and myself felt a good meal and a hot shower were in order and pushed on for Uyuni.
Its funny, every picture I’ve seen of cyclists camping on the slat flats the wind never comes into it. The pictures look tranquil and calm, the sunset, the lunar esq landscape, its all so idyllic and easy. In reality, its not quite like that; once that wind picks up its anything but calm. It roars as it smashes you, building its momentum for over 100 uninterrupted KM before you and your tent get in its way. The evenings are spent listening to the noise of your tent being thrashed, watching as the walls buckle this way and that. Still, I wouldn’t change it, I felt is if I was really surviving, doing something that not every individual could do. The wind has a way of making situations feel far more extreme than the actually might be.
Uyuni brought tourists and with it western food. More importantly, pizza! It also meant we could extend our Bolivian visa; the Lagunas route is meant to be tough so any extra days we could muster on our month visa would allow for any rest days that may be needed while on the route.
Copacabana -Pucarani - Viachi- Corocoro- Ulloma- Laguna Blanca- Okoruro- Sajama
With our time in Peru coming to an end and our Visas left with little time we opted to bus to Bolivia. With much discussion and many promises we were assured that our bus was direct to Copacabna and we would be fine with bikes. Our direct bus wasn’t quiet as direct as we were promised but at least the seats were roomy. Rather unexpectedly we were told that all passengers for Copacabana needed to get off here, here being a pull in on the side of a main road, and get on a different bus, not great news when you have four fully loaded bicycles in the hold and the bus they are directing you to isn’t much bigger than a car. Still the driver wasn’t concerned and after loading the other rather confused tourists bags on the roof he went ahead and hoisted all four bikes up there as well. This bus then took us to the border where we were once again told to get off and collect our bags, this was the end of the line. Our direct bus had in fact left us 8km short of our destination.
A small amount of faff was added at immigration when they noticed Ryan was 3 days over his visa allowance and was forced to pay a hefty fine, a whole 3 dollars, one for each day he was deemed illegal, the faff presumed when he had to go and find a local bank to pay his fines at. Eventually all four of us made it through and began to kit up ready to ride, it was here we realised our unexpected change of bus had cost us far more than first thought. Our helmets that we have been on our heads for every KM of our journey were still nestled under our seats safely tucked away so that no opportunistic thief could grab them from above us while we slept. DAMN. I started out wearing my helmet through fear of my mother but now, after South East Asia plus almost the whole of South America it just feels normal to have it on, and so abnormal to be riding without one. It’s funny because most cycle tourists we see don’t ever wear a helmet, most of them carry them, which always seemed strange to me as we tend to be conscious of excess eight and bulk.
It was only 8km from the border to Copacabana but it felt much further riding without my helmet. The worst part is I don’t know when we will be able to buy another one, luckily most of our route through Bolivia is going to be on very quiet back roads with little traffic, but still, I’d feel far more comfortable tackling this route with skid lid on my head!
Copacabana was another touristy stop on the shores of Lake Titikaka, Jess played tour guide after already having visited this town on her previous backpacking trip 4 years ago, it wasn’t the most difficult of jobs, there was only one street she had to guide us down!
After one more rest day to get a feel of things we were ready to ride, this time without the helpful aid of the pikes GPS route to guide us. We were back to forging our own trail which added a new element to our riding, it felt like we were truly exploring a country again rather than following in others footsteps, or should I say tyre tracks!
Before leaving we made a quick stop at a café of one of Johnny’s friends, we had heard bad things of the food on the road and good things of the food in said café. After far too much amazing coffee as well as probably the best beans we’ve had in South America we rather slowly trundled out of town. Any other cyclist reading this I can’t recommend the beans on toast enough at El Condor and the Eagle, it’s tourist prices but worth every penny as a last treat before heading out into the barren waste lands of Bolivia!
Our route took us around Lake Titicaca and towards La Paz but before we got swallowed up by the traffic and the hustle we cut off on a back road and began exploring the real Bolivia, slowly making our way towards Sajama National Park, constantly being overlooked by Bolivia’s highest peak of the same name. The roads are notoriously bad in Bolivia and it wasn’t long before the ripio took its first casualty with Johnny snapping a chain link. A quick road side fix we were able to keep going until the afternoon wind picked up causing us to take the first shelter we could find, well at least the boys got shelter, our tent couldn’t fit so had to withstand the full strength of the wind that caused a full blown dust storm to tear through our camp.
The deeper we delved into Bolivia the more we learned what other cyclists meant by the lack of food, Ryan, who eats nothing but potatoes, noodles and crackers has been in his element but those of us with a more normal diet have found Bolivia to be a challenge. We were given a free lunch in a small town with a somewhat less famous salt flat than that of Uyuni but other than that rations have been limited. Many of the small towns we have passed through have offered us nothing more than crisps and fizzy drinks, even our staple breakfast of porridge has been a struggle. Things only got worse when Johnny managed to have a gasoline leak meaning not only was food hard to cook due to his lack of fuel but also his sleeping bag and liner were at risk of putting him into a very deep sleep or turning him into another free lunch due to a rogue flame.
Our route we had planned to purposefully avoid any major town was now beginning to look slightly less appealing. Our appearance must also be conveying how desperate we are getting for real food as a lady in the small village of Okuro took pity on our bedraggled state and set about rustling us up some llama and chips for us to eat in her small store.
With Llama in our bellies we were able to do battle with a head wind and road conditions scarily similar to the ones we conquered in Patagonia. Knowing we were within striking distance of Sajama and hopefully some better stocked shops was the main driving force behind smashing it into this brutal head wind. We camped within a days ride of Sajamba under the watchful gaze of Vulcan Sajama and the next day entered the national park. A quick refuel of egg sandwiches at the entrance gate and off we rode, only to be stopped 10km down the road by a park warden. Turns out we have to pay to enter the park, the problem is the only place to pay was 10km back up the road. Looks like our park warden friend had slept in and was now a little flustered at the prospect of loosing out on 4 entrance fees. After much deliberation it was agreed I would venture back with the warden on his motorbike as long as he agreed to bring me straight back as soon as I had signed everyone in.
With our brief distraction completed and a rather nervous motorbike ride over we were free to ride on into Sajama, unfortunately it wasn’t quite the tourist destination we were expecting. We did find some better stocked shops and signs of some restaurants but other than that the town doesn’t have much to offer. Still a rest day is in order while we try to figure out where we will venture to next.
