Arrival in Abancay marks the turning point of my trip. From now on I shall be cycling south until I reach Arequipa, from which I am heading even more south to Tacna and , eventually, to Arica. As already mentioned in my previous post I will be cycling on smaller roads now, across tall mountains and desolate stretches of Peruvian Andes. I can already anticipate what is about to come. The road between Cusco and Abancay was meant to be a warm-up but it already was hard work. First I had to ascend from Cusco onto 3,800 m.a.s.l. after which the road plummeted into a deep canyon down to 1,800 m.a.s.l. from which I had to ascend up to 4,000 metres before descending down to 3,000. Peruvian Andes are a real roller-coaster. In the next 14 days to come I will need to ascend more than 11,000 vertical metres and cycle above 4,5000 m.a.s.l. I hope my legs and lungs can withstand the exertion. So far I have felt strong – much stronger than I did in Argentina. Let the last adventure on this trip begin so when it’s done I can feel that the time I am about to spend on a beach on the Chilean Pacific coast is well deserved :)
As soon as I left Casa de Ciclistas I felt what I had been missing all this time in La Paz – the freedom of cycling. I remember thinking one month into the trip that cycling was perhaps not my way of travelling. Now, I am afraid, I might have got addicted to it. Even now, while I am sitting in a hostel in Cusco and I am about to leave tomorrow I feel restless. Cycling is a peculiar way of moving around. You are tired and sweaty and dirty and sometimes you cannot wait to finally find a camping spot and cook some food in the evening but the next morning you are happy to get moving again. One person wrote on the wall in the cyclists’ apartment in La Paz: “bicycle chain is the only chain that keeps you free”. It is a very true statement, well… maybe motorbike chain could be added into this sentence too.
I left La Paz quite late into the day and had to climb over 400 vertical metres into El Alto. Then I went the wrong way and cycled 30 kms west instead of north-west. Fortunately, I realised my mistake early on and could still take a small gravel road linking the two main hiways. The road to Titicaca was just great, especially that I could again feel the sense of adventure. First a slow gravel road, than a beautiful paved road to the lake and up the mountains through the ‘twisties’, across the strait on a ferry, then up across the mountains and down to Copacabana. I also happened to have had one of the best camping spots on this trip – up in the mountains overlooking the lake. Observing the sunset was just spectacular and I chose the view and bread and cheese for dinner over warm food in a village down the road.
Cycling around the lake in Peru was a bit monotonous in comparison to the earlier trip along a beautiful curvy road at the Bolivian shores of Titicaca, but the ride was still enjoyable. I was in another country, another culture, and even though the changes in people are very often gradual and not determined by the borders, I enjoyed to have come to another country. Half way into the journey I met a nice Chinese couple Bob and Cinderella. These are their European names, of course. I wish I could write their Chinese names here but I do not know how to use Han Chi :) Having planned to cross the hardest route across the Andes from Abancay to Arequipa and needing to pace myself I tagged along and cycled with them all the way to Cuzco. Their pace was a little slower than mine so I could still make progress but not get too tired. I cannot stop pushing myself hard when I cycle alone. However, most importantly, I really enjoyed the company of Bob and Cinderella. Not only did they cook great noodle soups, they were fun to be around. Bob has cycled more than 40,000 kms already on different trips and has now been cycling from Ushuaia. Cinderella joined him on his trip in Santiago having to learn how to ride a bicycle first. I admire the determination :) Since I joined them she started cycling faster, camping more and I got well fed on noodle soups and got a few tips regarding Chinese camping equipment :)
We got to Cusco a little later than I expected as we made a little detour to climb a touristy mountain called Rainbow Mountain (Spanish: Montana Arcoiris) in a pretty little corner of Peruvian Andes called Cordillera de los colores. The hike was nice but many tourists along the way – some of them pissed off at their guides about the fact that it rained and even snowed at the top and they didn’t have rain coats. Well, when you climb a mountain which is over 5,000 m.a.s.l. you should know to expect any condition, especially the rain. Some of the tourists were going up on horses and even getting down on them. What has happened to humans’ ability to roam? Some theories say that walking was the main factor which influenced our transition into homo sapiens. Where is the humanity heading?! ;)
I have now spent a couple days in Cusco to organise the last and the most difficult leg of my trip, which is crossing the Andes from Abancay to Arequipa over some really small dirt-roads recommended by the website Andes by Bike. I shall be crossing two deepest canyons in the world, 6 mountain passes around 5,000 m.a.s.l. and a few smaller ones, many streams, little villages and a whole lot of desolate terrain. You can take a look at the route descriptions
Wish me luck and see you on the other side of the Andes (in the lowlands) :)
Posted from La Paz Department, Bolivia.
