Pisac to La Paz

The 35km ride from Pisac to Cusco is made more challenging by taking a shortcut on a dirt road that turns into pushing the bike up a ravine, to carrying bike/bags while wobbly walking over piles of split logs then scrambling and hoisting bike/bags out of the ravine and back to the regular road.  There’s always one most ill-considered short cut of any bike trip.  For me these have invariably entailed shuttling bike and bags separately and seemingly interminably, and now this trip is no exception.  With that out of the way, I check out a handful of ruins and take an amazing horse- and bike-only road for much of the descent back into Cusco.

I end up spending four nights in Cusco, taking a trek up to Rainbow Mountain to jostle with hundreds of other tourists.  I met a really great Puerto Rican family and we none over complaining about how erratic and unsafe the minivan driver is. If I had it to do again, I’d find a place to stash my bike on the ride from Cusco to Puno, which would knock at least 2/3 off of the 3 hour each-way minivan ride, and the less pleasant 2/3, at that.  I’d hail down one of the minivans and get a ride to Rainbow Mountain from wherever I stashed the bike, and take the same minivan back.  It would still be a one-day excursion, but instead of 4-5 hours of knocking around in a minivan going through urban sprawl that time would be spent in bike/camp mode.
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I can only handle a few minute of New Years celebrations in the Plaza de Armas before retreating back to my hostel for the night.  The next day, aka New Years Day, I’m informed by an American named Andy, who’s travelling by motorbike, that getting a Visa allowing entry into Bolivia is nontrivial for us. Americans have to provide travel itinerary, passport photos, immunization records, bank statements, “proof” of travel accommodations, along with paying $160 for the privilege of getting to do all this…none of which the citizens of most other countries get to enjoy.  I’m aided crucially by a Polish woman with the generous loan of a laptop and email accounts for crudely transferring files.  I’m pretty sure I have the necessary immunizations, but I don’t travel with my yellow card.  Andy does and with his permission, I stimulate a proxy with some scissors and scotch tape.   The Bolivian embassy’s website on the hostel’s WiFi is, of course, the epitome of frustrating.  Every http form submit takes so long to complete (O(miniutes)), I’m certain the browser will time out, or the blippy WiFi will blip and lose the connection. The documents that I need to upload, many of which inevitably are photos/jpg, need to be under 150kb, so I need to employ my own crude compression…resizing, in MS paint.  Andy is fantastic at reassuring that he’s helped others through  this process before, and it’s going to work… eventually.  He even calls the embassy to see if they’re open, and getting no answer, recorded or otherwise, hops on his motorbike, rides down to the embassy, and verifies that it’s closed for the holiday.
The next day, I ride the couple miles to the embassy, getting there a little after it opens at 8:30am, expecting to be among the first people there and optimistic that I’ll be in and out in short order, finding out one way or the other if the documents I’ve submitted via the website have passed the mustard.  I am only the second US citizen there that morning, but in addition, there are several groups of Asians of varying nationalities, in groups, sizes ranging from 4-12.  It’s not clear where to go/be/stand as there’s barely any room to. There is a single consular official, who is primarily fielding assertive inquiries made with no apparent common queueing or prioritization scheme, replying invariably with “please stand here and wait for a bit”.  When he is given a moment to be the initiating agent of an interaction, he seems to be trying to identify groups of Visa applicants of common nationality, then grouping the people and their application paperwork, physically, into standing groups and stacks of paper on his desk, respectively.  He does this for a group of Koreans, then for Will, the other American, and myself, and then sends us to a nearby bank to submit payment in form of deposit into an account he’s specified and then to come back with receipt/proof of this.  We’re there at about 8:50.   The bank is supposed to open at 9, but it’s 9:20 before we’re let in.  We file upstairs, mostly in the same order as queued up outside, the group of Koreans in front of us, and a dozen locals behind us.  Now inside, we can see bank tellers, each quietly looking at a computer, phone, report, cuticles, or who knows what, behind their teller counter.  About five minutes later, an employee on our side of the counter, declares that non bank clients should stand in a second line.  After a brief, mad scramble, the second line is formed that is far less representative of the length of time the person has been waiting and more sorted according to who could shove and elbow themselves ahead the fastest.  We had been in second position, now we’re in 7th.  The Koreans don’t move, but rather hold their first place position in the original line.  This may or may not have been an intentional move, but soon proves to be more effective than mine.  I say, politely but firmly and definitely loud enough to hear “Que?” to the old woman that shoved her way directly in front of us at the end of the scramble.  She delivers an impeccable performance in pretending to not hear me, which at its core, is ultimately the art of shameless line snaking and may help explain why adorable and/or scowling old ladies excel at it.  In another 20 minutes, one of the 5 tellers is ready to start and the Koreans’ gambit pays off.  The woman who had instructed us to form the second line intercedes and has the teller, who based on position seems would take people from our new line, take the group of Koreans.  Good for them, and good for the tiniest shred of justice.
Now obviously, given the detail to which I’m describing this, it had some impact on me.  I wouldn’t be surprised to learn, say, that I’d lost more hair in that hour than I had in the previous year, on account of all the temple vein throbbing futile rage stress.  But it could have been much worse.  20 minutes after they finish and return to the consulate, the Koreans are back, at the back of the line, because they had failed to comply with the requirement that they have one receipt for the entire group.  We thank them profusely for telling us about this, having had no clue of any such requirement ourselves, and offer our condolences.
Finally, we’re up, and of course, the bank doesn’t accept any form of credit card for payment.  Will saves the day by fronting me $60 of my $160 as I employ my sole emergency, tucked-away Benjamin then get on line for the ATM downstairs while he gets our *one* receipt.  Just like that, in mere minutes, we’re free men again, out on the street.  I round up the exchange rate and feel indebted to Will as I pay him back, if a bit less so because he made small-travel-talk almost the entire time, disallowing me from escaping into my own thoughts to wait out the hour of purgatory, thereby amplifying the aforementioned folicular mortality.
Back at the consulate, Will is up first.  This is his fourth visit to Bolivian consulates in the last month, and second to this particular one.  He has hard copies of everything, glossy passport photos, and original yellow vaccine card.  I have nothing but the 2 page printout I’d gotten the day before at a Fotocopia, and I turned that in before we went to the bank.  Will has also, in particular, gotten proof of hotel reservation that includes an address.  That’s is, on his last visit he was sent away and told to come back when an arbitrary (as far as anybody knows) PDF or JPG that he’d uploaded failed to show an address, in Bolivia.  This makes me nervous for my prospect for success because I was extra lazy on that one and just uploaded the PDF saved by person who used the same laptop a few days before me for the same thing: an amicable 60-something, motorbike touring Israeli.  I’m pretty sure he knew to make sure it showed an address, but it also might show his name.  It might be required to show his name, as it is for address, for all I know.  In any case, the consulate might notice the discrepancy.  If he does, I’ll claim clerical error on my part, and hope that I get a redo.  If he notices lines around my name in the photo of the vaccine card, I’m leading with a guilty smile and shrug.
