Feisty friends and forest

The sign, sited roadside and heralding a blind corner was a bit perturbing. Why, I had to wonder, did Ecuadorians need this picture? If they didn’t understand that accelerating into oncoming traffic on a virtual chicane, a manoeuvre Lewis Hamilton would scoff at, had consequences – namely mangled bodies, crumpled metal, gravestones and grieving relatives – perhaps they weren’t quite ready to be at the helm of an automobile. Perhaps these people should just walk. Perhaps these people shouldn’t be let outside at all. Perhaps these people need to be told not to play with tigers and require labels on tubs of industrial strength sulphuric acid specifically warning them not to bath their children in it. Just outside Quito these soon-to-be organ donors swerved frantically, skimming past looming juggernauts and flashing by my panniers before another precarious deflection back into the lane that normal, life-cherishing people enjoy so much. So to my dismay I figured the sign was necessary after all and more questions came to the fore – did Ecuadorian cars come fitted with giant joysticks instead of steering wheels? Would a new sign do any good? “No dying in the road” or “Your family love you” or perhaps a three metre high poster depicting a man decapitated in a traffic accident à la the images on cigarette packets? Probably not.

From the buzz and throng of Quito I ventured north to Mitad del Mundo – AKA the Equator, and my 4th crossing on this bike ride of mine. Obligatory photo – one foot in the Northern and one foot in the Southern hemisphere – and I was off on back roads, Colombia-bound. An evening sift through my panniers turned into a rummage before exploding into a tantrum as I realised my only pair of trainers were sitting somewhere in a Quito hostel and I knew I would be taking a bus back to retrieve them. South Americans are endowed with dainty tootsies and my size, a not unusual one back home, is near on impossible to get hold of out here. When searching for new trainers in Peru the shop staff would stifle giggles, eyeball my feet and take it in turns to point at my (relatively) clown-like plodders. Often they would continue the ribbing by asking if they could see them. I would sigh, remove my shoes and wait whilst they huddled around me, grinning and taking photos on their mobile phones.

Trainers reclaimed I set off again and soon fleeting glimpses of Colombian soil penetrated the twisting Ecuadorean valleys. Not long after crossing the border my new country emphatically answered questions that had been swimming through my mind. Would there be big hills to ride? – YES screamed Colombia’s perpetually rolling farmland and her cresting and crash-landing caminos. Would the girls be beautiful? YES flirted Colombia with cheeky smiles and tossed hair – I got lost in their eyes and resolved to marry one. Well, at least one. Was my gear still waterproof after three years – NO replied flooded panniers, with a splash and a slosh. I’m here in the wet season and like the tropical wet of Tanzania more than a year ago I wake to a golden bath of warm light inside my tent, I eye malevolent clouds with apprehension over lunch, I get soaked through in the afternoon and I peel off my sodden garbs and drain my panniers every evening. And then I do it all over again.

I was once asked in a job interview by a medical consultant to describe myself in one word. One, he said, only one. Choose wisely. An internal alarm sounded as my lips fought the urge to reply “succinct” – an answer that could have secured me the post or resulted in a “Thanks Dr Fabes, we’ll let you know. Succinct enough for you?” It’s now a game I play with new countries, and the adjective I chose for Colombia?


Feisty are the children who run alongside my bicycle shouting “Meeeeesterrrrrr!”
Feisty are the drivers, the afternoon downpours, the gradients, and the transvestite who propositioned me in the high street at lunch time.
The fields are a feisty green after the rain, the musicians sing with feisty abandon in the streets and teenagers hold each other in feisty embrace in town squares, not caring for their audience.

Some Things That Make Me Smile

  • Dogs in trousers
  • People wearing pyjamas during the day in public places
  • The elderly in Spandex
Colombia has plenty of all three and thus I pedalled her rolling roads with a preternaturally wide grin taking up half my face. The pyjama fad may seem an extra bit bizarre when you consider just how fashion obsessed Colombians are, but it brought back memories of my adopted, feisty and fashion obsessed city of Liverpool, where at least half of those pushing shopping trolleys around ASDA on Saturdays had opted for jim-jams or else had suffered some sort of brain hemorrhage and had simply forgotten to get dressed. “Salad, got that, beans, yep. Damn it! I’m sure I’m forgetting something.”

Through the shifting altitudes I lorry surfed a bit (hanging off the back of trucks to ascend hills) whilst a green ocean of off-kilter fields slid by. Sometimes a few Colombian kids on BMXs were hanging off the back of the same trucks and we’d chat, laugh and scream when the truck accelerated and boo when it dropped speed.

They are a benevolent bunch these Colombians – I was thinking – soon after I asked a man in the street where I might be able to buy a map of Colombia. Within two minutes he had recruited a local scout troupe and issued strict instructions – I set off with a gang of adolescents in woggles to assist me in my purchase and within five minutes I had my map and was thanking the gang for their trouble. “No trouble!” they assured me with winsome grins and pats on the back. On another occasion I asked the police if they knew of somewhere I could camp. They ushered me into their patrol car, drove me to a local lady’s house and then demanded that I camp on her front lawn. The lady had every right to react a little miffed after being told to convert her property into a campsite – but she was Colombian and so just smiled instead with a “mucho gusto, Senor”.

There’s a blossoming middle class in Colombia  – evidenced on my ride by the many nice cars that glided past, the dearth of motorbikes, the well tended and spacious gardens, the many posh clothes shops and the gravity defying breasts and buttocks – Colombia’s booming industry in plastic surgery is world renowned. It all had me wondering where this wealth had sprouted from, Colombia is mineral-rich, has a good amount of oil and of course the international popularity of a particular Nose Drug may have had a part in it. But it’s also a country of divisions in wealth, like the rest of South America. The long civil war in Colombia has affected many directly and there are more internally displaced people in Colombia than any country on earth save Sudan. But Colombia is the real comeback kid – many of the roads I have cycled over the last few weeks would have been considered off limits just 15 years ago during an era when many Colombians were virtually imprisoned in their cities.

Carved into rock by the roadside the words translate as ‘victory or death’.
Taking advantage of this more recent freedom to explore the back roads I decided to leave the highway to cycle a road with the best epithet on the continent – The Trampoline of Death. Like Bolivia’s more famous Death Road this is a thoroughfare which winds and bounces through cloud forest and boasts vertical drops immediately beside it for the majority of it’s course. Though strangely the Trampoline of Death wasn’t the bit I was most worried about. The bit just afterwards had a fairly specific warning from the UK foreign office – ‘Don’t’, they said, ‘enter the San Augustin Archaeological Park from any of the back roads, use the main road only from Bogota’. A very specific warning and I would be disobeying the scare-mongerers once again. And once again I was faced with the old question I so often find myself battling – brave or stupid? If, for example, I decided to staple my penis to a wolf that could be construed as brave, but undeniably stupid. Venturing through these jungle-clad back roads was a harder quandary to answer.