Arriving in Cusco, after a horrific bus ride that involved a small crash with an oncoming vehicle, we were in need of another rest day. It is definitely easier to ride the bike rather than take these stupid busses but time restraints often dictate the need. Maybe we should just get faster?!
Cusco came as somewhat of a culture shock, for the whole two and a half months we have been in Peru we have rarely strayed into a major tourist hub other then Huaraz, Cusco was a different ball game though, there were so many white people it was unnerving. I was constantly shocked to hear English been spoken, and often forgot that the locals had a pretty good grasp of the language as well. With our fill of good food, and a day to get over the bus ride, it was time to get down to the main event, being in Cusco meant that we were close to Machu Picchu, something you can’t come to Peru and not see. Not wanting to just take the normal route, or the hugely overpriced Inca Trail, we opted for what I thought was going to be a quieter option and attempted the Salkantay trek. I had heard amazing things about this trek before we even arrived in South America and it is something I have been looking forward to doing.
We opted to go self guided and trawled the internet to find information on how to get to the start of the trek, the tourist information companies here were adamant that we couldn’t get there without going on one of their tours.
A little more research showed that we could get a collectivo easily enough; the only problem was that we would have to be getting up at 4am to catch it; this didn’t bode well as Jess doesn’t do well with early mornings!!
We managed to get to the start of the trek with little fuss except for the fact that as soon as we locked the door behind us I realised I had forgotten my wallet. Jess was less than impressed!
With Jess paying my way we began the trek, not before paying an extortionate amount for 4 egg sandwiches from one of what I presume is a camp for the guided groups, looks like they don’t like self guided trekkers either! Luckily for me my wallet was tucked up in the hostel, or so I hoped anyway…
Our plan due to time restraints was to go big, 20km a day for 3 days would take us to Machu Picchu for the 4th day, perfect. Perfect until we started. It quickly became apparent that our bodies are not hiking fit, especially for carrying a heavy pack. By the time we hit the 10km marker we were struggling, already I could feel the bruises developing on my hips and shoulders. What didn’t help were the hundreds of people on a guided trek ambling by with their tiny daypacks.
Our second problem became camping. On the bike we rarely have a problem finding a secluded area to pitch our tent and get a good nights sleep but here any flat spot had been designated an official campsite and with it came fees that we weren’t willing to pay! In the end we walked all the way into Challay, a small hovel that only exists for guided groups, thinking we were going to have to bite the bullet and pay to camp we asked around for the owner so that we could set up and get some much needed food into us. Seeing our bedraggled state, and Jess’ look of pure pain he took pity on us, waving to a spot of grass he said we could camp for free, he must have been making a killing from the 8 tents that were pitched on his veranda to worry about a little more from us!
We awoke the next morning to hear the trail was not passable due to the heavy rain and that everyone must walk down the road, some trek this is!!! With sore shoulders and hips and the prospect of walking down a road we were far from motivated to get going, again I think the owner of the camp must have picked up on our vibes and came over to offer us a lift with a few of the guided group to the bottom of the road. Done!
We felt no regrets as we passed the light weight hikers tramping down a dirt road, hell, we had ridden roads worse than this, walking it would have mentally killed me. We were dropped of at Santa Teresa, a small town at the end of the trail and discovered that we now had another road stretch to get us to Hydroelectrica, the only way into Machu Picchu. I was struggling to see how this trek had been rated so highly when all you seem to do is walk on roads?! Again having no desire to dodge taxis and collectivos we took a lift to the end of the road, all that was left now was a 10km hike up a railway track and Machu Picchu would be in touching distance.
With our bodies aching from the previous day’s effort we managed to stumble the 10km and found ourselves a campsite at the base of the path to the Incan village. With plans for a rest day to allow my body to recover before making the trek to Machu Picchu we explored the local town, and quickly retreated due to the crazy prices they were charging for anything and everything. Our day was spent relaxing in the tent and doing not much at all but hoping the weather would be clear for the following day.
I awoke at 4am to the sound of rain. Brilliant! I have been in Peru for two and a half months and have woken up to gray skies a total of three times, this being the third. Not to be deterred I was up and dressed and with head torch trained on the road and water on my back I was off ready to beat the crowds to the top. I made it roughly 100m before I was in a queue. Turns out they lock the gates at the bottom of the hill until 5, I think this is to encourage more people to pay for the crazily priced busses rather than attempt the trek up the hill side. The first buss leaves town at 5.30 giving the walkers very little chance of being the first to the top. This still didn’t deter a huge number of tourists, even with my early start I was probably over 100 people from the front, still this gave me a good number to beat even if the bus was a long shot.
The gate opened and the crowd surged through to tackle the climb ahead. Our advantage over the buses was that we went straight up for 1745 steps (I was informed of this by a welsh couple we met in the campsite the night before) while they drove backwards and forewords along the switchbacks. Slowly the numbers on the trail dwindled and before I knew it I was cresting the top of the hill, to my shock there was only one other person there, both of us had managed to beat even the staff bus and for a few minutes were stood slightly at a loss of what to do.
My cycling fitness had obviously paid off and as the main gates were opened I was the first through and up to the view point, unfortunately I didn’t really know where I was going so I didn’t make it to the best spot until later in the day but still, having the whole place to yourself, even for just a minute was a pretty special experience and luckily the clouds parted just as I got in.
I spent the rest of the morning trying my best to avoid the crowds while trying to eaves drop on the guided groups I couldn’t get away from. After 3 hours of aimless wandering I was done. Time to get back to camp, pack and make the 10km trek back out. There are no buses from Machu Picchu, you either take the crazy priced train or hike the 10km back the way you came in and get a bus from there. All in all this made for a crazily long day with way too many steps but at least we had made it and not been stranded as some of the tour operators told us would happen if we tried to get a bus on the day.
Machu Picchu marked the end of our time in Peru, from here it was yet another bus to the Bolivian Border where we would once again mount our noble steeds and ride some more. We have had an amazing time in Peru and ridden some of the best trails of the trip, our bikes have been put through their paces and come out smiling almost as much as we have. We did treat them to a service in Cusco with some new fatter shoes as well as a spruce and a clean. We are excited for Bolivia but sad to be leaving Peru behind. This place has so much to offer, from the unbelievable mountains to be climbed to the endless back roads to be explored. I can confidently say we will be back at some point. But now we have a bus to Bolivia that will once again hopefully take four bicycles and be somewhat comfier than the last bus we took. Let’s hope the adventure gods and mother nature are kind to us and the rains hold off for just one more month!
