Cusco to Machu Picchu

There are all variety of treks organized out of Cusco, a lot of them culminating in an arrival at Machu Pichu. I’m sure they’re grand adventures, but as I mentioned at the end of my last post, my inclinations are to get more off the beaten path. My second night in Cusco, I stay at the de-facto “casa del ciclista”, a bare bones, rustic, but warm and welcoming hostal. The refrigerator is tiled with stickers, post cards, and photographs of trans-global cycle tourists branding and marketing themselves, sometimes to attract readers to their blog and such, and sometimes just as a tag. A wall of the kitchen is papered with highly detailed instructions for getting to Machu Pichu by bicycle from Cusco, and on the cheap. Perfect! This is exactly what I’m setting out to do. Unfortunately, each seems more complicated than the last: instructing the would-be follower to send their bike by bus from one point to the next and trekking some other route to reunite with it. After a few minutes of trying to muster enthusiasm for the proposed itineraries, I decide “too long, didn’t read”, and go back to my original plan, which is the same plan I always have, which is to not really have any plan, beyond map a direct-ish route, try to follow it, and adapt as need be.

For Cusco to Machu Pichu by bike the main obstacle is that there are no roads to Machu Pichu, only railroad tracks and trails. I read a blog of a fat bike cyclist who did a through-trip including Machu Pichu, starting at the far end from Cusco, and sneaking past a security gate (near a hydroelectric plant) under the cover of night. He also mentions that the route could be probably be done in reverse, so I figure I can just cycle to the nearer place where the road ends on the way to Machu Pichu.
Soon after pedaling up some steep, tour bus congested, aggressive dog lined, unpleasantness, and out of the valley in which Cusco sits, the direct-ish route is off-highway. Before teaming up with Diane, I’d been doing a pretty even balance (time-, not distance-wise) of paved and unpaved road. For the stretch with Diane, we were almost all paved road, but it was relatively lightly trafficked. Such is not the case in the Cusco region.

This unpaved road is, as it happens, under extensive construction, blocked off by concrete and dirt-pile barricade to anything wider than a motorcycle, with dozens of men doing all variety of work on it. This is great, as it means there’s no cars to deal with at all. The workers that take a quick brake to observe me seem amused and happy to watch me weaving through them. I happen to be walking by a corrugated metal roofed, wall-less shelter, when I hear the metallic “pings” characteristic of fat fast raindrops, or hail, hitting such metal, and see the workers jog and run to similar nearby shelters. I duck into the shelter and decide that now seems like a fine time to take a lunch break. I crack a can of tuna, twist off the nozzle of a bag of mayo, open a cylinder of crackers, and feed myself a dozen in-can prepared tuna-fish salad mini-sandwiches.

Oh how I love the nozzle-bag technology. Jelly, mayonnaise (or any condiment for that matter), chocolate paste, peanut butter. I only wish they weren’t single use and were universally available for anything that one could hope to transport with nary an excess of weight or volume, and then squeeze through a nozzle as desired.

I see lightening touch down on one of the clusters of rebar spires that are ubiquitous among construction in Latin America. I feel perfectly safe, laying low, under a Faraday roof. As lunch concludes, the hail tapers off to rain, and the lightening lets up. Other than the rain shell I’ve donned for warmth and against splatter, I’m still dressed for the sunny, steamy climb out of Cusco, so I strip down to bike shorts and layer up with almost everything I’ve got. A couple of construction workers in adjoining shelter considerately downplay their bemusement. Sometimes you’ve got to just reason you’ll almost certainly never again see that place, or any of the people therein.

After the fury just witnessed, and after stepping out from under the metal roof, the weather seems fairly tame, and once again, I’m exchanging smiles and thumbs up with workers and locals as I pass. The road is in varying stages of reconstruction, and mostly not terribly muddy, considering what’s just happened. It’s a gradual up, but on my first short stretch of down, I celebrate by happily letting gravity roll me up to maximum safe velocity. The 40ft+ cliff on the outside of the upcoming turn decreases my maximum safe velocity, so I go to brake, and feel my stomach in my throat as squeezing both levers is completely ineffectual. I haven’t braked once since before the wet, and my rims are a perfect mixture of road grease covered by find dust turned mud-arrhea. It only takes a couple of seconds for the brake pads to squeegy the rims enough to get some bite, and it’s enough bite to slow me down enough, but by then I’ve already instinctively unhooked a foot from a pedal to use as a brake on the ground, or…ejection lever?

I marvel at my good, and increasingly demonstrably underserved luck. I’ve had disjoint adrenaline jolts within the last hour (the non-inexperiencable terror that nearby thunder invokes), and still, everything is fine. I resolve to go slow on downhills from here on, particularly in these conditions.

It’s great to be on back roads, making a point of making prescribed stops (change layers, drink water) in the trajectory or presence of locals. Life is slow, simple , and cheerful in these parts, and people are usually more than happy to stop and chat while I change clothes, shove stuff in my face, mess with my bike, or whatever.

I approach a massive pile of dirt in the middle of the road, and a few meters later, come upon a 10 meter drop off, leading to a meter of flat and another then another 10 meter drop off, repeated a few times. It’s a man-made grand(-ish) canyon. These are completely familiar to anyone, but from the botton, on the completed road for which the canyon has been created. The convenience at the bottom is an obstacle at the top, where one has to now descend a hill from one of it’s now bisected sides, then climb back up the other side.

Of course there’s a temporary track to do this, and a kid on the other side of the canyon waves and points it out. I’m halfway up the far side when my problem becomes clear: I have loose-fitting booties on, as I have since lunch (having not walked more than a few steps since), which are caked in mud of all consistencies, and to take them off here and now would mean getting mud on most of the few things that weren’t yet covered in it. I’m slipping in the mud, and pausing every step or two to reassess and rest, work-shopping a couple quips with a local elderly woman walking some sheep. The kid that had waved to me earlier, about 8 years old, struts down, and without a word, gets behind my bike, leans into it, and starts pushing it so hard it’s all I can do to get myself in my slippy-booties going uphill fast enough to keep the bike upright. I’m all “muchas gracias”, as he takes a quick breather about every 10 strides, then leans back into it. At the top, the mud is relatively dry and there’s a small roadside embankment that I can prop the bike up against while I take off the booties. The kid hangs out, but doesn’t say much. I talk about my boots being too dirty to go in my bags, what’s in my bags, where I’m from, and all the stuff people are usually most interested in. He nods and seems interested, but he’s also interested in poking the mud out of the places it’s piled up, which is in fact very gratifying if somewhat futile in present conditions. When I’m up and ready to roll, I start walking my bike slowly, and he mirrors me on the other side. Gingerly, but somewhat suddenly, and again without a word, he puts his foot on his side’s pedal and trusts that I will hold the bike up, as he swings his other leg over the top bar. Also again, I’m barely able to react in time to accommodate, and in no time, he’s standing on pedals held level, the only way he can clear the top bar, and gripping the handlebars, as I walk the bike down the road. We’re only a few dozen meters from where my road and his diverge, so the ride lasts only about a minute, and then we exchange smiles and good byes. This, and so many experiences, of amazingly genuine curiosity, generosity and trust, is probably the single best thing about taking the dirt road, and is all too commonly the exact opposite of what you see in the places where there are the most tourists.

I get to a town called Masas as the sun starts to burn off some clouds and peek under others. My drivetrain is making terrible dirt-crunching in roller pin sounds, so I try to do a quick clean in the plaza, but it’s no use. From here, it’s a long, winding descent into the Sacred Valley, and it’s hard to imagine the weather was ever bad, as the golden hour is extra golden, and thankfully I rarely need to rip into the idyllic birdsong with the terrible screech that currently comes with pedaling.

When I’m about 1/3 of the way down into the valley from the round hills on which I’m tracing near gradients, I spot what looks like a great campsite. It’s a lightly used remnant of what was once a crudely made lookout road, well off the actual road, and just big enough for one tent. It overlooks a town below, and the entire scene is just splendid. This is the pinnacle of camping, so much nicer than camping in a campground. One might think to ask why more people don’t camp this way, but an equally important question is: would it be a good thing if more people did? I think, as it is, and as people generally are, it would be terrible if more people just camped wherever they want. I think it’s a special privilege to be permitted to do so, and one that has to be taken only when accepting necessary responsibility.

Specifically, these responsibilities are:

* If you need to shit, dig a hole and shit in it. For that matter, when you brush your teeth, kick a little hole to spit your toothpaste in and then cover that up.

* Don’t leave any trash…not even fruit peels, coffee grounds, egg shells, or anything else that you think is “biological” and therefore ok to return to nature.

* Tread lightly, be considerate of flora, even microflora like lichen and cryptogenic crust.

* Leave the place looking better than you found it. Pick up some trash that was already there, especially if you can reasonably pick up all of it.

People, I find, even other bike travelers and regular campers, are usually not 100% at this. Until they usually are, it’s totally just as well that most people who camp, don’t “wild” camp.

I’m not saying I’m always perfect in these regards, but I have been pretty good lately, and a spot like this, with so much to offer, including only a lonely sun-brittled 2.5L cola bottle for pre-existing trash, makes me re-resolve to the responsibilities inherent in the privilege of enjoying such places.

I make a delicious thick, farro and roots soup, then watch about 5 minutes of netflix on my phone before falling into a deep, restful, well earned sleep. At about 3am I wake up to pee and notice there’s a pretty solid rainfall, but that only makes the return to nest and sleep all the more satisfying. By sunrise, the rain is drizzle, and then the clouds break up, yielding sun that quickly dries anything it’s shining on. I spread out things to dry as I enjoy some morning coffee. I’ve neglected to pick up eggs, and so am foregoing my breakfast of pancakes and eggs. I use some gasoline from my stove’s canister to degrease my chain, then work it along with the rest of the now dry drivetrain with a toothbrush, then re-lubricate it.

It’s only 18km to Ollantaytambo, where I plan to stock up and continue on my ride to Machu Pichu. I find the mercado and stock up, meanwhile noticing large and impressive ruins overlooking the town from multiple sides. I decide to check out what looks to be a campground plus hostel. I’m greeted by an initially unfriendly seeming/loud barking pitbull whose name I’ll later learn is “Gringo” who barks as I hoist my bag up the stairs onto the grounds. Then I meet a remarkably personable, assertive and friendly horned sheep. Eventually the proprietor shows up and shows me around.

I go to check out the ruins and it feels great to zig zag up and down the hills.

When I come back, I meet the proprietor’s mom, who’s very chatty and friendly. I start working on my dinner in the shared kitchen, while she tells me about, and then shows me samples of, the many nut butters and natural foods she makes and jars. I buy a jar of handmade tahini.

I eat dinner, then chat a bit with a German woman who checked in while I was making dinner, and is the only other guest on site, until we realize it’s a bit late, and both turn in. She’s opted for dorm bed in a room with walls for 15 Sol ($4.50), while I’m going with camping, which I’m interpreting as putting my mat on a piece of ground in the open air (roofed) bar area for 10 Sol ($3).

I sleep great, and the next morning I make pancakes and coffee. The mom is there from the outset, chatting and happy to share breakfast. She’s practices Sukyo Mahikari, which is something that has something to do with “understanding and practicing Light”. You know, I don’t know. Google it. It’s something mystical. In practice, and what she’s asking if I’d like to do, is something where for 10 minutes I close my eyes and meditate while she holds her hand up to, close to but not touching, my forehead. I’m not 100% sure, my eyes are closed the whole time. And then for 5 minutes I’m on my stomach while she touches the spot on my spine I’d mentioned was seizing up. It seems I threw my back out yet again hoisting my bike up the stairs the day before. That part seems customized.

Shortly afterwards, I’m done packing up my bike, so I bid her and the German farewell as the they start their session. 15 minutes of concerted meditation is 15 more minutes than I’ve done in a long time, and I’d say it was worth trying Sukyo Mahikari for that reason alone.