When was the last time you were alone? Truly alone? When did you last spend a whole day by yourself with no communication or contact with others? No emails, no texts, no phone calls, not even a thank you at the supermarket or a “Dave’s not in, sorry. Call back later” on the land line. If I had asked myself these questions back in London I would struggle to find an answer. Now solitude is as reliably constant in my life as punctures and super-noodles and I have a guilty secret – I quite enjoy it. I realise that by admitting this I’ve marked myself out as the type of weirdo that abducts children from playgrounds or collects cats. The dubious ‘loner’. Keep away from Old Fabesy, parents will warn their children, that one keeps to himself. I need company of course, I just have an affinity for the crisp silence as I crawl out of my tent and into my wild camping spot at dawn, and I’m selfish – I like the open spaces and wide skies to be just mine to wander and to smile about. And when I need company – it’s never far away, it’s easy prey, not like the ever more scarce beast of wilderness.

November 3rd – The Trampoline Of Death

In part the lure is in it’s mystery. I can’t see where the roads goes, I can’t guess, half a football pitch away is an invisible cloud world, a precipice and a sliver of track. Upwards I go as the jungle murmurs it’s secret threats in clicks and tweets that echo through the foliage. Each push of the pedals in the not-quite-a granny gear brings me a tiny bit closer to the top of This Hill, but only a tiny bit and I know This Hill will not be the last. Sweat is cascading now from my eyebrows in a salty waterfall which soaks my beard as my bike tyres slowly crunch the gravel. I clear my mind, try not to focus on the climb and let my imagination roam – it’s the best way to ease the struggle, and I’ve had plenty of practise. The jungle recedes, though not literally, as my mind flits and rushes through an old life, a life of constant friends not superficial ones, a life of hospital shifts, of time with my family, of girlfriends, of festivals in the summer and of a reassuring routine. A life that fades with each new border and each new month on the road. 

The path twists up at a gradient a downhill skier would be more accustomed to, my wheeze hits a new pitch and power and I rejoin the jungle reality. Is that the top? Brief elation, then freewheel, then despair as the next ridge rears up and the mountains continue to mock me. I assent and on I go, exhausted now, but there’s always more to give. For hill after painful hill it’s a case of “Suck it in, I’ve had worse than this” – it’s a mantra that serves me well – after three years of cycling the truth is that I’ve almost always cycled steeper climbs before, battled up higher passes, rattled over rougher roads, and overcome worse. With each hill in my wake I’m stronger, more adept, and ever readier for the next. This at least is how I reassure myself when a little voice tells me I can’t go on, that’s its too hard, that I need to stop, rest or retreat.

Eventually I catch a view of the next valley – it’s a sight that rewards my perseverance. The jungle enswathes every fold of land for as far as I can see and there amongst it, tumbling through it, the Trampoline of Death. I ready for a bumpy, treacherous descent and know it was worth every drop of sweat and every gasping, suffocating moment, though it was a mental battle more than a physical one. It always is.

A river glints in the early morning light

Was I stapling my penis to a wolf? Possibly. There were army road blocks every 30 km or so staffed by fresh faced adolescent conscripts but so far no sign of those party poopers the FARC. I asked to camp with the soldiers hoping this would make me safer during the night, but they explained that that would in fact make me a target for lurking guerrillas who might take a pot shot from the jungle so I resolved to wild camp instead. In the gathering dusk I spotted a small track, half concealed by a collapsing tunnel of green and disappearing into the wilds. I wheeled my bike into the leafy passage which swept around a couple of bends and ended in a black tarp which hung over a pulley system. From the pulley a zip line was stretched across the entire valley and consumed by a fuzz of foliage hundreds of metres away on the far side of the drop. Only after the sun had slipped behind the peaks and as I crouched in my tent porch and scooped tentacles of spaghetti into my mouth, did I start to consider what it might be for, and the foreboding built. If there was a coca plantation in the next valley this would be one mighty fine and fast way to get it to the road. If you had ever wondered, like me, how drug cartels hide immense coca plantations in the jungle then you just have to come to Colombia – the forest is endless and untouched. You could hide whole cities here. My night was sweaty, restless and long as every rustle of the undergrowth took my heart rate from the normal tempo to something approaching Techno. As the sun rose I began to pack up but a creak made me jump. I swung around aghast – the pulley was turning. Slowly at first and then the creak became a whir as the wheel span ever faster. Someone was coming over from the next valley. Terror beat curiosity hands down and I bundled things into panniers and made off before an unexpected meeting with an amused and lowly local farmer or an unamused gang of hardcore FARC terrorists.

The next day I crossed another police road block. After the usual cheery interrogation they asked which way I was heading. I pointed east. “No problem this way” I was assured “but the way you’re coming from”, continued the senior of the two “that’s a complicated zone”. His friend elaborated by mimicking a knife slashing his throat whilst his tongue lolled and head dropped forward in fake death. I gulped and steered the conversation to what policemen in Colombia most like to discuss – girls and football.

Cali was soon on my agenda – the world’s unofficial salsa dancing capital and it was time to show the Colombians how to do it – my British hips had my dancing partners entranced and amused, presumably they were cognisant of the fact they had never before seen anyone quite so bad at salsa.

The next day I was approached by a local entrepreneur outside my hostel who offered various services – if I wanted to learn Spanish, get a guided tour of the city or find a good prostitute, he assured me, he was the man who could sort it out. Another Colombian with fingers in pies. Here’s his amusing business card – my guess is that a ‘VIP escort’ is not someone to call if you feel like a nice game of scrabble.

Salento was next – a small town embedded in the verdant, fresh beauty of Colombia’s coffee region. Plenty of foreigners flock to enjoy the views or mess about on horses or visit the farms and undulating coffee plantations nearby. It’s a town that got it right in so many ways – there’s no aggressive restaurant touts, no friction between locals and tourists, no over-charging and no hassle. In other words the polar opposite to Chile’s San Pedro de Atacama. Chilled out to almost freezing I set off to Manizales to meet friends of my Mum’s who did a sterling job of showing me around (thank you Ana) and then onward to Colombia’s second city of Medellin.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been busy booking public talks for California and during April and May I’m due to speak in various institutions from schools and universities to rotary clubs and outdoor retailers. If anyone reading this post has contacts in California who may be interested in booking me to speak then please send me an email – steve@cyclingthe6.com – and I can provide more information.

