Canyons, climbs and coastlines

Taking a break towards the top of a 5100 metre (16,700 feet) high pass in the central Peruvian highlands
San Pedro & The Valley Of The Moon – tick
Uyuni & The Salar – tick
La Paz & The Death Road – tick
Copacabana & Lake Titicaca – tick
Cusco & Machu Picchu – tick

I wouldn’t have missed any of it, but the Gringo Trail comes with a price, and not just a financial one. The obvious path was becoming lugubrious and for weeks I had been mentally setting it against the lure of an untrammeled, exotic alternative I imagined must be out there, somewhere. And I was getting fed up with the people who inhabit these tourist-laden towns, who so often see each bus load of newcomers as just a fat wodge of the local currency, and who address me in brusque tones and dole out petty reprimands –

“No, you can’t charge your IPOD here!”
“Use an outside bin, not that one!”
“We don’t have towels here!”
“Take your hands off my crotch, I’m a married man!”

OK, so maybe not the last one, but I had made a decison – I didn’t want to wend, zombie-like, to the next place the guide book told me to. I wanted to be the dissident ant in the army, breaking from the hoards to forge my own, more original route. At any rate, if you have arrived into Cusco from Bolivia, the Gringo trail hits a crossroads. Some will head to the Canyon country around Peru’s second city of Arequipa, some will take a side trip to the jungle, others will travel through the central highlands to Lima and more still will venture to the desert coast and Pacific Ocean, edging towards Lima and maybe stopping on the way to fly over the world famous Nazca lines.

In 2010 a British couple, also cyclists, were sat at a computer in Peru, glancing intermittently at their GPS and scouring Google Earth for an adventure to sate their wanderlust. They crafted a route that meandered south from the Cusco region through a remote section of the high Andes and would hopefully deliver them into the depths of the Cotahuasi Canyon. The Pikes completed the mountain passage and went on to author one of my favourite websites, Andes By Bike, which describes the finer points of this monster excursion into the unknown, the most difficult route detailed on their website. The numbers and the practical details they provided spoke of the challenges involved –
  • Over 130 km of cycling at over 4500 metres
  • Five passes in excess of 5000 metres
  • 9160 metres vertical metres climbed in one week (greater than from sea level to the summit of Mount Everest)
  • Road conditions frequently poor, gradients can be very steep
For the first few days out of Cusco I oscillated wildly between a bare and windy domain at high altitude to hot tropical valleys. In the flourishing lowlands I felt for the first time that I was back in the tropics as I climbed past wooden huts partly hidden by burgeoning fruit trees which owned papaya, banana, oranges and more. I stared incredulously down upon the city of Abancay, an amorphous brown smudge, wondering where else but in Peru could you look down at a settlement that lies a full kilometre and a half below you. 

As I rested towards the top of another pass, devouring a delicious Chirimoya, or custard-apple, (nothing like an apple, tastes a bit like custard), a familiar and hairy face rolled up. It belonged to Mikael, a Frenchman I had met in La Paz, 1000 days into his world tour on a recumbent bicycle. We cycled off together, Mikael on his weird contraption stealing the limelight and getting terrorised by dogs far more than me, to a canine his legs were probably like rotating steaks on a spit roast. A couple of days later we came to my junction. Mikael’s stretch of tarmac eased through the valley, my earthy trail zigzagged into mystery and it was here I waved goodbye to Mikael, to smooth asphalt, to shops and to amenities, to gringos, to cosy beds and warm nights, to caution and comfort and convenience and perhaps when it was all gone and I’d finished pining for it, perhaps I would find something more.

Mikael, the laid back Frenchman
Andean Geese

Ariel view of grazing llama

For seven days I struggled from pass to pass, calves burning, on roads carpeted by fist sized rocks. I was often forced off my saddle, my dwindling energy thrown into pushing the bike upwards and staggering alongside it, my hypoxic muscles giving less than I needed. What settlements there were consisted of a huddle of basic huts inside which lived a few pastoralists and their families, eking out a harsh, subsistence life. More often my companions were the animals of the Andes, alpacas and llamas plodded through the snow, breaking into a hasty trot if I got too close whilst viscacha, a sort of furry rabbit-like rodent (a relative of the chinchilla), scurried over the rocks. Sometimes Andean Geese glided through the faultless blue of the sky above. I slept sporadically, uncomfortably cold in the sub zero bite of 5000 metres above sea level.