With a few days rest we were once again ready to take whatever the Peru divide could throw at us. What we didn’t expect was to find a paved route so tough! Well, more mentally taxing than tough but still, it hit us hard. This is probably the only section of tarmac we have ridden in well over 600km and although our pace was higher than our usual hill climbing snail like tempo, mentally we all struggled, whether we just needed one more rest day or not I’m not sure, but this climb was mentally taxing, so much so that with the now customary grey angry clouds we took refuge early in a small town, camping by a health centre. This one will not go down as one of our best camp sites!
The following morning it was back to normal, after only a few kilometres of the black smooth stuff we took a side turn that brought us back to the good stuff. Dusty and bumpy yet comfortingly familiar we were back on the dirt.
The road continued up with the vistas constantly opening up before us reminding us why we enjoy these dirt roads so much. Before we knew it we rounded one last corner and were greeted with a huge sign marking the summit. 5059m we were told, amazing, this was the first time we had broken the 5000m mark by bike… Ok, so our GPS said we were somewhat lower but who were we to argue with this giant sign?!
With the customary photos taken we wrapped up and began the descent, we were given the option of a 5km shortcut but the road was steep and loose and Jess’ brakes are not performing as optimally as she would like so we carried on the mellow descent that took us round into the next valley and back again were we could meet up with Ryan and the bike-packers.
From just below our meeting spot the road took a somewhat smaller trail, so much so that Johnny and Dang overshot, luckily Dean had his beady eye on the GPS and without too much hollering, and luckily without having to chase down the hill, we aroused the eager beavers attention and got them to ride back up.
This narrow trail that didn’t feature on any of our maps really kicked up gradient wise, and deteriorated in surface quality so much so that after a only a km we were feeling the increased gradient and our now overly layered bodies began to overheat. Ryan, fearing the ominous black clouds pushed on from here before the consensus was out on what to do; we opted to eat before carrying on with the rest of the climb leaving Ryan to forge ahead and find camp.
The black clouds were constantly threatening but never fully unleashed their pent up anger, a dusting of snow and hail made the sometimes un-rideable climb even more atmospheric and as we topped out the cloud had blown by to intimidate some other high altitude pass leaving us with unspoilt views down the valley in search of Ryan and a good spot to camp.
The descent was long and fun but before we knew it we caught sight of Ryan’s tent tucked away down at the bottom of the valley, we rolled in just in time to get set up as the dark clouds we thought we had left behind made a re-appearance.
We awoke the next day to some more friendly Llamas and the knowledge that we had our last climb on the Peru Divide. We rolled out with mixed feelings, excitement to make it to a descent town for a hot shower and reluctance to finish this epic route we started so long ago.
As always the climb was long and as always the weather was constantly threatening to drown us in a sudden downpour. We once again opted to take lunch before the climb really kicked up and once again lost Ryan as he did his best to get ahead of the darkening skies. This climb saw more traffic than the whole of the route previously put together, we were using a road that lead to an active mine however the endless train of loaded trucks all too happy to pull over and wait as 5 pathetically slow cyclists meandered their way up the winding dirt trail.
As we neared the top we had a small amount of route finding to perform, the miners seemed to be taking the rock straight from the road but with a little adlibbing and some not so helpful guidance from to workers at the top we managed to make our way back to the road on the other side. From here it was all-downhill, just as the weather let rip with some more snow and hail, no complaints from us though, we would take this over rain any day!
Another super fun downhill and a reunion with Ryan in a small village were we were hoping to get served some hot sugary liquid, no luck however and with a long way to go we pushed on.
The route led us into Licapa, a run down little town with nothing to offer 6 hungry, dirty cyclists. The town, if you can call it that, offered a rather anticlimactic end to our ride and before long we were all eyeing up the trucks racing up the main road that would take us to civilisation. This main road would be our route if we choose to ride it, infact we met two other cyclist in this town who made it very clear to us that they were hoping to make it to Ushuaia without the aid of a bus, we made it very clear that after riding the Peru Divide an aimless slog up a highway dodging trucks did not entice us one little bit and we would be taking a lift of any form if we could just find one.
With Dean doing the talking in his best Spanish we managed to arrange a lift to Ayacucho in the back of a vegetable truck, not bad going to say there were 6 fully loaded bicycles as well as 6 very tired dirty cyclists. What we didn’t realise was that we would have to unload said vegetable truck of all its wholesome goods, this didn’t even warrant a discount which we tried to bargain for later on.
With a two hour uncomfortable ride sat in the back of a truck having no idea if our bargaining skills had indeed got us a ride to Ayacucho or, instead, to a dead end road in the middle of nowhere where we would then be robbed of our precious belongings, luckily the doors were thrown open in a petrol station just 4km from where we wanted to be, a sketchy night ride and we had made it.
Ayacucho is a small version of Cusco I had been told, (I can now confirm this after visiting both) it has a huge plaza with old colonial buildings and more importantly, good food. It was also from here we would be saying goodbye to our two bikepacking friends. Dean and Dang were going to carry on with the Peru Divide after already having been to Cusco. The rest of us, the original 4, were hoping to find a bus to take us to Cusco for yet more good food and the must see Machu Picchu.
Our hopes of walking into one of the many bus stations, paying for a ticket and then relaxing were soon dashed when we were constantly told that a direct bus to Cusco was not an option. We were also told of protests that were making the less than ideal option of a collectivo into a nightmare option that would involve over 24hours of travel. We were stumped. Something we thought was going to be easy was proving rather difficult. Our last option was a company located in the out of town bus terminal; we had been told they offered a direct bus the only problem was the four bicycles we would be carting with us. A taxi ride and a nervous conversation regarding the protests and we were on, all be it a day later than we hoped.
Trying to get to Lima proved far more difficult than we had expected but after 4 busses and a long time spent stood on the side of the main road we made it. Ahead lay 2 days with an old friend who I used to work with in Vietnam; he was kind enough to put us up in his TV room though he wasn’t sure if to offer he said as he didn’t know if it would be comfortable enough for us!! Little does he know of the trials and tribulations of cycle touring, I think his TV room as he called it has been one of the nicest places we have stayed, we had a huge TV and Netflix as well as a comfy bed, what more could two cyclists want?! We were treated to good food and great company and it was exactly what Jess and I needed after the brutal first leg of the Peru Divide, not to mention my getting altitude sick.