In less than a month I will reach the end of continent 3 and board a boat to Panama, soon after I’m looking forward to a New Year’s Eve in Costa Rica with an old friend from the UK. On this blog look out for a run down of some weird and wacky statistics from South America and the CT6 Equipment reviews for 2012.

You can’t imagine my surprise when I opened a pannier and this guy popped out

Burning Legs and Burning Out

I found them on the road in Ecuador – the cutest children in South America.
Then I stole her hat, which just looks better on me.

Smouldering in Ecuador

Yesterday was the 330th day I have spent riding my trusty steed Belinda through South America. In fact I have been cycling through the continent for so long now that from a distance, and in a certain light, the pattern of veins on my calves has developed a creepy likeness to Che Guevara’s face. But of course there’s long, and there’s too long, the latter gives way to a kind of stubborn sloth that mires all of your experiences. Craning your neck by more than 45 degrees to admire a venerated and heavenly panorama is preceded by a short internal debate about whether it’s going to be worth all the effort and potential neck fatigue. It’s The Law of Diminishing Returns or “Travel Burnout”, which I think is the most fitting moniker to describe this slow rot. In Cuenca, after a DVD binge that lasted until daybreak and the only mildly unsettling realisation that I had paid no notice of the celebrated and reportedly charming colonial architecture the city is most proud of, I wondered if I was, at the very least, smouldering. In a desperate attempt to regain some notion of familiarity in a life that brings daily change and obliges constant adjustment, my days off now in cities are spent almost exclusively in The Triangle – one point represents my hostel, another is a place with fast Internet and the third is an establishment that sells greasy and generous portions of chicken. That’s just how I roll.

In contrast I have become ever more thrill seeking when planning routes on my bicycle – my ‘working week’, if you will. Put it this way – if this blog stops abruptly and CNN begin broadcasting news about a British tourist abducted by FARC whilst attempting to unicycle the Darian Gap with just a knapsack and flip flops, or if the BBC report that a shark savaged corpse has washed up on the coast of Panama after a tourist attempted an unsupported swim from Colombia to Florida – don’t be overly surprised.

So on the way to Quito I spent some time contemplating Burnout and how to avoid it without air tickets home – in case you are wondering how to tell you have reached Travel Burnout, here are some common features of the condition –
  • The ‘Great Things To Do in…’ section of any guide book fills you with a profound joylessness and the urge to never seek advice ever again. For anything. Conversely just the prospect of watching a DVD instills in you a level of ecstasy roughly equal to witnessing the birth of your first child.
  • There is a high likelihood you are harbouring several undiagnosed parasitic infections. Following a period of unease, this is now something you are actually quite proud of.
  • When listening to stories recounted by travellers you meet in hostels you always interrupt early on by yawning, resting your feet on the nearest surface, lighting a rolled up cigarette and issuing the words “Well, when I was in Turkmenistan…”
    You often then spin a grizzly but mostly fictional tale which ends with…
    “And then we had to burn his arms off!” You let people buy you beers for the duration of the evening
  • You wear clothes inside out to get a few more days out of them. And then the right way round again. And then inside out. And then the right way round. Basically – you never wash your clothes (except when you jump fully clothed into lakes which you have decided counts).
  • Your sexual encounters involve backpackers who are increasingly hairy, Belgian and who sleep under tarps.
  • You have called up your travel insurance company to enquire as to whether your policy specifically covers accidental loss (or sale of) a kidney.
  • A graph of miles traveled (x) verses beers consumed (y) is an exponential curve. Whilst plotting this graph you should have been in a museum. God you’re bored.
  • You have amassed an extensive collection of photos of signposts of rude and silly sounding place names. Never once has this seemed a puerile pursuit.
  • To reduce the weight of your luggage you have
    • Cut the handle off your toothbrush, and trimmed the bristles
    • Removed the fabric of your boxer shorts which goes between your legs creating a boxer shorts-skirt
    • Removed all potentially life saving medication from your medical kit (but have since replaced with extra shoelaces and herbal tea).
  • You have had to deny knowledge of the whereabouts of seven Israeli backpackers in room 11 in an Argentinian police investigation
  • You have developed an overwhelming desire to wedgy all British Gap Year student in ‘happy pants’
  • ‘Happy Pants’
  • You use the phrase “you know that money you owe me…” whenever you speak to old friends on Skype who have never lent you money but used to smoke a lot of weed. It has become a lucrative source of income.
  • You substitute showers for what you mentally refer to as ‘a dirt scrape’.
  • You have given up all hope of remembering people’s names and now refer to them by their home towns which are easier to remember. Boston owes you $50 you’ll never see again and Stockholms keep breaking your heart.
  • You regularly scratch plans to visit historic sights or national parks to philosophise with hostel owners, tour guides, the homeless and cheap rum
  • You often wonder whether you had a birthday last month
  • Occasionally you have an entourage of worshipful disciples like in Forest Gump
  • You have personally encountered several travellers who have since appeared on the TV documentary series ‘Banged Up Abroad’
  • You have perfected the ability to kill mosquitoes between your thumb and index finger whilst drunk, juggling and asleep
  • On at least one occasion after too much rum you have passed out and later came to at a diametrically opposed point on the earth’s surface.

The Mission to Quito

The thick navy blue snake weaving a vertical path through Ecuador on my map filled me with dread – I hate the Pan-American Highway, and it hates me. It promises all sorts of unpleasantness – traffic, unrelenting noise, toxic fumes, dirt, drudgery and suicidal ideation. But it’s like that job on your to do list that lingers and loiters for months before you get round to it, and if I want to actually make it to Mexico and Alaska, I need to spend some time on the nasty blue snake. The Pan-Am is simply the quickest way to get through the continent and without time spent (or wasted) on these irksome arteries I would outstay VISAs and in all likelihood roll into Alaska some time in December, lose some digits and then swiftly die of exposure.

So my plan – one more adventure and then Pan-Am it (a useful verb, to be said whilst beating yourself in the head) to Quito. From Cuenca I climbed to over 4000 metres once again through the bleak beauty of the Cajas National Park and then plummeted, quite literally, to the steamy climes of a mere hundred metres above sea level. The lowlands which flank Ecuador’s Western shores are vast and pancake flat, and are smothered in Coffee and Banana plantations – two of Ecuador’s primary economies (alongside oil and tourism). What followed on my route back to the Pan-Am is what I have come to call an Ecuadorian Special. I climbed almost two thousand vertical metres over a distressingly measly 20 km – and yes, that’s an average gradient just short of 10 %. To put that in perspective that’s a climb with a steeper average gradient, and more vertical metres climbed, and at a higher altitude than any stage ever raced in the Tour de France. Add to this troubling set of statistics the fact that the climb is on an unpaved surface and is pedalled not on a bike but on a sort of human powered tank which weighs 20 kg and carries 40 kg of gear and you will begin to understand the pain involved. And Lance Armstrong needed performance enhancing drugs? The wimp.

