Arequipa, apparently the most intellectual city in Peru was an easy base to try and scale my highest peak. I just about managed to summit misty at 5800 meters. I think physically this might have been the hardest thing I’ve done in my life, more so than riding for a year and a half from Alaska to Peru. Even compared to some of the 6000 meter mountains around Misty was pretty tough as access was so low. Still this meant incredible views, even the base camp was way about the clouds. Moving one foot barley in front of the other I fell asleep from exhaustion at least a couple of times on the summit and was happy enough to sleep up there, the altitude played havoc with my stomach and with it a constant pounding for my head. Fortunately my German friend Benedikt pushed me on and we dragged ourselves to an amazing vista of the crater and the flatlands of the altiplano fading into the distance.
Leaving Arequipa I circled Misty again, the road taking an hour detour to pass the mountain on route to lake Titikaka and onto the Altiplano, the flat highlands which stretch into and cover most of central Bolivia, once called high Peru. I stopped for the night at Laguna Laguinillas and camped in what looked like an old pinfold, I woke up to frozen water and had to thaw out my stove pump to make some coffee and cookies in bed. I passed many Vincunas which roamed these highlands, herds of thousands of Alpacas and filled my boots on chicharrón de Alpaca at truck stops. The Laguna was home to pink flamingos which I couldn’t believe. I had no idea they lived here and stood in stark contrast to the Sparse landscape all around, the odd pink little birds had me inspired to take out my pencil and paper but my fingers were way too cold to do anything and my artists impression looked more like a bear than a bird.
I arrived at the famous lake Titikaka at Puno which unsuprisingly was a bit of a tourist haven but still I thought it would be rude not to take a look. I wandered down the waterfront and found a boat out to the floating island of the Oru people whom decided this was a safe haven from the aggressive Incans and were still living here. Unfortunately, truck loads of tourists came by the hour and were plied with homemade tat to buy. I took the road south toward the border for the festival of the virgin de Candelaria in the town Juli, Peruvians dubbed the little Rome. The only gringo again and the party was going off. Dozens of dancing parades and the beer was flowing. Every corner of the town had a different group playing all thrusting booze down the brass sections throats. The incredibly dressed Amayran people were dancing like it was no tommorow and I looked a sight joining in. I was treated to head soup and fried liver followed by churros. The party went wild into the evening and the punches started throwing. It was an amusing sight seeing the older men and women,traditionally dressed trading blows. I found an old group in a less rawkus corner playing my new favourite genre, el tanante. Around fifteen blokes, mostly on different forms of saxophones plus a violinist and a harpist crafted the most enchanting and haunting melancholy melodies accompanied with off beat rhythms to which the drummer would add screams and whails. I couldn’t get enough of it as they played on and on into the night.
I woke up heavy headed and rolled my bike through the main square the next morning which wreeked of beer. A few stragglers sleeping on the benches. The traditional people sure knew how to party. The morning’s ride down to the border was hazy but I was fascinated by the heavily traditional way of life. Many women, roped incredibly beautifully would be sat tending to their modest herds of goats and alpacas and the men doing this or that at an wonderfully calming altiplanean Andean pace. Excitement to enter Bolivia helped subdue my hangover, it was one of the countries I was really looking forward to experiencing when I planned my trip. Partly down to Latin Americas first indigenous president Evo Morales and a bit of a hero for the resurgent Latin American left, politely sticking it’s middle finger up to modern imperialism reigning down from above. The president and world’s oldest professional footballer has a pretty incredible legacy, with his models of social reform, rights for the indigenous, reduction in poverty, literacy programs and breaking free from the shackles of the world bank, distancing Bolivia’s development from the US and the IMF with renationalisation of many industries. For me such social progress in what is the poorest and arguably most historically exploited nation in South America was something I was excited to get my head around. Old alpaca jumper wearing Evo isn’t without his critics though, especially with a rising middle class wanting more, for this I was interested to experience Bolivian life first hand.
However I knew it would also be one of the most challenging countries being at the same time the highest, poorest, coldest, driest and windiest of the countries I would pass through. I crossed the border Into Bolivia as another procession from the fiesta was coming the other way and hit the hippy tourist town of Copacabana. Again with these little borders I had to make an effort to complete formalities, pushed for time you can easily pass without any paper work. I love these inconsequential borders. The free movement in South America is pretty impressive and the anarchic side of me really likes how it comes from lack of control. From Copacabana I straddled one last day on the Bolivian side of the meditaranean blue Titikaka, passing the Indians working the land outside their mud and straw homes, fishing in Totora reed boats. then crossed the dry barren Altiplano, the high tabletop which makes up a good half of Bolivia. The altiplano is mostly populated by vicuñas and aymarans and I’m not really sure why. It’s the harshest dry landscape which catches the wind whipping up its dusty soil and all I’m all is pretty unforgiving. At 4000 meters life is slow and basic to say the least, full of yellow gray grass combing debris and sparse, course vegetation. Chuno potatoes, a mouldy black version that had been frozen to keep for up to 40 years and fried chicken is staple fodder and my stomach said no.