We did a few errands, mainly spare parts for Johnny’s rapidly crumbling bike and the rest of the time was spent relaxing, as well as having a few beers for old times sake. All too soon we were back looking for buses to take us back to Chicla but this time feeling a whole lot more relaxed and ready for the next stage of the Peru Divide. If you’re reading this Matt and family thanks for a perfect mini break from our cycling holiday, you can’t understand just how refreshing it was for us!!!
The journey back to Chicla was far easier than our escapades into Lima, and we made it back to our hotel with relative ease. We arrived back to meet two other cyclists, Dean and Dang, from the Philippines (@pedalling_slow). We met these two bikepackers at Jo’s Place in Huaraz but they left to take on some alternative route but with the hope of catching us somewhere down the trail. With this we took our peloton to 6 and agreed to roll out after one last rest day, travelling by bus is exhausting and Johnny had to replace all his broken parts was our excuse for this. We were also keen to see how these bikepackers fitted everything into their visible lack of storage space, or more to the point, we were keen to see what luxuries they had to go without!
We had a late start from the hotel, one last round of egg butties was needed, and began a steep climb straight from the off, is that what the whole of the second stage is going to be like??? Luckily it was only a short stint and before we knew it the climb had mellowed and we had all found our rhythm, that is until Dang suffered a split sidewall and needed a road side repair job Bikepackers 0, touring bikes 1!
With bike maintenance and a late start coupled with ever darkening clouds we called it a day and camped by a lake. We were later told we would have to be gone by 8am from this spot for some un-be known reason, safe to say we were not ready and packed by 8am but no reprimand was inflicted for our tardiness.
The next few days saw us passing through more mountainous scenery that kept us distracted from the ups and downs we were facing. Most afternoon we would see the blue skies become tempestuous the threats of rain became more real, in fact we became used to looking for a camp spot earlier than usual to avoid the certain downpour, usually trying to make sure we weren't on the top of a pass!!
We were caught in a few showers, or depending how high on a pass we were hail or snow, on one occasion we pushed on in ever worsening weather in the hope of camping at some hot springs that we had been told about, we could handle getting a little damp and cold if it meant our heroic efforts were rewarded with a long hot soak in some thermal pools. This plan didn’t quiet turn out as hoped. Luke warm and looking slightly stagnant the water was far from what we had envisioned, instead we opted to place our tents on the only flat, non marshy land we could find and give it up for a bad day.
The bad weather continued and for only maybe the third time since entering Peru we awoke to very British weather; damp, cold and grey! This continued throughout the day only to be broken by spells of torrential horizontal rain. To make this day even more entertaining we hit a section of the trail were mountain bike skills became the necessity. Single track and a bit of hike-a-bike (carrying your bike) were made all the more challenging by the slippy gloop we were navigating our way through. Lucky with 6 there was always a helping hand on the overly difficult sections.
It is times like these, when the weather is horrible and the roads are tough, that it’s great being with so many other cyclists. We are all suffering together and that somehow makes it almost fun. On our own, moral would have been low during this stretch, but with the group we all got through with smiles, even though we were soaked to the bone, especially me with my less than waterproof, waterproof jacket.
At the top of the hike a bike section we were rewarded with views of a lake and a super scenic ride into Vilca, a small town with stunning scenery. Never before have I seen a river with a forest growing from it or with so many lakes. The scenery was so good and the weather so miserable we decided to call it a day early and take refuge. Our hostel, if you can call it that, was overlooking the mountains and a huge waterfall framed by a colonial bridge; unfortunately, said hostel did not come with hot water as there was a power cut that lasted the whole night.
The next day saw us pick up were we left off following the river only this time we had no rain, we descended to what we had heard was a touristy town and with it our hopes of wifi and a hot shower grew. Unfortunately this town was crazily over priced and could not offer either of what we sought. After a lengthy stretch of faffing looking for some form of decent accommodation we gave up and rode out, a wasted half day meant we had covered a pitiful distance but when a camp spot overlooking a lake with the prospect of a fire materialised we once again called it a day with the promise that tomorrow we would start making more distance.
With Dean and Dang needing to pick a package up a much needed, ok not much needed but wanted rest was in order. Dean, not so lucky, had a 5am get up to catch a bus to Huancayo in order to forward on his belongings he didn’t want to carry; we on the other hand did nothing more than drink copious amounts of coffee and devour on obscene number of fried egg sandwiches. Our one rest day then turned to two when Dean got stranded in Huancayo as there was no bus back. Two was then extended to three when Johnny was struck down by what we think was a rogue egg. All in all a very relaxing few days was had with not much to do.
At some point during our third rest day another cyclists Joe joined us. Seeing how much fun we were having on our rest days he opted to call it a day early and join our ever-expanding motley crew.
Johnny adamant that he was over the worst of it was keen to push on and finally get out of Larous, a decision he soon regretted as the climbs were steep and his energy levels were non existent; we took an early camp with the hope that the next day would show some improvement in his health.
Our hopes were in vain; if anything he was worse and the 4970m pass that lay ahead of him did nothing to help his motivation. The morning was spent shuttling his bike then returning for my own, this was done over an 8km stretch before the rest of the group realised something was wrong and came to help. As tough as this pass was it was still a stunning ride with again unbelievable views. I would have preferred to only do it once though rather than taking two bikes up and over the pass!
It was here our new friend Joe decided we were too slow, he was hoping to ride the whole way to Bolivia where we had already decided that a bus was happening somewhere down the line. He had bugged off before we reached the top but luckily he left us some sublimes as a parting gift, I’ve previously said all of life’s problems could probably be solved with a sublime so all was forgiven when we learnt of his abandonment! With the climbing done Johhny was able to hang on and let gravity do the rest, Jess at this point, maybe feeling left out as I hadn’t been giving her any attention let gravity do a little too much and did her best impression of superman. Luckily it wasn’t a high-speed crash and the only ill effects were a bruised ego and a sore hip. After this we all took it slightly slower, which consequently meant the predictable afternoon showers soon caught up with us. Not wanting to camp high we rode on through the deteriorating weather until we stumbled upon a mining camp. Dean was first in asking for some form of shelter to pitch our tents and ended up coming out with accommodation, free food and even wifi for us all.
It’s funny, we couldn’t find wifi in the towns or villages but you come to the armpit of nowhere and you can get probably one of the better connections we’ve had in the whole of Peru! The only down side of our evenings accommodation were the unwanted guests our bikes played host to during the night, a dry bag filled with our lunches was no match for some hungry rats. Looks like we were going to be on very meagre rations for the next few days!!