Riding the 16km towards it, I’m a combination of anxious and eager to get to where the road ends, and the train track trekking begins. Several taxi and tuktuk drivers stop to ask where I’m going, and when I say Machu Pichu, the first one tells me that I can’t get there by bike and I should take a ride to Hidroelectrica instead, i.e. the far end of the car-free section of valley around Machu Pichu. He’s so insistent, that for subsequent inquiries I say I’m just going to Piskacucho, the town at the end of the road. I get to said town and follow the route shown on Maps.me, going steep up a tributary canyon side to a bridge over the tributary. I spot a lost purse halfway up and stop to examine it, before returning it to where it was. I stop to take a picture from the bridge crossing the tributary, and then I notice a guy in a security uniform coming up the hill, whose probably only caught up because I’ve made these stops, calling to me to stop. He asks me about the purse to which I say it was there when I got there, and then he directs me to turn around. I politely protest, saying I’m just going to my friend’s house down the road a bit. The gambit is a flop, and he politely but firmly instructs me to return down the hill. I start asking about just walking my bike along the tracks, but he’s adamant that the bike is not allowed. I think I convey that I’ll go to the train station to see about catching the train from there, but sense that I haven’t succeeded in doing so when I see his slightly exasperated expression as we reunite at the station along the tracks, him having taken a more direct route down the slope to the station, me taking the less direct route through the junction where I had peeled off on my way up. That, or he did understand me and thought he had been clear when he (probably) told me that this station was not one at which passengers could board.

So it seems that taking my bike, either with or without the train, is not an option, and it’s time to adapt. I ask the security guard if I can walk the tracks without my bike and am pretty surprised to get a begrudging shrug and “si”. I ask again, using even fewer words, to make sure we’re both understanding what I’m asking, and again get an affirmative. So I ask around, among the five bystanders whose attention I already have pretty fully, if any of them knew where I might safely store my bike for a few days. I haven’t thought this fully through, as up until that point I’d sort of assumed that either I’d take the train or my bike from that point. It’s also just gone noon, and I have a little over 7 hours of daylight left to hike what I’m only vaguely recalling is something like 30 km (18 miles). So when a shopkeeper seems to understand what I’m requesting, and seems willing to help, I scramble to rearrange the contents of my bags so that I have everything I think I’ll need for the hike there, the visit to Machu Pichu, and the hike back, minus food that I can get once I’m there. This is basically day-hike supplies, layers for all weather, toothbrush and floss, all my ready-to-eat food which should be enough for 18 miles, and most of the rest of “the 10 essentials”, which are always in my handlebar bag. The sky is getting dark, mist is turning to occasional drops and the shopkeeper offers to sell me one of the highly disposable thin plastic ponchos that are popular in these parts. I have my rain shell, but the top half isn’t vinyl like the bottom. It’s reportedly “gore tex”, but the quality has been suspect from the outset, it’s approaching 20 years old, and recently I’ve noticed it doesn’t seem to be particularly good at keeping things inside of it dry. Considering I’m going on what I expect will be at least a 6 hour trip between known places of shelter, I decide it will be nice to have a stronger guarantee of waterproofness, and will also be good luck.

As I conclude handing over my bicycle, and realize that the shopkeeper’s plan is to leave the bike and detached bags leaning against the wall where I’ve staged them for storage until he’s ready to close shop for the day, I’m having second thoughts. This is based in no small part on having learned the night before that Diane’s (French cycle mate of previous post) bicycle has been stolen from her Couchsurfing hosts in Cusco. It occurs to me that it would be prudent to have at least a photograph of the stranger to whom I’m handing over the vast majority of my immediate possessions as a way to identify and locate him, worst case scenario. He and his wife happily oblige, but the security officer pointedly gets up from the bench which he had been sharing with them to avoid being in the photo. I ask him for a photo as well, and he thinks I’m asking him to take a photo of me with the couple. I clarify, and he firmly declines. I get a little bristly, and (attempt to) say that he’s the authority whose directive is the reason I’m leaving my bicycle in the first place, and therefore I should be able to take a photo of him, but he either doesn’t understand, or pretends to not understand, while maintaining that he doesn’t want his photo taken. I half-heartedly try to sneak one of him, but it’s pretty impossible given that all 5 people on the scene still have nothing more interesting to witness than the random gringo that’s just crashed the party.

As I set out, he instructs me to go up over the ravine, where he had initially stopped me, even though there are locals strolling up and down the tracks in front of us. As I do so, I feel a bit uneasy, and I almost decide to pull the plug on the whole thing, but I’ve already given the shopkeeper 30 Sol ($9), and am halfway back up this steep-ass hill. By the time I’m at the top, the rain is started in earnest, but I’ve pulled on the completely unbreathable and waterproof plastic poncho, and my cynicism is rapidly evaporating. The security guard has signed off on me walking the tracks, despite signs everywhere indicating it’s forbidden, with accompanying red-circle-slashed photographs of gringos doing the forbidden. From his perspective, considering his liability around what he’s just allowed me to do, not wanting me to take his photo seems obvious, though I’m still not sure why he had me go the longer, steep way around the station.

I make my way down the tracks, my ankles turning slightly at precarious angles on the jagged rocks forming the bed of the rails, assessing how this might have gone down with my loaded bike. I’m thinking things have probably turned out for the best as I come upon a small set of ruins that run to within a few feet of the train tracks. I stop to take them in when I hear a train approach, the first since I’ve started walking the tracks. The flat walls run in alternating right angles, mostly parallel and occasionally perpendicular to the curved rails, so I amble to a spot where the clearance is largest, just to be extra sure I have room to let the passing train clear me. As turns out to be commonly the case, it’s hard to know from which end of the curve rail, carved into a cliff, along the raging chocolate milk river, the train is approaching. By the time I see it round the corner from the direction I’ve come, I’m relieved I was extra safe and have enough room to press myself flat against the wall and leave myself a good foot from the train’s closest approach. If I’d had my bike to contend with, things would have been vastly more complicated, to put it mildly.

This is a point driven home further down the rails, in my third and fourth adrenaline moments since Cusco, when in diminishing light I have markedly less than a comfortable foot of clearance from the trains jutting metal structures. These are, resp., being caught on the inside curve of a tunnel immediately adjacent to another tunnel, and then against a sheer bank, in both cases with only enough time to squish myself into my best hope to not get swiped by the train. Neither situation would have ended better than me sacrificing my bike to the train, or over a cliff, had I had my unwieldy, loaded, not fat tired, but very fat bodied bike to contend with. So, at this point, I’m beyond grateful for the guard having stopped me from taking my bike.

Not to mention, now I have an excuse to not make a long, grueling, and relatively point-of-interest-free through-trip of Machu Pichu, coming back the long way.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then acute fatigue is necessity’s annoying uncle whose cautionary example prompts her to apply herself and go to college. At about 5 miles into the trek, the bandolier style into which I’ve hastily arranged my bags’ straps is proving unsustainable. The digging of the straps into my neck and collarbone, from both sides, is made a bit more bearable by holding at least the large bag in my hand to provide lift beyond what the strap provides, but this eventually fatigues my gripping muscles in an unpleasant way. After a snack break, it occurs to me to use the shoulder strap of the large bag to wrap around my waist. This works ok, but the bag flops against my legs with every step. I flip the bag upside down, so it runs up my back, but now how to keep it there? Enter the second, smaller, handlebar bag. I manage to work the strap of this bag around the large, inverted bag. It just barely fits around my mid torso when I reattach its strap to the small bag, which is now suspended against my chest or abdomen, depending on how I scootch it. It’s like a mega-fanny-pack, with a mini-front-pack, and I can only assume it looks pretty ridiculous. It isn’t without some annoyances, not least being that it’s far from ideal to have a strap compressing your torso while hiking, but it’s leaps and bounds more comfortable, and correspondingly the trek seems leaps and bounds more doable.

The trek becomes downright enjoyable with magic sunbeam breaks in the weather, but one can only cover ground so fast with ratty, falling apart leather sandals on jagged rock, and a new moon night falls quickly and completely about 20 minutes before I get to Machu Pichu village.

I check into a hostel, go to the municipal office to get my entry ticket to Machu Pichu for the next morning, eat every remaining calorie I have on hand, set my alarm for 4am, and then plunge into a deep sleep. The trains passing, and celebratory Christmas fireworks being set off immediately outside my dorm’s window do little to disturb my thoroughly earned slumber. My alarm goes off, and despite only 6 hours of sleep, I’m wide awake with excitement as I prepare for the day. The guy at the front desk said the night before that leaving at 4:30am would suffice, but by the time I get the 2 kilometers to the gate at the bottom of the hill leading up to the main gate to the ruins, there’s a line of about 100 people. I suppose he was spot on in the sense that within minutes of me queueing up, they start letting people through. I’m chomping at the bit, and my suspicion turns out to be true: that these “normals” going up the stone staircase trail are going become a traffic jam and keep me from ascending as quickly as I’d like. Every so often the trail crosses a road, giving me sufficient berth to pass clumps of panting gringos, and after a couple of these, I’m picking off singles, pairs, or trios, group by group. For the last 10 or 15 minutes of the ascent, I can’t see anybody ahead of me. I know I’m not the first because I can see footprints. When I get to the still closed front gate at the top, there are 5 young European (German?) seeming guys, trading jocular comments, stripping off drenched shirts (as is mine), comparing completion times. Maybe they were faster than me, and then again, maybe they just had better starting position. I can tell they’re trying to make sense of me, with my handlebar bag that looks like some rectilinear satchel/purse instead of any sort of backpack, my ratty leather sandals over thick wool socks, and my showing up in between them and several others in their party that I’d passed on the way up. But none of them is emboldened enough to engage me, and I’m preemptively bored by their euro-douchebaggery. On the other hand, I’m quite amused by their obvious embarrassment, a few minutes later, when a guy manning the gate instructs them to put their shirts back on.

I have to admit, something about crowds at National Parks and the like brings out the most petty in me. Last August, my mom and I went to Denali National Park for her birthday, and I can still picture the retired couple that split up to each take a window seat on the repurposed school bus taking us into the park, beyond where cars can drive, forcing another unfortunate couple to split up and each have an aisle seat.

Now, I’m resenting that the hoards of people that have taken the bus up the hill are arriving before us hikers have been allowed in. I was under the impression that by hiking up, we would have a few minute lead on the people that bussed up.

Before the gates open, we’re instructed to have tickets and passports ready. By manage to follow this instruction, I’m the first through the row of 4 turnstiles and into the site. By having reviewed the massive map on display at the entrance and reconciled it with the maps.me map of the site on my phone, I know exactly where I want to go, so that I quickly leave behind even the few people that managed to get through the entry gate at about the same time, and as I proceed at a rapid clip up towards the so-called Sun Gate, I have the place to myself. The ubiquitous morning mist has the place socked in, but there’s still enough visibility to get a sense of the precision and magnitude of the stone work in the walls that the trail runs along side. I load up some Sigur Ros on my headphones, and give myself pleasant chills imagining how similar everything I can see must be to how it was on any given morning, so many hundreds of years ago.

Only when I catch up with the guards that entered about 10 minutes before the gates were opened to the public, fanning out to man their stations, is the spell temporarily broken. I branch off to the trail up to the Sun Gate, and after about a kilometer of ascent, get to a viewpoint, where I stop to catch my breath, soak in the majesty of the ruins, and otherwise enjoy what I know will be my last few minutes of solitude anywhere within the place.

About 15 minutes later a procession of other tourists are making their way up, and soon the place is overrun. When a group backpackers, all clad in identical yellow shirts, comes down the trail from the other direction of the gate, I fall in line, and strike up conversation, with a couple of them. They confirm my suspicion that they’re finishing their trek of the Inca Trail, and that this trail is 36km long, as compared to the 28km that I hiked along railroad tracks to get to the village the night before. I’m thinking, 36 = 28 + 8, and 8 is not that much, so ask how long it took them to do the trail and if they think it could have been done in a single day, as I’d need to, with my lack of camping gear. They report that the trek took 4 days, which lines up with what I’d learned in my brief research on the matter, and they find the prospect of doing what they’ve done in a day utterly laughable. Whereas I’d walked a nearly flat path, they’ve done many many hundreds of meters of ascent and descent. They all look pretty fit, especially one of their guides who interjects to say that it would be absolutely impossible to do the trek in a day, in either direction. Given that I would have to have brought all my things with me into the site in order to exit the Sun Gate and try the trek backwards, and that I opted not to do so, owing to my ignorance of th prospect, I’m happy to hear that it would have been a foolish mission.