I have just realised it had been more than two weeks since I wrote the last post. I must assure everyone though that I haven’t been idle. In the last 12 days of being in La Paz I managed to get a temp job, submit a journal paper, break my bicycle and then fix it with a tiny 3 Boliviano spring bought in the tayloring and sewing section of the street market in La Paz.
The La Paz ‘experience’ began with a 6-day cycling trip from Uyuni along the Bolivian altiplana. In comparison with cycling in the north of Argentina and the south of Bolivia the journey was rather easy and uneventful. The road between Uyuni and La Paz is flat, paved all the way and rather empty, at least until Oruro. Except one day when I felt a little sick in the stomach and took it easy, I have kept a rather good pace which allowed me to cover in excess of 100 kms every day. As I cycled north I couldn’t stop thinking that I would like to get back onto the smaller unpaved roads. I started missing the adventure of tougher riding in the mountains and through desolate places. It looks like my stay in Argentina and cycling along the famous Route 40 will remain in my memory for a long time to come. In comparison to this experience cycling along the main road to La Paz was more of a transit between two main destinations of my trip. Having said that, I was very happy to reach La Paz. As I began to see El Alto – the twin city of La Paz, and realised that from then on I would be able to rest for the next week or so, I suddenly felt tired and relieved at once. Almost two months of cycling did take toll on my general physical and mental state. I needed a well deserved break from physical activities, dirt, my punctured inflatable mat and all the elements of the environment I had been exposed to lately.
As soon as I got to El Alto I contacted Cristian, a local cyclist and runner who runs ‘Casa de Ciclistas’ – a place where the cyclists can enjoy inexpensive accommodation in the very city centre of La Paz. I was lucky he was around. Later in the day I was given the keys to the flat which I could enjoy for myself for the next 4 days until new arrivals started appearing at the doors. I planned my stay already: two days of resting and short walks in the city, one day of travelling on the teleferico – the La Paz answer to tube, visit to Valle de la Luna, ride on Camino de la Muerte (the Death Road), a couple days for finishing and submitting my journal paper. However, as usual, not much went accordingly to plan. The very first weekend I was offered a temporary job at a carting circuit. I went there out of curiosity, just to see how the carting competitions are organised, and to help Cristian as he seemed to have been wanting another pair of hands. Then, what initially seemed to have been only one day of work extended to two days due to bad weather. I was given a task of the track marshal whose responsibility is to look at the track for collisions and accidents and wave flags in case of unusual situations: accident, last lap, slow driver, etc. It was a fun experience but I felt like a rookie, especially with the language barrier. I have been schooled by a few parents of the kids who were competing for making mistakes. I sometimes had an impression that although I just went to a local carting circuit the stakes and emotions rose higher than during a Formula 1 Grand Prix :)
An eventful weekend called for uneventful couple of days in the flat – writing and submitting my journal paper was a perfect choice. I started well but then the German cyclists starting to arrive: two, one, then another one more, and the place became too lively to work efficiently. I put the computer aside, but on the positive side, I could enjoy peoples’ company for a change. Valle de la Luna, one of La Paz’s tourist attraction, was a little bit of a disappointment but Camino de la Muerte certainly was not.