Abra Loncopata, 5119 metres above sea level

I descended and arrived into the first proper village I had seen in a week where a man set upon me, blurting out questions he had always yearned to ask and had never been able to, he couldn’t remember when the last gringo had passed this way. My favourite was – 
“People are tall and clever in England, not like in Peru. What do you eat there?”
I wanted to tell him that even if he were right about the English, I don’t reckon fish and chips would be why. And then – 
“You don’t eat alpaca in England?”
He had difficulty accepting that alpaca was not part of the national cuisine, which reminded me about a similar conversation I had a year or so ago with a woman from Botswana who refused to believe there were no wild elephants in England. (“Are you sure? Maybe there are one or two?”)

I didn’t feel a surge of victory though once I had made it over the peaks and descended to the town of Cotahuasi. As I studied my cadaverous frame in the mirror it was clear, I hadn’t conquered the mountains at all. By the trophy handles of my protruding ribs it was obvious who the victor was. The Andes had won the battle.

Peruvian lady with a wooden cot on her back and a baby
Before I peeked at a photo or read a story I was sold on Cotahuasi Canyon in Peru, the facts and figures alone were invitation enough. If the ‘Grand’ of the Grand Canyon has anything to do with it’s depth than Cotahuasi needs a suitably showy title too. At 3535 metres from the baking depths to the ice encrusted rim, Cotahuasi is twice the depth of the Grand Canyon, but an even more arresting fact is that Cotahuasi Canyon holds the world record – it is the deepest canyon on earth. 

The road tumbled downwards in a series of crooked, messy switchbacks, like the journey home stumbled by a drunk in the night. Wispy waterfalls adorned the opposing cliffs and far below the Cotahuasi river continued it’s very slow erosion of the record breaking Canyon floor. From near the rim it was just a string-like glimmer, like the trail of a slug on a winter morning, and the low whisper of water grew into an ever louder rumble with each downward spiral of the road. Puya Raimondii, The Queen of the Andes, a giant endangered plant which grows ten metres in height jutted out of rocky outcrops. With a tight grip on my handlebars, I rattled down the canyon side, visiting gleaming red crops on the way down, separated by fences of prickly pear, and feeling a welcome warmth penetrate my body as I lost altitude.


Cycling the deepest canyon on earth
In the town of Cotahuasi it was time to take a rest. Mostly I enjoy the prestige of ‘Only Gringo In Town’ and often give the locals a laugh as my head clashes with door frames designed for those of Inca-like stature. Why Cotahuasi doesn’t really feature yet on the Gringo Trail may in part be explained by it’s relative inaccessibility being as it is, eleven bumpy hours on a bus from Arequipa, the nearest city. And Colca Canyon, another impressive gash in the earth’s crust is a closer option for those who want to visit part of the region with it’s own Lonely Planet chapter – ‘Canyon Country’.

In Cotahuasi I staked out a polleria and returned every few hours as the stupefied staff served me yet another portion of chicken and chips. And it was with a slight nervousness that I handed a sack of dirty clothes to a local woman to wash. I had been wearing the same garments night and day and hadn’t showered for over a week, the contents of the bag should more probably be ejected into deep space through an air lock or sold to a rogue dictator for use as biological warfare. I tried a quick retreat but paused seeing as she had already opened the bag and peered into it, nose first. Her head jerked backwards and her new expression was as if she had swung open the door to a room containing a naked Elvis dancing with the mutilated corpse of a close relative. I considered offering an explanation but her face of horror soon segued into a pale lifelessness that I’ve seen before on patients about to undergo bladder catheterisation or bone marrow biopsies. “Sorry ’bout that” was all I could muster and I shuffled off so that she wouldn’t quadruple the agreed price for the laundry or collapse and require me to recall the algorithm used in cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

The next day I set off again to ride deeper into the warm depths of the Canyon. Cacti sprouted from every tilt of earth, often they seemed arranged like pieces in a giant game of chess. On the far canyon side more of them, facing off the opponent, waiting for a move that will never come. I followed the canyon downstream to the mighty Sipia falls as monarch butterflies fluttered by my tyres and under my handlebars. A canyon – perhaps nothing in nature better demonstrates the inscrutably vast flood of time that has passed during the evolution of our planet, moulding it into what we see today. As I cycled through Cotahuasi I imagined the Cotahuasi River millions of years ago, gushing through a shallow valley, and the slow and gradual crumbling of the rock beneath the water that has created this incredible monument to nature’s patient invention.
Sitting on the precipice beside Sipia falls
Riding in the shadow of the volcano Coropuna


I climbed steadily out of the canyon, once again to over 4500 metres and past the emergent triple humps of Coropuna, the largest volcano in Peru, past ancient, solidified lava flows, past the teeth-like projections of another Andean celebrity, Mount Solimana, an open maw gaping to the heavens, and then down, down and down to the Sechura Desert, an extension of Chile’s Atacama, the land now leached of life and colour.