Now Will and I are sitting in chairs in front of the consulate, surround by groups of mostly Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans.  The consulate gets Will’s submitted application up on his computer, downloads the documents, and looks each over.  He may even remember them from the time before, and it’s completely straightforward, but with all the stamps, stickers, signatures, copying of numbers by pen, it takes several minutes.  It’s about 11am, and Will is granted his Visa, the first of the day. There’s a round of applause.  Spirits are high, its my turn, and I want to surf this wave of “hey it can happen for you!”
The agent makes me consult with his assistant and draw up an approximate itinerary…I’d just thrown in an email confirming my flight purchase for that document.  Easy.  He squints at the photo of my vaccination card, doesn’t ask any questions, but was that a subtle tiny smile?  To my great relief, he doesn’t ask any questions about the hotel reservation either.  It’s hard to temper my giddiness at the prospect of actually putting this behind me, but I manage to, and soon he’s giving me my stamps and stickers.  I thank him, clasping his hand in both of mine when we shake.  I’m only slightly hurt that I only got a few claps from bystanders.
I head back to the hostel, pack and say my goodbyes, mostly to a French guy named Corentian and his German girlfriend Anna.  They’re pedal/sailing sail-trikes up from the tip of South America, and if that sounds nonsensical, that’s because it is.  I never got to see the sail trikes set up in person, but even as recumbent trikes they’re quite massive, and in pictures it looks every bit as nuts as it sounds.   Reportedly, they only have had to take down their non-furlable sail a handful of times in 8 months, which astounds me, considering the wind and road combinations I know they’ve experienced.  They have been in Cusco for a couple of weeks, first taking the mandatory excursion to Machu Pichu, and then repairing extensive tearing that their tent suffered when it became entangled in a dog pack fight.  These two have no shortage of struggle, not in least part due to their choice of highly experimental transportation, which they smilingly acknowledge “is definitely not easier than just biking”, but they are still clearly very happy to be on their adventure, and are both embodiments of going wherever life takes you with the best possible attitude.
I hit a grocery store I’d spotted on the highway turnoff to the consulate, and roll out of town at about noon.  It’s kinda crappy riding, but generally slightly down hill.  Diane and I WhatsApp message the names of signal-providing towns as we hit them at about one per hour, so I know she’s only an hour or two ahead of me as I’m leaving Cusco.  About 50km later, I’m pushing my bike up a hill, on my way out of a shortcut which may have actually been a shortcut this time, and spot Diane at the top/end taking in the view.  We share a spontaneous laugh, chat a bit about the bike repairs that delayed her, and the Visa getting that delayed me, then start riding.  I’m happy to call it a day wherever she’s inclined to, but then need to set out early and go faster tomorrow to leave myself reasonable time to check out Lake Titicaca and as much of Bolivia as I’m going to get to this trip.  We cycle to a medium small town named Urcos, where there’s a festival in honor of the town’s anniversary, a take cheap rooms in a bare bones hospedaje.  After unloading the bikes, and devouring an after-ride snack of tuna salad on crackers, we walk around town, chatting with each other and locals.  It doesn’t take long to see most of the town, and enough of the small festival to get the gist, and there’s more eating to do.    We head back to the hospedaje, make garlic mac and cheese on the landing outside our rooms then turn in.
I’m done cooking and eating my breakfast and mostly packed when Diane gets up the next morning.  I’m felling good to be back on the road after the break in Cusco, and eager to get on my way.  We chat as she has her breakfast, then say goodbye, for our third time.
I have as a goal getting 115km to a hot springs complex where there’s camping available, according to sail trike couple.  I run into Derrick, a motorbiker, who I’d also met in Cusco, in a town 25km before the hot springs.  We agree that we’ll meet up at the hot springs, then part ways, me pedaling on towards them, him grabbing some water and consumables before he does the same.
I’d been making good time until then, but the last 25km are increasingly steep as they lead up to the lip of the massive altiplano (high plane), and my legs are letting me know that each km is going to come at exponentially increasing recovery cost.  More pressing is the massive storm cloud that lies directly in my path.  I pass through a last main-street having town still ~9km short of the springs, and the last with any hospedaje, and I know my gamble has backfired when I see wet motorbikers coming from the opposite direction, waving at me to turn around.  Going back to the last town would be giving up 3 hard fought km.  That would probably be easier, overall, but first, I decide to see what I can find in the small, semi-town that doesn’t have a main street, but does have a couple of highway-side snack shops.  The first shop has a customer who apparently doesn’t want to be interrupted, and I have mere minutes before the sky opens up, so I carry on.  Minutes turns out to actually be less than a minute, so a few meters up the road, I spot a building with a bulletin board out front and most importantly, a sizable awning that I take cover under just before sheets of water whip down.  Bonus, there’s a 3 foot bench.
It turns out to be an HIV clinic, with a handwritten note on the door saying it’s open 7:30am-7:30pm, but it’s only 6pm and the door is locked with a padlock from the outside, indicating it’s closed and vacant.  I immediately decide that I’ll make dinner, and probably spend the night there, unless by some miracle the rain evaporates, I get a burst of energy, and the road proves safe to ride after dark, which it will surely be by the time dinner is concluded.  There’s a 5 gallon bucket that flipped over serves as an excellent stove-counter to complement the bench.  Several locals are dropped off and picked up from spots along the road from which I, my bike, and my now makeshift kitchen are visible.  Based on my consistent experience in Peru I now have an implicit expectation that nobody will begrudge me for doing this sort of thing.  I’ve come to assume that anyone who’s not an owner of the place will expect, correctly, that I’ll leave the place as I would want it to be left.  Because of this, there’s no harm or reason to call foul for me making use of it as if it were my own.  Same goes were the owner to come by, except that they would introduce themselves, and expect to be asked if it was ok.  While I definitely prefer to camp where nobody knows, or should have any reason to care, that I am, it’s nice when respectful travelers being welcome to take reasonable refuge in a storm seems to be the accepted norm of a society.  The fact that this isn’t the case in my home country is, I hypothesize, one sad symptom of allowing so many people to be homeless.  Homes and shelter here are more modest, but much more guaranteed.
I finish my now standard dinner of lentil, quoina, carrot/root, onion, garlic, peanut and random other flavors/textures and decide, yeah no way I’m going anywhere in this dark wet as I blow up my pad, and crawl into my biivy.  The tent isn’t really necessary with the rain shelter of the awning and the water-proofness of the biivy, it’s just one more thing to get wet and then need drying.  I wake up at some point to a dog barking loudly about 5 meters away, but happily he obeys when I groggily instruct him to fuck off then immediately fall back asleep.
The next day I’m up with the light, at about 5:30, well before the clinic is set to open.  I probably have time to make coffee and breakfast, but I decide to do this at what imagine will be a remote and people-free natural hot springs with a defacto campground nearby.
