Last crossing of the Andes…last stop Chile

I had to leave Mendoza earlier than planned because of the concert. I procrastinated most of the morning, as it was freezing cold and very grey outside. I was thinking of heading to some nearby hot springs for the night, but that plan was abandoned when I found out that the road wouldn’t connect to the one leading to Uspallata and I would have to come back to the main road first. In the end I took a bus to Uspallata avoiding the crazy Friday afternoon traffic and the cold. The skies were already looking a bit friendlier closer to the Chilean border and even a bit of sun would break through, but an icy wind made me happily enjoy the landscape from inside the bus. Uspallata is a small mountain town with a couple of ski shops. I rugged up warm the next morning ready to attempt the pass crossing. But I only got a few km down the road before I found out that it was closed because of snow and ice. Looking up to the snowy cloud covered mountains I didn’t have to think twice and went back to the hostel. I spent the day relaxing in Uspallata, biked to the mountain of seven colors 10km up a dirt road north, got my revision mirror fixed for the second time and ate lots of alfajores (chocolate covered biscuits with filled with dulce de leche).

I got ready for my second attempt the next morning and even though the road was still closed they let me through to get some headway. The calm lasted about half hour as than they let all the trucks through which must have been sitting there for a couple of days. I made my way up a beautiful valley and it was a surprisingly gentle climb. In the early afternoon the very annoying cold southerly headwind made progress very slow and frustrating and I stopped in the tiny – closed down for the season – ski resort of Los Penitentes. One Refugio was still operating and I left my last pesos their counting that I would make it over the pass the next day. I later found the ‘real’ Refugio hidden away but also still open and I spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out there drinking tea and chatting. The next morning I was on my way just after it got daylight, as I was afraid of the cold headwind. Temperatures were down to -10 and it was cold. I passed the ‘Banos de los Incas’, not open any longer to the public for bathing, because of its fragile nature. Damn…could have done with a hot soak by than! The river flowing below was adorned with icicles, right next to were the hot water was coming out! The minerals in the hot water had formed a natural bridge over the river over thousands of years and it’s quite the site.  I carried on, got some nice views of Aconcagua and than about 10am the wind decided to start early that day…argh! Progress got hard and it was freezing cold. It was the coldest I have been on the whole trip and finally the possum fur gloves came out and a couple of other items which I haven’t had used yet on the trip. I got a lift through the tunnel and popped out the other side in Chile…just like that. Immigration was a bit more involved here, than I was off….straight through a still operating ski field. There was lots more snow on the Chilean side than in Argentina. Another storm was looming and it started snowing on the way down. It was a long cold but fun downhill to the town of Los Andes. I heard later that the pass had closed again a couple of hours after I had crossed. Timing seemed to be all in this last few days of the trip. I found out than that In Chile, because of the National day celebrations, there would be three days of holidays. This left me one day to get to Santiago and organize a box for the bike. I left early on a bus, found a very nice hostel, Casa Bella, and than got on a mission across town to get a box. I even got two and strapped them on the back of my bike, which made the way back quite tricky in the traffic. I spend the Chilean National day cleaning and packing up the bike. The next couple of days I spent in Valparaiso, yet another UNESCO protected heritage town. It’s a port town and famous for its colorful houses up the hills (cerros) rising straight from the sea. I stayed in the new art hostel called ‘Hostal Po‘, where every room is painted by a different artist. Small cable operated cars facilitate the climb. Lots of gratifies adorne the already colorful buildings and the whole place has a very arty feel to it with lots of nice little creative shops and café/bars. Valpraiso was also one of the three places where Pablo Neruda had a house, which now is open to visitors. He’s Chile’s most famous writer/poet and did win the Nobel Prize of Literature in 1971. Back in Santiago I had the weekend left to roam the streets, linger in the bookshops, visit the art museums and lounge around in the cafes.

It’s been an amazing trip, a dream fulfilled and I have seen so much. But now I’m very much looking forward to home, to digest it all and relive the experiences through my art. It’s been a fiesta for all senses and somehow that will reflect in the paintings to come:)

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‘El Viento Sonda’….extreme heat and snow