I spend the next several hours finding perches on which to sit and soak in the scenery. At one, I spot another, slightly older, solo gringo and ask if he speaks English. He says not much, he’s from France, and asks “If you’re a traveller, why don’t you speak French?” in very broken English. I chuckle, but his delivery strikes me as a bit antagonistic, so I don’t persist in trying to make conversation with him.

A young gringo stops at the viewpoint sporting a phone on a selfie stick, a chest-mounted goPro, and a tablet which is the device he is currently choosing to take a photo. I find him so comical I sneak a picture of him.

Just as I do, he turns to me and asks me to take a photo of him with his tablet. I do, and then ask for the same in return, handing him my phone. Afterwards, we chat a bit. He proudly tells me that he’s walked up from town, concluding “how could I not?!” to which I tell him that I’ve biked and walked from Cusco, to which he reports that he’s got to get going as his organized tour is set to start at noon.

The French guy is still there when I’m ready to move on about 30 minutes later, and he’s the only other person who’s spent more than a few minutes at the lookout, so we nod and wave goodbye when I do. I run into him a couple more times while still on the site. The final time I do, he’s wearing a “50th Birthday” birthday cake hat, and has me take his photo holding up a Peruvian flag. His birthday is actually in 2 days on Dec. 26, but he’s running early on his itinerary.

Eventually I’ve made all the detours I can, and I’m sheparded to the site exit, along with the rest of the visitors on the morning shift, so I clomp down the trail to the road back to the village. The knee that I banged up a couple weeks ago starts shooting with pain when I use it to lower my full weight, so I have to take a few breaks and limp my way down.

As I get back into town, it occurs to me that it’s the first time I’ve seen the town in any daylight, having arrived/left after/before dark, respectively, the night before. All the same, I’m contemplating catching a train back to Ollyantantambo, then backtracking to retrieve my bike, when I walk by the French guy sitting at a table outside a mini market. I say hi, and he offers to buy me a beer. I accept, and over time, employing a combination of Spanish, English, French, and pantomime, we’re able to cover a number of topics. Of particular interest is his account of walking to Machu Pichu village, but from the other end. His is the much more common route, taking a jam-packed mini-bus ride to where the road ends in hidroelectrica (near a town built around a damn). I honestly hadn’t really considered this option, though I’m pretty sure it was part of one of the detailed itineraries explained on the wall of the kitchen of the hostel in Cusco. According to his account, the minibus ride takes about 4 hours, and the 10km walk takes about 2 hours. Compare this with the 7 hours (with breaks) that the 28km walk takes, and I honestly can’t figure out why almost everybody who avoids taking the price-gauging train to Machu Pichu makes the choice of spending money to spend time squeezed into a minibus over spending basically the same amount of time on a beautiful stroll.

An Indian American family from the bay area walk by and stop to talk to the French guy, as they’ve had a similar sequence of path-crossings, and when it’s time for the French guy to head off to get his hair cut, I walk with the family to the train station. They’ve got tickets to take the train to Cusco, and I want to see if there’s a train that would make sense for me to catch.

There isn’t. The cheapest is $80, and it wouldn’t get me back in time to get my bike back in daylight when it would be safe for me to ride it back to the campground hostel in Ollyantantambo. So I book a private room, inadvertently negotiating the proprietor down when, in response to my “no gracias” after asking the rate, she asks me how much my dorm bed costs in the hostel I’m staying in, and then matches that price for a private room and bath. Travelling in the off-season has it’s advantages.

Fireworks at midnight wake me up this time. They’re more substantial explosions, since these are actually marking the beginning of Christmas day. I embark on my train track trek at 8am on a drizzly Christmas morning, and resolved to keep a pretty disciplined pace to make sure I get to the shop before the proprietor decides to quit for the day. It doesn’t occur to me to at least try to call the phone number he’d given to me when I left my bike with him until I’m a few kilometers out of the village, and out of signal.

I find a bunch of trails that run up and down hills surrounding the tracks that I’d missed before, and I’m happy to take small climbs instead of the jagged rock bed of the railroad. I squish a 1 Sol coin under a couple of trains.

I get to the end of my walk, and the shop with my bike (I hope) at 3pm, and there’s nobody in sight, but before I actually get to the shop window to see that it’s closed and locked, the security guard whistles me over. He barely suppresses rolling his eyes as I inform him that I’m the guy with the bike from a couple of days ago, then tells me to phone the number. I do, and I get a recording saying the number is not in service (or something). He calls from his phone and gets the same recording. Then he calls the wife of the shopkeeper, gets through, and gets the message conveyed that I’m there and wanting to collect my bike. He asks me for a Sol (28 cents) to cover the cost of the call and I’m happy to oblige. He’s in the same gruff seeming mood until I tell him how grateful I am that he prevented me from taking my bike along the tracks, and in pantomime and brutalized Spanish convey the close calls I had dodging trains and how best case, my bike would have almost certainly have had to have been sacrificed. He smiles with satisfaction, and then tells me something about some other people that pushed their bikes along the track which I don’t really understand, but get the impression that it did not end well.

The shop keeper shows up and let’s me into the shop to collect my bike. He asks for some more money, something I’d been planning on offering anyways, and I give him another $12 in appreciation of his efforts, calibrating against the cost of a hotel room. I’ve paid 3 times as much for my bike’s accomodations over the last two nights as I have for my own, but I’m happily grateful for the service he’s provided.

When I get back to Ollyantantambo, and cell signal, I get a message from Tomaso, an Italian friend I’d made in Lima my second night in Peru, that he’s on his way from Cusco by minibus to meet me. I’m just finishing preparing dinner when he arrives, and we share an impromptu Christmas dinner with a box of terrible Chilean white wine.

The next day, two travel companions of his (French and Italian) from Cusco come out and join us, along with a Argentinian friend we’ve made at the campground hostel. After banana pancakes and coffee breakfast, we run around some of the non-fee ruins on the outskirts of town. After a couple of hours, I break off to work on this blog entry while they continue to explore town. The two Italians make a massive risotto feast for dinner, and the couple that run the hostel (the husband being the son of the mother I’d gotten to know on my way to Machu Pichu), and one of their daughters join us for the feast. Most of the dinner conversation is in Spanish, and I’m pleasantly surprised by how much I’m able to follow. Tomaso, who fluently speaks Italian, French, Spanish and English is the universal translator for the group.

The next day, Tomaso and friends have plans to head back to Cusco after exploring a quarry, where from came the stones from which the ruins were built, on the other side of the valley, I get an early-ish start and bike 65km to Pisac, following a fairly flat road along the Sacred Valley’s river.

There, I check into a very hippy hostel where there’s a lot of discussion around recent ayahuasca ceremonies, and drug and non-drug based mystical experiences in general. I’m not necessarily opposed to these experiences, but I’ve decided to refrain for the duration of this trip since I’m getting a bit more than my fill of experience as it is.

The following day, I bike up to the main entrance to the Pisac ruins, a 1,500′ foot climb over about 4 miles. Alternatively, I could have taken a cab for about $1.20, but, you know… This way, I was able to make the 60km/hour, white knuckling, goose bumping flight back down.

Which brings us to right now, sitting on a balcony overlooking the plaza in town, wrapping up this post.

Tomorrow I’ll do the short ride back to Cusco checking out some ruins on the way. I’ll spend a night or two there, hopefully getting a chance to catch up with Diane and Tomaso, and then it’s on to Puno, Lake Titicaca, and La Paz Bolivia, from where I fly home in about 3 weeks.

THANK YOU FOR READING!!!!!!

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Huancayo to Ayacucho with a French cycle mate

I spend a down day in Huancayo, going out only to consume and stock up on food, then return to my relatively nice hotel room to eat it until I fall asleep, wake up, then repeat. It is glorious.

The next morning I stock up at a supermarket and ride Southeast out of town. Before I’m out of town, I spot another cyclist up ahead. When she stops to take a photo, I catch up and introduced myself. Diane, from France, has been traveling for two months. She has just parted ways with a couple of cyclists, one of which has taken ill, resulting in them bussing their way to Cusco to tend to the recovery. We decide to ride together for a bit. It seems she’s on a streak of finding riding companions.

A lot of the people we encounter the next several days ask if we are a couple, and I’m guessing you, dear reader, may be curious along the same lines. Anticipating that Diane might herself wonder if I have any such schemes in mind, I work into conversation on our first food break that I am a) spoken for back home, b) missing that person quite a bit and c) old enough to be her (Diane’s) father, thereby eliminating any speculation that I might be a potential prospect/suitor.

With that out of the way, we cycle until about 4 in the afternoon and then decide to scout out a camp site. We find one right off the secondary highway we’d been on most of the day, with a nice little creek running through a grassy meadow, with just enough flat to set up our tents.

Diane has a camp stove, but it’s one that uses disposable fuel canisters, which are hard to come by in the region. In previous travels, I’ve been cooked for, at least a couple dozen times, by cycle mates. I’ve started cooking for myself on this trip. I dare say I’ve been getting pretty good at it, and am happy to have someone else to cook for. I make garlic mac and cheese for dinner and pancakes and eggs for breakfast. Diane, who speaks Spanish fluently, fields a friendly inquiry from the owner of the property who comes by in the morning to drop off some horses for grazing. After chatting, he tells Diane that we’re quite welcome to have camped on his land. Diane and I are a good team.

The cycling the next day starts with a long, warm, sunny, descent, followed by a equally long climb. Our climbs are for me an exercise in patience and pacing. As we’d figure out in a couple of days when we would spot and employ a roadside agricultural scale, my loaded bike is about 20 pounds lighter than Diane’s, while me plus bike are about 20 pounds heavier than Diane plus hers, so basically I have a substantially bigger engine to payload ratio. In contrast to the week before, when I was doing real distance on my bike for the first time in months, somewhat undernourished and overexerted, this week I’m back in distance-cycling shape, over-nourished and under-exerted.

Diane is ready to call it a day mid-afternoon, and we scout out a camp site behind some relatively modern residential ruins, on the edge of a ravine. We cook some dinner and then call it an early night.

It starts raining at about 3am and doesn’t let up until about 11am the next day. I make coffee and pancakes despite the rain at about 8, then retreat back to my tent to dry off and warm up. Once the rain stops, I make some lentil soup/stew for lunch. There’s plenty of leftovers. We pack up camp.

At our first pass of the day, we stop and chat with an indigenous couple who are hanging out roadside. As usual, Diane does most of the talking for us, since she’s fluent. But I feel included in the conversation, and am happy to report that I get the biggest laugh out of the couple when I explain that I’m dumping the unfiltered water that I got from a tap in a town we’ve passed through and that I’ve just sampled after filtering a bit, because it tastes soapy and (pantomiming) I don’t want to be blasting out my ass. Diane takes the prize for overall coolest interaction by producing some hair weaves that were given to her sometime before we met, and asking the wife to weave them into braids in hair, which she seems delighted to oblige.

We bid the couple farewell and then cycle until we’re just about out of daylight, and then contemplate cycling in dusk to the next town and our goal destination for the day, or taking a path down to the rocky river bed along which our road runs parallel. Neither one of us wants to make the decision, so we flip a coin which dictates choosing the latter. The river is fairly shallow and there are a string of rocks to allow crossing it by foot. I mention a couple of times to Diane that it’s probably all around best to be undetected by the locals, minimizing use of flashlights and such, but I don’t seem to get the message across and don’t want to go so far as to request that she not use her headlamp as she chooses. While I spend the last 20 minutes of natural light setting up my tent, she’s on her phone, having just gotten signal for the first time in days. She uses a pretty powerful headlamp to set up her tent in the dark, sometimes inadvertently pointing it across the river while she takes breaks to correspond on her phone. I reheat leftovers and watch lights on the far side of the river, trying to determine if they belonged to people coming towards us. The main thing I’m trying to avoid is drunk partiers seeing us and deciding to come over and engage. In a moment of cynical rationalizing, I figure if she isn’t concerned, then I needn’t be. With her Spanish so much better than mine, and with her being a woman, she would be the one that would (have to) interact (more) with would-be visitors. I’d just be there to be “the guy” whose presence would probably be enough to keep things civil.