Instead, it turns out to be a fairly extensive complex, and even though it’s only 6:30 in the morning by the time I’m there, there’s several dozen patrons and employees.  After a decidedly non-toasty night and morning, slipping into the hot water is blissful.  Among many across the grounds, with Incan style aqueducts connecting them up, I’ve chosen a pool based on it being the first one I pass coming out of the showers with any people in it, and those people being a family of 3 that recommend that I try it out.  We end up chatting in Spanish for the better part of an hour, the mom being particularly good at speaking slowly, using basic words, and inferring my intent considering my basic grasp of the language.  The father, along with one of the attendants that jumps in from time to time, speak too fast for me to understand.  The former lets his wife translates, and the latter just continues, obviously saying some of whatever’s she’s saying for the benefit/amusement of the other participants and onlookers, to which I see no other option than to laugh along and explain “I don’t understand anything you’re saying”, only half expecting she or anybody understands when I say that.  But it all seems in good nature, and she wishes me a sincere bien viaje when I leave and am exchanging whatsapp contact info with the family and a late joining, english speaking participant.
By now, I’m ravenously eager to stop talking and start eating, so I cycle up the road a few kilometers, pull over, then have make a big breakfast of coffee and eggs.  A few kilometers after that I crest the pass into the altiplano, where I will spend the remainder of time in South America on this trip.  I’d heard of it, but never really understood before that this thing is actually a country-sized plane that is over 2 miles above sea-level.  I cycle for days and days and the scenery scarcely changes.  Above, I see flat bottom clouds that look about 2/3 lower than they usually are… because they are, relative to this altitude.  Off in the great distance are hills and mountains, or mere hints thereof, that define the perimeter of this vast, high, flat plain.  The air is rarified, so on the odd occasion where I do find a hill that is a few dozen meters high, having grown so accustomed to gliding across flat, the ordeal seems disproportionate.
That night I stay in Ayaviri, an otherwise gringo-free town.  I love gringo-free towns.  People are excited to talk to you because they don’t see people like you very often, and as a tourist you know there’s a decent chance that they’re not just excited to talk to you because they do see people like you somewhat often, and people like you have money and sometimes spend it on stuff.  Of course, there are exceptions to these rules, but in towns with many tourists, tourists and locals alike come to accept that cross tourist/local interaction is usually going to be transactional, and this makes it difficult to meet people with which you can just have a nice chat.
I eat a standard 1/4 chicken, fries, rice, chicken foot soup meal (no, I didn’t even nibble the chicken foot) at a broastery.  Then I grab some ice cream, and take a cruise around town scoping out the mercado, before heading back to the hospedaje and to bed.
I make breakfast the next morning just outside the door to my room, in a small courtyard, similar to how I’d set up at the more rustic hospedaje a couple of days earlier.  I consider getting the OK beforehand, as I had there, but then decide to assume it’s OK and ask for forgiveness if it’s not.  Happily the staff seem amused and utterly un-bothered to have me cooking coffee and pancakes on my tiny camp stove as they go about their business.
The next 2 days are almost identical, altiplano, 100ish km of easy riding.  When stopping in town to re-supply, I’m the only gringo in town.  That said, at certain tiendas in tiny, road-side towns, there’s ample evidence of busses full of tourists passing through…sometimes the busses themselves.  Oh how I pity the traveller that gets around by bus.  I pity about 75% of the things about going by bus over bike (or, ok, motorbike), which is the case for maybe 95-99% of all travelers.  So something doesn’t add up, but this blog post isn’t the place to get into all that (again).
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That is, except to say, even when the days are almost identical, I’ll take 3 days of biking, say, crazy altiplano vastness being passed by unsafe drivers of huge busses, over 5 hours being rockily rocketed in such a bus to the next destination that is, by definition, traveled enough to be a pit stop or a full stop for me and dozens or hundreds of tourists per day.  Even friends I’ve made here, that are super fluent in Spanish and have the will and interest to travel like a local, in smaller busses (with even less safe drivers), to smaller destinations, still have a hard time getting far off the beaten path.  The burden of having to propel yourself across a region is really a gift of having reason to take the time to get to know every place in between.
One thing that sets apart this particular day of all-altiplano is that, among hundreds of dog encounters over hundreds of days of cycling, I have two of my most terrifying, back to back, within a few kilometers of one another.
<dogs>  // skip to the </dogs> tag if you want to skip this aside
Dogs sense terror, and become more aggressive when they do.  In these situations, I find it best to channel terror into hate.  Sometimes the dogs sense the hate as a threat, and this alone suffices.  Other times, it continues to feed their aggression, and sensing this, I convert the hatred to rage, exhibited by yelling.  Sometimes this stops them, other times… you get the idea.  Ultimately, the safest option is to stop and dismount the bike before they get withing striking distance.  For a variety of reasons, sometimes this doesn’t happen.
In my first terrifying encounter, there are 5 or 6 not-small dogs coming from all sides at once.  There’s also a minivan coming up from behind me, the kind that seem to often have the most bike-oblivious, wreckless, careless drivers.  I’ve probably lost a few seconds in assessing the gravity of the situation due to the music playing in my earbuds, but the information provided by my mirror compensates.  I try conveying psychic hatred while trying to disguise my fear but also speeding up to clear them and the lane, before the minivan is upon us.  This turns out to be a miscalculation.  They form around me at equidistance, clearly in coordinated pack behavior, sheparding me into a game of chicken with a large snarling dog directly in front.  It’s either commit to winning the game of chicken, or play a game of dice with the now horn-blaring, speeding minivan who’s taken full possession of the oncoming traffic’s lane, and some of the opposite shoulder coming up from behind.  All in the same instant I yell scream “FUCK OFF AAAAAGGGHH” which is “Fuck off asshole” morphed into pure roar as the dog in front gets out of my way just in time to make an unsuccessful lunge, and the minivan speeds by nearly taking out me plus two of the dogs on my left, horn blaring the entire time, along with all the dogs barking their loudest.  In the next instant, I have time to stop with the dogs now generally if momentarily to my rear.  I dismount and in one surprisingly fluid motion, quickly retrieve a skinny, 3 foot long stick poking out directly behind my back rack that I’ve been carrying around as such since Cusco, for the purposes of mounting my 360 camera.  So, yeah, it’s kinda a selfie stick, but actually kinda the opposite since it lets me hold the camera up way over my head.  Anyways, since I’d been carrying it, people had been inquiring about it, guessing it might be for fending off dogs, and I’d jokingly agreed that maybe it could be useful for such.  But in this instance, I feel a pure, unadulterated, adrenaline-,  panic-, and hatred-fueled desire, deeper than I’d ever before thought possible, to use this 3 foot stick to beat these dogs.  Ideally all 6 of them at once.  Between chicken-game roar and my bark that accompanies brandishing the stick, I catch a breath that’s so brief that I’m taken aback by how suddenly I’m the only thing making any noise.  The dogs briefly flinch at sight of the stick, then saunter off seemingly rolling their eyes at how much I’ve over-reacted to their harmless little game, which is suddenly  obviously over. I feel a little embarrassed that I had reacted so viscerally.  But mostly I’m glad that none of us got hit by the van, or bitten, or beaten with a stick, and feel a begrudging respect for a the code of the canine, arbitrary, dangerous and mishandled as it just was.