Leaving Cafayate was hard as I felt very much at home at the nice Hospedaje ‘Lo de Penalba’, right on the plaza a couple of houses down from the church. I also haven’t seen the ‘Quebrada de la Conchas’ and will have to come back on another occasion! Even though I had little time I decided to make my way down to Mendoza via some small country routes, biking, hitching and taking buses, rather than taking a  bus direct via a big center like Tucuman. On my first day I got to Santa Maria and on to San Jose de Norte, were I ended up waiting most of the afternoon for a ride. I finally carried on in the last of the day light to the last wee village called Punto de Balusta, where I camped for the night. I had forgotten how nice it was to camp out in a wam and safe environment. I was up before daylight and on the road by 7am…..hoping I might catch a ride through the next 150km of ‘puro campo’. It was a nice stretch of road with only a mine being half way down the road, no other sign of habitation. Mining is a difficult subject here, as mainly foreign companies exploit the land and leave behind polluted rivers and a waste-scape….all while only donating a few schools or similar attributes to the local people. I had to bike 60km before finally one of the three cars, which passed in the 3 hours, gave me a ride to the town of Belen. It was a campervan of a very nice retired Argentinian couple travelling the continent. They were a wealth of information and very kind. After that I than managed to catch a couple of buses and was told to wait for another one which would take me to Chilecito….my destination for the day. I waited 2-3 hours but the bus never came. I asked several locals about it and all told me….si si ‘ahorita viene’ (it’ll come soon). At sundown I gave up and headed for the road and only just managed to get a ride before dark to the town of Chilecito. The guy told me that the bus doesn’t go any longer on Sundays, for quite some time already! It was an exhausting day with lots of frustration….traffic is sparse in Argentina, not many of the very few cars will actually stop, and buses are even harder to come by in these remote little towns. My only hope are the pick up trucks….I love pick up trucks! The other obstacle was the heat, climbing to the high 30ies during the day, …and the wind which would pick up after lunchtime…..from the south!! These conditions made biking in the afternoon very unpleasant! I was on the road early again the next day and made my way up the scenic Cuesta de Miranda, climbing about 1000m via a beautiful valley with lots of cacti and red rocks. I was lucky as the road has been closed for a couple of weeks and only had been open for a few days before closing again for more road works. They were improving the road for the Paris-Dakar race in 2014. There was quasi no traffic and I enjoyed the ride down the other side, took the 20km gravel road short cut to Pagancillo, avoiding the town of Villa Union. From there it was a further 30km to the National park of Talampaya. It was 3 o’clock and the temperature already close to 40 degrees. Nevertheless I decided to head for the park and camp there, but half way a very strong headwind came up and made progress very slow. It was a frustrating battle to the entrance of the park. Winds were so strong I needed help getting my tent up! I was exhausted that evening and thought I deserved a (small) bottle of wine! I fell asleep to the humming of the Ooooommmmm, a meditation congress taking place at this camp. Later I found out that Talampaya is the location of one of 12 discs (high energy fields) in all of the Americas, and the strongest of the three in Argentina. A well known Peruvian spiritual healer was leading the meditation and people had come from all over Southamerica. The next morning I visited the Canyon de Talampaya, a 4km long stretch lined by about 150m high sheer red sand stone walls. The stone formations were amazing and I enjoyed the guided visit. We were back at the visitors center by lunchtime and the temperature was close to 40 than. Too hot for biking and I waited for the bus, but got a ride instead. I skipped the Provincial Park Ischigualasto only down the road but too much of an effort to get to and headed on to St Augustin de Valle Fertile instead. I was on the road early the next morning and had a very enjoyable ride along the foot hills of the Cordillera de Valle Fertile. Finally the many miles at high altitude and all the hill climbs paid off and I felt like flying along at 25km/h on a straight road. The valley was suffering from a dry spell since over a couple of years and the name ‘Valle Fertile’ seemed kind of inappropriate by now. The wind started by lunchtime and picked up quickly….time to get a ride. I was lucky and got one to San Juan nearly straight away, with the first car passing within the last hour or so. I didn’t like the place enough to stay and carried on to Mendoza that same day. This turned out to be a good decision as a famous Argentinian Rock Star, Indio Solaris, was descending on the town and every bed was booked for the weekend. People came from as far as Madrid and I met a nice Peruvian chap who had taken the bus all the way from Lima to attend the concert! Initially I wanted to stay a couple of days in town, but only managed one. I used it wisely and went on a wine tour for the afternoon, which was very interesting. We visited a small boutique winery, a huge commercial one and an olive factory. I most enjoyed the tasting part of course! Unfortunately the temperature had dropped drastically to about 10 degrees and we were back to winter with clouded skies. This was part of a weather phenomenon called ‘Viento Sonda’, which starts of with a very very hot wind followed by a very very cold one with snow on the Cordillera. Not what I needed for the crossing of the Andes on my way to Santiago!!

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Northern Argentina…the good life

I only spent the morning at Pumamarca and had a walk around the mountain of 7 colors, than biked north  along the ‘Quebra de Humahuaca’ to visit the town of Tilcara, 25km north of Pumamarca. I wanted a rest day, but the 25km turned into quite the mission with a head wind and no energy, as I still was fighting my cough. Tilcara is a nice town and I settled into the beautiful Hostel Malka, a very nice place a bit out of the way, overlooking the town. Life suddenly got easy again: the water from the tap here in Argentina is save to drink, I had a heated room for the first time on this trip, the room was clean and there was a warm water tap even at the sink! Bolivia is harsh, poor and dirty, but has a raw beauty, while Northern Argentina seems softer and a lot more civilized with a sense of order and beauty. Also here you get the soup after the main if you order the lunch menu, but I can live with that.

I stayed 3 days, started taking Antibiotics and the cough slowly receded. I also had my first day in a deck chair reading a book…finally holidays! This was the kind of place I could have stayed much longer, but I still had a fair way to go to get to Santiago and only 3 weeks left. It was only a day’s ride to Salta, where I had another day rest to enjoy some city culture. Salta has a colonial center, but wasn’t as elaborate as some of the other many colonial towns I’ve seen in my travels. But I really enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere and I thought it had a south Italian feel to it… best to be enjoyed from the cafés on the plaza. Even though it was the end of winter and the trees only just started to have the first flowers, the temperature already was at 30 degrees during the day! Salta also is known for its many museums, but unfortunately it was Monday and the once I was interested in were closed. I also was unlucky in my efforts to watch a ‘Pena’ in the evening. Salta’s ‘Pena’, a folklore guitar and sometimes dance performances, are famous, but Monday night was not the one to go to a local pub. I should have just gone to a tourist one!  I did eat my first 350gr Argentinian steak for lunch though and great Italian pasta for dinner… close to midnight. Here in Argentina they eat very late, after 9pm the restaurant open and life goes on till late in the night. The mornings start late and siestas are long to make up for the lost sleep…not a very cyclist friendly timetable!