Diane had previously mentioned that she doesn’t camp when she’s alone, and she’s never slept well when camping, regardless of having camp-mates. This is all completely understandable. Our planet is not unlike a prison where a woman without the company of a man is an inmate who isn’t under the protection of an established prison-gang member, and is therefore routinely subjected to harassment, and not uncommonly, much worse.

It doesn’t make me feel good to play the role of protector in this prison planet. In the case of language gaps leading to understanding gaps, such as this, it makes me wonder if my company is appreciated beyond the protection inherent in it. Or at least it does for the few moments until I realize that it doesn’t really matter one way or the other, once I decide/realize it doesn’t really matter one way or the other.

I leave my river-side tent door open as I drift off, watching the lights on the other side of the river. I slip in and out of sleep, the latter due mostly to distant dog barks, and at one point I’m pretty sure a flashlight is bobbing across the rocks on the river. I call this out to Diane who, I can see through the walls of our tents, is using her phone and/or headlamp. She acknowledges this, but leaves her light on. I watch the light bob about for a bit, not making progress towards us as obviously as I initially thought, then fall asleep for another 10-60 minutes, I can’t tell. I’m woken up by loud and near barks, but there’s no lights in our vicinity. I shout at the dogs to shut up, and to my surprise, this seems to work, and I fall back asleep.

The next morning, Diane tells me that she slept especially poorly, finding and clutching her pepper spray in reaction to my giving her the update that I had. I apologize for not giving a follow-up, explaining that I wasn’t sure how long I had been asleep when I realized there weren’t any lights coming towards us, as I didn’t want to wake her. I don’t mention that her tent was equally well positioned to monitor the situation, while wondering how insensitive it is of me to have considered saying as much.

We ride into the town we hadn’t quite made it to the day before, and realize that none of the hospedajes or hostals look particularly welcoming (or open for business, for that matter), so it was just as well that the coin flip had gone the way it did. We order a breakfast of eggs at one of the two restaurants in town, and have to explain several times that we don’t want rice with them. Nonetheless, I get a pile of cold rice under my fried eggs. Even so, the entire bill comes to less than $3. We stock up on ready-to-eat foods (bread, bananas, cookies, jam, and the like), and set out. We have about 110km to Ayacucho, where Diane is going to catch a bus to Cusco.

I’m flip-flopping on whether or not to catch a bus as well. For a variety of reasons, Seattle/home is beckoning, and I’ve decided to end my trip a bit earlier than I had initially thought I would, and I have a flight home from La Paz, Bolivia booked for Jan 17. Including the couple day buffer that I need to find a bike box, break down and pack my bike, and then find a way to get the whole mess to the airport, I have a little over 4 weeks to cover 1200km to La Paz. Usually, I can average about 100km per day, which would mean I have more than enough time to get there. But in the mountains, pushing my bike over passes at 15,000’+, I’ve been averaging more like 40km per day. On the other hand, for the last few days, I’ve been averaging 55+km per day, and the days have been short, either starting late or stopping early, relatively speaking. Back to the first hand, there’s a lot of excursions to take around Cusco, including making my way to the obligatory spectacle of Machu Piccu, and I don’t want to have to rush my way through that part of Peru.

We’ve dropped down to about 2000 meters elevation, which is still fairly high up by Pacific Northwest standards, but arid lowlands by West Peruvian standards, and the heat of the day is becoming a factor. We start scoping out places to camp at mid-afternoon. There’s a wooden and metal cable suspension bridge across the river, and Diane indulges my inclination to take a detour across it to find a spot for the evening. The secluded little oasis is free of cars, and upon inquiring with a young couple that passes us on foot as we walk our bikes down the unpaved road we learn that there are ample “tranquilo y bonita” places to camp. We find one, and set up camp, and cook.

The way back

Diane uses bug spray and keeps her arms and legs covered. I borrow some of the spray, but opt to air myself out, wearing shorts and short sleeves. Big mistake. The next day I’m riddled with red spots of bites from an insect that resembled a gnat (noseeums?). I didn’t really feel the bites as they happened, but they itch pretty terribly and cause my ankles to swell up more than I’ve ever before experienced.

We have 65km to go to Ayacucho. It starts with a steady climb, followed by a rapid decent, and concludes with a steep climb onto the plateau on which the city sits. I’ve gotten impatient with slow-pedaling, so I start letting Diane get a 10-ish minute lead on me, pedaling at my natural pace until I catch up, and then repeating. Diane makes fairly frequent stops, and at about 2pm (at the end of the first ascent) we’re about halfway there, and by my estimations, not on track to make it to town on time. Part of this is the fault of mis-leading elevation profiles provided by Maps.me, but upon factoring in the 20km we’ll cover in 30 minutes on the quick descent, my estimations are completely off. We make it to town with ample daylight to spare, and check into a hostal. We each get mild electric shocks from the always sketchy integrated water-heater showerheads, but whereas mine is barely uncold enough to be tolerable, Diane reports hers is “as warm as at home”. We go out for dinner, but not far, as by then there’s a pretty substantial downpour, then retire to our rooms.

The next morning we head out, have big breakfasts at a fancy restaurant of a fancy hotel in the Plaza de Armas, and then track down the ticket agency for the bus company that we’ve been pointed to by the local tourism bureau. With the internet access afforded by the hostal, I’ve compared the elevation profile of the route to Cusco with that of the elevation profile of the distance we’ve covered in the last 4 days. What lies ahead is about 6000 m of climbing over 600km, much of it at grades approaching 10%, whereas we’ve covered about 2500 m of climbing over about 300 km. In short, the confidence that I’ve accumulated, in my ability to pedal to Cusco in an acceptably short amount of time, is false. It would take me at least a week and a half to get to Cusco, and leave me in the position of having only a couple of days, best case, to spend in the area. So, I opt to take the bus.

Diane makes quick work of navigating the intricacies of buying our tickets, and with that taken care of, we spend the afternoon exploring the city by foot. It’s a vibrant town, virtually free of any other tourists, and full of friendly locals.

At about 3pm, as she and I wrap up our 4th and 5th (resp) snacks of the day, at a nice mid-level restaurant, a low pressure front rolls in, and the winds pick up dramatically. It’s hard to know if this sort of weather front is typical for the area, but the sheets of metal whipping on some roofs, and terra cotta tiles flying off of other roofs, then crashing onto the streets below indicate that it’s likely not. After going to a grocery store to stock up on snacks for the 17 hour bus ride, we briskly return to the hotel where we’ve already checked out, but stored our bags and bikes for the afternoon, collect said bags, assemble them onto the bikes, then set out, walking our bikes, through blustery wind, dense foot traffic, and aggressive vehicle traffic. I’m leading the way using my phone to navigate to the point on the map where we believe the bus terminal is to be found. After 30 minutes of soppy bike pushing to get there, we ask a local where the station is. Diane let’s me initiate this inquiry, and thanks primarily to showing my bus ticket and phone’s map, we learn that we’ve only covered about half the distance to the terminal, which is on the edge of town. Thankfully, as we get further out from the center of town, the foot and vehicle traffic lightens up. The sky grows darker and we grow more water logged as we make the final stretch along a road with a wide, park-like median which is thankfully easy going compared to what we’ve just squeezed ourselves out of.

The bus terminal is huge, with at least a dozen different bus companies running routes to and from Ayacucho to a variety of Peruvian cities. We’re allowed to check our bags, but instructed to hold onto our bikes for another couple of hours, until 8pm, 30 minutes before the bus is scheduled to depart.

When we return to the counter with our bikes, ready to load them, it’s pandemonium. There’s a French couple with bicycles, yelling at the assistant bus operator, who seems to be in charge of loading cargo into the ridiculously tight cargo hold, over the fact that he wants payment of $5 for each bike, but they already paid for transport of the bikes when they boarded the bus earlier in the route (Ayacucho is one of multiple cities through which the bus route runs). A porter rolling an overloaded cart of massive plastic-burlap bags is unable to stop the cart before it runs into Diane’s bike and knocks it over, scratching the leather Brooks saddle. This is the final straw for her, and she berates them, repeating over and over that the saddle costs $100, and that they should take responsibility for the damage they’ve done. The guy doubles down in response saying that we must remove our front wheels in order to have the bikes loaded on the bus. This seems reasonable to me, and I remove my front wheel. I offer to remove Diane’s for her, but she’s protesting that we shouldn’t have to since it’s going to mean we have to re-attach it at our destination, which will be a hassle. Internally, I have to side with the bus operator on this point, but I sympathize with the stress that Diane is under and outwardly remain neutral. The second time I offer to remove the wheel, saying that it’s really not a big deal, she concedes and I do. I have to sort of guess how to decouple her hydraulic caliper brakes, but it ends up being pretty intuitive and easy. The departure of the bus is delayed by about 20 minutes, in part because of Diane’s ongoing protestations, which draws some negative attention from fellow passengers, but I’m just relieved to have the episode behind us, happy to commiserate with other passengers about how awful things seem to be going, and Diane is beyond caring what anybody else thinks.

I share with Diane some of a liter box of wine that I purchased as one of my “snacks”, and lend an ear to her venting frustration as the bus gets underway, which seems to help. A few minutes later, I grow incensed at the German guy sitting in front of me, who has 2 meters of open space in front of his seat, but finds the need to lean his seat back 4 inches, cutting in half my leg room. I make a point of knocking him, hopefully awake, through the seat, about every 30 minutes as I nurse my liter of wine and watch downloaded “Lady Dynamite” episodes on the Netflix app on my phone.

The bus ride, in net, is tortuous. I get maybe an hour of agonizing sleep. The German, possibly having finally received my not-so-passively aggressively delivered signals, pulls his seat forward about 12 hours into the journey, giving me some respite from having to either jam my legs into the seat back, or sit twisted awkwardly.

We get to Cusco, reassemble our bikes and reload our bags, and then ride together to the historic district, where I’ve booked a room in a hostel, and Diane has made arrangements with a couchsurfing host. We get to where the routes to our respective destinations diverge and say our farewells.

I check in, shower, and fall asleep almost immediately. The next day, Diane is off for a 5 day trek to Machu Piccu, organized through a commercial tour group, as all such treks are required to be, for at least $255. I’m checked out of the party hostel, and into a guest house, that’s much more bare bones and is apparently very popular with cycle tourists. Now that I’m here, I’m re-dedicated to making good use of my bike, and I’m planning on riding the 65km towards Machu Piccu to where the road ends, and then sneaking me and my bike onto a trail that parallels the railroad for a train that takes tourists (for no less than $120 round trip) to and from the town at the gate to Machu Piccu. It’s not about the money. Really. It’s about not being yet another person on one of of innumerable busloads, or traincarloads of tourists going to the same place. Plus I’ve brought this bike all this way, I might as well use it.

😀

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twelve_angle_stone

Pushing a bike across the Peruvian Andes

The Andes, carrying too much stuff, has been an exercise in managing expectations. To say I’m riding slow on my ascents wouldn’t be an understatement, it would be a mis-statement. On today’s climb, I rode my bike for less than a kilometer out of 10km. I pushed it almost the entire way, switching sides every kilometer.

A couple of days ago I had my shortest day ever, covering only 30km. The first 7km were like the preceding 115, on windy, busy, paved highway. From then on, it’s been dirt/rock road, and a car, or a shepherd, every few hours, or less. I got to 4320m elevation for my first night camping, which was on the only patch of flat ground I could find in a massive dam-lake basin, next to a rock that made a small saddle on the slope adjacent to its local maximum. It was windy, as I cooked a delicious lentil soup and then settled in for a cozy, good night’s sleep.