We have had a German female cyclist in the house who recently had had a birthday. When I told her I was going to cycle the Death Road she was keen to join me as this would be a ‘good way to spend her birthday’. I thought that although belated I could consider the trip as my birthday trip too. Since it was one of the first days of her cycling we got a local bus ‘or collectivo’ to the main pass of La Cumbre instead of cycling up onto it. After thirty minutes on the bus we were on the top of our road and at around 4,700 metres above the sea level. From there the road descends to a village of Yolosa at about 1,200 m.a.s.l. from which you need to climb up about 500 metres to a town of Coroico. The views from the pass were spectacular. The road onto the pass from La Paz is more or less straight but as soon as you look down onto the other side, the road forms a long set of hairpins. It is about 60 kms from La Cumbre to Yolosa and it’s all downhill. The trip started nicely with sunshine in La Paz and good, slightly windy conditions at the top of the pass, but then things began to go a bit wrong for me. I was slightly too keen on pedalling the fastest I could down the road and early on into the trip I broke the freehub. I lost the drive train in my bike. Luckily, most of the road was downhill. Where it wasn’t I had to use the bike like a scooter and push away with my left leg. Then a torrential rain began. It would be all good if I didn’t decide to travel light with just my down jacket and no gear whatsoever. Every day is a school day :) Just because you go down into the jungle it doesn’t mean it will be dry and sunny. I got properly drenched. Next time I will remember to take all my gear and all my bike tools with me, even if I go around the corner to buy milk and bread :) As I was cycling downhill another ‘event’ happened. One of my front panniers came off and the strap got into the front wheel and blocked it sending me up in the sky and over the handlebars. I fell down pretty hard and although I did the ‘ukemi’ I still hit the ground with my shoulder. Fortunately, I didn’t break it or the collarbone but I bruised the collarbone-shoulder joint, scraped my ass and tore my down jacket. It now has a silver tape patch at the back. It makes me look like a seasoned climber in the climbing community and even more of a homeless guy elsewhere :) The rest of the descend happened without surprises although, since we had to stop a few times, we ended up finishing the road in the dark. Luckily, the next day was warm and sunny and my clothes dried out. The way up to Coroico was rather long considering that I had to push the bike but, in the middle of the road, we were offered a lift up by friendly Colombian family travelling around South America in a campervan. Half a day spent in Coroico, 3 hour journey back on a bus and a puncture later we were in La Paz. We survived the Death Road ;) Only my bike was killed :)
As soon as we got back I disassembled the hub. I was expecting to have to buy a new one and rebuild the wheel but luckily the damage was found to be less than I initially expected. The pawls in the freehub were not opening because the spring retainer inside it was broken. The rest of the freehub was still in a perfect condition. I thought I would get a spare retainer somewhere but first the shops were closed over Easter and then I found out that such a spare part would be hard or impossible to find. The only option was to manufacture one myself. I started with moulding a rather tough spring I found in my pannier. It was a bit challenging at first to make a perfect circle but after a bit of fiddling with my Leatherman tool the part was fabricated and it fit. The spring was pushing too hard on the pawls though and the sound of the freehub was not right. Back to the drawing board. I went for a walk in La Paz to look for anything which I could use to make a better part. I came back with two options – lighter spring and a thicker but similar diameter to the hub round chain ring. Another evening with the Leatherman and I had three retainer springs done. The thicker ones were too strong but the thinner one made out of the little spring worked perfectly. I reassembled the hub, changed the bearings and now I am hoping for a smooth ride to Peru. There is no time to waste. I only have two days to get out of Bolivia as my stay allowance is expiring. I already stayed till late and only have half a day to cycle today. I hope it is enough to get out of La Paz and El Alto so I can camp in a quieter place somewhere along the road. Hence, forgive me of the lack of photos today. I shall upload them once I find an internet cafe in Peru. The wi-fi connection here is too slow to upload my high resolution images. See you in another country :)
Posted from Uyuni, Potosi Department, Bolivia.
I started to feel a bit apprehensive about the jeep tour soon after I saw the crowds of backpackers converging around the touristy part of Uyuni and sitting in the tourist cafes eating pizza and talking rubbish. A few days earlier, while being tired, I was questioning my choice of travelling. Why am I getting exhausted cycling on poor roads while I could book a bus or a jeep and get from A to B without any worries and effort? As soon as I got into Uyuni my doubts disappeared and I reassured myself that what I was doing was right. As soon as I got into Uyuni I realised that I feel much better wandering around in places where no tourists come than staying on the touristy path. I felt a little bit out of place here but the decision had been made and so I booked myself a jeep tour. The next day at 10.30 am I came to the tourist office where I booked the ride in order to be put into the right jeep. I didn’t know what to expect but at first I was hoping to be placed within a group of younger, possibly English speaking tourists. I was initially disappointed to had been added to a group of older people. I thought to myself: ‘Am I so old to travel with 60 year olds and families with kids?’. However, my fears very soon disappeared when I found out that the people I would be travelling with for the next 3 days were actually very interesting and fun. Then I realised that it all turned out well. Our driver was very good and the ‘crew’ was great.