Crossing the Altiplano the sprawl of La Paz’s sister city, the notorious El Alto began. The high ridge of the cities bowl home to mostly Amayran Indians and some of their crazy take on Art Deco architecture. I braved 20k of still diesel fog and got my reward when I found the airports runway filled with old rusting yet functioning DC3’s (an old airplane). Here the cityscape opened up below me, framed by a green screen of the Cordiella real, the huge mountain range that sits behind La Paz. My brakes were worth nothing on the decent Into La Paz where I docked at the casa de cyclista and found a good bunch of compadres. Ever amusing Bristol Andy, who painfully reminded me how much I miss the subtlety of British humour. Young and lively Argentinians, Leo and Octavio and Brazilian Fabio, who was crossing the continent on a folding bike. Christian another Bolivian cycling legend had given us free reign of his enormous mansion decorated with the art work, great advice, incredibly cringeworthy motivational statements, tips and routes of generations of cyclists that had passed through. The cycling community is pretty cool, to be able to be feel so instantly welcomed into warm houses, looked after and to share so many experiences , from so many different people is kind of special.
La Paz was refreshingly un-cosmopolitan and I really liked the somewhat dirty city life there. The city felt cramped and congested with its unlikely geography and never ending hills but constantly hanging neighbourhoods and hard work feel kept it authentic feeling. I took advantage of the teleferico to climb out of t he city as a Christmas date kept me moving across the windswept highlands towards Bolivia’s capital Sucre, Resting my legs just short of industrial Oruru I got chatting away to a friendly cafe owner in Cochabamba who was a little troubled by my intention of another few days in the highlands. He told me I had to see the Christmas markets of Cochabamba so piled my bike in his truck and we headed northeast towards Bolivia’s foody haven, this meant I could spend some time off the harsh highlands and ride down the Mediterranean valleys of central Bolivia, adding just a little bit of time but a lot more comfort to the next few days. Within a couple of hours we were eating pique, rare beef cooked in red wine, sausages, washed down with Bolivian beer in a boho bar with Warhol paintings and dogs that looked more like cats. I hadn’t seem the hipster, middle class version of Bolivian life yet and I wasn’t really expecting it. It was a big change from the traditional highland life but certainly a lot more comfortable. I continued on through the valley of Cochabamba, the rolling green landscape of the valley, low sunlit bright blue sky and not having to worry about freezing to death made for pleasant, relaxed riding. I was invited to stay in a wonderful colonial mansion in Totora and continued down deserted dirt tracks to Mizque and Aquile. The road conditions turned a little more extreme, half gravel, half chunks of rocks which was mostly rideable but to achieve any speed it felt like operating a pneumatic drill, shaking my bones to the core. I had to push at various moments but the views and wild scenery more than made up for it. I was happy I was off the altiplano as I knew roads like this with much harsher weather conditions were coming up ahead in south west Bolivia so I took the holiday pace guilt free.
Perfect little low land pueblitos of 2-3 thousand people. I arrived in Aquile with the afternoon to spare and got chatting to Jaime. The town was bustling with dawky looking white folk with obvious intentions and on enquiring Jaime told me that a meteorite had fallen a month previous and folk were out looking for rocks and space matter, Apparently they could be sold to the states for six bucks a gram. Entonces vamos I said and we hopped in his jeep and off we went on the hunt for space debris. Not knowing really what was going on we ended up joining the campesinos for a barbecue but I liked the adventure. Jaime put me up and I left bright and early for the final stretch to Bolivia’s old fancy pants colonial capital. I was liking the variety of Bolivia so far and felt although the people a little more reserved again than of Peru, they had a pride, quietness and tradition which gave an atmosphere of relative calm and peace.
The climb up to Sucre had my bike skipping and failing all over the place. A year and a half of replacing all my nice Taiwanese components with substandard Latin American substitutes was taking its toll a little, I just needed to get through Bolivia and hopefully half decent parts would appear again. I arrived in Sucre a few days before Christmas greeted by my friend Lauren who had us a palace booked for a week. I was happy to meet a relatively old friend for our reunion and my second Christmas on the road. The town was full of Gringo spots and western cuisine and the dreaded expat publications that came with this. I found this kind of development so typical but was actually pretty happy to have a little variety in my diet for once and take advantage of a few luxuries. Especially as I knew on leaving Sucre I wouldn’t have these for a while. Lauren had made some friends and knew the town so it was nice to have a break from meeting people, to spread some things out and watch untold films. To finish 2016 off with plenty of relaxing and recharge my batteries for Patagonia, but first to make it alive through otherworldly southwest Bolivia.