Here’s an interview I did in laughable Spanglish for the local TV news in Ecuador. Enjoy…

Quito was a good chance to catch up with friends and family via that dazzling and ubiquitous webtool – Skype. It has transformed how we keep others updated about our foreign escapades, it relaxes anxious loved ones, it makes life easier, and I’m all for it – but there is a downside. Conversations that before would have taken place in a private telephone booth, or indeed not at all, now occur with a large and often reluctant audience. Internet Cafes throughout the world are choc-a-bloc with Skype-ers and everyone in earshot is forced to listen to an inquisition concerning the results of Aunt Meryl’s biopsy, or the tribulations of a 17 hour bus ride, or the graphic details of Rob’s latest stool after that “bloody empanada!”. And then there are the forlorn and hapless nineteen year olds calling home to request more money from parents, presumably so that they can invest in dreadlocks, beads and dramatic trousers. But in Quito the conversation next to me took the biscuit.

In Ecuador we have the tearful American girl, and somewhere in the States, and also on her computer screen, the boyfriend. The conversation was a blubber-rich and melodramatic whinge about how she had started her period during a long bus journey and didn’t have any tampons. And after he did what must have been a fairly decent job of consolation and empathy their exchange descended into cheesy pillow talk packed with “I just want to hold you in my arms” (wait, I have to dry heave), “I want to feel your heartbeat next to mine” (please let this be over soon) and then a playful bout of

You hang up!” 
“No you!” 
“No you hang up!” 
“No you!”

Sensibly, during this tragic ending, I fought the urge to bind her to the desk with the mouse cord and spank her with the keyboard as her shocked boyfriend watched on the webcam. Maybe then he’d hang up.

In Quito I was reunited with Tom and James – a lively pair of British cyclists also heading north but now stuck in Quito who had passed me further south. Tom spectacularly stacked it in Ecuador and injured his knee in equally astounding fashion – he’s been stuck for over a month now after requiring skin grafts in two operations. I was stuck in Quito too, waiting for bank cards to arrive in the post. My kindly bank – The RBS (which stands for Reliably Bent and Shady) – had been in the midst of a take-over by another bank, Santander. The deal eventually fell through but not before RBS decided suddenly, and with no forewarning, to cancel millions of customers debit cards, no mind that those abroad would be in big trouble once they realised that their cards were now nothing more than plastic mementos for RBS.

The upshot of all this was a mild crisis when arriving into a small Ecuadorian town with no access to money, no actual money, no food, no place to stay, no friends to help me and no means of paying for a phone call to the bank to find out what was happening and call them Bastards. So I presented myself to the police station and explained – I had no back up, I realised, after previously working through my emergency stash of dollars. Eventually I found a trusting Brit, noted down his account details, emailed my very understanding mum, asked her to transfer money and then paid her back online – a total farce, in other words. But it did further strengthen a belief that has blossomed during this trip – that the world really is packed full of people who will help you out. On four separate occasions over the last card-less month I have found people to take money out for me, even though my pitch for help sounds like I’m a practiced confidence trickster on the blag. For all those generous and understanding souls – thank you.


Once my cards arrive (please God let it be tomorrrow) I’m out of here and I can’t think of a single border I have been more excited about crossing (and there have been more than forty so far) than the next one into Colombia. The mere mention of the country causes southbound backpackers to get dreamy eyed and sentimental. Colombia you see, is everyone’s favourite, and for all the best reasons, namely – The convivial people, the jawdroppingly beautiful women, the lush and dramatic landscape, the women, the scrumptious food, the women, the music and the dancing, the women and the women. Yep, I’m really looking forward to Colombia. It’s just a shame my boundless enthusiasm doesn’t match my ability to Salsa.

On a final note my photographs of the Salar de Uyuni won third prize in the Insight Guides / Independent travel photography competition and for which I won a shiny new camera. For the Brits amongst my readers – the images should be published in next Sunday’s Independent (Oct 28th) if you want to check them out.

Chasing waterfalls and such

It’s only falling water…

“Don’t go chasing waterfalls. Please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to.”

It was poor judgement – opening with a TLC song lyric, and you’re probably wondering whether to keep reading or if your time would be better spent on Facebook, or indeed counting your eyelashes. But stick with me – some waterfalls are more than just falling water, and chasing them is the fun part. Someone should have told TLC.

In a world so explored, mapped, mastered, manipulated, plundered and bent out of shape, a brand spanking new discovery is an ever rarer gift, and in a world so exploited, it’s a comfort, too. It shouts that maybe we, the spoilers and the wasters, don’t know everything, and perhaps there are more hidden secrets out there waiting to be unearthed. It’s even better of course when that discovery is a whopper. At three times the height of the Eiffel tower, Yumbilla Falls in the Amazonas region of Peru is exactly that, yet for decades Yumbilla had been shrouded in foliage and disregard. Only in 2007 when it was officially measured did it claim it’s long overdue limelight – Yumbilla turned out to be 895 metres high and the 5th highest waterfall in the world, and last year it earned itself a trail. There are no official tours from Chachapoyas but I contacted the American who built the trail having decided I wanted a sneak preview.

For Yumbilla though perhaps ‘discovery’ is a bit over zealous and should be prefaced by ‘international’. The locals always knew about Yumbilla. And that a new discovery was made here didn’t really surprise them anyway and why would it? Because in terms of new discoveries, the Amazonas region of Peru has them in spades. Ancient burial sites, fortresses, long isolated tribes, rare bird species, pre-Inca walled cities – the land around Chachapoyas is the secret garden of South America, and it just keeps on kicking up surprises.

Before I took the time to explore the new trail to Yumbilla I booked a tour to Gocta, another lofty cascade at 771 metres and the 15th highest in the world. It wasn’t just the waterfall though I had come to admire, the region also boasts a bizarre bird species that the guides would have you believe is lurking in every cranny. The Andean Cock of the Rock – a species whose vaguely comical name is a good fit for it’s bizarre appearance. Bright, unapologetic orange with a head that looks out of shape, like a deformed parrot, maybe one that had flown hard and headlong into a tree in the night. They sold knitted take-home versions in the shops in Chachapoyas, but I suspected spotting one was not really that likely – it was all more of a selling point for tours, a tourist lure.