A few minutes later, I hear the barks and see two dogs.  One is barrelling towards me from the right side of the road.  The other seems ambivalent towards me from up ahead a ways, on the left, far side of the road.  The fact that the dog on my right is running about 45 degrees to the road, yet gaining road-length on me, indicating that he’s going at least 40% faster than me, doesn’t factor into my bravado based reasoning that I’ve just scared off 6 equally big dogs, and this time, there aren’t even any cars to worry about, so why should I lose all this momentum and stop?  I cruise out into the middle of the road, shooting hate beams at the dog on the left who hasn’t yet shown interest in playing chase, and speed up.  When the dog on the right leaps over the 4 foot ditch on the side of the road, the dog on the left leaps into pincer formation, and I realize, again, I’ve miscalculated.  I’m tracking the dog on the left coming at me, trying to break away to get ahead of them both, having lost track of the initial dog on the right when I feel heaving push of my bike not unlike when I was small, swinging on a swing, and a parent or a bigger kid would stand by and push substantial additional velocity into me already going by at high velocity.   Very thankfully, it’s directly forward, and actually helps me clear the dog on the left, who apparently is not quite as fast as the dog on the right.  Realizing the dog just struck me, it’s now when I let hatred morph into rage, and roar in terror/hatred/panic as I take boost and pedal as hard as I possibly can until I can assess if it’s safe to stop.  Thankfully, while I do, both dogs taper off, seemingly having spent themselves to have gotten as close as they did.
I’m much less content with the resolution of this second encounter.  I decide that, at least in the altiplano, these dogs aren’t fucking around as I now seriously consider how much worse either encounter could have gone.  Either could have easily concluded with me bitten and/or crashed, and the effort of stopping early and doing what I know will most likely disengage dogs is worth it.   It’s really the responsible thing to do.
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</dogs>
The night of the second of the almost identical days is spent in Juliaca, which is an extremely car-congested town with no apparent focus on community pride (e.g. litter abatement) or real soul that I can easily find (typically in the plaza).  What I do find is a massive, shiny, shopping mall like any that you might find in a US suburb, centered by fast-food court, and winged with a movie megaplex and Peru’s version of a Walmart.  I eat some fast food (terrible) then get too many deserts from the Walmart, then retire to my $6.50 room to eat them until I pass out.  Even though this is an admittedly indulgent and commercial way to spend the evening, to the extent that it’s somewhat self-destructive, it still feels like a somewhat genuine way to experience the town…I’m still the only gringo in town, even though I’m in Peru’s version of gringo-culture-town.  Or, I should say, the gringo-est part of a town that I’m sure has lots of facets, like all towns of any size.
At this point, I’m doing well enough on time that I don’t necessarily have to ride directly to Puno, the next town in which I’d planned to spend more than one night, in order to get there in time to do so.  So, I ride towards Lake Titicaca instead, which will at least double the 35km it would be if I rode direct.  It will also take me on smaller roads in a nature preserve instead of along a busy highway.  A little night-before research suggests it might even be possible to take a ferry from the tip of a peninsula, to some islands to which tourist ferries regularly run from Puno, and get myself to Puno via reserve then boat, rather than a roundabout road-route.
The hospedaje doesn’t have any off-street, open-air area to make breakfast, so I decide to cycle until I get to a place that seems suitable for a breakfast break.  Not far outside of town and into the reserve, people and buildings become sparse enough, but the roadside is utterly choked with garbage, and surrounded by flat, semi-cultivated land.  I could ride up a side road to escape the garbage, but most of these are short, exposed roads leading to possibly private structures.  I could just go to an unoccupied looking one, make myself at home, and ask permission if I encounter an owner, but I’m not in the mood to impose this morning, in part because the area seems so dirty and depressed.
After about an hour, and 25km away from town, the garbage abates, and I find a flat bit of non-crop occupied, flat (non-ditch) roadside.  There’s cows about 30 meters off, across the street, and a rancher, on or adjacent to whose land I’ve likely set up my stove, eventually appears from a farmhouse slightly farther off to attend to them.  But he, like the other half dozen people that pass slowly over the hour, by bike, tuk tuk, tractor, or foot, don’t seem at all bothered by my making myself home, for a time, at that spot, and return or offer casual, passing waves and smiles.
After breakfast, the detour isn’t really panning out.  I’m getting to where water should be visible, but there’s no water to be seen.  I decide to make a turn that commits me a little less to the Puno-by-boat option, and take a spur to try and spot any water on the lake side of the peninsula in an area clearly designated lake by both Maps.me and Google maps.  Failing to, I give up the boat option completely.  Finding a way to water where boats might be docking, one of which I might catch a ride from to an island, and then likely a different boat onwards to Puno would indeed be a fun challenge, but only if it were earlier on in the trip and I had a couple of days to spare exploring unmapped roads looking for boat docks.  As it is, it’s a gamble whose loss would be too potentially costly, and hence too stressful from the outset, to be fun.
To get back to the highway, I have to climb over a hill that’s about 75 meters tall, and as such, the tallest hill I’ve gone over in days.  From there, I’m able to see that the peninsula’s inlet is dried up, at least as far down as I can see, which I reason kinda reaffirms my choice to abort the boat option, but also acknowledge would have made the challenge that much more exciting.  Graph traversal of completely off-the-map (owing to being in-the-water according to all available maps), is definitely off the beaten path.
About 20km from town, I catch up with a older Dutch couple riding a beefy, high tech, aluminum tandem.  They’ve been riding for many months, all over the world, and are pleasant to chat with.  After about 10 minutes, I continue on, up and over a ridge that runs around Puno.  When I have signal, I get on hostelworld and decide to go with a nicely rated, competitively priced hostel that’s a bit further from the center of town than most other well rated/priced hostels.  This is my standard heuristic, which leverages the fact that I’m on bicycle.  I’ll have an unloaded bicycle to get around, so I trade convent location for amenities and quietness.
Derrick, the Canadian motorbike tourist that I’d met at the cycle hostel in Cusco and run into the evening before my ill-fated bid to stay at the hot springs, comes down to say hi as soon as I walk in.  We share a laugh about how bad the weather had gotten.  By the time he had resupplied and was ready to ride up, the weather was ominous enough that he decided to abort mission and stay at a hospedaje in town.  I go out to for dinner ingredients, bring them up to a roof-top self-enclosed kitchen space, 5 floors up, as the rain starts to come down in sheets.  Once again, I’ve gotten extremely lucky with the timing of the rain.  I make enough to share with Derrick, and we chat over my standard dinner.  He’s alright, but we’re pretty clearly not on the same side of the political spectrum when he cites a notion (which I honestly can’t remember) that he agrees with, even though “it’s a bit Democratic for his liking”.  We’re put in the same room, and he’s considerate, and nice enough, but there’s some kind of cultural divide that we seem to be careful to stay clear of.