The next morning was crystal clear sun and mountains:

I was a little concerned, as I packed up camp, that every time I bent down to do something, which one does a lot when packing up camp, that I’d get a noticable head rush when I stood back up. I was also breathing noticably harder than usual. I’d been at this elevation before, and have experienced slight symptoms of elevation illness before. I’d jokingly call it “acute mountain awesomeness” because it feels like being a little drunk, but I made a note to keep tabs on it because I was solo and pushing my personal record for highest elevation.

My bike’s first Andes pass:

My first pass was crossed that day, which turned out to be at 4910 meters (16,108′) elevation, after 2 days worth of ascent on dirt road, lots and lots of which were pushing the bike. I heard distant some thunder as I approached the pass while some alpacas bleated at me from a nearby ridge. I had been planning on stopping and eating some left overs from the night before when I got there, but the wind was ripping and a hail that had just started was stinging. As I hurried down from my perch back to my bike, it seemed the hail was stinging through my wool hat in a strange sorta electrical way. If I put my hand on my hat, it would stop, but if I lifted my hand an inch off my hat, which should still take the brunt of the hail, it started back up. When I noticed there also seemed to be some weird, disconcerting noises in my earbuds, which were plugged into my phone but not playing anything, I recalled the thunder I’d recently heard and decided to descend ASAP. It took no time to drop down a hundred meters where things were much less ominous.

I ate my lunch overlooking a massive herd of sheep descending a ravine through which the road I was taking wound back and forth. A few minutes after I was on my way again, I had the pleasure of crossing a sheepalanche of sorts.

Road as seen above. The sheep are in there, albeit hard to spot.

Going down was definitely easier than going up, but presented its own challenges. The weather was getting generally wet, cold, and windy, and the only pair of gloves that I brought were doing little to keep my digits from going completely numb as they were being employed to continuously apply the brakes. Thankfully, I’d been in this situation before, and like that time, I had an extra pair of wool socks which I used to make thumb-less mittens. It never ceases to amaze me how effective pure wool is.

I got to close to the lowpoint between that day’s pass and the next one, which was right on the border of a national park. I was pretty spent by this point, working with not-quite numb fingers and totally numb thumbs, and the road was rutted and muddy. I was looking around for a turn I needed to make, and/or a place to maybe call it a night, and in doing so I let my attention stray from my line down the road for a moment too long leading to my first crash of the trip. I was wearing my helmet, and that would have been crucial had my head not missed a rocky 2 foot roadside embankment by an inch or two. I banged my right knee cap pretty hard on a rock in the road, and scraped up my hands a bit while catching myself, but a quick assessment determined that both me and the bike were OK. I considered myself lucky and resolved to not let myself get distracted while riding again, especially at this elevation.

While reflecting on my good fortune and walking my bike in order to scout for sites, I happened upon an amazing campsite secluded by massive boulders, right on the river. Unlike the night before, tonight I had room to spread out. I decided to set up my tent and arrange everything so I could strip off my soaked layers, jump into the tent, and then not leave until morning. I had just finished filtering my water for the night when the snow that had been falling in various forms since the pass started to come down heavily in fat flakes that stuck. Within an hour the snowfall was a few inches thick, and I was indescribably grateful to be in a tent rather than just the bivouac which was all that I’ve brought, shelter-wise, on every trip before this.

The next morning, it was again sunny, and I was able to dry out my camping gear before packing it away. I decided that I would take my time getting over the day’s pass, and push, rather than ride, my bike, unless it was clearly worth the effort to mount and pedal. It was not an easy ascent, but it was made much easier by being deliberate in the line taken while pushing the bike. Exertion-wise, pushing a loaded bike uphill is something like backpacking with a perfect pack (you feel no weight on your body’s frame), that’s much lighter than the loaded bike, in inverse proportion to the slope, while also doing a partially twisted wall-plank pose with mini-pushups corresponding to each bump you hit. It really pays off to avoid every rock that you can and to maintain momentum.

The next descent was a lot dryer, more gradual (didn’t have to brake quite as constantly), and generally a lot more enjoyable. I got to another dam-lake and contrary to Google Maps and Maps.me, could not cycle across the North end of the lake and the dam, and so had to cycle 8 miles around the lake. At the far end of the lake was a town called Tanta, full of sarape clad, flat-brimmed hat wearing, diminutive folks.

As I finished up scrubbing and relubricating my drivetrain (which had been crunching with mud since the rainy descent the day before) in the town plaza, it started to hail again. There were a ton of hospedajes in town, so I inquired with one, liked the vibe of the guy and paid the $6.70 for a room for the night. The door into the room was 5 and a half feet tall, and the ceiling in the room spared only a couple of inches when standing up, but it was dry.

I hung up a clothes line, fixed one of my saddle bags and tightened the bolts on the rest of them, then fell asleep.

The next day was mostly descent on road that paralleled river peppered with waterfalls. I got to Vilca, the first tourist town (mostly local, but some foreign) and got some chicken soup. This, like every other prepared meal I’ve had, has been unappetizing. I was hungry enough to devour the large, fatty chunks of chicken, the 3 small chunks of sweet potato, and even half of the mushy spaghetti pieces, but couldn’t bring myself to consume most of the lukewarm broth. And regardless of wether I was getting foreigner prices or not, at $2.50, this one bowl cost as much as the lentils, farro, pasta, onion, carrot, beet, yam, and potato that I had obtained for the 5 day traverse between population centers.

I continued on to Huancaya, the next little tourist town, with even more tourists, and asked a couple of elderly women sitting in front of the town museum where I could get “cafe rico”, to which one of them led me to her closed cafe and hosted me. We chatted about her town and family, and in the process I learned about a free camping zone just outside of town, and decided to call it a day a little early.

I set up camp, cooked dinner, and bundled up as the sun set. It takes only minutes for the air to get super chilly after the sun sets.

It was a rowdy Saturday night of locals partying, but earplugs sufficed to shut out the noise and get a decent nights sleep.

The next day was again sunny and warm and the descent got steeper as the waterfalls in the accompanying river got higher. I got to a river junction at 3000 meters, and then it was time to climb again. The road was carved directly into the cliffs in spots, and the going was slow, but not so steep that I had to push the bike too much.

The towns along this road each had really pretty plazas, but no waterfalls or other tourist draws, so were quite desolate.

I was pushing up the incline to the last plateau before a long descent back to civilization when a shepard couple and their young daughter flagged me down and implored me to stay on their roadside ranch. It was a little earlier than I’d intended on stopping, but after giving the father a full tour of my gear, gifting him the superfluous backpack frame that I’d regretted bringing since my first ascent (which he kept wearing until he went back to his house a hundred meters from my campsite), it was timing out well. I was just finishing my dinner when the father and daughter came over with 4 small fish they had just netted out of a stream running through their ranch. They seemed curious about my stove, so I fired it up to show them how it primes and then jets gasoline. Since the stove was going, I asked if they’d like to cook the fish. A little oil and salt and the flayed fish tasted a little like fishy bacon. The daughter and I shared disgusted giggles as the dad ate the heads.

The next day they had me over to their mud hut kitchen and made me breakfast of some eggs that I had bought at the last town, an apple cider, and re-heated rice, all prepared over a wood flame. Their generosity was truly touching.

I had one more pass to make to get to an alpine valley, then some up/down, then another pass and then one long descent to the city of Huancayo (not to be confused with Huancaya two days earlier). It was 8:30 when I set out, and noon when I was 12km into the 95km total and at the top of the last climb. From there, I went from averaging 3-something km/hour to 30-something km/hour and with breaks, I was in town by 4pm. I checked into a hotel, where I’ve caught up with the rest of the planet using internet, washed up, and rested up. I think I’ll spend a full day here before heading back into the mountains…or whatever lies ahead.

Thanks for reading!!!

Dec 2017, Peru: Lima and initial ascent into Andes

I arrived at the airport with my packed bike figuring odds were 50/50 that I’d be allowed on the flight with my bike. According to http://united.com/baggage/ArbitraryPostTicketPurchasePolicyChange or whatever the page was, the bike was not going to be allowed. But two calls to their customer service, taking more than 30 minutes to get any answer whatsoever, gave 2 different answers to “Will this apply to my flight given that I purchased the ticket before the policy update?”

I figured odds were even that if I just showed up and hoped for the best, United’s inability to deal with it’s own bureaucracy would spare me from it’s would-be lack of transactional integrity. It’s strange to have a multi-month excursion hang in the balance of possibly not happening at all. Really, it came down to which ticketing agent I got, and I got a very nice and helpful one who happily seemed to have no idea about the policy.

The flights went off without a hitch, as did my bike arriving in tact. I was done assembling the bike at 2am. I called a hostel only a few miles away and got word that they (were awake and) had vacancy. As I rolled my bike out the airport and past the cabbies, they implored me to not take to the road on bike at night. I reckoned they would say as much to encourage me into a cab, and politely declined, but upon seeing the mega-highway onto which the airport’s egress fed, decided I would be pushing my luck, especially given all the good luck I’d had that day, and tempting fate a bit too much. I would have taken a cab, but after assembling the bike and attaching all the bags and everything, it seemed like a pain in the butt to get it into a cab for a couple hours of sleep in a bed. Besides, there were all kinds of people sleeping in the departures section of the airport, so I talked my way past the guy at the entrance checking boarding passes and passports, laid out my foam pad and got maybe 90 minutes of sleep until the sun came up at 5:30.

I biked to a nice hostel in Miraflores, stashed my bags and bikes and walked around town. Once I was able to check in proper, I caught up on sleep then went out to make myself a nice meal in the common kitchen. Despite my luck in getting to Peru, my spirits were somewhat low until I got the rest and nutrition I needed after a long-ish flight from Seattle.

The next day was Sunday and I set out on my bike and immediately fell in with a Sunday bike-day thing that seems to be common in large cities in Latin America. I’ve happened upon the same in Mexico City and Guadalajara. I rode it up to the Lima museum, checked that out, checked out the old town, grabbed some food, got a haircut, and did typical tourist stuff. Back at the hostel I chatted with a bunch of chipper Europeans.

Based on recent accounts (friends and friends of friends on Instagram), and a podcast episode interviewing “pikes on bikes” who toured here ~8 years ago, I’m decided I on going through the Peruvian Andes to get myself to my first pre-determined destination, Cuzco and Machu Piccu. I’ve brought more stuff with me this trip than I have in the past, in part because I’ve made two major gear changes based on observing my favorite cycle mates in the past. I’ve brought a 2 person tent so that given rain (and there will be rain) I can hang out at camp relatively dry and not holed-up in my biivy sack. I’ve also brought a proper cookset (MSR firefly). At the same time, the person whose recent trip I’m most hoping to emulate, in the sense of hitting the deep Andes as much as possible, has been going from South to North from the tip of Chile, and has honed his rig down to what looks to be a proper bikepacking setup. He’s dealing with a lot less stuff and a lot more familiar with what one needs and doesn’t need in this region.

This is all to say that I admittedly brought too much stuff, at least to go at speeds that I’m used to going, especially considering the nicer (remoter) routes through Peruvian Andes are notoriously demanding in proportion to the load one is carrying. So I made the choice to go the slow and cushy route this trip. We’ll see how it goes.

In two days, I’ve gone 115km (70ish miles) and gotten from sea level to ~3000 meters (~10,000 feet) in one long, usually gradual, sometimes steep, occasionally very steep, climb. I’m about 2/3 of the elevation to the 4500m passes, and then, I think it’s a lot of up/down. At my current rate, it will take about 3 weeks to get to Cuzco. My first estimate, based on most direct route (along coast then cut inland) was a week. If the downs aren’t too slow-going owing to road-conditions (I think I’ll be on unpaved for a few hundred km) it should be somewhere between 2 and 3 weeks. And I expect that I’ll be offline for a lot of it, so don’t worry mom!

Getting out of Lima was gross:

Getting out of Lima.  It was gross and scary

Last night I stayed in a hotel/dorm room courtesy of the owner who is a warm showers host. Tonight I’m again in a hotel room, for $8.50. I’ve scoped out town and decided where to go tomorrow to get my provisions for up to 5 days (hopefully 4 or fewer) of no provisions. I haven’t used my stove yet this trip, but I’m totally going to tomorrow and for the next few days.

