Never a boring moment in South America, that’s for sure.
Once I started to get my bike mechanical issues and even unmarked dirt road navigation under control – I was given a brand new set of elements to deal with.
I`m going to do be best to keep the incoherent rambling to a minimum and try to make some sense out of the past few weeks – but this one might be a bit lengthy and my patience for proofreading drops by the minute.
To start it off, about 12 hours before I was going to leave Sucre, I started to feel the effects of the worst food poisoning of my life.
Sparring everyone the details, for 5 days I was unable to eat or drink anything of substance without immediate drastic results.
I`m not exactly sure how much weight I lost from this episode – but I`m thinking at least 10 pounds easily. After 4 months of biking, these were 10 pounds I didn’t really need to lose.
Despite what most people might think – I didn’t acquire my sickness as a result of my fondness of South American street meet – but rather from losing a gamble with some leftover taco meet I cooked previously (boring I know).
With no energy resulting from the food poisoning, I was unable to move forward on my bike and I soon came to the conclusion that my target date to meet my friend Ian in Peru was now thoroughly destroyed.
My only option to meet Ian, who was flying in from NYC, was to take a bus 350kms to the city of Oruro to catch-up on some kilometers.
It was a really hard decision to take a bus for the 1st time in the trip – but it was the right thing to do and I consoled myself by realizing that I have taken enough wrong turns and scenic routes to cover the lost 350km twice over.
However, further proving that I belong on a bike and not on a bus – all my bike tools were stolen out of one of my panniers at some point during the journey. At this point of the trip, I had quite a collection of tools with some emotional attachment of course.
After gathering some replacement tools and gaining some energy from local Oruro cuisine, I finally biked forward through the city of La Paz and next to Copacabana on Lake Titicaca. I was starting to feel that everything were starting to move smoothly again.
This feeling didn’t last long. Now it was time for was good old fashion civil unrest to slow me down. I love South America.
From the Bolivia-Peru Border to the Peruvian city of Puno (about 150km) there was protests and blockades in the streets.
Everyone you talk to down here gives a different story – but these protests generally revolve around mining activities granted by the Peruvian Government that will contaminate Lake Titicaca and the water ways in the area.
In Copacabana I was fortunate enough to meet up with a Dutch cyclist named Martin to help troubleshoot the situation. From the information we received, only the Peruvian side of the border was closed (allowing us to get through all the Bolivian formalities) and if we could get to Puno – we should be able to get the Peruvian immigration details sorted.
Also it seemed that other cyclists have been going through the road blocks with success – turns out that the world loves cyclists and while the protesters wouldn´t let a single car, truck or tour bus through – people on bikes could pass.
So with a decent amount of confidence, Martin and I road towards the border prepared to run the gauntlet.
At the border we quickly found out that the situation has changed overnight and now the Bolivian side of the border was now also shut with similar protests.
Thinking that leaving Bolivian illegally was a dumb idea, we waited at the border for 4 hours sitting back and watching the show – hoping it would clear up soon.
After talking to as many people as possible about when the border will open again. There was some optimism that the next morning will be better but all signs were pointing to the fact that we were wasting our time sitting at the border that day.
We were better off riding back to Titicaca having some beers in sun.
That day I rode a total of 18kms together with Martin, and it turns out that they will be the only kilometers we will ride together.
The next morning Martin started to come down with his own case of food poisoning. Knowing how long it takes to bounce back from something like that, I decided to return to the border without Martin and push on by myself.
Upon arriving for the second time at the border, I found it was still shut tight. This time I wasn’t getting any optimistic views about anything changing anytime soon so I started asking around for other options.
According to some of the people I was talking to, there was a chance that I could now get both my required stamps in Puno (the Bolivian stamp coming from the Bolivian Consulate in Puno).
It didn’t really sound too realistic and was much like the other Bolivian banter nonsense I have heard in the past month. But I guess it was the answer I wanted to hear.
So I made the decision to move through the closed border and ride into Peru (technically illegally) while trying my luck with both the protesting locals and the immigration authorities in Puno.
And yes, leaving Bolivian illegally was still a dumb idea but I was strangely ok with it.
The next 150kms of road was filled with rocks, broken glass, burnt tires and local people determined to make sure it stays that way.
At first it was a little tense with some locals very reluctant to let me pass, but I find its amazing what giving out a few Coca leaves and a smile can do for you in life.