The next day, we do the standard Puno tourist experience together, taking a boat ride out to Uros, a cluster of floating islands on which people live…or at least the likes of which people used to live on, at some point in the past.  These days, it’s a strange scene, with a clearly well-practiced staging of explanation of construction of and life on a 1-3 family reed-house-raft, invitation into a home which looks not-very-lived in and is decked out in merchandise available for sale, invitation for a reed-boat ride, with a couple embarking songs performed by the islands 6 inhabitants, for a modest additional fee, and then visit to a different reed island with a snack bar.  It’s hard to say how genuine the whole thing is, and common among fellow tourist to speculate about whether most the people really still even live on those islands.  In any case, the experience is at times cringe-inducing, but impossible to just forego entirely.  In the end, I’m glad to have done the abbreviated 1/2 day version, rather than the multi-day version where you stay on one such island for the night, and visit one or both of the actual islands across which my boat-to-Puno trip would have taken me, had it been meant to be.
At about 8pm that night, I’m about to fall asleep when I get message from Diane that she’s arrived with an Italian cycle mate that she’s picked up.  They’ve done a 120km+ day, powering over the ridge and into Puno in dark and increasingly torrential rain, which I know must have sucked.  I’m impressed and amused to hear that they did, and they’re equally as delighted to have the semi-misadventure behind them.  A few days earlier, when I was about 100km ahead of her, in a rare instance when we were both online at the same time, Diane messaged that she had had a fall, and was unsure if she’d be able to continue.  There was little I could do beyond co-fume about shitty drivers: a truck that sped past her as she crossed some railroad was part of the reason she fell, and he didn’t bother to stop, and commiserate: falls are a part of every bike trip in my experience.  A day later, when she went on her obligatory floating island excursion, her boat would malfunction, and the 3 hour tour would turn into a full day debacle.  All of this, combined with the theft and recovery of her bike, and her excellent spirit throughout, leaves me with a deep appreciation of how adaptable of a traveler she is.  As someone who prides himself on adaptability in the face of adversary, typically resulting from my previously mentioned aversion to planning, I appreciate Diane’s ability to roll with the punches, undaunted in the long run.
Diane, Vitorio and I go out for dinner and beer, then I turn in.  At breakfast in the hostel the next morning, I bid farewell to Diane for the fourth time.
I catch up with the Danish couple on the recumbent cycle again, and have a more extended chat with them.  I get to a town called Juli and stock up at the mercado with the intention of continuing on to camp, then do a short climb up to see the plaza and kinda fall for the place.  The plaza is perched on a hill overlooking the lake, in a way that is particularly pretty.  There are a couple of hospedajes and a museum, so I tell myself that if I can get a bed for under $5, then I ought to stay in town and check it out.  Sure enough, a simple bed in a small room, with access to a shared bathroom is 15sol, or ~$4.70, so I check in with the 10 year old kid that’s been left in charge.  I head over to the museum where the proprietor seems curt as he unlocks the door and turns on the lights to the exhibit.  I thank him and say start saying goodbye but we strike up a conversation and eventually end up trading whatsapp contacts.  From the museum, I check out the plaza and the adjacent basilica, at one point being greeted by an overly friendly, tipsy local who clasps my heads in his hands and gives me extended hugs, a couple of times.  I sense no real threat, so just laugh along for the couple of minutes it lasts, casting a few glances at passers by that seem both amused and embarrassed for of us.
Back at the hostel, I take my kitchen and pantry bags up to the roof and make dinner.  As my standard slop simmers, I stand up to stretch, and looking at the plaza, over the half-wall of the roof, I see the Dutch couple walking around, meaning they’ve probably checked in somewhere else in town.  I go down the 3 flights to the plaza to find them, which is, as expected, relatively easy, since we’re the only gringos in town, and also, all 3, in the 95 %-ile, height wise.  We tell each other which hospedajes we’re in, and agree that I’ll stop by theirs at 7 the next morning, and we’ll go for coffee.
I finish dinner, go out for a quick desert, and then turn in.  The next morning at 7, I go to their hospedaje and only the caretaker is awake.  I ask him if there are 2 Dutch people there.  He confirms they are.  I infer that apparently they’re not yet up and try to say “I’ll leave a note for them”, as he rounds the counter behind which he had been looking in the ledger and raps loudly on the door to my immediate left.  Elbert says groggily “uh, hello”, and I vocalize the note I’d planned to leave for them:  Heading onward, going to make coffee and pancakes at first nice spot beyond the first hill that you have to go over to get out of town.  He says “sounds good”.  Later via whatsapp, I both apologize for the rude awakening, and shift blame, legitimately IMHO, by explaining how it went down.
I set up kitchen under the 2 foot awning offered by a concrete structure that doesn’t look abandoned, but doesn’t look very occupied either.  A smallish dog tied up along the side of the structure begins barking soon after I’ve parked my bike, but doesn’t seem overly upset or aggressive, so I slowly proceed, talking friendly to it.   A half minute later, a woman peeks around the corner.  I say hi and ask if it would be ok to make coffee here.  She seems a little confused, so I point to my gas canister and stove, and say “kitchen”.  She smiles, says sure, and returns to the back of the structure/house.  I’m setting my stove up a minute later when she returns with a jar of instant coffee, and an older man, who I assume is her father.  They’re both very friendly, and I think they’re saying “see, yes, we have coffee, you’re welcome to come back and have some”.  I don’t want to be rude by declining, but given that I’ve totally “cold visited” them, it could be the case that they’re just trying to avoid being rude themselves, to what they understood to be a request for some coffee, and I would be imposing somewhat.  So I cheerfully decline, showing them the coffee I’m going to make, and offering to share my breakfast with them, which they cheerfully accept, I think, before asking if there’s anything else that I might need.  I say no, thanking them again.
I make breakfast, and having not worked out details of how I’d share it with them, such as whether they would they come back out front or I should let myself into their home area? I assumed the former/easier option as I first made coffee, and then alternatingly made and consumed pancakes. Then the coffee suddenly had it’s predictable effect.  I was already pretty full, contributing to said effect, and I had one last pancake, topped with sliced banana and chocolate sauce, freshly griddled in the pan.  I walked back and found the mother doing laundry.  I smile and offer the pancake, which she helps me re-offer to a toddler.  Leaving the pan and fork on the table at which the toddler was standing on a chair, as if it’s just occurring to me to ask, I inquire about a bathroom.  I’m pointed to the outhouse that I then walk rapidly to.  Oh sweet relief!  That out of the way, I chat with the dad a bit more, discussing the route the rest of the way to Bolivia and Copacabana.  The mom returns my pan and fork, washed, as we say our goodbyes.  Even though my Spanish still really, really sucks, these sorts of interactions demonstrate how far it’s come, at least in the context of being a particular kind of traveler.
A few more kilometers down the road, I happen on a soccer stadium with an impressive backdrop of Lake Titicaca, but two very unimpressive teams playing with an obviously flat soccer ball.