With two decent meals and a good nights sleep Johnny was back to health and able to ride his own bike, which was a relief. It also meant we were able to smash out two passes and find camp before the inevitable weather closed in on us. Turns out we hadn’t quite gone low enough though, the usual rain materialised in the form of hail and snow, still with the tents up we were able to hunker down in the comfort of our sleeping bags and enjoy the show that mother nature provided.
By morning the snow had melted and we were rewarded with perfect blue skies, in-fact by 8am we were already feeling the heat with layers being shed before we had even left camp. We were even visited by some locals, not sure who was more intrigued, the Alpacas with the herd of gringos or the gringos with the herd of Alpacas.
Leaving camp left a marked change to the norm with more rolling hills, in-fact before this route I would have called these mountains but compared to the 2 or 3 day monsters we have become accustomed to, they barely registered as hills for the legs. Well, until we reached the last climb of the day that saw us going uphill for roughly 14km. With 2 km to the top a wide-open expanse proved too tempting and we set up camp with time to relax.
The joy of camping so close to the top of a pass is the certain downhill that awaits you. The downside is the below freezing temperatures you awake to. With the cold weather penetrating every layer we donned we began a desperate search for a town with hot coffee and some much needed food, we were really starting to resent the rats from the mine at this point! The first sign of civilisation turned up no hot liquid goodness, in fact, it felt deserted, not even a dog came to greet us. The same problem occurred in the second village we rolled through, by this point moral was starting to dwindle, the expectations of coffee were high and food was becoming more of a necessity than a luxury.
At a loss of what was happening we pushed on knowing that we had one more chance at a town to refuel and re-stock at. Upon arriving in this small town we realised why everywhere else was deserted, we trundled into a round of applause from a local fiesta and by the feel of things we had just become the star guests.
We parked our bikes and were quickly sought out by who we assumed was the mayor, he assured us that our bikes were perfectly safe here and went on to force feed us all a shot of god only knows what. It was also here that I developed a newfound sympathy for celebrities. I was hungry and a little tired, I could see a restaurant but due to the constant demands for photos it took me at least 20minutes to even get an order in. The rest of the afternoon was spent trying to figure out what the hell was going on, having our photo taken and searching for somewhere to stay.
Eventually we were shown to a school classroom where we could spend the night and store our bikes securely, the drunker the locals got the more worried we came of all our bikes parked in the middle of it all. From this point on we could join the party with gusto. Beers and dancing followed as we showed the locals how the gringos dance, safe to say non of us represented the west very well as we were all limited in our skills on the dance floor. The Macarena seemed to be a hit though!!!
Just as we were really getting in to the swing of things the caretaker of the school came to collect us, apparently we had a curfew that we were not aware of. Johnny and Ryan, both single may I add, weren’t too impressed with this enforced bedtime, especially as it was only 9pm. Many attempts were made by both men, one including the offer of 50 soles to allow us to stay up a little later, but the caretaker, thinking ahead for us, was insistent that it was a good time for bed as we had a long way to cycle the next day. With no other option we retired to our sleeping bags and were lulled to sleep by the never-ending symphony by one of the many bands that were rocking the stage.
The next morning we were rather happy we had called it a day when we did, still, a tough morning was had while we sweated the beers out of our system as we climbed the pass. Turns out beer is not the best fuel for a day on the bike. We did manage to top out and make it to Huancavelica, this marked the end of the second leg of the Peru Divide and still feeling the previous nights antics we opted for a day of rest without the beers.
Our adventures on the Peru divide continued to leave us in awe and amazement at the vistas and terrain we had ridden through, another epic stretch of riding that was made all the better for having 4 other cyclists to do it with. From here we will take the third stage but jump off early to get to Cusco and Machu Picchu
With our accommodation being somewhat famous amongst cyclist, staying at Jo’s Place meant there was no shortage of cyclists coming and going. Two such cyclists, Johnny, from Ireland and Ryan, from America were hoping to do at least the first half of the great divide. With our date of departure matching theirs we decided to join forces and take on this famous route as a foursome.
Opting to save ourselves a days ride up the main road we jumped on a bus that was surprisingly happy to take four loaded touring bikes, ok so ours was no longer fully loaded, we had heard that the next stage was going to be a tough one and after our earlier experiences in Peru we were all too keen to shed some weight. Peru it turns out has an amazing service that allows you to send luggage to set destinations for very little cost, after some advice from other cyclists who couldn’t understand why we hadn’t made the most of this service already, we shipped all of our hiking equipment to Lima, we now had one month in which to get there to claim it!
We set off with great excitement of what lay ahead, we turned off the main highway and waved goodbye to tarmac for the next 8 or so days. With a short day we picked out our first campsite, already the Peru Divide was meeting expectations as we pitched our tents with a view of the Huayhuash in the distance.
The second day gave us an amazing descent that tested our downhill skills, Jess with new brakes that performed no better was somewhat more sensible than the rest of us, that was until Johnny got a little carried away and ended up splitting the sidewall of his tyre. Insult was later added to injury when he got a second puncture, this was a pattern that was set to follow for the next few days.
Next on the Divide’s hit list was Jess who awoke to a flat front tyre, Johnny then wanting to out do her went on to get 3 more punctures before we decided to call it a day in an abandoned mining town at our low point for the day, from here we had a 3500m climb to look forward to.
We attacked the climb with gusto and determination, mainly due to our distinct lack of water, even though we camped next the river it didn’t look the cleanest to drink from and we knew there was, or hopefully was, a waterfall not too far up the canyon. With our water bottles filled we were back into the climbing, this time we made it a whole 2km, our progress was halted by the appearance of a small shop selling snacks, a necessity with two days of climbing ahead of us, we were also told that in a further 10km up the road there was a restaurant; ideal!
Less than ideal is when you push on to the expected restaurant with rumbling bellies dreaming of the delights of rice and chicken, only to find it has a limited supply of snacks and a hot shower! The owners, who in England would have probably been put in a home many years ago, sensed our desperation at the situation; with a fresh supply of eggs and bread in stock we were able to order up fried egg sandwiches, the owners did seem a little taken aback when Jess and myself ordered 10, then Ryan ordered a further 4 followed by Johnny trying to take their remanding supply of bread for some tuna sandwiches. After some deliberation, maybe the reason they should of been in a home, maybe our poor Spanish we managed to get our fill of eggs and bread and were on our way.