Views from San Mateo, my last town for a while (at least according to GoogleMaps and Maps.me):

By and large, the people are super nice. Laid back and proud of their amazing heritage without being boisterous. A relatively small amount of conspicuous littering. There’s also a conspicuous awareness of sustainability w.r.t. both personal health/fitness and the environment, things that line up well with my personal priorities and preferences.

It definitely helps that my Spanish continues to improve.

Cyclepacking. Summer 2017, and ultimate freedom.

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I don’t really carry my whole loaded bike…yet.

Assuming you’re not incarcerated or (effectively) indentured, and this is no small assumption, the primary obstacle to freedom is want, in the sense of being “in want” for food, shelter, transportation and other things we need to live, be comfortable, and seek happiness. If you accept this premise, I will proceed to explain how a bicycle is the ultimate freedom machine.

Let’s compare the freedom a bike affords to more common notions of free-exploration, starting with backpacking through the woods. What’s awesome about backpacking in the woods is that it’s forest bathing plus optimized self-sufficiency. You need only push yourself as hard as you want, and provided you don’t push yourself too hard, you can’t help but get stronger and better at it.

All this is true, too, of what I’ll call “cyclepacking”. Sure, you can’t ride your bike on a lot of trails, but then again, there are many trails that you can ride on. You can also still get to very remote places on roads, particularly unpaved roads. Did you know that there are so many roads in the 48 contiguous United States that the furthest point from any of them is less than 30 miles? Many of these are bumpy gravel or dirt roads, but riding at a leisurely 6 miles per hour with bags attached to a bike is many times more pleasant than walking under a load of bags on your back. Of course, pleasant isn’t everything. When it’s time to switch it up and hike a few miles up a ridge, you can and should have the means to attach the things you need to your body and do just that.

Which brings us to an obvious trick, and the distinguishing characteristic between cyclepacking and, say, bike touring or “bikepacking” (more below): A means to carry gear for excursions without the bike. Last summer, I picked up an old external aluminum backpack frame at a second hand outdoor equipment store for $10 on the hope that I’d be able to attach my bags. It was straightforward to adjust the bags’ bike-rack-hooks to securely fasten them to the backpack-rack. It was also straightforward to add it to my bicycle’s load. Over the following weeks, I spent a good amount of time in the Cascades, criss-crossing the Pacific Crest Trail, from as far south as McKenzie Pass in Central Oregon to Stevens Pass in Central Washington. If I had a night or two to spare, I’d stash my bike, say in some brush, cable-locked to tree or something to distinguish it from abandoned, convert to backpacker mode, then hike up a ridge for a night or two. Regardless of the terrain, the trail head, or the road leading to it, it never takes more than a few hours for surroundings to become indistinguishable from several days worth of hiking. Put another way, a full day and/or night in the wilderness without the sound of a single car is a singularly beautiful experience, and is easy to achieve with this one simple trick.

These weeks also happened to be high traffic for that area with South-to-North PCT through hikers, and the PCT happened to be the trail on which I’d make most of my excursions. I met through hikers on trail, fueling up in re-supply towns, and hitch-hiking between the two. I admired the sense of community they had, sharing similar experiences, challenges, defeats and triumphs. I wanted to think that I pitied them for having too many people to share their common experiences with, and I did to some extent, but the larger truth was that I envied them having people to share the experience with at all. Which is why I’m writing this: I feel very strongly that there should be more cyclepackers. Selfishly because I want to bump into more people that I can share the experience with, and earnestly because I think it’s a fundamentally better way to travel freely.

The main obstacle to the freedom of a through-hiker is simply the logistics of having enough food. Even after a through hiker has delivered her caches (weeks or months in advance), she has to get (often 10+ miles) to them, and back again. If there’s a “trail angel” or someone readily available to give a lift, great! If not, it could take the rest of the day to get into town. Even though she’s planned out far in advance, there’s inevitable variability in how long the re-stocking trip is going to take. If she’s got an abundance of time to spare, she can just roll with it. However, single season through-hikers, in particular, usually do not have a surplus of time and many I met were openly stressed about keeping pace.

As a cyclepacker, other than starting and finishing major legs of a trip, I usually don’t need to plan more than 24 hours ahead, and almost never more than a few days. Planning usually amounts to deciding how far away from “civilization” I want to go between where I am and my next encounter, how long that’s going to take, and so how much food (and sometimes water) I need to bring. I usually decide where I’ll try to get on a given day, over breakfast, the morning of.

As much as I want to be, I can be my own trail angel as a pseudo through-hiker. While I can’t say that I through-hiked any substantial stretch of trail as a cyclepacker, I do carry a couple of clamps I can use to attach my entire bike to the pack frame. While I haven’t yet used this in the wild, I’ve eyed some spots where this could be used to traverse a section of the PCT (or other trail on which bikes are forbidden), to connect a larger traverse on remote logging/snowmobile roads.

Going further, I like (almost) all the things, of which those involving back country, forest bathing, self-sufficiency, and solitude are only some.  There’s also backpacking in the globe-trotting, transit-using sense of the word. As a cyclepacker (or any touring cyclist), you get to meet many people doing this, particularly by staying in hostels, in any traveled town, at any traveling time of year for that town. And like the back country backpacker, you get to enjoy almost all the benefits while being spared the headaches. Checking out restaurants, museums, landmarks, markets, sights, and nightlife in an interesting city is a blast, made funner and easier by having a bicycle at the ready. Choose your accommodations and you have an unloaded bicycle. Riding an unloaded bike in a city after having gotten there with load is especially blissful. Instead of either walking everywhere, or dealing with transit and the scheduling and costs thereof, you simply get on your bike and go where you want, when you want. Is your hostel a mile from the interesting town center?  No big deal!  That’s probably about 5 minutes by bike, as opposed to 20 minutes by foot. In fact, a newly hooked cyclist can be detected as someone who sets out for some place, walks up to 2 minutes away from where they’ve left their bike, realizes he’s bored, not gliding along effortlessly, not seeing something new and interesting, and also not even close to there yet, then turns around to retrieve the bike and start the trip over correctly. It’s like crawling someplace after you’ve learned to walk: harder, slower, less fun, and relatively pointless.

When you’re ready to leave town and continue on, you’re again dealing with a loaded bike, rather than a load of bag on your back, and you’re spared dealing with longer-range (and costlier and less frequent) transit. Approximately speaking for each hour one spends in a vehicle on a highway, it will take a day to traverse on bicycle. Even in the most “desolate” areas, I almost never find myself wishing I had caught a lift, found some way to get through it faster, or otherwise not ventured out into the sparse and/or desolate countryside on bike. There have been a few exceptions to this. I’ve underestimated water requirements a couple of times and had to turn back and/or ask passing motorists for some. I’ve also asked for lifts a few times. Once from a friendly rancher whose 8 mile driveway I was halfway down due to a wrong turn. Another time I took a 30 mile lift after biting off more than I wanted to chew, deep in the sweltering Costa Rican rain forest, to the next town. In that last case, I kinda regretted getting the lift after the fact, but consoled myself by tearing into some delicious hot food in cool cool shade.

So at the other end of the spectrum, as much as they care to, a cyclepacker can be a transit-using, globe-trotting backpacker that happens to be also toting around a bicycle. This is more of a hypothetical, because if you’re going to be getting yourself around mostly by vehicles, clearly the bike is more hassle than it’s worth.

The overall point is, travel with a bicycle is in many respects the best of all possible worlds, provided you want to immerse yourself in the place that you’re exploring, get a robust variety of experience, be self sufficient, free and flexible. It is, by definition, optimal for whatever you want to do, provided you simply choose the gear you need to do that, and that you want to celebrate the joys of as much physical exertion as you want, trusting that that will be enough to meet your requirements, modifying requirements as needed.

Other notes on the tautological superiority of cyclepacking.

Boats: Bikes and boats are a match made in freedom heaven. Almost any boat you can secure passage on will accept bicycles. On most vehicle ferries, bicycles get preferential treatment: there no practical limitations on number of bicycles that can be held, so no need to book in advance, or to even wait in queue when boarding or disembarking. Bicycles are permitted on most foot ferries, and most any private vessel that you’d take as a backpacker will permit bicycles. The one time I tried to take my bike on a commercial passenger ferry and was refused, I was able to book private charter on a smaller boat (for a shorter crossing of the same body of water (with a fellow cycle tourer that I’d just met)) for not too much more than the cost of the ferry.

Bikepacking: More directly close to the end of the spectrum of being a self-supported through hiker, is “Expedition touring” as described on bikepacking.com. This is the more straightforward generalization of a modern through-hiker, with ultra-light, ultra-minimal gear. This is honestly something I haven’t yet tried, as they prescribe. Instead, I’ve found a personal balance between the comfort and burden of the gear I have. Looking more like a standard bike touring rig, I have 2 bags front and and back, carrying cookware and stove, comfortably roomy tent (actually forthcoming trip is first one for tent, 15K miles in 20+ countries so far done with bivy sack), warm, synthetic sleeping bag, and sometimes LOTs of water, among other essentials and relatively luxuries. I don’t have any suspension on my bike, but I do enough pavement miles that I’m good with that. I ride 40mm wide tires, and would maybe like something a little wider, but at least for my back tire, that’s as wide as the frame ($400 used on craigslist) will allow. In the end, if I had the money to spend all over again, I’d likely go with something a bit different, but I’m rarely in want of more ruggedness from my rig, and then, only for slightly wider tires for sand and snow. After recovery from a robbery, repair after crunch of fork and front wheel by car, and the aforementioned many miles, I can’t imagine choosing to replace my rig. I’m too sentimental, but more importantly, too acutely aware that it (or any newer, costlier replacement) could be destroyed or taken from me with no notice. So, I guess the point is, go with what you’ve got, it’s probably more than good enough, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it (unless you really want to…I’m constantly making minor adjustments).

Motorcycles:  These are also awesome, but harder to hide while wild camping.  There’s also little physical challenge, and you need gas.  It’s a legit way to be really really free though, not gonna lie, but it’s higher risk, lower effort, and not as rewarding in my opinion.  That said, I assume (hope) I will (be able to) transition to this someday, when I’m no longer up to the physical demands of self-propulsion.

Other things: I mentioned above that “I like (almost) all the things”. Almost, because I, myself, don’t like rock climbing enough to pursue it, but a lot of people do, as does the cycle friend I met on the boat. Some biker/packers like it enough that they pack the minimal gear they need to do a bit of it when the opportunity presents itself. Again, biking compliments the positive and avoids the negative. Same goes for kite surfing, paddle boarding, canoing, cross-sea skiffing, whatever. Sometimes the bike goes on the thing, sometimes the things go on the bike.

So I guess maybe that’s the real main point: If it involves travel and adventure, throw a bike in the equation and often the product is a thing many times better.

April 2017:  Baja

It took three days to drive from Seattle to Lake Elsinore, covering a distance about the same as I will cover over the following 5 weeks as I bike down to San Jose del Cabo at the tip of the Baja peninsula.

My first day on the bike I cover about 60 miles and get to my aunt and cousin in Encinitas.  I spend a day with my cousin, and on my second morning on the road, set out for Tijuana.  At about 4pm, I’m crossing the border, walking my bike in a river of pedestrians going through the checkpoints.   Biking away from the border is hectic and confusing, but eventually I get my bearings and bike about an hour more to the beaches.  When I get to the hostel at which I’d expected to stay I learn that there is a running water outage for Tijuana and all of the Northwest Baja coast, and as a result, they are not taking any guests.  They allow me use of their WiFi with which I insta-book a dormitory bed in an AirBnB that’s in the process of building out a hostel.  The owner of that place has set up a pump to use water from the swimming pool to use for showering and toilets, so all is well.  I tool around town, then get some well earned sleep.

The next day I bike about 60 more kilometers to Ensenada and book 2 nights at an AirBnB which I assume is the dorm room of a college student who is living with her boyfriend.  It’s a tiny but complete apartment, with hot plate, fridge, microwave, and TV all packed in a room that is about 8ft by 20ft.  On my off day I cycle around town, checking out the regional history museum, the tourist strip (ugh), attempt to see some local beaches, and then the art museum, where I meet Jorge who runs the coffee shop and is planning a 4 day cycle trip via backcountry from La Paz to Ensenada.  He and I end up talking for about an hour about all aspects of bike touring and what I should expect in Baja.  It will be his first extended ride, so I’m able to return the favor of tips on Baja by giving him tips on cycle touring in general.