I carried on south the next day, …and again chosen the dirt road over the asphalted one! I would regret that later…not! The road climbed about 2500m via the Cuesta del Obispo to the National park ‘Los Cardones’, an altiplano-like landscape with thousands of Cardones (Cacti), than dropped back down into another valley and to the beautiful colonial village Cachi. I stayed in the boutique art hotel Viscocha, and ate my first Locro (local dish) in the attached restaurant at night. I left after breakfast the next morning and made good progress through a beautiful, but barren landscape with still many Cardones and following the Valles Calchaquies. By late morning the wind had come up and got stronger by the hour. I have been told that August is the windy month and the prevailing wind is from the south….argh!!! Wrong way! The afternoon was a battle with the wind and a not so good road, but the landscape made up for it. There was hardly any traffic in that remote part of the world, which was nice. I arrived early evening in the tiny settlement of Angastaco and stayed in a local hospedaje. I like to stay in the local places rather than camping as it allows me a glance into peoples’ life’s, a hot shower at the end of the day and support the local communities. Argentina’s hostels are very clean, come with breakfast and since it is low season they are cheap and I am often the only one in the dorm. I got up early the next morning to beat the wind and was on the road by sunrise. The landscape with its bizarre sandstone formations was amazing, tiny adobe settlements along the way made for interesting distractions, but the sandy road made for slow progress, still all ride-able though. By mid day I hit the asphalted road, had a quick stop in the cute village of San Carlos, than carried on through the vineyard lines road to the town of Cafayate. There was still the end of winter light/feel in the air, the trees barren, the poplars and willows only just getting their first leaves, Cardrones lining the vineyards and the days very warm already….all making for a distinct combination of feelings, unknown to me.

I enjoyed my first wine ice cream that afternoon and also went to a wine tasting at the oldest Winery of Cafayate, the organic Bodega Nanni. I tasted the local specific Torronte, a white wine and the red Tannat, also a grape not normally used by its own. Not much more was needed to send me in a deep rejuvenating sleep!! I stayed an extra day to eat and drink my way through the local specialties: La Casa de las Empanadas, more wine ice cream, goats cheese farm and wine testing at the Bodega Domingo Hermanos.

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Salars, Lagunas and a lot of snow

The drive from Sucre via Potosi to Uyuni was scenic, especially the second half from Potosi – beautiful desert-like landscape with hardly any human presence. I arrived late in the town of Uyuni, getaway for the popular 2-4 day tourist jeep trips into the Salar (salt flats) and the Laguna Route. I had just enough time to buy some last minute supplies for my planed 10 day trip, get some dinner and do a last email check. I was quite nervous about this trip, because of its altitude (between 3700m and 4900m), extreme cold, exposure to high winds and isolation. This was the crux of my trip and I had hoped to meet someone to do it with. The next morning I was ready to leave about 8am and was just loading the 10 liters of water onto my bike when a young German lad, from two doors down, popped his head out the door asking: ‘You travelling on a bike too?’ Him and his mate where off today too to the Salar and the Isla Incahuasi and on through the Laguna Route as well….Yeah!!! Vincent and Kay are two super nice German students in their early twenties and we got on really well immediately. They were leaving later as they had a few things to do and we decided to meet up along the way. With a much lighter mental load, still a very heavy physical load on my bike, I took the road towards Colchani, last small settlement about 20km down the road and entry point to the Salar. It was a fast ride and from there it was a further 5km to the edge of the Salar, where I chatted with a nice tour group and got the guided tour of the salt making as well. Next stop was a few km down at the last salt hotel still remaining on the Salar. All the others have been moved off the Salar to the edge, as the salt was to hard on all the materials and maintenance was a constant problem. They use salt blocs for wall construction held together by a salt slurry of sort and all the furniture is carved out of salt blocs as well. In front of the hotel a Japanese decorated van was transformed into a temporary snack shag and advertising Japanese ‘Fideo’, a noodle soup Japanese style with Bolivian touch. A lot of filming was going on as they were documenting their travels from Paraguay to Lima by bringing the taste of Japanese food to the locals while financing their trip and also advertising less frequented locations by Japanese tourists to the Japanese market. This was a one off opportunity to eat fine Japanese food on the Bolivian Salar…how good is that! I was the first to sit down and it was very good! From here it was about 60km of flat white ground to cover till the Isla Incahuasi, in the middle of the Salar. It was relatively fast riding, as dead flat, and the road marked by the many jeeps was easy to follow. It was kind of fascinating riding through this endless white and never really feeling any progress, while jeeps drove past only a few meters away looking like toy cars. It was a bright sunny day with a slight headwind and it felt like I would never reach the island even when it looked so close already. A couple of km before arriving Kay and Vincent turned up as well and we all settled into the ‘refugio’ on the island together. We still had the best of the afternoon and went for a walk to the top of the cacti covered island to watch the sunset. It was a beautiful setting, surrounded by huge cacti and looking over the white salt flats,. …looking more like snow! By the time we got back down all the tourist had left and we had the island to ourself except for the stuff who run the show. We had nice dinner at the cafeteria: quinoa soap and lama steak….yummy! The boys even ate two! Than a German (Munich) father and daughter with boyfriend turned up at dark…..all on bikes they bought in Potosi for not much. They weren’t really equipped for such a trip and had suffered the consequences that day. The atmosphere was a bit tense between them, and we had to share the one room ‘refugio’ with them.