On the tour, under a sky which threatened rain, I was joined by a trio of Tazmanian backpackers. With the usual Peruvian welcome party – a scrawny dog nipping at our heels – we all took strides towards the waterfall, aside from a ten year old and a fat lady who were given ponies. As the latter eagerly mounted the animal I feared the result would be four splayed legs – like when big people jump onto horses in cartoons – and a rotund lady rolling around like a tipped insect, crying out for help and unable to get up, thankfully though the animal managed to teeter along, ruefully. Next to the reluctant beast was an elderly man, who I found out later was 89 years old, and who was bounding along as fast as the horse, perhaps making his point. Already the animal looked closer to death than he did.

As we made ground the world around us slowly morphed into a more prehistoric one, moss and cobwebs smothered the rock faces, fern replaced banana, menacing cliffs faces were projected from the undergrowth and then after an hour or so the vista we were bent on seeped in through the green curtain around the path and then surged magnificently towards us. We stopped in our tracks and watched the water in free fall, our eyes staying with it until it was a fine spray, a mist, then nothing at all. Cameras were raised and then lowered with a measure of despondency and admiration – from here Gocta wouldn’t fit into even the widest angled lens, and this was only the bottom section, there was a 230 metre drop which was above the reach of our gaze. In the shadow of the behemoth I ate and I snapped photos and I thought about how measly the stream was at the bottom, embarrassing even, considering the dramatic statement nature had made just above it. And I watched the old man laugh, and heard the pony groan, like a teenager who’s been evicted from bed by his mum before school. And everyone apart from the pony and TLC agreed – it was only falling water, but it was worth the effort.

Gocta Falls
The Andean Cock of the Rock in it’s natural habitat (a souvenir shop)

Due to a corrupted camera memory card I am saving the story of Yumbilla on this blog until I have sorted it out.

Bordering on insanity

The road to Ecuador was another Peruvian Special – an unrelenting slalom which was either a companion to the roiling waters of a mountain river or was incautiously winding up a mountainside and unapologetically destroying my mettle. Now though I am a stronger (possible typo – should read ‘stranger’ ?) cyclist than ever before. I may have been riding for almost three years but you can forget the fitness plateau, Peru doesn’t do flat lines.

As I dropped from the mountains to the jungle Blue Morph butterflies and The Peruvian Giant Centipede made fleeting appearances as the government posters warning of nasty diseases such as Leishmaniasis changed to warnings for different but just as nasty diseases like Dengue Fever. Rice paddies disappeared and the jungle reclaimed my eye line but thicker now, disordered. Wilder.

Drip, drip, drip. I kicked off my sodden sleeping bag roaring expletives, aiming them at the clouds above, and my judgement. Cloud forest it may be, but last night I had been tricked by the soothing, unprepossessing sapphire of the evening sky into believing that it wouldn’t rain, that maybe I’d be OK in just my inner tent. My POROUS inner tent. My POROUS inner tent come paddling pool. Long after I’d pegged in the outer tent the rain continued to beat out a maniacal rhythm on the fabric. Morning came and my vision, bleared by sleep, appraised the quagmire on my doorstep, my campground now reminiscent of a bad year at Glastonbury. The road too had been churned up by the downpour and hacked up by the javelins of water. Mostly I pushed my bike through the viscid gunk as buses skidded and climbed muddy inclines sideways whilst gangs of men pushed from behind. Mud, Lycra and skin had become one, maybe though my suit of filth would come in useful – I had overstayed my Peruvian VISA, I had a sob story ready and all I needed now was a sympathetic border guard. Things though got worse and I went from looking like a soldier fresh from the Somme to some kind of unearthly swamp beast.

This border point was the backdoor into Ecuador and my guess – that it would be more relaxed than the primary routes across – was looking on the mark as I peered into the customs building to find the two customs officials blind drunk and belting out Peruvian classics with the aid of a karaoke machine. The immigration official was absent and ambiguously ‘back later’. When she showed up an hour later I knew immediately I hadn’t got the push-over I was hoping for, I got Bitch From Hell, the kind of ruthlessly efficient and by-the-book obsessive I could have done without. It took me half a day to get my exit stamp and involved paying fines, taxis to town, depositing money into bank accounts, signing 15 forms and getting photocopies. Intermittently she would disappear when I needed her, probably to return to her hobbies of submerging kittens in wet cement or hurling orphans into a threshing machine. Eventually, task completed, she reached for the stamp and grumbled, I think it was something about me disrupting her plans for a mass genocide, and I hotfooted it to the door, the bridge and Ecuador. But I don’t begrudge Peru or her purveyors of red tape for a tedious farewell – the last three and a half months had been a terrific ride, in every sense.

The jungle, I decided, doesn’t hold the romance it promises. The views can be limited, it’s hot and sticky, insects rule – filling your tent, bouncing off your head torch and into simmering pasta. Yes that crunch and explosion of bitter goo was an invertebrate, swallow hard and get used to it. But new countries introduce themselves through the small differences, the minutiae which help mould the taste and texture of the new place and which for me made up for the jungle blues. The tangle of undergrowth in Ecuador looked unmeddled with, a pristine slice of nature. The roads though were much steeper. There were kids with blue eyes (perhaps the missionaries had been doing more than just spreading the word of God). There were concrete volleyball pitches in every village. Troublingly though was the fierce and grave epidemic that had Ecuador firmly in it’s clutches – The Moustache. A gaggle of bristling Soup Strainers were there to greet me as I cycled into my first Ecuadorian village – they were attached to the faces of a troop of men, one of which would certainly have done well with a decent singing voice, undoubtedly opening the door to a career as the world’s best Freddie Mercury impersonator. The men and their quivering lip plumage let me shower and granted me permission to sleep outside the church, as I settled down for the night two motorbikes parked up.

Oli and Mat – A German and an American, adventurers, between the three of us we had been on the road for almost a decade, but then any onlooker could have guessed that. Perhaps from the fist sized rips in each of our clothes. Perhaps from the painted alpaca skull on the front of Mat’s bike or the Skull and Crossbones and words ‘Carpe Diem’ on the body. Perhaps from the repeated use of the phrase “New Day, Same Pants” the next morning. But perhaps not from Oli’s motorbike – a fully loaded 70 cc model he’d, somehow, been riding since Pakistan. Food pooled, we cooked together and talked in lists – the best places we’d slept, the stickiest substance that has leaked inside a pannier, our craziest adventures (Mat’s tale of paddling the Darien Gap by canoe topping that one). And as I stared out over the cloud-filled valley I thought about how a day can back flip and cartwheel and embrace you – this morning I was dirty, late, tired, lonely and pissed off. It’s a tired cliche that nobody wants to hear when they’re down – but things really do always get better. I know I won’t remember that next time.