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Having gotten my visa, I have no reason to expect there will be difficulty at the Bolivian border, but I’m a little nervous nonetheless.  The agents on both sides of the border are gruff, but things proceed straightforwardly, and I’m in Bolivia by 3pm and Copacabana by 4.  I inquire at the first hostel in town and take a lovely, clean and spacious room of my own for about $11 in Sonia’s hostel offered by the hostel’s namesake.  I unpack and head into town on my unloaded bike, zipping around and seeing in under a half hour what would take a couple of hours to cover by foot.  The town is thundering with sound systems, and dozens of groups of locals sitting in circle arranged chairs passing around liter bottles of beer.  The dresses make such perfect cover, it takes me a few moments to register what’s happening as I notice one then another mature, diminutive woman with a small stream running downhill in the gutter of the curb that she’s not sitting on, but rather squatting in front of.
Eventually, I pick a restaurant for dinner.  Before my food arrives, I notice Will arrive…the other American at the Bolivian consulate in Cusco when we were there getting our Visas.  A portly bald fellow with a foot long goatee and penchant for wearing whiskey and/or harley t-shirts, he’s not hard to miss, but I pretend to not see him, not because I don’t like him, but more because I felt like we had covered sufficient conversational ground while waiting in line at the bank.  Eventually he notices me, calls out, and so I join him at his table.  He’s earnest and not unpleasant, but seems only really interested in conveying his travel tales, asking me questions only when the conversation is so lopsided that otherwise it would either die naturally or become just a chain of his unprompted anecdotes.  When discussing our choices of lodging, he tells me he avoids hostels lest he broach politics with other guests and become a pariah, so maybe he’s a Trumper.  I’m not going to take the bait.  I politely insist that we ourselves not make the mistake of broaching politics either.  I’ve met other travelers, on this trip even, that are much more enthusiastic and naturally inclined to engage locals on their turf than I am.  Which is to say that I know that I’m not diving as deep as I could be in.  Will, on the other hand, goes to some length and expense to have his transportation, lodging, and other logistics arranged by a trusted handler that speaks English.  I know that he’s not bad at being understood and making himself understood in Spanish, based on his interactions with the Bolivian consulate guy, making this choice all the stranger.  He clearly has a curiosity that drives him to traveler, but it seems he’s also afflicted with a fear of the foreign.  Usually this fear evaporates rapidly with exposure to foreign things, but in Will’s case, unfortunately, this seems to not be so.
 
The next day is a rest day, and a day to take in the Bolivian resort town.  I ride then hike up a hill just outside of town, ride along the beach, and have a long, leisurely lunch at a Indian/Japanese/Thai restaurant.  The four small courses are brought out at 20 minute intervals, so it’s a good thing that long and leisurely is the order of the day.  Tragically, the cold salad course is almost certainly the culprit for a bout of food poisoning that hits me about 4 hours later as I’m preparing dinner for myself in Sonia’s kitchen.  I hope against hope that the pang just below my sternum is heartburn, but as I eat my dinner and push down whatever cluster of bacteria is causing muscles around my digestive tract to spasm and cramp, I know that it’s my body fighting food borne poison.  One of my earliest and most memorable cases of this happened on the night between two days of riding tour bus around India.  The symptoms were intense and memorable, and the worst part in that case was knowing I had to be on a bus all day, with no access to a toilet.  In this case, I have enough time to stay an extra day, and I have a pleasant room with a clean bathroom to work my way through it.
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Other than trips to the bathroom, I literally stay in bed all day, the next day, with the sole exceptions of mustering the energy and will just before checkout to ask and pay Sonia for a third night in the room, and then again a few hours later to walk two doors down from the hostel to purchase some bananas and saltine crackers.  I sleep a fevered sleep for all but a few hours of it, and am horizontal for so long that I get a bad case of acid reflux and heartburn.  Thankfully some dissolved tablets of pepto bismol are well suited to address both my ailments.  
 
I’m still having the occasional pang of cramp the next morning, and it’s dumping rain, but I’m getting close to not having enough of a time buffer to get to La Paz in time to source a bike box, pack my bike, and catch my flight.  Also, the Pepto has closed the poop-faucet, as it were, so as long as the pain isn’t exacerbated by pedaling, getting on my way is clearly a better option than continuing to convalesce.  That said, I only have to cover 150km in two days in order to get to La Paz on schedule, so an early start isn’t necessary, and I have a few hours before checkout, and to give the rain some time to peter out.  I’ve come to find that traveling this time of year in the Peruvian Andes and Altiplano does not mean that you have to subject yourself to bad weather as much as it means you should just get comfortable with letting the weather dictate your finer grained scheduling.  If it’s raining, it’s also a good time for a snack, nap, read, or to do a little blogging or painting.  If it’s nice out, now is a good time for a hike, bike, or otherwise covering some ground.
 
At 10am, a half hour before checkout, the rain has almost completely subsided and I head out.  At first, the pedaling seems to trigger the acute cramping, but after patiently pushing along for about 5 minutes of it, it goes away completely.  I have no idea, really, of what exactly is going on in my gut, but in as much as I have a faith in any thing, I have faith in the subconscious interactions of my major components: guts and brain.  This time yesterday, pushing up the hill out of Copacabana seemed the furthest thing from possible, never mind enjoyable.  Now, I feel strong and exhilarated to be pulling out of the misty, lakeside resort town.  It’s come maybe a bit later for me than it does for others, but I’m discovering how easy life can be if you just have patience, for the weather outside, the weather in your digestive biome, even the weather in your mind.  Surely there are times to fight against currents outside of your control, but maybe these are times are exceptions to a rule.
 
I’m feeling so well that when I’m presented with a classic “will probably take longer, maybe much longer ‘short cut’ “, I opt to.  Just as I turn onto a dirt road that should connect back to the highway in 11km, instead of 16km. A dirt biker  passes me from the opposite direction, giving me a wave that I interpret as approval/encouragement.  I don’t see another vehicle the entire time.  The road drops into a valley and takes me through a minuscule town where the locals smile and wave enthusiastically, then back up out of the valley, requiring fording creeks big enough to warrant temporary sock removal and subsequent break while sandals dry.  Then the road runs immediately along the Peru/Bolivia border, with a series of unofficial semi-road offshoots that run down slope, and a small challenge of following the correct/mapped road along the gradient back to paved road.
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The day turns sunny after a couple of hours, and the cycling is great, running along a ridge that divides large and small lakes Titicaca, dropping down to catch a ferry from a mosquito fleet of them, then climbing over another ridge line before running level along the short of small lake Titicaca.  After a few more hours, the skies darken.  It seems that I’ve been sort of following a low pressure front of wetness for the bulk of the day, and have finally closed in on it.  I could wait an hour or so and let it get another lead on me, but it’s about 4pm time to start getting situated for the evening, and there’s no good camping or lodging options in the immediate vicinity.  There are lodging options, as far as I can tell, from maps.me, a scant 6km further along, which is only about 10km short of what I’d planned to do for the day, based on a tip of good camping to be found.  I give the rain a little while to lighten up, then don my shell and head out into it.  I get to the town with the hostel and pull in as the rain picks up force.  The hostel is run by an 80-something year old man named Maximilo. He initially quotes me the same prices as I paid for the room in Copacabana, but when, after seeing it, see that it’s much more…rustic (dirty), I thank him.  I don’t actively negotiate when I think I’m being asked for too much, rather I politely decline.  To this, he asks me to make a counter offer, to which I ask him to make me a better offer before I go and look for other options in town.  He reduces the rate by 1/4, and I accept, not really wanting to go out in the rain.  Plus, he seems like a genuinely sweet guy, not least because he’s quite complementary of my rainshell and layers, and laughs as I count off, up to cinco, my upper layers.