It was a beautiful full moon night and I was tempted to do a turn with my bike on the Salar, but was too tired and decided to watch the Salar lit by the full moon from my bed via the big picture window instead. I was up early in the morning and in time to watch the moonset over the Salar….very cool! The first Jeep tours arrived shortly after for sunrise, and since the cafeteria had a sleep in, we got given breakfast from one of the tour operators…very nice, thanks! We finally left around 9am. It was much more fun riding the ‘boring’ white stuff with the guys and the 40km to the edge of the Salar went fast. We had a nice lunch at a local ‘tienda’, papas fritas with fried egg, right at the edge of the Salar while chatting to a very friendly enthusiastic tour guide named Edgar ….and than carried on from there to San Juan. The road was mostly fine with a tailwind, but than road finding got a bit tricky and we hit some deep sand. We arrived in San Juan just before dark and after some looking around found a nice, cheap and very clean hostel with a burning hot shower, great beds and use of the kitchen. Since we couldn’t find a restaurant in the village we ended up cooking up a big feast and got given some fresh pizza bread by the owner as well! In the morning we left after making the rounds to find some petrol for my stove. The first 30km to Chihuana, a military base, were easy going on salt flats, than along a still operating railway track and over more salt flats before we hit some mean deep sand and had to climb a few hundred meters to a small pass at 4300m. I wasn’t feeling my best with a bit of  ‘la tourista’ in the stomach and a horrible cough in the lungs. It was hard enough at the best of times to keep up with a couple of much younger guys with much lighter bikes! The wind had come up considerably as well and we looked for shelter for our three tents. The next morning we were up and off early to avoid the wind. We were slightly confused, as our progress didn’t match the road description. We were now on the international gravel road form Chile to Bolivia, but were meant to take a right hand turn after 8km onto a small and very bad road. We took the first right hand turn after about 15km and went a further 16km down a stunning road close to the smoking volcano Ollague before realizing that it was far too good of a road, not a tourist jeep to be seen and finally turned around back to the international road. By than the wind had come up considerably and the weather had turned bad. We stopped and asked some jeep tours about the way. They gave us plenty of snacks, water and good advice. While eating the snacks another local guide stopped and told us: ’you’ll be alright to camp further on out of the wind and bike to Laguna Hedionda (30km), but after that the road climbs to 4700m, it’s pure desert and if it snows you will die!’ Hmmmm…local advise is always good, but what about all the cyclists going through? Since it was very windy and the clouds had come in we carried on to the right turn off and found a nice little sheltered spot for our tents. The next morning I woke up to a gentle noise on my tent and found that everything outside was covered in a thin layer of snow. Well, since it kept snowing for most of the morning we weren’t keen on continuing the road and pulled the pin, not knowing what the weather would do. We hitched a ride back to Uyuni, which turned out to be the right thing to do as the snow continued for another day and than incredible strong winds sandblasted the town of Uyuni while in the mountains the white wind (very dry snow) made navigation impossible. No Jeep tours could get through and the border crossing to San Pedro de Atacama was closed for the next 4 days.

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Back in Uyuni we found another cycling couple from France to join our team and spent the morning tracking down that friendly guide Edgar from ‘Expediciones Nueva Aventura’, which we had met in the Salar. In the afternoon we made a trip to the train cemetery. Most tour companies weren’t operating the lagunas route at this stage because of the snow, but Edgar said he would give it a go and if we wouldn’t get through there was an alternative route to the different lagunas. We quickly learned during the trip with Edgar that ‘todo es possible, pero nada es seguro,….pero con Edgar todo es seguro!’ (everything is possible, but nothing is for sure, ..but with Edgar everything is sure).

We started the next day and it was sunny but still very windy and freezing cold. We were all happy to not be riding our bikes! We drove back to where we had camped in the snow and onto the lagunas from there: Laguna Canape, Laguna Hedionda, etc… and than via the desierto and el arbol de piedra (stone tree) on to Laguna Colorada. We watched a lot of beautiful Flamingos feed in the lagunas and could get quite close. It was stunning scenery and with the snow around even more impressive. That night we stayed in a ‘refugio’ and the  next morning were treated to a 5-6km morning walk back to the Laguna Colorada while Edgar attended to his car which wouldn’t start because of the cold. It was a beautiful calm sunny day. We spent some time hanging out at the beautiful Laguna Colorada before carrying on to the Gyseres ‘Sol de Manana’. These were some 80 degree Celsius hot and steaming mud pools. A little further on and we drove past another salar/laguna to some aguas calientes (hot pools) at its edge. We had a lovely soak surrounded by an other-worldly landscape dotted with flamingos. Very relaxed, after the hot bath, we carried on through the little desierto Dali and through some snow on to the Laguna Verde, a lake full of cooper articles and arsenic. The ‘refugio’ for the night was close by and we walked the last few km. The next day my new ‘family’ dropped me off at a very snowy Bolivian border post. The guy on duty hasn’t seen a soul for 4 days and was happy to have someone to chat with. I finally got away, just as the wind had started as well….argh! The 5km to the main road were hard going with snow over ice and I pushed a lot. Since the weather looked like it would snow again I decided to not take the 45km descent to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, but head via the Paso de Jama to Argentina instead. I was afraid the pass might close again for a few days in case of snow. I hitched most of the way as I was keen to get out of the cold to get ride of my cough and I had had enough of bleak but beautiful landscapes. I arrived at dark in the town of Pumamarca but even than was stunned by the beauty of the place. The houses were pretty, finished with render and no rubbish laying around in the street. What a difference that makes. Also the climate was a lot milder and the place had a friendly feel. I immediately fell in love with northern Argentina!

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Madidi National Park and the ‘most dangerous road’

I got hit by quite an unpleasant cold leaving Puno and couldn’t get rid of it before arriving in La Paz and got quite sick. It wasn’t getting any better in this polluted and high altitude city. I initially wanted to bike through the subtropical valleys known as the Yungas, -some steep forested slopes squeezed in between the Cordillera and the Amazon lowland – but than decided that a holiday in the Amazonian Jungle was a better way to cure my cold. I booked a ticket and left the next day. Amaszonas Air runs a small plane and the flight to Rurrenabaque itself is quite spectacular. We first climbed over the Cordillera Real and flew right past the top of Huayna Potosi, a popular easy climb at 6088m, than descended down into the Amazon basin at 200m. I expected to get hit by a heat wave leaving the plane, but instead it was surprisingly cold at 17dgrees. The region gets a rare southerly air flow a few times during winter and it gets unpleasantly cold. Rurrenabaque itself was a quiet and very relaxed little town. I did the tour of the agencies and decided on a 3 day jungle trip with Madidi-travel, an organization using all its profits for conservation work. Parque National Madidi is quite possibly the most bio-diverse of all protected areas on the planet. It is the variety of habitats, from freezing Andean peaks of the Cordillera Apolobamba in the southwest through cloud, elfin and dry forest to steaming tropical jungle and pampas in the north and east, that accounts for the array of flora and fauna within the park’s boundaries. In an area roughly the size of Wales (1,895,750ha) are an estimated 900 bird species, 10 species of primates, 5 species of cat (with healthy populations of jaguar and puma), giant anteaters and many reptiles. Madidi-travel specializes in tours to the private Serere Sanctuary in the Madidi Mosaic. It’s a conservation project and the tourist are their way to finance it. They only have a few at a time, which makes for a very pleasant experience. They do a great job at sharing their passion of what they do and my guide, Severo, was very knowledgable. The camp consists of a main house and many mosquitonet-walled accommodation houses a wee ways away. It’s a great experience to sleep in the jungle and listen to all the noises, especially the howling monkey which makes a tremendous noise in the mornings and evenings. The guides took us for walks through the jungle and rowing excursions on the lake. We saw many kinds of monkeys, crocodiles, bats, a rescued baby tapi living at camp, a variety of birds, etc… and went pihania fishing. We didn’t see a jaguar, even in August are the best chances as he likes eating the turtels eggs along the river banks. My only regret was that I didn’t stay longer, 3 days was just not long enough as the travel up the river to the Serere Reserve already takes about 3 hours. Oh….and the food was amazing, best I’ve eaten in months. After this amazing experience I had a warm humid night in Rurrenabaque before catching the early morning flight back to La Paz.