The Crackpot Magnet

My birthday rolled around as I rolled into Vilcabamba, my third on the road and my thoughts strayed to my previous celebrations – thirty was spent festooned in traditional Arabic dress in Syria when a family invited me in from the desert and threw me an impromptu party. Thirty one was probably as fun but less memorable – Cape Town, Jagerbombs and ‘the caterpillar’ dance are about the only details I can be sure of. Vilcabamba though offered a nice twist, being as it is – one of the downright weirdest towns on earth.

Vilcabamba’s story is a little hazy and uncertain, a bit like it’s latest residents. The valley it lies in gained notoriety, and became known as the Valley of Longevity, once locals were observed to live unusually long lives. By 1973 these oldies made it onto the cover of National Geographic and soon after the scientists arrived, as did the mystics and the hippies, all keen to learn the secret – and you could pick and choose the culprit: mineral rich water, extra strong anti-oxidants, a magic tree, and a host of more exotic theories.

And ever since life in Vilcabamba has been tinged with a likable absurdity. Researchers dug around and found that the old folks tended to exaggerate their ages and that these exaggerations became grander the older the person got – eighty year olds were routinely claiming that it was time to celebrate their 130th birthday, so eager they were for prestige in the community. Now Vilcabamba is a mecca for ageing American hippies who need their pension to stretch a bit further and who believe there really is something special about the environment here. There are a host of other characters as well though – political refugees (in the loosest possible sense), spiritualists, conspiracy theorists, rosy cheeked alcoholics and various crackpots. “Oh Yeah… We get a lot of freaks here” a hostel owner confided to me. Noticeboards around town advertise psychic crystal readings, dowsing seminars, fire guardians as well as the odd house to rent with ‘a healing space’. Around the town square sit artisans, many from Europe, plying their wares and a few stoners selling poems with titles like ‘the unfortunate gooseberry’, no doubt the brain child of a magic mushroom bender in the 70s. And of course there’s the self styled shaman who sells hallucinogens to tourists. Recently the leader of a group arrived here from Britain, and with followers. Their focus is on time travel, alien abductions and mind control and their website reassures those who perhaps judge them a little insane – “We have no intention of ending our own lives”. Meander around the town for an afternoon or evening and its easy to find yourself engaged in an impassioned conversation about a range of fantastical conspiracy theories and doomsday scenarios. Rumour had it some residents had even built a bunker near the town in the hills – the end of the world is on it’s way, apparently.

The town’s eccentrics made it a nice place to chill out for a few days, but better still… I met a girl. According to another cyclist I know, this is akin to getting a really slow puncture. And after some days together I cycled off, she was still in Vilcabamba, but travelling south. I cycled out of town feeling great, feeling invincible even and then very quickly – like I was making a big mistake. She was still there and I was cycling in the wrong direction. I emailed her. She emailed me. There was a festival north of Vilcabamba in Latacunga called Mama Negra. Let’s meet up. I felt invincible again.


Mamacita and Mama Negra 

“What’s going on?!” I yelled over. “No idea!” my mamacita shouted back.

She had been pulled into the multi-hued vein of the procession and was surrounded by men dressed in white robes with striped masks who were tapping her legs with coloured bones and spitting sugar cane spirit into her face. It was a cleansing ritual, I found out later. Just then a tubby man sat astride a horse and thrashing the air with a fist cruised past. His face was painted black, he had fake breasts and he was holding a doll of a black infant in his other hand, savagely beating the air with the child, the crowd were yelling in delight despite the lack of parental concern of the mock parent for the mock child. This was Mama Negra Festival and that was Mama Negra her/him-self.

The origins of Mama Negra festival  have been blurred by the passage of time, in reality its probably an amalgamation of cultural and religious celebrations. From an outsiders perspective it doesn’t immediately sit well. Blacked up faces? Pointy white hoods? Men dressed as black women? But this is a celebration of the cultural diversity that came with Africans arriving on Ecuadorian shores, and of religion too and perhaps transvestism, which also seems to be a common theme.

The Wickerman on LSD is what comes to mind as I watch the procession roll on, everyone in the crowd now inexorably pissed, including the ten year olds, and there’s a vaguely menacing air to the drooling drunks dressed as some kind of clown. The carcasses of large pigs are carried by men, decorated with bottles of booze and dead chickens, and seem to sway to the music which comes courtesy of brass bands comprised of men in dark aviator sunglasses and suits, like Colombian drugs barons. Behind them dancers in more traditional South American dress, firing out dance moves tirelessly as the parade moves on and the town gets drunker.

By nightfall the city of Latacunga has undergone a sinister transformation and the residents are comatose in puddles on the street side or fighting or stumbling and moaning. The less inebriated have taken to setting fire to things. As I left the square to find a toilet two teenagers grabbed my hand, one threw a clumsy punch which I blocked with my left hand. Only a few minutes later, with blood streaming down my arm and a deep laceration to my index finger, did I realise that the kid must have struck out with a knife, and I didn’t even see the weapon. But despite the grim hangover that was the night time antics, the celebration itself was a blinder.

The day after the riot, I mean festival, I said goodbye to my mamacita. I returned to Cuenca and my bike. I pedalled off, and that was that. Onward, but with a slightly heavy heart, to Quito and then Colombia.

I think he’s just trying to read that logo on her top. Yep, that must be it.

La Sierra: Gifts, Guns and God

Closing in on the 4890 metres summit of Punta Olimpica, The Cordillera Blanca Range, Peru
I wake to a harsh light spilling into my tent. As I peer out into the night there’s a glare of torchlight and the shape of a figure just discernible through the gloom, shuffling towards me. I take a glance at my watch – it’s 3 am. The light relents as a dirtied face appears at the tent flap. There are gaps in his teeth and a smear of grime across his forehead. He grunts whilst his roaming eyes appraise me and my belongings. I poke my head out of the inner tent to greet the stranger and meet a millisecond of disbelief followed by the biggest sinking feeling of my life – in his hand is a revolver. The clip is half out and displaying exactly four shiny gold bullets. He inserts the clip into the gun and uses the weapon to beckon me out of my tent. In the dead of night, miles from the nearest town, alone in rural Peru, heart slamming into my chest wall – I follow.