The tour started a little bit cheesy at first. All of the jeeps happened to converge in the same spots – train cemetary, artisan village, some hotel at the Salar de Uyuni. At every spot crowds of people would come out of the jeeps with their cameras, eating snacks and wearing the same ponchos, hats and other locally-bought confectionary. However, soon after we ate lunch at the salar, the cars began to disappear in different directions and the journey became much more pleasant and rewarding. The views in this part of Bolivia are just spectacular – salars, lakes, volcanoes, geysers, snow-capped mountains. I could have done this trip on a bicycle which would probably take me about a week but I am happy to have chosen the tour. I saw lots in a very short span of time while resting my legs and the rest of the body. And now I shall let the photos tell the rest of the story.
Posted from Uyuni, Potosi Department, Bolivia.
My stay in Bolivia started a bit rough. As I was getting through the border from La Quiaca to Villazon I happened to start suffering from the cold and food poisoning at once. I crossed the border hoping to find a nice hostel in Villazon but there weren’t any. Therefore I stayed an entire day in the city centre, eating and relaxing on the main square and hoping to feel better by the end of the day. The plan was to find a nice wild camping spot somewhere on the northern outskirts of the city and either stay in Villazon one more day in case I was still feeling bad or make a push to Tupiza located around 90 km north of Villazon. Although ill I was happy to be in Bolivia. Norh of Argentina was a tough place to cycle. The old route 40 was in a bad shape, the towns were far apart, the food was expensive and the choice limited. In Bolivia, on the other hand, people seem to be always active selling things on the streets. Street food is available at all times of the day and is cheap and tasty. The shops are open all day, unlike in Argentina where everything is closed mid-day. Although ill I ate everything I could find. I reckon I had a calorie deficiency as I wasn’t eating enough over the last couple of weeks. The food in Bolivia reminds me of Poland, nice soups and dishes with meat, vegetables and potatoes. I found a nice joint near the bus terminal in Villazon – a delicious two course meal for 16 Bolivianos (around 2 GBP). In the evening I got some food supplies for the next day, a few sandwiches, doughnuts and drinks and cycled to the city outskirts. Options for camping spots were rather limited and thus I resorted to pitching my tent at the top of the hill near the railway tracks. It was windy but quiet. Next morning I felt rather drowsy and tired so I stayed in the tent all day, sleeping, eating the leftover sandwiches and doughnuts and trying to get stronger. As it was getting close to 6pm I packed all the valuables, left the tent and cycled back to Villazon. The wind was getting really strong again and it was easier to cycle south uphill than back north downhill. I went along my ‘food route’, bought all the supplies and came back to the tent just before it started raining. Then came the storm, the wind picked up in strength and my tent started shattering so much that I feared the poles would break or the fabric would rip along the seams leaving me without rain cover. The storm carried on for the most of the night. At first I could’t sleep because of the noise of the howling wind and the fluttering ot the tent’s outer sheeth but then I got tired and fell asleep. I woke up in the middle of the night as I felt water on my face. It turned out that the wind took out the pegs that fastened the entrance to my tent and the whole thing folded allowing rain to seep through the fabric. I jumped out to put the pegs back but it was too late. I had puddles in my tent, my backpack was all wet and so were my passports and my wallet. I rescued what I could, put in the dry bag, repositioned the mat and fell asleep again knowing I’d have to dry everything in the morning. The weather next day was not looking much better so I woke up rather early, partly dried my tent and the sleeping bag in the wind and took off. There was no point of staying longer in there. The ride was easy but I was still feeling under the weather, so it took me most of the day to reach Tupiza. Along the way I experienced one of the biggest hail-storms I ever saw. Luckily, as it started to thunder and first drops of rain began to fall I hid in a tunnel and watched the whole thing unfold while having a roof over my hand. In half an hour the storm moved on leaving on the roads lots of rubble and mud which came down from the mountains with the torrents of