 
After I unpack and meet back up with him in the common area, he shows me a framed copy of a 20 year old newspaper article from a time he and his son took a sponsored trip to Lake Michigan to build a boat out of floating reeds and then demonstrate sailing of it in the lake.  Then he shows me a flier for a reed boat currently sailing from South America to Australia, on track to arrive next month.  He has several scale model reed boats on a table, and these things don’t seem unrelated.  Then, a bit strangely, sizing me up physically, he asks if I have any clothes that I’d like to sell him.  I think he might be quite clever, because I, like almost every bicycle traveler, have clothes that I’ve come to realize I shouldn’t have brought in the first place.  I’m also, obviously, relatively rich compared to him, so unless I’m a total miser, I’m going to respond by gifting him some clothes.  I give him a cotton, button up collar shirt from India that was excessive from the outset, and a knit, ear-flap hat from Nepal that’s similar to the ear-flap hats of the Andes.  To me, the hats seem very similar, but Maximilo comments on how unique the Nepal hat is.  I bought for a dollar in Katmandu in 2013 and have used it in dozens of countries since, but as of now, it’s been supplanted by a Peruvian counterpart bought for about twice as much a week earlier.
He seems happy with the gifts and then asks if I would like to see his museum.  I do, and we go across the street where he unlocks the door and turns on the lights.  Inside, the first exhibition are sails, posters, and other artifacts from a 28 day expedition he did around Lake Titicaca in a reed sailboat that he built, shortly before the Michigan trip.  A larger exhibit shows the history of trans-oceanic voyages by explorers, done in proof of the concept that ancient people may have used such craft to sail from South America to Polynesia and other Pacific islands, instead of the other way around, as most historians theorize.  My interest is piqued by the fact that the first such voyage was made by Thor Heyerdahl, a Norwegian explorer whose work on Easter Island I’d first come across a few years earlier.  Maximilo seems content enough with my enthusiasm for the Heyerdahl portion of the exhibit that he leaves me the keys, and asks me to lock up and turn out the lights when I’m done.  I spend the next hour pouring over the small but fascinating exhibits, which are almost exclusively posterboards with Spanish and English exposition and grainy photographs.  The only other items on display are scale models of the reed boats that were used in the various expeditions.  Towards the end of the exhibits, there’s a poster explaining that all the boats that were made for these dozens of proof-of-concept expeditions were made by members of 3 families, all of which reside in this town.  Each family has a head member, and Maximilo is himself the head of the most prolific of these families.
The one ending next month in Australia notwithstanding, it’s pretty clear that the heyday of these expeditions was the mid-70s, when there were concepts still to be proven.  Today, the heads of the reed boat building families are becoming elderly, at least this one is not so financially secure that he’s above asking to buy clothes from passing travelers, and the craft is likely slipping back into obscurity.
I close up the museum and return to the hostel, where I find Maximilo cheerfully sporting the Nepali hat, and helping situate a German woman who’s just arrived at the hostel.  After she and I are out of Maximilo’s earshot, I explain who he is and urge her to check out the museum if she has a chance.  We take a quick stroll into town to buy a bit of food at one of the two meager mini-tiendas.  Then we go to a nearby dock where she inquires about getting a boat ride out to the nearest island the next day where she hopes to meet some friends.  Given the weather and the fact that tomorrow is a Saturday, this prospect is uncertain.  Back at the hostel we chat as I cook dinner.  I offer to make enough for both of us, but she is herself just recovering from food poisoning and on the cracker and banana diet.  Having decided to forgo buying water at $0.60 per half liter, as I would have myself, once I’ve cleared my pot of the pasta dish I’ve made myself, I filter and boil some water for her to make chamomile tea.  We chat until about 10 when we say goodnight and good bye, agreeing that, with any luck, we’ll never see each other again as she’ll be on a boat by the time I wake up the next morning.
The next morning I make eggs and coffee and give my drive train a deep clean.  The German seems to have found a boat ride, and Maximilo is puttering about.  I’m still in quiet awe of how humble he is despite having been part of so many truly impressive and grand expeditions.  He asks, and I tell him about some of my travel, which he says is “muy intersante”, but we both know its trifling compared to that of explorers he’s worked with.  I give him a parting gift of a solar powered light that I’d used for the makeshift kitchen on the landing outside my room the night before, and that he’d stopped by and complemented.  I explained again that it didn’t need batteries, pointing to its small solar panel and then to a larger solar panel for a light on his little boat dock.  As he did with the other gifts, he says “muchas gracias” while lightly squeezing my shoulder.
It is my last of riding before reaching La Paz.  The road is being doubled in capacity, and most of the pavement for the two new lanes has been paved, but where the road crosses a creek or otherwise requires a small bridge, the traffic funnels down to the original two lanes.  Cars, minivans, and massive tourist busses alike apparently prefer the new lanes, which straddle the original ones, and are 2-5 inches higher up.  It requires constant monitoring to decide if I should stay as far to the right as safely possible, or actually go into the center of the 4 lanes, and weave through pedestrians and road workers as vehicles zip by, disconcertingly to my right.  About 25km from my destination, the four lanes become paved, with a sizable hard shoulder, and best riding practices again become predictable.