Two weeks before red and white flags flapped in a light breeze as I pedalled through a molten stream of traffic and harried pedestrians sloshing through Lima’s clamorous streets. The apparent outpouring of national pride over independence day was not all it seemed – flags on public buildings and businesses over the independence weekend are legally required in Peru and those that don’t feel sufficiently Peruvian to display the national strip pay a fine. My two weeks in Lima had been spent writing for magazines, visiting tropical disease experts and a community TB project, dancing, more dancing, engrossing myself in the Olympics on the tele and couchsurfing. The Games were still in mid sway in my home country but I was done with city living and ready for the hills.

Between spells of volleyball and table tennis on TV I had been engrossed in my map trying to decide how I was going to get to country 32 – Ecuador. At one stage my plan was to load my bike onto a self built Balsa wood raft and row down a tributary of the Amazon, the adventure I eluded to in my last post, but there were too many obstacles to overcome – the plan is on hold. Eventually a befittingly titled mountain pass caught my eye – Punta Olimpica or ‘The Olympic Peak’ – if I couldn’t watch the Olympics in my home country then this would have to do. It promised to be an epic climb up to 4890 metres and the pass traversed the venerated Cordillera Blanca – the highest mountain range on earth outside the Himalayas. I would get up close and personal with Huascaran – Peru’s highest peak, and afterwards it would be a freestyle through Peru’s mountainous back country – known locally as La Sierra.

I zipped along the coast to the soundtrack of “GRINGO!” – Peruvians suffer from a sort of ‘gringo tourettes’ which comes with a silly grin. Soon I met my junction to the hills, the new road was immediately swallowed up by a dense field of sugar cane. Several hours later I was spat out into chili growing country – the hills were orange and iridescent with the drying vegetables. The road climbed continuously from near sea level to over 4000 metres, crossing the Cordillera Negra. The ascent was paved but whilst my legs coped well, my bike suffered and I had seven broken spokes in three days – the salty sea air had probably inflicted the damage. But Peru offered a chance to redeem my lost time through Lorry Surfing. It was a game I played in Ethiopia – a slow moving truck crawls past you up the incline and, with a combination of luck and skill, you grab onto the back and your legs get a break for as long as your arm can take the strain.

Chili country

In the evenings I sometimes joined Peruvians to watch TV in restaurants, one of which had a frowning Jesus and crucifix on one wall and a photo of a pouting model in a g-string decorating a calender on the other. Peruvians might seem outwardly demure but they enjoy a bit of titillation as much as anyone. From about six every night the most popular TV show in Peru begins – ‘The war of Girls and Boys’ – from what I can gather it’s a rowdy competition between a clique of sexy, gyrating girls in hot pants and a posse of tanned, peck juddering hunks. Nobody looks particularly Peruvian and regardless of the outcome of each round, the girls launch into an explicit display of booty shaking to dance music whilst the boys whoop and throw in some pelvic thrusts in response. Meanwhile the young and the elderly throughout Peru are glued to their screens.

Eventually I hit the Cordillera Blanca and began the climb up to Punta Olimpica, past glaciers where huge chunks of ice broke free, fell and smashed into rocks below, past frozen waterfalls and past the snow covered colossus of Huascaran. The civil engineer must have been on some strong medication when he or she planned a route across this range. After a month on the coast I once again had to pedal through the pounding headache of altitude sickness, but the views of Huascaran eased the pain – next to me was the highest point in all of the tropical regions on our planet, and one with a violent past. On the 31st of May 1970 an earthquake rocked this region and an avalanche half a mile wide and a mile long rushed down the side of Huascaran, burying nearby towns and killing more than 20,000 people.


Riding in the shadows of glaciers

After roughing it I was craving a bed and decided to chance my luck by asking at a village church where a cheery bunch of Italian missionaries were there to greet me. Without even finishing my well rehearsed request I was ushered inside and given a tour, offered a shower and guided to the dinner table. Over the meal a young missionary enquired

“Are you a Catholic?”
“I’m afraid not” I replied
“But you are a Christian?”
“Oh yes”

Yes! YES! What the hell was I thinking? I’m not sure why I didn’t just confess to my secular ways instead of unashamedly delivering a barefaced lie to God’s dedicated flock, but I suspect my brain had been bypassed – I blame my rumbling stomach and my worn out legs. Together they colluded and, in some sort of internal mutiny fuelled by the paranoid vision of another night of noodles in my tent, they had managed to power my lips and vocal cords.

Everyone stands, turns to face the Crucifix and begins to voice a prayer in unison. Crap. I don’t know the words. They’ll find me out for sure. OK, relax, relax. Just mime or mumble or something. Then silence. Everyone is conversing internally with the Lord, so am I. Please God don’t let them ask where I go to church or my favourite bible passage. And don’t send me to hell for lying to Christians. Some holy call and response stuff follows, I feign solemn ecclesiastical meditation as best I can, wishing it over. The sign of the cross is almost my undoing as I go right instead of left. Son of God before the Holy Ghost you idiot!

We sit and dig into soup followed by two potatoes and lettuce. These Christians don’t eat much, I think, although I’m not too sure what I had expected. I suppose I thought that missionary status aside, being Italian they may have got round to annexing a pizzeria onto the nave of the church. Alas there is not an anchovy, a slab of focaccia or even a clump of fettuccine in sight. Being British and thus eternally afraid of appearing rude, I opt not to ask for more, even though I usually consume about twice as much grub as a non-cyclist and by the looks of them, eight times as much as an Italian missionary. Only one of the bunch doesn’t fit the skinny mould – he’s enormous – it’s perplexing. To stave off hunger I try to figure out why. Perhaps he’s just arrived, I theorise. Perhaps he’s been here a good while but was previously the fattest man on earth and had to be airdropped into Peru by chopper flying priests. Perhaps after one too many lettuce heavy meals he resorted to eating a Peruvian choir boy or a less dedicated missionary and nobody has noticed.

After dinner my stomach and legs team up once again. Somehow my digestive system has gotten wind of the fried chicken place a few doors down from the parish and has convinced my legs to take action. On the pretence of getting supplies for tomorrow, I’m off to top up on calories. I duck into the restaurant and swiftly order a piece of chicken the size of at least two of the missionaries and devour with gusto. Hood up and I’m out, I think I’ve made it without being spotted and deemed, rightfully, an ungrateful and greedy liar. I’m full of guilt and chicken. The chicken was good though, maybe even worth a little hellfire. The next night I spot another parish and give an assured knock. Again the priest shows me to my room, asking  
“And will you join us later for food and prayer?”
“Of course I will” I respond, adding, in English, “And God bless you father”.
Hell hell hell, I’m going to hell.