rainwater. Half an hour later I was in Tupiza relaxing in a hostel and trying the local food. I stayed there one more day to get well and gain some strength before undertaking a 210 km journey to Uyuni. I am glad I decided to rest because the stretch of the road between Tupiza and Atocha (a town mid-way between Tupiza and Uyuni) was a road from hell. Twenty kilometres from Tupiza at around 2,800 m.a.s.l. the road started climbing steeply and did not stop until 4,000 m.a.s.l. It was a tough and long climb but it didn’t stop there. Right after descending to around 3,850 metres the road climbed again, this time to 4,100, then came down to 3,800 climbed onto 4,200 and there seemed to be no end to that. The road led right across all mountains as if someone just drew a line on a map without looking at hipsometric lines. This roller-coaster continued for about 45 kms leaving me very tired. What seemed to be a one day ride took me almost two days but finally I got into Atocha where I could eat and rest a little. I was assured by the locals that the road from there would be flat but it wasn’t. It began similarly to the first stretch – constant ascents and descends… and detours as the road was under construction. Luckily, 30 kms onwards the road finally got me onto the Bolivian altiplana and the cycling got much easier. Finally, after 3.5 days of cycling I finally reached Uyuni – a bit exhausted but happy. Here my long-planned rest and my first tourist attraction awaits me. For the next 3 days I will turn into a tourist and be driven along the south of Bolivia in a jeep. The next longer stop will be in La Paz one week of cycling from here.
In San Antonio de los Cobres things began to break. I snapped another spoke – this time on the other side of the hub. To replace it I would have to take the break disc off – the only problem being, I don’t have the right type of a tool for the job and, so far , it has proven impossible to get it in the towns I went through. I temporarily fixed the wheel by putting the spoke other way round. It leans on the spoke next to it and it’s slightly bent but at least it keeps the tension. Nevertheless, I need to get the tool and be able to take the disc off when I need to. I am hoping to get one in Villazon, Bolivia. It looks like a bigger town from the ones I have recently went through. On top of that, the lower zipper in the main opening of my tent doesn’t close anymore. I tried to move it and it left a massive hole at the bottom which I had to sew with the portable sewing kit I once bought in Poundland. I spent my rest day on fixing the issues and eating and organising photos in my camera. I could have stayed longer but camping on the main square was not very comfortable and besides, San Antonio de los Cobres, was very cold. It seems that I skipped seasons while crossing Abra del Acay. I went from cold summer to autumn in a matter of hours.
I was not sure what route to take that would get me to Abra Pampa. There seemed to be a bit of confusion where Ruta Cuarenta (Route 40) goes. My map was showing the route 40 going straight up from San Antonio, Google Maps showed it going north about 60 kms to the east while the one I was meaning to take was marked as 1V40. Later I realised that this was ‘an old 40′. I guess 1V40 stands for ‘una vieja cuarenta’ – the old forty. I enquired about places to take water and food along the way but the person in the tourist information was not very helpful. I therefore decided to take enough to get me full over 230 kms split into two days of travelling. Two days I thought…. The beginning of the road was good, just a normal gravel road. However, 15 kms down the line, another break happened. This time my rack fell off and the whole thing tipped backwards. On top of that, the broken and already fixed pole of my tent that is normally strapped to the rack and sticking out a little bit got bent in the process.
That wasn’t good news…. neither the rack or the pole, but especially the rack. How do I fix it so it lasts around 200 kms of off-roading? I took out the cord I took from Cochamo and which I use to strap everything onto my bike with. I wrapped it around the rack and the seat pole, then tightened it up as hard as I could. To my surprise, it held and was quite rigid. ‘It might work’, I thought. I got on the bike and kept riding. The road conditions deteriorated quite rapidly – big washboard sometimes across an entire width of the road. There was nowhere to escape and if there was the sides were sandy and additionally at a gradient, making your tyres slip into the end of the road and into more sand or gravel. Then the wind picked up and it stayed with me for the next 3 days.