I spent the day around town and the next day took a bus to La Cumbre at 4725m and an hour out of La Paz and biked all the way down to the Yungas via the ‘most dangerous road’. It was a very beautifully scenic ride starting with snowy mountains and finishing in tropical forest. The first half was asphalted and than there was a choice of the new road and the old road, now used mainly for bike tours and with the reputation of the ‘most dangerous road’ of the world. Once the only road, all the traffic had to navigate this at times very exposed road carved into the mountainside and often slippery due to the moist  climate. By history this road has a high death toll and the many crosses on the side of the road tell the story. But it is a most amazing scenic ride….and now without the traffic much safer!

I had a last day in La Paz getting organized to finally move on. I took the night bus to Sucre saving myself a not so interesting pampas Altiplano ride on a high traffic road. I immediately liked the feel of Sucre, often referred to as Ciudad Blanca, owing to the tradition that all buildings in the center are painted in their original colonial white. This works to beautiful effect and in 1991 UNESCO declared the city a World Heritage site. From 1825 to 1899 Sucre was capital of Bolivia, but lost this role to La Paz after a civil war. I had a day wandering around and as I was still hanging on to my cold decided to stay an extra day and visit the colorful indigenous Sunday market in Tarabuco, popular with tourists for its textiles and the many local people in traditional dress.P1200257 P1200260 P1200266 P1200268 P1200282 P1200285 P1200303 P1200328 P1200336 P1200342 P1200351 P1200365 P1200387 P1200396 P1200418 P1200425 P1200427 P1200438 P1200442 P1200484 P1200494 P1200504 P1200508 P1200519 P1200524 P1200531 P1200536 P1200552 P1200555 P1200563 P1200568 P1200583 P1200587 P1200589 P1200596 P1200601 P1200617 P1200632 P1200638

Highest navigable Lake and Highest Capital of the world

To speed things up a bit  I took a bus from Arequipa to Puno (3855). Puno lies on the north west shore of Lake Titicaca, which is the highest navigable lake on the world, and shares is sapphire-blue waters with Bolivia.

The next day I went for a half day boat trip to the floating Islands, the Uros. The people of the Uros fish, hunt birds and live of the lake plants, most important of which are the reeds they use for their boats, houses and the very foundations of their islands. It was interesting to see their way of life and I even got a ride in a reed canoe.

The following day I headed of along the western shore of the lake, stopping in at Chucuito to check out its interesting church and the Inka sun-dial. Than the road went inland for a bit and went mainly through farmland till it hit the shore again at the town of Juli. I stayed a bit further on in Pomata for the night, a very relaxed local town with a strikingly beautiful red sandstone church perched on a cliff overlooking the lake. It was a short ride from here to the border with Bolivia, which was a very busy place this day. In the popular tourist town of Copacabana, just 10km after the border, was a 2 day festival on: La Virgen de Copacabana (4-6 August). Many Peruanos and Bolivanos flock to the town these days, with their colorful decorated cars, to get them blessed by the Virgen. That doesn’t justify their careless and dangerous driving, and roads have been very busy and traffic fast!

Since I had a cold and not much energy I stayed in the very overpriced mediocre hostel Sonia (prices quadruple at these times) and watched the madness. The whole town was converted into a market, people were dressed up and the decorated cars got a champagne shower with their blessing. And of course not to forget their favorite brass band tunes, which they play walking the streets followed by a dancing crowd.

I didn’t feel motivated to visit the Isla de sol, a favorite tourist destination and the site of the main Inca creation myth. Instead I left early and made my way up the hill and along a high traverse, a beautiful stretch of road , overlooking the lake and with vistas to the snowy Cordillera Real. I cross the lake on a narrow stretch in a precariously looking wooden ferry which nevertheless is strong enough to take even a bus across. Now on the east side of the lake I came through a few villages and was accompanied by ever the same brass band tune. Today was Bolivia’s Independence days celebrations, 6th of July. I stayed the night in Huatajata, which has the highest yacht club in the world, but I was more impressed by the many pole restaurants on the lake offering nice local fish. I spent my last hours of Titicaca time on the lake eating a kind of whitebite dish, called Ispi. It was a very windy and stormy night…..apparently the start of a windy month!

The next day it was an easy flat ride with gorgeous views to the Cordillera Real all the way to La Paz, highest Capital of the world. I first had to traverse the town of El Alto (at the edge of La Paz), which is the second biggest town of Bolivia after Santa Cruz (leaving La Paz a mere third), than there was a great descent into the heart of La Paz which is located in a canyon, apparently because at the time gold was found there and also to get away from the cold winds of the Altiplano. I was lucky enough to be able to stay at the Casa de Ciclista, right in the center of town. The owner Christian Konitzer put up a whole apartment for passing cyclists. Great to have a place to feel like home and to be able to cook my own food for a change. I’m really missing having fresh vegetables, something which doesn’t exist in the Southamerican diet very much, …and I cooked up a great feed!! Food becomes very important for a cyclist…as we are always hungry!!! There were also quite a few other cyclists, mainly germans.