From here the climbing really kicked in and before long the egg butties were a distant memory, now all we could think about was the next snack stop. That was until Johnny got yet another puncture. We deduced that it must be the inside of his tyre and while Johnny went about patching his quickly diminishing inner tube Jess and I used the duck-tape to the inside of the tyre trick that worked so well on Jess’ tyre back when we started riding Peru. The switchback continued and with legs failing we opted to dive on the first flatish bit of land we could find and set up camp, it was here Johnny found out he had been riding with his back brake on, an justifiable explanation as to why he was looking so beat even with a high sublime diet he had been taking. (Sublime is our favourite snack of Peru, a chocolate block filled with peanuts, on more than one occasion it has been the answer to many of life’s problems)
With us suffering more than enough bike mechanicals to last the rest of the trip we prayed we had seen the last of any tyre leavers and inner tubes. We carried on the climb knowing that we would make it to a town for some much needed resupplies, as well as a real meal rather than the bread we had been lunching on. Cajatambo delivered on all fronts. We gorged ourselves on rice, chips and meat as well as soup for starter, we even managed to squeeze in some Jelly and cake just before we left. With bags refilled, and feeling a whole lot heavier we once again returned to the continuing uphill. It was just as the day was coming to an end that yet another puncture struck, a brief photo stop and a quick joke with Johnny as I waited making sure he hadn’t suffered yet another flat when I realised the joke was on me. Even worse, Jess had just ridden off with our puncture repair kit and our spare inner tubes!!!
A quick fix with Johnny’s rapidly decreasing patches and we were on the road again. Luckily the others, figuring Johnny had succumbed to another injustice by the adventure gods had stopped by an idyllic camp spot and with the weather turning we wasted no time in getting the tents and taking shelter just as the worst of the weather hit.
From our camp we knew we were in striking distance of a major town where a much needed night in a hotel and a hot shower was the order of the day, all we had to do was make it over the top of this climb, 4850m, and then it would be a well earned descent to roughly 3500m.
We rolled into Oyon tired, hungry and in dire need of a shower. The descent was stunning but with rough roads and photo stops at every bend, it had taken us longer than we thought. We found the plaza and checked a few of the nearest hotels. For some reason, this small town in the armpit of nowhere was proving to be the most expensive area for accommodation. Rather begrudgingly we forked over the money and found ourselves in a basic room. Insult to injury, the hot water we had been promised was somewhat lacking leaving myself and Jess with mild hypothermia after our attempts at a shower. The boys opted to wait til morning and gleefully reported on scalding water temperatures for all of 5 minutes before the boiler ran dry!
We tried to make the most of the extortionate price and hung around eating and general internet-ting until midday, we then once again started to climb. In hindsight half a days rest was not enough, especially for what lay ahead. The road became steeper and with 3 days of climbing already in our legs we began to fade. A measly 13km from Oyon and we were done, we set up camp and prayed that the road would relent slightly allowing us to make better progress in the morning.
The adventure gods seemed in a good mood as the road did let up allowing us to make the peak, our highest yet at 4960m and from here we began another knuckle busting descent back down to the balmy heights of 3000m. It was on this descent the Irish had another set back, his bike decided back brakes were for wimps and started spitting out pads. With yet another roadside fix we made it to the bottom in one piece and with time and daylight now against us we asked if we could camp on the local football field.
“Of course” was the reply, “Just make sure you don’t get in the way of the game!”
Jess wasn’t too happy with this however, being the day before her birthday, she had grander expectations as of where she wanted to wake up other than a local football field!
She was somewhat happier in the morning when the local school children, whom happened to use the football pitch as their playground gave a rendition of happy birthday for her!
The rest of the day wasn’t all that great for Jess, steep uphill all day with the only silver lining being a special birthday lunch…tomato sandwiches with butter and a great view to boot!
The evening was spent having a major, full-scale party in our tent complete with cake and candle. At the rock and roll age of 26 this party was shut down at 8pm when we were all too tired and cold to continue.
The next morning, all still tired from the previous night’s partying we set of from camp later than usual. Straight from the get go we were into heart attack inducing climbs with gradients to cry at. Ok so they wouldn’t have been too bad if it wasn’t for the previous 6 days worth of climbing and the fact that we were at 4300m and oxygen was hard to find. The last 8km were spent crawling, Peru was well and truly kicking our asses! Luckily for myself, Johnny was able to lend a helping hand when it came to pushing, between the two of us we managed to get Jess and her bike to the top.
It’s funny, I was well and truly put in my place by this climb. I usually enjoy the climbs, I like to attack them from the off but this one was different, as soon as I attacked the hill hit back, I couldn’t ride more than 100m without doubling over my handlebars with lungs and legs screaming for oxygen. Ryan was long gone, slowly spinning his way to the top and out of sight while I stood/ hunched feeling like I was trying to breath through a straw. It took me all of the three days to remember my mountaineering times.
“Pole Pole…” I was told on Kilimanjaro.
“Slowly, slowly…” I was instructed in the Himalayas.
Where were the trusty porters and guides when I needed them on my bike? As I neared the top I opted to stop attacking the climb. Instead I sat in my smallest gear going no faster than the gear would allow. I was taking it slow and it was working. Ok, so the gradient had definitely eased but still the lesson held true. If only I had remembered it two days ago I would have had a far less stressful time.
We made the peak of the pass as a three, Johnny Jess and I, Ryan, opting to escape the freezing wind, snow and hail that was starting to fall and descended to warmer climes.
We took the pictures and began another long a jarring descent only for Johnny once again to come unstuck with his brakes, literally!
With the memories of our butt kicking on the hill fresh in our minds we weren’t overly keen to begin yet another pass so took a detour to the nearest town in search of food and accommodation. No such luck with food but we were offered a room above a shop as all the hospedajes turned us away. Not fully sure of where we were staying but relieved to be out of the ever worsening weather we set up shop in what looks like a make shift hospital from the 1940’s, very Anne Frank esq
Enjoying our unconventional accommodation we opted to give our bodies a well-earned rest taking the next day off to watch films and catch up on our charging needs. A decision that was reinforced as a great idea when the weather took a turn for the worst, most of the day was spent questioning just how waterproof our abode was and also struggling to make the laptop heard over the din of the rain on the roof…first world problems!!!
With what we hopped would be fresh legs and minds we rolled out the next day knowing we had a steep climb ahead of us. All too soon the gradient was once again at risk of inducing a heart attack and on more than one occasion bikes were pushed. We had read that it was only 4km of steep so it was with great relief when we passed the road marking for this distance, whoever said it was easier after this though must have had quads of steel as I didn’t notice any real let up in the gradient!