The winds here are now southerly. I think that the mechanism is similar to a monsoon in India. The hot air over the warm, sunny lower parts of Argentina move up via convection, leaving areas of low pressure that are filled in by cold denser air coming down from altiplana (the north). Having said this, it’s one thing to know the physics, and the other to be in harmony with it. Why isn’t the wind blowing the other way round making my life easier? Now I have to tackle not only this poor old route 40 but also the winds too? I only covered 60 kms on that day and called it an early evening around 5 pm. There was no point of cycling while the wind was so strong and the road so poor. I decided to wake up early in the morning and cycle when the wind is weak. I made a camp in the desert and began cooking. I opened the panniers and, to my dismay, found no bread. I forgot to take it from the shop. What am I going to eat on the next day then?
There was Plan B. I could turn right half way up and make a round trip on a more popular paved road 9. As I got to the crossroads I saw a man waiting next to his pick up truck, most likely waiting for the passengers dropped off by the bus going from San Antonio. I asked him if there was any food available along the way. He confirmed there was 15 kms north. I’m saved, I thought.
The wind persisted but the road on the other side was perfect. At points I could ride almost as fast as I would have on tarmac. I covered next 15 kilometres in a jiffy and went into the village that had food. Everything was closed, only dogs running around. The usual ‘siesta’ time. I only met three people waiting in shade in front of the church. They looked like tourists themselves or two tourists with a guide. I asked them where I could buy food and they pointed me into two unmarked doors – one blue, one red. ‘Just knock at the doors’ they said. My knocking did not do any good. Noone was opening. I started roaming around the village trying to find a local. I needed this food badly in order to be able to cycle further. One of the houses had its doors open. It was a guest house. A guesthouse in a village like this? How unlikely. I asked the owners if they served food. They said they didn’t but the lady went with me and knocked on the same door as me before, but additionally saying something in Spanish while doing it. The doors opened and an older lady appeared in the frame. I’m closed, she said. Luckily, the gueshouse lady convinced her to sell me her items. I bought bread, pate, soda, eggs – the usual things and one of the few things you could buy in there. I set off in good pace. I’m going to be well now. No need to take a detour, I thought. At 6pm the wind picked up again and I made a second camp in the desert. Only 70 kms to go on the next day and I would be in Abra Pampa. If I woke up early I’d get there around 4pm. The day was nice and not that difficult at all. The road was a little bit monotonous, straight and going through the same steppe landscapes for miles. I saw some lamas though, even two pretty ones with ribbons on their ears. They were the most timid though and they didn’t want to be photographed.
I got to Abra Pampa as planned, a little bit hungry, a little bit thirsty and definitely tired from all those days of cycling. As I entered the city I couldn’t stop thinking that I’m making a gradual transition into Bolivia. These cities, nor people look Argentinian any more. They remind me of the pictures I saw from Bolivia. The ocarina music is being played in the houses, people wear hats and indigineous clothes. I’m getting close to Bolivia and I can sense the difference already. Unfortunately, the changes are not only visual but social and economic. I cannot find municipal campsites anymore, public internet doesn’t work, there are no sockets on the main square. Abra Pampa is the capital of a region and it doesn’t even have a proper petrol station, such as the ones I had been using for browsing the web and charging my laptop earlier on. I camped in the outskirts of town but I wouldn’t consider it a nice spot. It was time to go again, this time to the border town of La Quiaca. My GPS was showing a YPF petrol station in there. Perhaps I could relax there in an airconditioned environment and browse the internet?
In the meantime, I got my first food poisoning. I started eating street food. Or could that be tap water? I looked myself in the mirror while taking a shower. I have considerably lost weight in the upper body parts. I hope I get back all my muscles when I get back to climbing and that I don’t lose more before I get back.
I was leaving Santa Maria fully refreshed, strong, with clean clothes and with high morale. I knew the road from now on would get difficult but I was ready to tackle all the obstacles it had waiting for me. I knew it would get hard. After all I was going to attempt cycling across the highest mountain pass in Argentina at 4,495 m.a.s.l. I have been over 5,000 metres in India twice already but I never got there using my own strength. Additionally, I got very sick at 4,500 metres due to my lack of experience and recklessnes. I just kept riding my motorcycle not paying attention to altitude and when I stopped for the night, AMS hit me like a sledgehammer. How would it be this time? Could I endure such heavy physical activity at such high altitudes? This question had been on my mind all the time – especially that a much stronger cyclist whom I met in Sta Maria told me he would not be going on this pass due to very steep ascent and high altitude gain over a short distance of time. When I heard this, I knew I had to try, in the same way I had to cross Democratic Republic of Congo when I was told how awful the road was there. After all, adventure requires sacrifice and suffering. Otherwise it would not have been an adventure. If we climbed Capicua through an easy scramble, if it was even possible, in a day or two, it would not have been anything special, just another day or two of climbing. It was the same this time. I had to try something I have never tried befre and which I knew would be hard, in order to get the sense of adventure and, hopefully, accomplishment.