One of the days spent in La Paz Christian offered to take us and our bikes up the old skifield road. Chacaltaya mountain used to be the highest skifield of the world at 5300m but nowadays it’s closed due to lack of snow. Me and a german couple from Hamburg took up the opportunity. We walked up the remaining 120m to the top of the mountain first and than traversed the rather snowy ski-slope to take a route down the back – back to La Paz. What a great trip and beautiful scenery….not your everyday downhill ride!!!

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Canyons and Volcanos… on road to Arequipa

After leaving Cusco on the road to Puno, I took a right turn in the town of Sicuani and headed due south aiming for the town of Yauri, also called Espinar… on another map. This turned out to be a rather ugly miners town and therefore was expensive. I arrived friday evening and it was the lead up to the Peru National day celebrations on Sunday/Monday….most people in the streets were drunk already! I seemed to be the only tourist in town, which was a nice change to Cusco. The next morning I took a dirt road to Suycutambo which followed a beautiful canyon, past a couple of archeological sites with Inka ruins. I only than found out that this was to be a scenic tourist drive called the three canyons, but I only came across a couple of local cars and a few motorbikes….no tourist and what a landscape! After Suycutambo the road climbed up to 4700m, than dropped down into a high valley with many lamas only to climb back up to another pass of 4700m before dropping down to the small hamlet of Sibayo. I first wanted to stay the night, but the only free dingy horrible room had no lock on the door and there was some dodgy looking characters next door. Since it was already getting dark I got a ride with a nice geologist couple to Chivay (3600m), about 30km down the road and a tourist town, getaway to the Colca Canyon. Next morning I took the road to the Cruz del Condor down the famous Colca Canyon. Hords of tourist make their way out there early every morning to see the majestic condors at close quarters. Some buses come from as far as Arequipa, others depart from Chivay. I arrived mid day and most tourist were gone by than, so were the condors. The place was deserted for the afternoon and I enjoyed hanging out on this beautiful spot till the condors arrived back between 4 and 6pm to settle back into their nests across the canyon. The Colca Canyon is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and quite impressive. I camped the night at the Mirador and was first up at 6pm. The Condors arrived about 7pm, but were low in the canyon and had to wait for the sun to heat the rock enough for them to soar. It was amazing to watch them fly once they got high and close. It was all over by 10am and everybody made their way back. It was a dusty road and once I came to the tunnel I caught a ride back to Chivay. I had eaten enough dust by than and the tunnel was scary enough first time round. As it was still early in the day I carried on up the Abra Patapampa (4910m) and across the Altiplano surrounded by volcanos. What a gorgeous scenic road: great vistas with snowcapped mountains, lamas and alpacas abound. I didn’t quite make it to Canahuas and camped out on the Altiplano which was a little cold, windy and dusty. From Canahuas I had the choice of a 80km asphalted pure downhill run to Arequipa with all the heavy traffic or a 60km dirt track via the Altiplano with another climb before it dropped sharply to Arequipa. I just couldn’t help myself and choose to go down the dirt road. It was a beautiful road, if somewhat sandy.  I was heading straight towards the perfectly cone shaped Vulcano El Misty. The beautiful and shy Vicunas were running alongside and not a car to be seen. The downhill was very rough, sandy and full of big loose stones. I had taken the backroad into Arequipa and had no traffic all along till I hit town. And this is to be the second biggest town of Peru! I did come in via a very poor and depressing part of town though. There was a new settlement of tiny cabins on a sandy hill….I hate to imagine life there on a windy day.

Most cyclists go straight from Cusco to Puno, or vice versa, as it is a strenuous detour to go all the way to the Colca Canyon and Arequipa. But this road is definitely worth it and in the top 10 of most beautiful roads I’ve biked on this trip.

The city of Arequipa stands at the foot of El Misty volcano (5822m), a perfect cone, and is guarded on either side by the mountains Chachani (6057m) and Pichu-Pichu (5669m). The city has fine Spanish buildings and many old and interesting churches built of sillar, a pearly white volcanic material almost exclusively used in the construction of Arequipa. It is the main commercial center for the south and has been declared a World Cultural Heritage site by the UNESCO. Arequipa is said to have the best preserved colonial architecture in Peru, apart from Cusco. I spent a couple of days roaming the streets and admiring the colonial architecture. The Santa Catalina Convent is one of the most remarkable sights, a complete miniature walled colonial town of over 2 ha in the middle of the city. Nowadays the few remaining nuns have retreated to one section of the convent, allowing visitors to see a maze of cobbled streets and plazas bright with geraniums and other flowers, cloisters and buttressed houses. These have been painted in traditional white, orange, deep red and blue.

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City life and Inka ruins

I got quite settled in the town of Cusco after a well needed one week break from my bike. The Hostal Estrellita and the many cyclists staying there made for a nice base camp. I enjoyed the city life, the great variety of food, the culture fix of the Inka ruins and a bit of  shopping therapy. Cusco (3310m) is a beautiful town with a pleasant climate.  Almost every central street has remains of Inca walls, arches and doorways. The perfect Inka stonework now serves as the foundation for more modern dwellings. I love getting lost in the streets and finding nice places….enjoying Cusco’s special kind of energy. Hundreds of thousands of visitors pass through every year and it’s a busy place, but one can still find some quiet spots.