I’ve long since stopped having any visceral reaction to dog and other non-human animal carcasses in varying stages of disintegration, but just before I get into the greater urban sprawl of La Paz, I pass what I’m 98% sure is a human corpse about a meter off the side of the road.  I’m 100% sure it’s human, but only 98% sure the guy is dead.  His face is smashed in fairly badly, and there’s about a half gallon of blood/water mixture in a puddle next to his head, but what really impresses that he’s deceased is the eerily awkward way he’s positioned.  As written so far, it sounds like I’ve approached the scene, calmly assessing the situation while slowly coming to a stop at the point on the road closest to the body.  What actually happens is I begin to register what I’m seeing, as I zip by it at 20mph, and as it sinks in, my heart beat doubles and I utter “oh fuck fuck fuck fuck” and come to a halt about 10 meters past it.  I’ve never seen a dead body outside of a funeral home before, and I’ve never been particularly good with gore.  I’m a hypocritical carnivore that in found my way out of doing any frog or rat dissection in high school.  I live in the cognitive space isolated from the grizzly aspects of animal nature that is afforded by modernity, and this has just popped that bubble.  My first thought is to flag down a vehicle, and I try this about a half dozen times, but they’re all flying by at 70+mph and none are showing any signs of even slowing down.  Somehow the body kinda blends in with its surroundings, and at that speed it’s likely not registering for vehicle inhabitants.  Next, I bring myself to approach the body and try to, without touching it…this could well be a crime scene after all, determine if there’s any sign of life.  I shout “HOLA?” a few times, and then watch for any sign of breathing, but everything about the body is lifeless.  About 50 meters away, there’s a pullout with a driver standing next to his minivan, and beyond the pullout, a couple of men and a boy using shovels and wheelbarrows to move dirt.  I ride up to the minivan driver, explain what I’ve seen, and ask if he knows the number to call the police.  He says 011, and that the country code for Bolivia is 52, so I try a but my signal keeps cutting out.   A few days later, I’ll read that there’s a Google Fi outage that may explain why I get signal for a few seconds after switching out of airplane mode, but never long enough to complete any calls (or do anything, for that matter).  I ask the driver if he has a phone he can use, and he shrugs, nonchalantly.  I’m still visibly shaken, but the driver seems predominately annoyed by being roped into the situation.  I think, maybe he doesn’t understand how close the body is.  It’s just beyond a pile of dirt, so I tell him I’m going to ride a few meters away, back to it, and point it out.  I do, and when I turn around to look at him as I point it out, I see he’s driven off.  I ride back to the pull out and this time talk to the 2 men working on the dirt.  I ask them if they know that there’s a man just a few meters up the road who is probably dead. One of them responds with a shrug and a “sheesh, what are you gonna do” expression.  The other tells me that there’s a police station about 12km ahead.  They too convey the impression that they feel no sense of personal urgency, and that I’m being a bit of a nuisance by trying to involve them in the matter.
By now, the shock of the situation has mostly worn off.  I go back and try to flag down some cars.  I spot a police car on the opposite side of the road in plenty of time to make myself clear that I want assistance, in the event the driver or a passenger is looking anywhere in my vicinity.  I see brake lights briefly as they pass, but then no other signs that they saw me or intend to stop.  I want to do the right thing, but here’s the facts:  I’ve done an impromptu local sampling of what the people that live here would do given this information, and the unanimous response is “not a fucking thing, why the fuck are you involving me”, I have no real idea how my involvement in reporting the body will be handled by the police, and I have no other option at this point than to contemplate the matter, in particular, whether or not I want to involve myself in it, while I continue on the highway for the 30 minutes its going to take to get to the police station.
So, I ride off, feeling pretty shitty about the monumental disservice I feel I’m doing this unfortunate man, most especially in the 2% likelihood that he has any grain of life left in him. And somehow, within minutes, I’m deep in the shit of La Paz’s urban sprawl.  Just like escaping the shit of Lima’s sprawl, it’s endless kilometer after kilometer of slow uphill slog being constantly buzzed and cut off by minivan taxi drivers.  On several occasions, a pulled over minivan driver will swerve left out into traffic from my right, enough that I pivot right to get to the right of them, just in time for them to swerve back to the right, cutting me off a second time within less than 5 seconds, either because they’ve spotted a new passenger, or gotten a drop off request from a passenger within.  The cutoff followed by abrupt stop is particularly dangerous if conditions are wet and braking takes longer than ideal.    Staying to the right of the vans at all time is no option because then you’re constantly nearly plowing into passengers as the embark or disembark the barely stopped vans.  It is generally, without a doubt, the shittiest riding conditions I’ve encountered.   In the thickest of it, I’m squeezing myself and bike through intersections choked with dogs, people, motorcycles, cars, vans, trucks, and buses, all constantly edging forward, playing hundreds of simultaneous games of mini-chicken, as in, who’s going to be the one to narrowly avoid colliding with the other.  At these speeds, it’s not really dangerous, and not all mini-chicken game outcomes are decisive.  A bike bag gets sideswiped by a car avoiding an errant dog, and a few seconds later a bag swipes a guy who somehow is looking at his phone while squeezing into the mess from around the corner of a stopped bus.
I get off the highway and try to take secondary roads, which work for a few hundred meters each time, but then I hit some obstacle, like a creek, sprawling mercado, or a gated complex, and circumvention of the obstacle requires making my way back to the highway.  Each foray off the highway has overhead, and quickly it’s clear that it’s a net time loss situation.   Like the detour out of Copacabana, usually I don’t mind increasing the time taken to cover some ground in exchange for increasing the quality, but here, it’s all shit, and getting off the highway just isn’t paying off.
It’s an hour before I get to where I should detour in order to get to the police station, and by then I’m focused on fighting my way through the daily commuter traffic of the greater La Paz metropolitan area and not feeling like adding to it in order to report a death that nobody else at the scene seemed at all compelled to.
The drop into La Paz is absolutely insane.  Imagine the the famously steep windy street in San Francisco multiplied by 25 in length and craziness, the gagillion dollar homes replaced by corrugated metal roofed, brick walled shacklets teetering on the edge of 100 foot drops, and said streets filled with crazily aggressive and wreckless drivers, and you have some approximation.  It just goes on and on and on.
Finally I get down to the bottom, and to the Casa Del Ciclista at which I’ve arranged to stay.  Christian, the Bolivian/German that runs the place is something of a legend among anybody that’s cycled through La Paz in the last 5 or so years.  He has run of a massive, 3 floor tall, 3 domicile-wide property. He has a reputation for being very particular about how certain things are done, and being not very long of temper when those things aren’t done in those ways, and it takes me and Coral, a French woman who arrives shortly after I do, only about an hour to witness this first hand.  It’s also easy to see that Christian is fundamentally kind and generous, and afflicted with a sort of bipolarity of which he’s the only real victim.  His lashing outs about things that, at least in my experience, typically involve the state of doors being open, closed, locked, and/or unlocked, are comical once you accept that this is a thing everybody has come to accept about him.  In the first 12 hours, he got angry at me about 2 different things that seemed trivial to me, both door-state related, and both leading him to generalize my inability to read his mind as a disappointment on his part in my core character relative to his expectations of me a bicycle tourer, but also, in both cases, all was forgiven, or at least forgotten.
Christian hooks me up with a bike box, as he’d offered to via our email exchange leading up to my arrival.  He takes Coral and I to an outdoor Velodrome racetrack our first morning.  He has an adorable, sweet, special 7 year old boy name Raphael who I get to spend hours monkeying around with.  Coral makes delicious cakes and lasagna.  Coral and I explore the town a bit, and I venture out on my own (on bike, big mistake), and just like that, a couple of days in La Paz buzz by.
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Christian, Ralphelito, and his mom take me and my biked box to the airport.  Ralphie rides a one floor set of escalators over 20 times (I know, because he counts them off), while his parents contentedly let him enjoy the spoils of the small but very modern airport that’s not like anything in the core of the city where they live, and then they wish me farewell, and leave me to wait until my 3am flight…and finish this blog post.
Thus ends another bike tour.  Lima to La Paz!!
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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!!!!!!

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!!!