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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!