I first thought I would like to do some trekking in the surrounding mountains and intensely studied the map. I than thought it might be nicer to explore the sacred valley by bike, but after some more studying the map I decided to go for the easy lazy option of exploring it by bus. Mainly because of the climb between Cusco and the sacred valley, as well as the logistic problems of being high season and traffic issue. I still really would love to do some trekking in the area and will have to come back some other time. I also have a special interest in weaving and textiles and this area is known for this beautiful art. There is several weaving and textile cooperatives in town and some good displays to be enjoyed…and shopping to be done:)

I bought myself a ‘Boleto Turistico de Cusco’ for 130 Soles (about $55) which allowed me to visit several Inka ruins in the vicinity of Cusco and in the Sacred Valley, as well as some Museums in town. I was most impressed by Saqsaywaman, also called ‘Sexy woman’, an impressive fortress construction of huge blocs of stone. On sunday I made a trip to Pisaq (36km from Cusco), which is well known for it’s sunday market and its Inka fortress. It’s a stiff 1,5h walk up from the village via old agricultural stone terraces and along the ridge past several small sites of ruins before one encounters the main ruins. It’s a beautiful setting with great views and I very much enjoyed the walk…so much I walked all the way back down too. I than carried all the way on down the valley by bus to Ollantaytambo (78km from Cusco) to visit more Inka ruins and the gigantic stones there. There were a lot of tourists around and the going was slow but the site impressive. It took about 2h to get back to town with the local bus. The next day I was off to Machu Picchu by bus, a 6h ride past  Ollantaytambo and via the beautiful Abra Malaga (4313m), a stunning drive, followed by a 2h walk along a river on train tracks rounding the base of the Machu Picchu mountain. The next morning we were up for a 4am start in the rain and the race was on to the top. I managed to be in the first dozen people to arrive at the entrance and we had Machu Picchu to ourself for a brief moment before the masses arrived (there was a bus option also). There is a tremendous feeling of awe on first witnessing Machu Picchu, and the clouds only added to the mystic atmosphere. The ancient citadel is a complete Inka city straddeling the saddle of a high mountain (2380m) with steep terraced slopes falling away to the river below. While on the guided tour the sun came out and made for a more pleasant ambiente. I did some more exploring on my own before we had to rush back down to catch the train back, followed by the 6h bus ride. Machu Picchu is truly amazing and well worth the visit. The setting is stunning, somehow reminds me of Fiordland, just on a bigger scale. It was a couple of long days and I felt like I’ve been away for more than a week.

After a rest day in Cusco, I did one more excursion in direction of the Sacred Valley, visiting the Ruins Morey, the Salineras – natural thousands of years old salt terraces – and Chinchero. Morey is an interesting set up of agricultural round terraces which were used as a experimental laboratory for different plants of the Inka empire. The Salineras are most impressive and are the local salt mine. Water at 14 degree and with a 70% salt content flows out of the mountain and gets filtered into terraces where the water slowly evaporates. These terraces have been used at Inka times and only a small number have been added since. On the way back to Cusco I got out at Chincheros and visited the market which is a beautiful ensemble of white colonial buildings on Inka foundation walls. I was very impressed by the interior of the church. The whole wooden ceiling and the plasterwalls were covered in 16 century old fresco paintings. Absolutely stunning. This was my last day in Cusco and surrounds and I’m getting ready to hit the road again in direction Arequipa.

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Peruvian roller coaster

I enjoyed my rest day In Ayacucho (2748m), I nice mid size town with a well preserved colonial center. My bike got its second new rim in a week, as I switched back to my 32 spoke hub and a stronger rim, while I enjoyed good food in a nice restaurant overlooking the plaza. It was so good I went back for dinner and tried my first Alpaca meat, which I rate far higher than guinea pig! I stayed in a friendly hotel next to the market and for breakfast tried the local brew: Maca with Quinoa and apple juice and fresh rolls with eggs…..yummy! Besides eating I visited the Barrio St Ana, which is home to artists and artisans. I admired the textile weavings and met a unique man claiming to be the only one in whole of Peru being able to play a song with a leave of a tree as an instrument! He demonstrated and I was truly impressed. Not only did he play a very melodic song, but than demonstrated the longest breath whistle of Peru.

The next morning I caught a collective to the top of the pass over 4000m, a beautiful paramo and home of the lamas. My bike was strapped to the top of the bus on top of hundreds of pollos…about 800 meals worth of them. I was looking forward to a nice 2000m and 50km asphalted downhill, but soon the smooth sound of the tyre changed to a more rugged noise and the roadworks had started. There was dust, fresh tarseal smells, mud and gravel to deal with most of the way down. Once one reaches the tropical lowlands the sandflies attack. They are about half the size of the species we have in New Zealand but twice as vicious! Nevertheless it was an amazing ride with great vistas across the Andean mountains. On the low point I met my first cyclists going the other way, a couple of young biologist girls and we had a long chat, while being eaten by the sandflies. Shortly after I caught up with Colombian cyclist Carlos Coral, which I had briefly met on my arrival in Ayacucho. We headed on together making a start on the 2000m uphill, but soon got stopped by more roadworks. There was a total ‘no paso’ as they were blasting and pushing down rock from the cliff above the road. We had to wait till on dark before they let us through, but there was still some rocks coming down and we were glad for our bike helmets and very quickly past. We still had about 10km to Chincheros, the next village and carried on in the light of our head lamps. I was very happy to find a hostel with a room on the ground floor that evening and not having to carry all my gear including the bike up several flights of stairs. We took most of the next morning for the rest of the uphill through some local villages and mainly small farmlets before we crossed the high paramo at about 4260m. Carlos, a true Colombian, carries a little music player and we enjoyed some nice tunes while struggling uphill and traversing the highlands. It was a nice day, the scenery was stunning and lamas grazing on the side of the road…..what more can one wish for?! We met a french cyclist heading the other way and had a short chat, than enjoyed a nice smooth all paved downhill to Andahuaylas. We stopped two thirds of the way down and had mate de coca and bread with cheese on an open cooking fire on the street….the perfect way to warm up after the cold downhill run. The ladies were very chatty and we had lots of fun with them taking photos and quizzing them about their local recipes.