The road from Sta. Maria to Cafayate was beautiful, meandering inside a lush green valley full of vinyards. The day was very hot and I had to carry plenty of water, but the ride was pleasant. I took a 10km detour to see ‘Ruinas de los Quilmes’ – the ruins of the largest pre-Columbian settlement in Argentina occupying the area of about 30 hectares. The settlement dates back to ca 850 AD and is believed to have been inhabited by up to 5,000 Quilmes people at its heights. It was a very long day of cycling but in a beautiful scenery of the valleys of Calchaquí, culminating in visiting an uncle of my friend Pablo. I was offered empanadas, local wine and nice bed and shower. On the next day I was ready to go further.
The paved road stopped about 20kms north of Cafayate. Little did I know at that time that I would not see tarmac in 8 days. The day was even hotter than the one before and the road conditions were very bad. Washboard, lots of loose sand and gravel, and constant steep ascents and descents in heavy heat made the cycling very difficult. I even started doubting if I should even attempt cycling on Abra del Acay while I was suffering so much already. What if the road was as bad as here up there? What would I do? Push the bike? I made a plan to cycle to a town of Molinos which was 110 kms away from Cafayate. I ate biscuits with Dulce de Leche, drank lots of water, and kept cycling. About 40 kms from Molinos I started feeling very weak. It might have been the heat, dehydration, or the fact that I didn’t eat a lot the night before. As I was pushing forward with my head pointing down to avoid the sun, a motorcyclist stopped by and asked me if I had a puncture repair kit, because he had got a flat tyre. He looked a bit distressed. ‘I do have a repair kit’, I answered, ‘but not for you, for a bicycle only’. ‘Con camara o sin camara?’ I asked, pointing at his tyre and feeling proud of the Spanish vocabulary I learned on my motorcycle trip across Patagonia. ‘Sin camara’, he replied. There is ‘gomeria’ (puncture repair place) 15 kms down the road, I told him thinking… you can ride on a tubeless tyre for many kilometres more and you’ll be there in no time while every crank gives me pain. I’d trade places with you today. Having been thinking this, little did I know that 10 kms later I’d break a cable in my derauiller. Suddenly 27 speeds reduced to just 3, just when I needed them most. I adjusted the cable so the chain was approximately in the middle of the cassette, wound it up around the stem and fixed it in place using the trucker’s hitch I learned in Cochamo. From then I carried on to Molinos. By the time I fixed the issue, it got a bit colder and the ride was more pleasant. I got to Molinos just before it got dark. I bought some beer (Salta Negra), steak, and began making dinner at the main square. Before I got to town I asked a local gaucho if there was a cycle repair shop in town so I could replace the broken cable. He said yes, which made me glad – not because I would have to ride the 40-50 kms more to the next bigger town but because this breakdown could jeopardise my entire Abra del Acay mission.