I`m not sure if it was my confidence rising or the situation itself, but it seemed that the further I rode away from the border towns, although the protests and chaos stood, the mood towards me seem to change.
It was becoming clear that these people´s frustrations was not directed towards a dirtbag bike tourist. Some people would cheer me on as I rode by or at least gave a smile that had `you silly gringo` written all over it.
Other locals even decided to have some fun with the situation when a group of 15 wielding farm tools demanded a short dance performance before I could move past their blockade.
For those of you fortunate enough to have witnessed my dance skills in the past, you can believe that those country folks are still laughing and will be telling that story around the campfire for years.
Later that day, a very calm old man walked up to me while I was attending to my second flat tire of the day from all broken glass on the road.
After getting through my standard story and answering the usual questions about my bike, he asked where I was sleeping that night to get away from the protesters.
After seeing the hopeless look my face, he instantly offered me a bed for the night. I asked him if he ran a hostel but his only response was ´más o menos´ which translates into ´more or less´.
This ´más o menos hostal´ turned out to be run by the Lord himself. I was just invited to spend the night in a catholic monastery alongside Lake Titicaca.
Before we entered, he warned that all work and meals are conducted in silence. Dinner alongside two monks and three nuns with only the sound of clanking spoons was quite a turn of events from earlier in the day.
The silence was actually quite lovely after 8 hours of riding through chaotic protests and blockades. That night I did the only logical thing any person would do in that circumstance – I patched up my bike tubes, in silence.
When I arrived in Puno the next day, my fears turned out to be true. Turns out that Bolivian banter is still bullshit even if you really want it to be true.
Although I had no problems getting my Peruvian entrance stamp and was now in the country legally, the Bolivian Consulate was closed and there was no chance of getting my exit stamp in Puno. My only option was to backtrack all the way to La Paz to get this sorted out.
Among other reasons – I have a ideological stance against backtracking on my bike, so I decided to let this one ride and face the consequences later in life (most likely a huge fine if I want to go back to Bolivia). When am I ever going to return to Bolivia anyway?
So after dealing with food poisoning, buses mysteriously eating my bike tools, closed border crossings, literally dancing my way through some civil unrest and spending a night with silent monks (seriously, I´m not making all this crap up): I was ready to move on again.
The remainder of the ride to Cusco was actually surprising smooth and of course beautiful. I even had some nice wind at my back pushing my along for once – life is good.
I ended up arriving in town just in time to meet Ian in style (I refused to take a shower until he had a proper amount of time to witness the smell that is bike touring).
With Ian at my side, we spent the past two weeks exploring the finer establishments of Cusco and of course the beautiful surroundings of the Inca Sacred Valley.
This included a spectacular 4-day hike ending at Machu Picchu – which, not surprisingly, was not a disappointment.
The hike had us camping at 4,200 meters and after one of the day´s 8 hour hike, we had a high altitude football (soccer to be clear) marathon with some acclimatized local talent.
Although it was close, it might be too much of an exaggeration to say this was the most tired I have ever been in my life.
However it`s not too big of an exaggeration to say that this was by far the most beautiful setting for football match I have ever seen. This picture I snapped in-between dry heaves, doesn’t do it justice:
The Peruvian Andes are just nothing short of spectacular and have so far constantly exceeded my expectations with the mountains, valleys, history and culture.
Don´t get me wrong, I`m still in love with the Rockies and the Alps – but the scale of everything here is just on a different level. The mountains are grander, the valleys are deeper and everything just seems wild.
Cusco also seems to be a convergence city for cyclists. For a few nights in a row, we had quite the collection of bike shoes smelling up one particular pub (and one hell of an interesting 4am performance in the discoteca).
But with our time of making trouble together now over, Ian is now on his way to Easter Island and, after putting my feet up in Cusco for a few more days, its time to head north on my bike seat tomorrow. And for the first time in awhile, I won`t be alone (for at least more than 18kms).
One face in the crowd I found in Cusco was the long-lost Swiss maniac Nedo who I started this bike trip with 4 months ago. After a few beers we decided it is only nature to pick-up where we left off about 3 months ago.
I have a feeling that his next section of riding straight up the gut of the Peruvian Andes will be a true test. The distance doesn’t seem that bad but I heard the mountain passes and rough roads shouldn’t be taken lightly – but if its anything like the past few weeks, I´m sure it will be entertaining.