We reluctantly started the long way back up to 4100m the next day. When we passed a local adobe farmlet and the owner’s brother called us in to share a drink of fresh warm local milk, corn and some bread with cheese we didn’t hesitate. Henry was very hospitable and made us feel very welcome. I enjoyed the local food and adobe built with the free ranging guinea pigs! By the time we left it had started raining and we made our way up to the pass in the mist. On the downhill run we got very cold and when we were stopped by roadworks again we found out that we are on a different road than we thought…..not even Carlos’ GPS had noticed. It was still 90km to Abancay and here was the last village till than. Since it was already 3pm we decided to stay in this tiny mountain village called Kisuhara. We decended down to it through some ankle deep mud and started looking for a hospedaje, but ended up camping in the local school room instead: second grade! We had a nice evening chatting with the school teachers while watching them prepare a ‘caldo de cabeza’, which is a soup made of a sheep head and the feet. This was to be our breakfast the next morning……I didn’t sleep too well with this prospect in mind! The next day the sun was out and after a hearty breakfast of a very nice tasting soup (I past on the feet and the skull bits) we headed on down the unpaved road. It was a beautiful long traverse heading into a long meandering downhill to Abancay (2378m). It took longer than anticipated and after a fresh sugar cane refreshment at the valley floor we braved the small 500m uphill to town and arrived on dark. Accommodation was expensive for a non tourist town, but we treated ourself to a nice place and thouroughly enjoyed the luxury of a hot shower and fresh crispy sheets.

We decided to pass on the next 2000m uphill and took a collectivo to the top, where we got to enjoy the views of the Nevados before heading down into a beautiful valley. The morning light was stunning on the fields and the smell of anis was in the air. This region is the main producer of this crop and it was harvesting time. We also came across linseed drying on the road. We headed on all the way down into the Arpurimac gorge before climbing back up. The sandlies were bad, it was hot and dusty and it didn’t take much to also convince Carlos that it was time for another ride. We caught a collectivo which took as the remaining 60km to Cusco (3310) on a very busy road. I was glad not to be cycling with all the mad traffic about!! We arrived well after dark and had trouble finding a hostel with a free room. The next morning we moved into the Hostel Estrellita which is the disguised Casa de Cyclistas de Cusco and has a great french bakery next door….. ahhh…la vie est belle!!!

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Big mountains, high Paramos and never ending gorges on way to Ayacucho

After a rest day in Huarez I got organized to take on my biggest challenge on the bike yet: the carretera Pastoruri, a traverse of the Cordillera Blanca with two 4800m passes.  The first night I camped in the park around 4000m amongst some ruins and the weather wasn’t looking very flash. It was raining, cold and windy, but – ojala – the next morning I woke up to sun and blue skies. The landscape was strangely familiar to home but on a much larger and higher scale. The road was rough gravel and as soon as the inclination got a bit steeper I was puffing hard. It followed up a tussock valley with clusters of the impressive Puya Raimondii plant, also known as the Queen of the Andes. It is a species of bromeliad endemic Bolivia and Peru, and whose distribution is restricted to the high Andes at an elevation of 3200-4800m. It may reach up to 10m in hight, with more than three thousand flowers and six million seeds in each plant. Its reproductive cycle is approximately 40 years. The road than climbed up past the Nevado Pastoruri, a popular tourist excursion, and than over the first 4800m pass. I got rewarded with amazing views of snowy 6000m peaks and deep valleys, the sheer size of the Andes deployed in its full glory to my feet. I biked along under glaciers only a few meters away and than over the second pass. This is easy one of the most amazing routes I’ve been on in my life and I had to stop every few hundred meters to take another photo and gasp for a breath of air. I have come across one  car, one  German family  and one local couple on horses in a day. Once the gravel road joined back onto the main road to Huallanca I got rewarded with a long downhill to this nice little Andean town. I celebrated with a nice trout for dinner.

The next morning it was raining and I was happy to be on a downhill run through a lovely gorge to La Union, a small little hamlet servicing as base for tourists to visit the Inca ruins of Huanuco Viejo. It had stopped raining by than and things looked a bit brighter. The road followed down the valley and up the other side over a 4000m pass called ‘Corona del Inca’. Another front has come in by than and it was cold and raining and I had to stop my fingers from freezing on the downhill. It got warmer as I got lower, stopped raining and by the time I hit the valley floor at 2000m it was nearly tropical and the kids were swimming in the river. What a great downhill on a narrow one lane road through some local mountain villages. Huanuco, ‘town with the best climate’, was noisy and busy. I took a bus back up the mountain to over 4300m the next morning to the Mining town of Cerro de Pasco. I carried straight on from there, but 10km out of town my rim and tube of the front wheel exploded. A taxi took me back to town and I got a whole new front wheel for my bike the next day. I had to change from my 32 to the more common 36 spoke wheels and a new hub. While waiting for my bike to get fixed I had made a trip to the ‘Bosque de Piedras’ a vaste area of limestone bolders in all shapes of animals. From Cerro de Pasco the road than went over a high windswept altiplano, along a lake rich of bird life and than dropped down back to 3000m before reaching the beautiful Mantaro valley and the town of Huancayo. The next day I enjoyed a long breakfast and chat with a local woman living in Houston before visiting some of the local artisan villages by bike. In Huayllay I bought some alpaca items which will keep me warm on my way over the Altiplano.

The ride from Huancayo to Ayacucho went over a hill (approx. 3800m) and into the beautiful Mantaro Gorge with stunning vistas. The gorge carried on for over 100km, the single lane road was amazing and has recently been tarsealed…bonus! Hardly any traffic and little sign of human habitation…. hence no dogs to chase me. I was aiming for a couple of villages showing on my map but neither of them seemed to exist. Just before dark and as I had run out of water a while ago I reached Acos, a village at the end of the gorge where I stayed the night in a simple hospedaje. The next day I left the gorge and traversed a dessert like stretch of pampa with lots of cacti before climbing back up to Ayacucho.

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