We slogged on upwards for the rest of the day passing through an abandoned mine before emerging at a plateau of sorts, we decided this was as good a place as any and set up camp for the night over looking a lake and surrounded by mountains. A stunning camp site but a nagging headache was doing its best to spoil my evening, lots of water and hot tea drinks were the order for the evening hoping the headache didn’t develop into anything worse.
The next morning the headache hadn’t shifted and I was left with the choice of descending back down the horrible steep climb from the day before in order to adapt to the altitude or carry on and hope that I would miraculously recover. I opted for the second choice and we left hoping I wouldn’t deteriorate.
The route was stunning and luckily not as steep as the previous day but AMS made the most of making me useless. As the day progressed my ability to ride even the most gentle of gradients deteriorated. My breathing became more laboured and by the end of the day I was beat. We rolled into a town and were given space in the municipal building to pitch our tents, even this minor task left me doubled over panting for breath. I was well and truly beat and left questioning how I was going to make it over the next days 4900m climb!
With a restful nights sleep we once again attempted to ride and once again I was left wanting. Any change in gradient and it felt like I was trying to breathe through a straw and my head was fit to explode. I admitted defeat and in the next town went in search of a collectivo (small minibus) that could get me to a lower altitude ASAP. The first leg of the Great Divide had beaten me at the last hurdle but with no way of getting over AMS other than descending I was left with no option. We waved goodbye to Johnny and Ryan and agreed to meet them at the end of the route, a mere 60km away.
The bus had to follow our intended route and as we topped out on the last pass we overtook the boys taking shelter from a snowstorm. With my head once again pounding I was only too keen to stay in the warm van and make a hasty descent.
So the end of the first leg of the Peru Divide and what a route. We now intend to take a few days to recover. We are heading into Lima to catch up with an old friend who I used to work with and buy some supplies for the second leg. Hopefully I have had my last dealing with altitude sickness and I can get back to just having my butt kicked by the climbs.
With washing done and a decision made to do the Huayhuash trek it was time to price compare, we didn’t want to take an organised trek, this would be our last resort as it is rather pricey it turns out; our plan was to rent a donkey and a driver to carry our heavy loads leaving us to enjoy the high altitude passes without an un-cumbersome pack to slow us down. After visiting an untold amount of agencies we were left thoroughly confused regarding getting a some donkeys. Prices seemed to vary massively and we were at a loss as of who to trust. In the end with time against us and heads becoming bogged down with the logistics we opted to take the easier, all be it the more expensive choice, we joined an organised trek, our fate was in the hands of ‘Enjoy Huayhuash’.
The first day went without a hitch, we were picked up from our hostel, something we were worried wouldn’t happen due to our late confirmation on the trip, we met our soon to be trekking compadres, all of who it turned out were Israeli!
Our first day of trekking involved no trekking, we were chaperoned all the way to the first camp where our tents were set up and waiting for us. Well, our tent wasn’t set up, having learnt my lesson in Venezuela we opted to use our own equipment as we knew we could trust it, this did however mean that we would be taking down and setting up our own accommodation each night, the rest of the group would leave this task to the guides, except Stav, an Isralei who shared my love of kit, he had purchased a brand new Hilleberg so would also be joining us in setting up home each night.
Over the course of the next 8 days we climbed no fewer than 9 high passes, the highest being 5100m, and camped in some amazing places with the mountains acting as stunning backdrops to our evenings entertainment.
Although we still wish we could have found a donkey driver for ourselves we had an amazing time on the trek and being part of a group was a nice change of pace from just the two of us. Now its time to get the bikes ready for the Peru divide, a notoriously tough route through the centre of Peru.
With the decision to take another rest day we were back on the road hopefully leaving all the ailments behind us. Gradual all day climb and we made it to a lake and decided to call it a day, worst decision with accommodation quickly had us rueing this choice as we were subjected to a curtain for a bathroom door and no hot water as promised. The curtain would have been fine if it wasn’t a shared bathroom with the whole family, or if the curtain actually limited your view into the bathroom! Jess for some reason didn’t mind all these accommodation flaws but she was devastated to find out she had left her favourite shorts in Cajabamba!!! I wasn't sure what the trouble was, she has a spare identical pair at home as she was stupid enough to accidentally buy the same pair twice in Vietnam, unless they have found their way into her sisters wardrobe, i've been told girls clothes can do this! All i know is it put her in a rubbish mood for days to come.
We left the next day still bitter with our accommodation choice; some you win, some you loose I suppose but we were adamant that today was going to be good. We carried on the gradual climb and as we got higher couldn’t help but notice the quiet dirt road across the valley running parallel to us. Yeh, the dirt road we should have been on, a quick detour down a mining track and an interesting bimble up the other side and we were back on route with only 5km added. The dirt road was dusty but rideable and we slowly left civilisation behind. Slowly but surely the landscape became more barren and the mountains became, well, more mountainous. It was really beginning to feel like we were getting into the heart of it. This is what I had been wanting to experience from Peru; the feeling of isolation and solitude, just us and our bikes. Ok, so we were riding up a well maintained dirt road, but the lack of traffic and scenery really made it something special. We crested one final hill reaching roughly 4100m then descended to three small lakes, with tired legs and unbelievable vistas we called it a day and found an idyllic spot to camp. This was by far one of the most memorable spots we have stayed and will be hard to beat in the future.
One last horrible decent saw us reach a valley and with no energy to attempt the climb that we knew was going to be beyond us with fresh legs we set up camp, this was far less idyllic than the previous night as with a lower altitude brought hordes of face invading flies that made cooking near impossible. These flies, having tasted fresh gringo even came back for breakfast leaving me in a rather irate mindset that was less than ideal for facing the mornings push.
The climb wasn’t as bad as we expected and I was spurred on by Jess’ constant talk of how at the top we had a huge downhill. This downhill took far longer to materialise than Jess insisted. After a break for food in a restaurant we came across we finally began the decent. Smooth dirt gave way to tarmac that wiggled its way in a manner similar to spaghetti thrown on a plate down to the river. The whole way down we had a constant reminder of what we may have to climb on the opposite side of the valley, luckily for us though our intended route took us along the river rather than back over the mountains.
The river route, though flatter was not to be taken lightly. We had read blogs by various people who had forgone this track with mixed success. We knew we would have to cross the river at least twice and negotiate various landslides, it was also in a very inaccessible area with imposing cliffs rising all around. We agreed to try the route and if it was looking too bum squeaky scary we would turn back no questions asked…
We left the tarmac and began a gradual decent down a promising gravel track, quickly being engulfed by the gorge and loosing sight of all signs of life other than old remains of gold mining camps that lay abandoned. The deeper we ventured the more I felt like I was riding into some J.R. Tolkien esq. scene from lord of the rings, to Mordor or the dwarf mines.