The shop was closed in the evening but I found it open in the morning on the next day and got the problem fixed in no time. It’s nice to ride a standard bicycle. It is easy to find spare parts everywhere. From then onwards I was taking it easy and cycling only up to 60 kms per day. In two days I got to a village of La Poma, situated at 3,000 m.a.s.l. For the past few days the road had been gently ascending up to the point where the heights started to become significant. In La Poma I started feeling light-headed. Was this the time to try my recently bought coca leaves, or aspirin? I began to think up the ascent strategy. Do I split up the next 25 kms of heavy ascent of 2,000 metres into three or two parts? How high do I want the camp(s) to be? As I didn’t manage to come to any conclusions, I decided to play it by the ear and see how I feel each day. I started cycling from La Poma quite late because the kids had either the school opening or closing ceremony and all the village went to see them perform. At the end I didn’t even manage to do any shopping because the shop didn’t seem to be opening any time soon and it was getting late. I had to do with what I had in my panniers as there was no food to obtain between here and San Antonio de Los Cobres, which was about 70kms away on the other side of the pass. I was cycling slowly to give my body time to accomodate to the altitude. I didn’t have to cycle fast anyway. I only had around 25kms to the pass, perhaps slightly more. I didn’t need to push it. I stuffed my mouth full of coca leaves, swallowed two aspirins, kept drinking plenty of water and chewing on hard and soft candy. Whatever was working, it seemed to do the trick. I was not getting a headache, although I was getting tired. Around 4pm I decided to call it quits for the day. I was at 3,800 m.a.s.l. at that point. I figured out that 800 metres of ascent in one day was good progress and I should stop while I was not feeling sick. It was better, I thought, to wake up feeling well and push it on the next day than wake up feeling tired and unwell and still having to climb 600-800 metres up to the pass. The strategy seemed to work. I woke up refreshed. I slept probably in excess of 12-13 hours on that night. Altitude makes you feel drowsy. As long as you exercise, keep the pressure up, you are fine. As soon as your heart-beat slows down and blood pressure decreases, you start feeling sleepy. I guess, this is why you can buy ‘cafeaspirin’ here. Coffeine keeps your pressure up and aspirin thins your blood. All that to push the blod further down your thinnest veins and keep your body oxygenated while the oxygen saturation levels in your blood get lower.
The next day (the DAY), was quite a hard, arduous work, but I was feeling strong and positive. I did not want to accept failure. I was well rested and high on sugar. I decided not to use coca leaves though as they hurt my gums but I ate candy like an addict. Candy and water, I was running on sugar fuel. It was all going well until probably 4,400 m.a.s.l. Then I began feeling a little bit whoozy and I had to take more frequent rests to drink and chew on yet another candy. Every kilometre felt longer and longer. Only 10, only 9, only 8… when is it going to end? My morale were still strong and got even stronger when I got a visual on the pass. Now I knew where I was going and what my target was. I locked my eyes on it and kept going. It can’t be more than 400 vertical metres now, I thought… I’ll push the bike if I have to. I saw a car go past me. The driver stopped and we talked briefly about cycling, travelling in general and art. Random topics. I had to tell him I had to go before I started feeling more sick. He understood. We said good bye and he whizzed past me. I saw him going up the hairpins and getting to the pass in no time. It was such a short distance for the car and yet such a long climb for me. Cycling teaches you patience. The wind picked up a little bit and was slowing me down, but at the same time, it cooled me a little bit, so I didn’t mind. I stopped thinking and just cycled, and ate candy, and drank. As my mind switched off, the time kept going faster and I found myself only about 500 metres away from the top. I pushed hard knowing that I had made it. Within a minute I was at the top, jumping… the altitude sickness seemed to not matter anymore. I was so happy to be at the top that I didn’t even think of a headache. I took pictures, jumped around and just enjoyed being there… and knowing that I will have about 20 kms of downhill riding from then on.
After spending about 15 minutes at the top I decided to go down around 700 metres and eat, then head off to San Antonio de Los Cobres. I thought that the rest of the day would be easy peasy. Unfortunately, here in the Andes it is never easy and surprises are lurking around every corner. As I was about maybe 15 kms away from my destination, the wind picked up and I saw lightning bolts in the near distance. Dark clouds were forming low above. I got onto 10 kms of tarmac but suddenly I was faced with 30-40 knot head wind and picking up in its strength. Additionally, I had to climb up a hill with this head wind. I thought to myself, I need a break from cycling, just 2-3 days of rest. As I climbed over the hill and the road turned I was pushed so hard in the back that I was doing perhaps 60-70 km/h. I would have enjoyed this ride but the lighting became so nice that I had to take the photos of the rainbow, dark clouds, and San Antonio de los Cobres covered in dense mist of sand swept across it with the heavy winds.
Fifteen minutes later I was in San Antonio, looking forward for the rest. Unfortunately, I only stayed there one day, at the end. The place was quite touristy, pricey, and had nothing to offer. There was no campsite, public internet was slow, someone stole my steaks. It was time to head off to Abra Pampa. Perhaps that would be a better town to stay in?
PS. More photos are available in part 2 of this post.