There was a low rumble and close to the horizon of this cheerless beige expanse of sand, grey oblongs drifted along, fusing into longer shapes, spliting again. It was the Pan-American Highway, my plan was to stick with it for almost 1000 kilometres to Lima as it followed the Pacific coast. For the first few days lorries loomed out of la camanchaca, a dense sea fog which invades the coastal desert on the back of an onshore breeze, often drifting over 100 km inland. The road then cut through seaside towns that in the summer would be crowded with people enjoying the sunshine and surf, but now, out of season and under leaden skies, they were more than only a sombre vision, they connoted something more sinister, dark and foreboding, like a clown who turns up to a children’s party, steal mum’s vodka, gets drunk and shouts abuse at the children who in turn wail “Mummy what’s wrong with Bubbles?!” A plague of empty Restaurant Touristicos, deserted amusement parks and dilapidated hotels stretched along the main streets. Out to my left was the murky green Pacific Ocean, a white ribbon of froth from the retreating and fizzing waves was draped across a shoreline which melded into the tawny desert mountains. On the beach turkey vultures gathered around a washed up seal carcass to feast. This coast was a bleak spectacle but still a welcome change after so long in the mountains and there was a satisfying and vigorous new energy here – a swift tailwind rushed at my back, nature’s energy effused into my wheels and converted into fast kilometres. Trucks belted past, hulking waves sent house-high javelins of froth skyward and the road itself shimmied around dunes and bounded over cliffs.


Turkey vultures feeding on the carcass of a seal washed up on the Pacific coast
On my way down from the remote mountains of central Peru I thought about how the transition from hinterland to city is very different when you make it on a bus. On a bus you are ejected from the womb and plop suddenly and cheerily into the waiting arms of the modern and familiar global village. On a bicycle however, the midwife of civilisation is on a tea break and will get round to delivering you at some point, and that may be later than you’re comfortable with….

(diary entry – June 17th 2012)

As I cycle out of the high Andes there are familiar flashes of my comfort zone as the pudgy hand of normal life prods and niggles. An aeroplane and vapour trail tarnish the azure sky with an ephemeral white scar. A distant chain of telegraph poles scales and then droops down over a mountain.  Then the nudges get more violent as the world I know pokes and fusses further. A minibus of gringos. An Internet cafe. A stretch of asphalt. Nudging turns to shaking, Cumbia blares from a taxi window, a six foot tall billboard advertises toothpaste, until I find myself sat in an Irish owned backpackers hostel, eating Shepherd’s pie, slurping the froth off the head of a Guinness and talking about the result of the 2012 European football championships with a guy called Ed from Stafford. And then a moment later Ed is scanning my face, his expression quizzical and his tone, slow and deliberate, makes me think that this is the maybe the third time he’s asked me the same question. Last time he asked whatever it was that he asked, I wasn’t at the bar. I was careering through the biting breeze, both tyres free of the rocky ground, the snowy humps of the volcano Coropuna goading me onwards, Solimana’s crags like arms raised in encouragement. I was at least a hundred kilometres from a telegraph pole, two hundred kilometres from an Internet cafe and an infinity from this bar. I say goodbye to Ed. I dig out my map. I begin planning my next adventure. 

And so to my next adventure… I’m not quite ready to divulge the plot yet! I’ll spill the beans once I’ve worked things out. But rest assured, if I can fine tune the details – it’s a whopper!

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Comments (7)

  • Avatar

    John Berry

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    Steve:

    I'm green with envy! Once again a stunning description of a stunning land. I'll be thinking of you while I do my puny little 35-day tour of Northern Spain in the next few weeks – wishing I was up there in the Andes with the Llamas. But at 70 years of age it is not to be!

    John Berry

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  • Avatar

    welshcyclist

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    Wow! The stuff of dreams, I wish I had the courage and opportunity to do what you are. I ride my bike on a 40 mile roundtrip commute to my work three or four times a week, here in Wales, imagining making such a trip. Thanks for sharing it with us less adventurous souls.

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Jacek Stec

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    Jesus, Virgin Mary and Joseph! South America is so beautiful! I keep my fingers crossed! Steve, when you finish your journey you are very welcome to Dublin on behalf of Adventure Hunters and POSK (Polish-Irish Society Centre). We will organize your vernisage here! 😉

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Sean Lally

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    remember me, sat at my desk, in London. Still here! Gald you living the dream mate, enjoying the blog

    Reply

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    Anonymous

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    Keep it up!..great writing…Sam

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Liliana

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    Wow! Fantastic Steve! We are looking forward to seeing you in Manizales soon! Have fun on the way, the landscape in Colombia is amazing too (not that I'm
    Biased, lol! ) xxx

    Reply

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