The next day I’m heading South with no particular destination in mind when I stop in to a roadside cafe and notice another touring rig out front.  Inside, I meet Hartley, a Canadian who has cycled down from his home in Victoria, BC over the last 3 months.  We chat for about an hour and then decide to proceed together.  Other than a friend that joined him for the first couple of weeks, he hasn’t met any other touring cyclists traveling in the same direction, making me his first road-found cycle-mate.

He’s half my age, but has already figured out and thought about a lot of the things that I think are the most important things that I’ve figured out and thought about so far in my life.  We share philosophies on life, travel, and politics, from interpersonal to global.  This is his first bike tour, and so with the many months of touring experience and many more years of living that I have, I have things that I’m able to teach him.  But it quickly becomes clear that he has many things to teach me as well, and it takes some humility for me to embrace that.

In actual fact, Hartley has been instrumental in making this trip what I hoped it would be, and spared it from being quite bad in some key respects, if not somewhat of a disaster.

For one, I did not pack enough warm things to weather the nights here.  With all my clothes on, in my bivvy and my $25 sleeping bag ordered off of Amazon just before I left (not wanting to repeat the mistake of lugging my bulkier sleeping bag through tropical weather), I am barely non-hypothermic at night when the moisture condenses on everything and the cold desert winds blow relentlessly.  Last year, it was a couple of months later when I was this far South.  Whoops.  I suffered through 2 nights before accepting Hartley’s offer to share his tent.  With me inside cheap sleeping bag, inside bivvy, inside tent, I’m comfortable at night.

Second, Hartley, like previous cycle-mates Terry and Carolyn, is a fine road chef.  In fact, he’s an exceptional road chef.  He’s on a shoestring budget (~$5/day?) whereas I’m OK up to $30/day, so I gladly pay for the food that he prepares.  He tells me that he would be happy to split the cost of food and that he’s happy to have someone else to cook for since he enjoys it and it motivates him to prepare a wider variety of fare.

In two weeks, I’ve spent less than $300, including 2 nights paying for accommodation in hotels, and paying for most of the food that Hartley cooks at camp in exchange for him cooking it.  Food is the main expense, and we eat a lot of it, but it is cheap.  In contrast, my rent alone in Seattle, quite inexpensive by Seattle standards, would amount to $400 for those 2 weeks.  So I’m actually saving a bit of money by living on the road.

We’re in Guerrero Negro today, having just spent our second night in a hotel ($22).  We’ve seen and done a whole lot since I last worked on this post, and I’m not inclined to do a play-by-play, but here are some highlights:

  • Riding on hard-pack beach at low-tide, with no guarantee we wouldn’t have to double back on all of it.  When the sand grains got too course, and the pack too soft, we were lucky to find a route off the beach to keep all but the last 500 meters of our southward progress..

  • Insanely beautiful camping spots.  In one of the most spectacular spots, we were greeted by a farmer who was just leaving after having checked on his cows.

  • Trying to bike 100 miles on sandy washboard road with what we hoped would be enough water to get us through, to find out it was not.  While we would almost definitely have been fine accepting gifts of water and/or rides from the 4-6 vehicles that pass per day, we opted to double back and accept defeat rather than rely on the help of passers by.  We did accept 4 cold liters from a family of self-described campensinos (peasants) who passed us going into the desert, asking if we had seen their cows, and who we asked how far until the next water.  When they returned with the cows in the back of the truck, and we were still sprawled out under the same meager shade of a thorny tree, he gave us water and told us about his friend that died of dehydration a ways back the way we’d come.  I told him that I had noticed the memorial.  

  • Stopping to pick up strawberries being thrown over a canvas fence by giggling workers who then gave us a couple of large cartons, branded Driscoli, and told us to andale (get going).

  • Peeling shrimp Hartley had picked up in town, at dusk on a beach bluff, in one of the few times I’ve gotten involved in the food preparation.

  • Frying fish that we had talked some sports fishing dudes out of, in the middle of the road, the evening before we aborted our ill-fated attempt to shortcut through the desert.

  • Frying road-killed rattlesnake on the side of the road.

  • Marveling at Hartley’s immodesty.  A little ways down the road after we were denied being sold water or anything to drink at a family run restaurant, I suggested that it might have something to do with the fact that he had sauntered in wearing not very concealing boxer briefs.  He countered that the “fat poppa” had been wearing basically the same thing, and tried out some hypothetical spanish language insults.  At that moment I was pushing my bike up a sandy embankment back onto the road, and laughed so hard I literally pulled something in my mid-section.

  • Convincing Hartley to collect roadside flip-flops as alternatives to his shoes, which are too hot and getting him down.  He ends up with a pink one for one foot and a baby blue one for the other.  The style is impeccable, but they prove to be impractical for cycling over distance.  Yesterday, after going on a mission (in our largest town since meeting) to find some sandals, he’s found some for about $3.  He also got a badly creaking bottom bracket repaired for $1.50.

  • The safety.  The roads here are narrow, but the motorists are almost invariably happy to slow down as needed to let oncoming traffic pass in order to give us a very wide berth.  I “take” the lane if/as needed, and Hartley has his road noodle.  Ever since we’ve been sticking mostly to the highway (El Rosario onwards), the traffic is very sparse.  Typically 5-10 minute pockets of no cars between clusters of vehicles.  When cars pass, they often have occupants beaming with smiles and waves.

  • Getting off road.  Particularly before branching away from the Pacific coast at El Rosario, we pushed the limits of what our loaded bikes with 700cc x 40mm wheels can get through.  For 4 or 5 days we were riding along the Pacific coast, along cliffs and through dunes, going 5-10K back to highway-side towns to resupply on food and water.  We still look for “short”cut opportunities to get off road, but Hartley’s racks are starting to break, and our bodies have reached their limit of bumpy washboard.  We’re resolved, in future trips, to slim down our gear and beef up our wheels and racks (which will entail getting frames that can accommodate).

  • Slowing down.  Left to my own devices, I tend to feel a need to go as hard as I can.  Hartley does not.  I mean, when we’re going, he’s at least as fast as I am, carrying about 20-30lbs more on his bike.  But when we take breaks, he helps me keep check on my inclination to make them as short as possible.  We’ve actually made a point of getting going earlier in the day so that we can take longer mid-day breaks to wait out more of the high heat.  We haven’t managed to get going that much earlier, but we are doing better at waiting out the heat.  The proprietors of the only roadside stop in 30 miles in either direction don’t seem to find it at all out of the ordinary when we hang out there for 3 hours.

  • Eating well.  Honestly, a lot of the food in Mexico is not that healthy.  There’s no shortage of it, which is good, but a lot of it is high in sugars and fats.  Every few days we’ll indulge in a bakery binge, but Hartley and I are on the same page when it comes to health consciousness, so with food we get to prepare ourselves, we’re eating better than we likely would if depending on ready-to-eat and restaurant-prepared foods…as I would be were I on my own.

  • Riding hard.  We’ve had good luck with the winds, and several 100km+ days, despite 3+ hour mid-day siestas and carrying 10+ liters of water.  He’s a stronger rider than I am, but I’m the only one of us that ever points it out.

That’s everything that comes to mind at the moment.  Hartley and I will be parting ways when we get to La Paz in 7-10 days, from where he’ll take a ferry to the mainland, and I’ll hightail it to get to San Jose del Cabo in time for my flight to Detroit on May 9.  Meeting him by chance at the roadside cafe was clearly a defining event for my tour.  For his, it will be just a few weeks out of 6 months on the road (he’s going for another 2-3 months…until the money runs out).

I’ve only included a main image for this post because the wordpress app never fails to do something terrible when I try to include more images, but for anybody that’s reading this and hasn’t seen them already, I post images publicly (which I hope means you don’t need to have an account) at http://facebook.com/je.calvert .  Update, the wordpress app failed to upload even the single image (falsely reporting success).  I know the problem is not the internet here.  Meh, wp.  Meh.


Thanks for reading!!!

Cuba: Morning routines and departure

In a moment of cycling hubris, I attempt to ride a narrow dirt path up a small embankment, and around a pond spanning the entire width of the dirt road, up onto a cow pasture.  I stall out on the ascent, and when I go to plant my right foot, it’s too far below my wheels, on too mushy of ground to keep me and my bike from toppling over into what turns out to be complete mush.  The mush swallows my right leg up to just above the knee and my right arm up to bicep.  I untangle myself from the bicycle which is in the process of also being swallowed, and in doing so, volunteer my left foot to the mush monster.  I free my arm then push my bike up onto the embankment, giving even more of my sandal laden feet and legs over to the mush.  When I’ve pushed my bike up such that it’s pedals and handlebars are engaged in relatively dry sod, I use it to pull myself upwards in a manner similar to how I’ve read one should free themselves from quicksand.  I slowly pull my left, shallower sunk leg out, barely retaining its sandal.  A lost sandal means going barefoot on metal pedals that would not be kind to an unprotected sole, so as I remove and safely put aside the left sandal I contemplate my options for removing the deeply sunk right leg and sandal.  I re-submerge my left leg, barefoot, and shift all my weight to it while wiggling the right leg, foot, and sandal.  There’s enough suction that it’s clear that the right sandal is not coming out with the right foot, but I’ve loosened up the mush enough around the right leg that it’s ready to come out of both sandal and muck.  The right sandal had already succumbed to a pulled heel strap when fording a creek a few days earlier, and it would be a few more days until I found a cobbler to fix the sandal.  The pair was purchased hastily from a Target in downtown Seattle for $25 just before leaving. I pull my foot up as swiftly as I can manage, and then plunge my right arm into the quickly collapsing hole just in time to get a couple of fingers around a strap on the sandal.  Shoulder deep in muck, I wiggle the sandal and slowly pull it out.

The sorta selfie I took once freed

Either as a result of the wallow in muck, or random food poisoning, I have my only bout illness later that night in Caibarién, a town on the North coast.  I try to outwait the ill, but the ill outwaits me and then empties me completely of calories, from both ends.  The next day, I’m resolved to get to Santa Clara.  Riding while sick, on an empty tank that won’t accept anything but water is not typically well advised, but I feel compelled to get out of the relatively dirty little town, to a larger town where I can hopefully find quieter, cleaner accommodations.

Santa Clara does not disappoint, and after sleeping for nearly 16 hours in a nice, cool, quiet casa run by a welcoming, friendly woman, I enjoy a day of sightseeing standard attractions like Che’s mausoleum and the site of a sabotaged train.  I happen upon the Casa de la Ciudad and get an impromptu tour from a woman working there, for which I‘m asked for a CUC towards the end.  I like the woman and am happy to oblige as she tells me about a acoustic guitar concert happening there in a few hours.  I wander until then, stash my bicycle, and then catch it.

The next morning I’m done my standard morning routing by a little after 7 am, with the casa’s matron up and ready to make breakfast.  


Standard morning routine amounts to packing, sunscreening, eating, then going.  Packing includes water, which needs to be filtered by morning in order to avoid buying water (which I wouldn’t mind did it not entail buying countless disposable bottles), and to not have to rely on the host’s water filter system.  I use a backpacking (sawyer brand) “straw” style water filter with a 3L platypus/camelback-type bladder.  I fill the bladder then hang it from something in the shower and line the bottle up underneath the output nozzle of the water filter.  It takes less than an hour per 1.5 liter bottle, which fit fine in standard bottle cages. Even better is filtering into a widemouth 5L bottle, especially with access to a faucet that allows filling the entire 3L bag.  Eventually the ubiquitous 1.5L or 5L bottles will spring leaks that eventually, if not necessarily immediately, rule out their continued use.  I probably bought 5 days worth of bottles (were I only buying water) over the course of 28 days.  That’s still about a dozen bottles, but could have easily been 5 times that many.