We rode on and finally came to our first impassable landslide, from here we saw what appeared to be a donkey trail cutting down to the river and so our off road adventure really began.
We descended the narrow trail and after eyeing the swift and turbulent waters we opted to camp the night and attempt the river in the morning. Scouting the river I opted for what I hoped would be the slowest section and loaded with two front bags to make my bike lighter I waded in, this was meant to be the easiest of the known two river crossing and I could already feel the force of the water pulling at my legs, to say I was a little apprehensive of the second crossing was an under statement, but after successfully negotiating two bags with little trouble my confidence rose, time to take a half loaded bike, this was a little more problematic and lets just say I’m happy we have waterproof panniers.
Eventually both bikes were fully loaded on the opposite bank and we were off pushing in search of a trail that would take us yet deeper into the gorge. Using the donkey tracks as a guide we spied another track leading us up away from the river and onto flatter land. Queue unloading of bikes and once again carrying and fetching the 300m to the top were we reloaded feeling rather pleased with ourselves. One hour in and 500m travelled, we were doing well.
We followed our donkey trail and eventually wound our way towards a house. It was here we were informed our expert route finding skills were not as respectable as we thought. We were directed back to the river where we were told there was a road, a road… I think we would have seen a road lady… nevertheless she wrapped her child to her back and led us back the way we came, all the way to the steep donkey trail we had hauled our unloaded bikes up. Adamant I was not spending another 30minutes unloading, carrying and loading again we opted to manhandle the bikes down the trail. With a definitive point we were exactly back were we started trying to bounce our bikes over the boulders in search of this road the lady spoke of.
To call what we found a road would be glorifying it slightly but there was a definite linear track cutting its way into the trees so off we went pushing with gusto hoping this “road” would soon become ride able. Jess took the lead and just when I was having flashbacks to our exploits on the rail trail we found what we were looking for. One last steep push and we were back in the saddle and riding. A few more landslides to negotiate and we were making progress.
Finally we came to the second, and far more nerve tangling, river crossing; our road we had been following abruptly dropped off into the raging torrent. Once again were left to scout out the best spot but without the help of Donkey tracks it was all down to us, this was the point we had promised ourselves that if it felt like too much we would turn around and go back, little did we know just how difficult it would be to make our way back or how far it would feel like we had come to get to this point.
As we wandered the bank a friendly local appeared, a gold minor who had a camp close by, he didn’t seem too concerned over our intentions to cross and he directed us to the best spot to do so. That was it, no turning back, we had been told it was ok to cross by some random man, I had read a blog where a couple had done it, there was no way I could back out now was there??!!
I precariously entered the torrent bagless and bikeless to test the waters if you will, slowly finding my way trying to place the bigger rocks and aiming for the eddies I could see. The water was, excuse the pun, balls deep, and if it wasn’t for the knowledge that it had indeed been done by other cyclists I’m not sure I would have had the confidence to attempt this crossing. The scenery and the noise was the main contributing factor to my nerves but the more I went back and forth the easier it got, I was able to map a path through the shallowest sections and the local minor even got involved stripping down to his pants and helping out in the river.
Before we knew it everyone was safely across and we waved goodbye to our new friend. Feeling slightly drained from our ordeal we rested and feasted on stale bread and jam, from here we had a 300m horrible drag to get back onto the track before we could ride again, this 300m stretch proved just how much this route had taken out of us, I could barely lift my front wheel over the rocks and it was a huge relief when we finally got back in the saddle and began to make our way out of the gorge. Slowly it became more built up, gold minors still resided in this section and we waved as we passed our river helping friend and promised we would stop off at his shop, just 20 minutes away.
One last single-track section later and we emerged back onto tarmac and having run out of water and snacks we made quick haste in search of the promised shop.
A little longer than 20 minutes later but we found his shop and purchased as many fluids as we could, 3L of coke was consumed and too many biscuits to disclose and we were reenergised enough to push on and try and make some distance. The days efforts had amounted to 13km by 3pm.
Luckily for us it was a long gradual decent on tarmac with little interruptions other than a Swiss couple in their off-road camper van, I was slightly jealous of their luxury as we began our hunt for another night in the tent. Finally later than our usual exploits we found a gravel pull off and on a sheltered sandy patch pitched our tent and cooked. Finally with time to reflect on what we had done. Although again we were following a GPS route and we knew other cyclists had ventured into the river gorge, this section felt like we were really in the mix. The risk was real but overall I would say worth it. I’m happy we did the route, it was tough, and the section after the first river crossing until we found the road was hell, but in regards to distance this made up such a small part of this route, a mere 5 or 6km, but in time it consumed most of our day, still, my shoes and shorts are a lot cleaner than they were before I started!
From our camp we continued the downhill, 26km of blissfully easy riding before we bottomed out at 850m, from here it was nothing but uphill to Huaraz back at 3000m. The gradient was mellow and with the knowledge of a restaurant at the 45km marker we made good time, from here we made even better time, something in that river water acted as rocket fuel and we smashed out a 90km day predominantly uphill. This put us within touching distance of our aim of Huaraz. The second day however our bodies seemed to crash, we were a day short but our bodies had given all they had, we grinded our way through the “Canon del Pato” a narrow road built by minors with no fewer than 36 tunnels of varying lengths cut into the cliff side. Our pace and legs slowed and eventually we gave in, the option of taking a bus ride to save us a horrible days ride up the main road was too much. Our bikes were roughly thrown on the roof and we staggered on. This in fairness was probably the most risky part of our whole trip. The driver, who seemed to be in a huge rush, pulled some Hollywood esq manoeuvres much to the uproar of the other passenger who made their feelings towards his driving skills very clear. Ironic really, we had just come out of what we thought was a risky ride only to be closer to death on a bus!
After surviving our ordeal, and running low on snacks on more than one occasion we had promised ourselves a hearty meal, Huaraz, a climbers mecca due to the close proximity of the mountains is full of tourists and with it tourist food. We spent more on one meal than we had the whole week on the bikes but it was worth every penny. With full bellies we made our way back to the hotel, now the plan is to decide which trek to do and do some washing!!!
The whole way through Peru we have been following a route blazed by Joe Cruz. All the information can be found here:
Danny and Jessica living the nomadic dream.