Sunscreening is it’s own standard subroutine because one lapse followed by typically 8 hours in near constant sun all but guarantees a serious burn.  The top half of my standard bike outfit consists usually of a long-sleeve, button up, polyester or nylon kinda disco looking shirt.  I initially brought it on my first tour because I was attending the WTF music festival near Portland, Oregon before flying to Helsinki and I wanted to pack at least one thing with a little bit of flare to it.  It didn’t take long for it to prove itself as the most versatile bike touring shirt a guy could ever want (not to mention the most fashionable).  I don’t recall where I originally got it, but it was many years ago, and since I have no basis for believing it’s particularly good at blocking UV rays, I make a point of applying a ton of sunscreen even if it’s going on over it.  Since I put it on right after applying the sunscreen, and since it rarely gets washed, it’s likely that it ends up with several applications of the sunscreen, effectively applied from the inside.  And since it’s kinda shiny anyways, it doesn’t look nearly as gross as it sounds.

When I started taking seriously the consistent and comprehensive application of sun protection, as a solo cyclist that was solo-jointed, I had the problem of applying it to the area of my back that my hands can’t reach.  On my Central America tour, I improvised with thin plastic trash or shopping bags.  As long as I could tear them so that they made a strip long enough to run between my hands and over my back, I was good.  To use, just apply sunscreen directly to bag and run over back, or apply to shoulders and lower back and spread onto upper back with bag  When not in use, it’s kept in a ziplock bag as it stays sunscreen-y from its first use onward.  In anticipation of this trip, I made a super-deluxe version using a thicker plastic shopping bag, the kind that you have to pay $0.25 for, and reports among its print that it’s been “designed for reuse”.  It was a real luxury to have such a durable, perfectly sized with easy-to-use handles, sunscreen to back application system,  However, I quickly realized that the same ink that reports its design intentions, and the other, random, LuLu-lemon-esque words that at least the Safeway family of grocery stores prints on their bags, is also sunscreen soluble.  So I had to take some care to use only the non-printed side, and to also wipe up or rub in the random blotches of yellow, red, and black sunscreen dissolved ink until with a little extracurricular effort it was completely rubbed off the bag onto toilet paper wads from various Cuban casas (about 2 weeks in).

Sunscreening can be done just before, after, or even while (not recommended), eating breakfast because the packing of toiletries is the final step of packing up the bike because brushing teeth and flossing always comes after eating.

Charging the phone until the last minute is tempting if non-negligible numbers of milliwatts have been consumed over breakfast while, say, reviewing maps and finalizing decisions on where to go that day.  This comes with an increased hazard of leaving the charger and cable behind.  These are already relatively easy things to lose, and they’re light and inexpensive but sometimes difficult to replace, so it’s well worth carrying a spare for each.  I have three different types of USB cables, mini, micro, and C.  I take a single spare of mini (for bike headlamps) and C (for new phone) and three USB micro (backup phone, power packs, kindle), for a total of 7 cables.  But they’re cheap and light, and the whole lot of it fits in a small ziploc along with micro-headlamp, spare phone, spare power pack, spare earbuds, and some rechargeable AAA batteries (for mini bluetooth keyboard to write solid gold such as this).

Every casa particular in Cuba serves a similar breakfast of eggs, bread, jam, cheese, butter, fresh fruit, fruit smoothie, coffee and hot milk for $3-5.  About half the time it will include some meat, but this can be omitted.  It’s not a particularly competitive cost for the amount and quality of calories it provides, but factoring in that it’s available at whatever time you specify the night before, and that this time is almost certainly earlier than you can find anything approaching this variety or quality, I almost always opt for the casa provided breakfast.  In contrast, unless the casa is remote and far from any variety of options, or there’s some other motivation for eating in, I usually opt to go out for dinner rather than to have the casa provided dinner, typically offered at $10.

I’m out the door by 7:30, and in complete contrast to my state on my way into Santa Clara, it feels nothing short of ecstatic to be on my bicycle.  The air is still cool and a little bit misty and/or smoggy, and the town is alive with a bustle of people going to school and work, grabbing tiny but stiff $0.04 coffees from impromptu cafe counters in residential doorways, and greeting each other in a way that still strikes me as enthusiastic, but I’ve come to know as standard in Cuba.  My route out of town takes me around the main plaza, and I’m beaming from ear to ear before it even happens.  I see a kid of maybe 12 years push his bike off the curb, with his hands on the handles of his cruiser style bars, and then with a sequence of 3 fleet footed steps, his feet leave the ground with height, angle, and lack sidase that looks positively cartoonish until you realize that he’s not jumping nearly as much as he’s pushing down and forward on the handlebars that at apex are supporting nearly his full weight and a thorough forward thrust.  You know what about what goes up, so as his legs and hips come down, every bit as slow as his arms and waist can support through the pommel balance that is the front of the bicycle, he simply plops his seat on his seat as effortlessly as he would a from standing to chair on a floor just behind him.  I had a cruiser bike for a short time on which I got just well enough at this kind of leaping mount that I have some idea, first hand, that it feels every bit as beautiful as it looks.  In fact, I can’t think of a single thing more beautiful, in the sense of being artistically functional and a perfection of functional synthesis of person and machine.  The bicycle, the pinnacle of human powered propulsion, and the result of many, disparate, incredible technical breakthroughs (with repercussions far wider reaching than bicycles), and it’s human, taking flight.

Now, I’m not just beaming, but getting chills the way one does when they see something so beautiful it gives them chills.  Then a second kid, same age but noticably bigger runs out, confidently trusting that I’ll adjust slightly to go behind him, and runs up alongside the kid now riding but not yet pedaling.  After about 2 steps the runner gives the rider a quick, decisive tap on the top of the shoulder, and 2 steps later hops directly onto the bike’s top bar and becomes the rider’s passenger.  At this point, I’ve lost it.  I’m hooting as I pass them a second later, head turned, beaming at them, pumping thumbs up, and then getting the same back in unison.  I’d seen side-saddle, top bar passengers and loved to see that piece of functional beauty, but had until then wondered how clumsy it must be when starting.

My spirits couldn’t be higher, and I feel strong in a way that I couldn’t imagine ever feeling again 48 hours earlier.  The sun at my back and from the east is low enough that it’s sunrise’s version of the golden hour, and the harder I pedal, the better I feel, not least because a consistent and fairly stiff westward tail wind is already underway.  I’m loving the excitement of squeezing my way out of the town’s morning commute, in which most of the conditions leave me the fastest thing on the road, eeking out motorized bikes by their reluctance to squeeze between vehicles that I feel plenty nimble enough to clear.  It’s all so perfect that I tell myself to slow down and enjoy the mellow aspects a bit more and hold off on pushing myself physically until I have room enough to do so with more abandon.  I also make a note that I should check that I got on the right road out of town, which I don’t manage to do until 7km from the start when I’m on the open road and about to open up the throttle.  When I do, I see that somehow I’ve gotten on the road going in the opposite direction, 90 degrees from the one I came in on a couple of days ago. I think, well, it figures the morning was too perfect to have not bolted off in the wrong direction.  I double back and then get the phone out again just to verify that I’m on the correct route to the correct route, and now it looks I’m not.  The map is flipped around.  I was on the right route all along and looking at the map using perspective dictated by the phone’s ever-unreliable (somewhat skew) compass.  D’oh!  Between the mistake and the correction, I even thought of the fact that the Sun had seemed to verify my westward trajectory, but reasoned it was coming from the Northeast and I was going Northwest so somehow…well, I don’t know what I was thinking.  But I resolved to make extra sure to lock the map’s ordinal direction before making ordinal-information based decisions, and to think through my pre-digital/celestial navigational reasoning a bit better.

On the open road, I fell like a well tuned machine.  The wind is blowing pretty directly West and the road I’m on is weaving gradually between North West and North West West.  My chain and/or my large front gear is stretched/worn enough so that on the powerful part of my pedal stroke, there’s a purr of roller meeting gear tooth which at my current high speed is only audible because the wind’s speed is matching and there’s an absence of the white noise of air in ear that would otherwise drown it out.  It sounds like a cheetah purring on the exhale with the right leg and on the inhale with the left leg.  I’m in my top gear and getting a full wind assist, and taking pulls from the delightfully scarce vehicles that pass me with wide berth.  For a big truck or a bus, I’ll go out mid-line and get closer to it to maximize the suction and the minute or so I can fly at 40km/h+ with minimal effort and maximum cheetah purr.  On a random pull off of an open bed semi, I hear some hoots as the back of the long bed approaches, and assume it’s some dudes standing up in the back, which would be a little odd for a bed of this length, but not entirely out of the ordinary.  Instead, it’s two guys on bicycles, each one of them holding onto a back corner, neither one of them appearing to be exert any effort or concern about potholes.   But then, this road is remarkably smooth.   The parasitic hitch hiking I’ve done maxes out at 15km/h, and was done as an assist to pedalling going up inclines steep enough that they result in laden semis going that slow.  With the wind-suction pull I get off their truck, I manage for a few joyful seconds to stay between 5 and 10km/hour slower than they, going at about 45km/h while they cheer me on and jokingly encourage​ me to catch up and grab on.


I had planned to stay the night in a town called Colon, that nobody I mentioned it to seemed that familiar with.  I chose it because it is 120km away and the only town between 50 and 180km away that had any accommodations according to Maps.me, but I’m halfway there in just over 2 hours, and had earlier figured that if I had gotten there by noon, and it still felt largely effortless, I should try to make it to Matanza for 200km for the day, which would beat my previous personal distance record by around 40km.

When I get to Colon, it is indeed before noon, and effortless.  So I only need some food and water.  I end up waiting for 15 minutes to buy a 5L bottle of water, in a tienda where a man waits outside watching my bicycle after helping me bypass the group of about 15 women pressed up against the glass of the store, while 5 women inside determine who can come in and shop, in addition to shopping on behalf of orders called out, through the door as it is opened periodically by a door attendant.  A sole woman rings up orders at a rate of, and I’m honestly not exaggerating here, about one per three minutes, interspersing cashier duties with folding and stocking empty cigarette boxes into a display, and diddling on her phone.  Were there not so many people there bearing witness and being subjected to what I can’t see being anything but some kind of cruel joke, only not somehow getting whisked in ahead of a whole bunch of people because I’m white and rich, it was truly a test of my ability to not announce “ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?!”, and definitely not how I imagined spending my only break that day.  I also bought bananas from some guys with a cart of them, which took a few seconds, and a ham and cheese sandwich and some cookies which also also only took a few seconds (including eating said sandwich) from the Rapido on the edge of town that stocked the same exact 5L bottle for the same exact price where I had just waited 15 minutes.

Back on the road, the heat of the day was in full effect, so I made a point of drinking half a 1.5L bottle and finding some shade to stop in about every 10km.  The road was curving more and more to the North and I experience first hand that in a stiff consistent wind, a few degrees orientation can be the difference between an effortless 30km/h and an effortful 20km/h.  No matter, averaging 20km/h without stops would be no problem in terms of daylight.

With about 20km left, I checked the map at my 10km rest, for no particular reason, and saw a smaller road that was a miniature copy of the current road, in that it starts almost directly West, then swoops up to the North.  I would get to ride the tailwind a bit again, and I would get the East-to-West portion of the remainder done while the sun was still at a higher angle (with all the breaks I’d taken, it was 4:30 pm and the sun was getting low fast).  This was good because riding into a sunset means that you’re very back-lit and hard to see to things coming up from behind you, like cars.  It turned out the road was very smooth and much more lightly trafficked too, bonus wins on top of the all too rare opportunity for a cyclist to tack course according to wind conditions.

With the help of a Dutch couple also touring by bike with which I shared the descent into town, I found a delightful casa run by a darling, diminutive, matronly woman and stayed in the town four days, taking day trips to nearby beaches and and the town’s mountain top cathedral.

From there, I was again whisked by the wind back to Havana, where I spent a couple of nights with day trips, including an impromptu trip to a massive book fair in the historic fortress led by a Mexican/American cycle-tour friend I made in old-town.

And then I flew back to Seattle, with my bike which I decided to keep when the police recovered it from being robbed, packed in a box I managed to find.