God’s wrath not yet evident, I wave goodbye and pedal into La Sierra. The last team of generous and thoughtful missionaries had noticed holes in my socks and I left with a welcome bag of new clothes and food. I would need lots of the latter – Peru was about to kick my ass…

At a glance the graph above could represent the heart tracing of a patient about to head to the mortuary or the polygraph of a British politician. In fact this is a graph of altitude verses distance from the Peruvian coast to Cajamarca, the city from where I’m writing this post – a distance of just over 1000 kilometres, most of which was on dirt roads. From hot tropical valley floors Peru’s roads flung me dramatically up to empty mountainous grassland and down again. Climbs sometimes lasted two full, exhausting days. In the valleys I gorged on mangoes, got savaged by sand flies and got noticed by everybody – few, if any, tourists choose this route. I rode along dishing out Buenos Dias’s to every stranger on my path, who’s faces worked frowns as they contemplated the puzzle of why this gringo would choose to ride here. Children asked – “are you from the jungle?” – I’m obviously from far away, and so is the jungle. Their world geography ends at Peru’s Amazon basin.

There was no clarity to this world, La Sierra was a haze. Colours were pastel, bleached and subdued with the exception of the Jacaranda which raged an angry violet in the day and lulled to a deep soothing purple in the evening. The odd steaminess made the countryside feel lazy and relaxed but I could never quite join the tranquillity – my sliver of track rode the mountains like a dolphin rides the surf. But I was content in Peru’s little visited back garden. Jumbles of livestock shambled past, goaded on by women, sometimes scattering in a panic if I rode past too quick. The men were forever building new homes for relatives and friends, lumping mud into moulds and drying out their new bricks in the sun. Watermelons were lined up in broad rows whilst cobs of corn dried on balconies and women’s clothes were hung out to dry, the loud luminescent pinks and greens of the fabric I have seen in combination only once before in an illegal techno rave in a field near Oxford in the mid 90s.

As I eased into the upper reaches of a climb in the late evening fireflies danced around my handlebars and layers of land were exposed beneath me – it was a strange apparition. In amongst the mishmash of interlocking valleys I could still look down upon the spot where I had lunch yesterday, the town where I bartered for mangoes and the field I slept in the previous night. Tomorrow morning I would finish my climb and drop over two vertical kilometres, back into the unabating fever of the tropical lowlands, and then tomorrow afternoon the battle against gravity would begin all over again.
Lights from a small mountain settlement twinkle in the dusk

The slow going in the Sierra left me low on money and I was forced to limit my spending to the equivalent of 60 pence a day, all of which was invested in packet noodles and fruit. From concerned parents I managed to earn three mangoes for examining a three month old baby with a rash, medical examinations for food was a new and promising angle, but my legs were destroyed from all the uphill work, I was desperate for a shower and I was growing ever more hungry. Men continually offered me free lifts in pickups, and I was getting closer to saying yes. As I passed through a small town a young girl was sent over to me by her mother to offer me food and I was soon digging into a pile of rice, lentils and meat. A bag of fresh fruit was a gift ‘for the road’ and then even a little money was handed my way so that I would make it to Cajabamba – I owed it to them now to keep pedalling. Gradually the roads got better, the gradients more amiable, the children cleaner and the offers of lifts less frequent as I neared Cajabamba – a proper town.

So why cycle every inch? I pondered the question as I pedalled through shabby litter-strewn mining towns that came after the Sierra, places that on the surface there was no logical reason to ride through. Surely I could just buy the odd bus ticket to get me through the drab and dull bits? Nobody would know. I don’t though, and I have my reasons. Mainly it’s because I don’t trust myself. If one day the weather was so bad that I allowed myself a bus ride, perhaps next time I would find a less reasonable excuse, perhaps I would be too tired, perhaps “I just don’t feel like it”. If I break my rule I risk opening the flood gates to buses and taxis and trains. Don’t fancy Honduras? Well maybe I’ll just fly to California. Back in 2010 I set off on an adventure to see the world, warts and all. I have never wanted to career through only the airbrushed, pretty bits that I have to share with a million other tourists. I want to form a more authentic impression of our planet. The detritus, the waste and the problems, especially when industry and communities are slammed together, are all part of the true picture and can offer insight into the often awkward balance of man and nature. If I have a choice of course I would elect for the scenic ride but if I stick to my rule and cycle every inch then that choice doesn’t always exist, and in a way, I think that’s fortunate. Finally it’s because I ride for a sense of achievement. When I get to northern Alaska I can rejoice in the knowledge that I made it there from southern Argentina under my own steam.

Fear is everywhere in this world. Everywhere I go I am warned of the ‘bad people’ who are out to get me. In Peru in particular it seems these boogie men are everywhere and time and again I hear ¿No tienes miedo” – “Are you not afraid?” Banditry certainly exists here, in fact of all the cyclists I know who have taken a flight home without the bike they brought with them, many returned from Peru. In Patagonia I even met a cyclist who showed me a little dink on his bicycle frame – it was from where a bullet had ricocheted off as he tried to escape from bandits on the coast. Locals have plenty of stories too and form rural patrols – The Rondas Campesinas – a band of men who I met on the road who fill in for the police. A Ronda is basically a cross between a country bumpkin and a vigilante, if you can imagine that.

Fear is so often misdirected and an incident on the road to Cajamarca reminded me of this. A fine drizzle was falling onto the tarmac. Up ahead the road turned sharply to the left. As I edged uphill towards the curve a rickshaw came careering round the corner. With too much velocity coming round the hairpin and on a wet surface he lost control and the vehicle sped off the tarmac and crashed into a hedgerow, flipping onto it’s side. I went to help the injured –  a pregnant lady passenger with a nose bleed, the careless idiot at the helm was unhurt.

If the accident had occurred thirty seconds later than it did, if I had finished my morning porridge a little quicker, if I had not bothered to stop and check my tent was well packed on the back of the bike, the hedge would have suffered less and I may have been the point of collision. So forget kidnapping and ransom, terrorist bombs and shootings, grizzly tropical diseases, high speed air crashes and the like. The sombre fact is that of the Brits who die from ‘unnatural’ causes abroad, most lose their lives in Road Traffic Accidents.

Back to the stranger in the night…

My brain is telling me to explain, but my mouth is dry and can’t form the words. There had been a storm. When I spotted the lonely house on the hill with a roof that jutted out beyond the walls, I knew it was the only shelter I would find. I had knocked and nobody had answered, I had waited and nobody had come. Finally I had decided to camp by the house, presuming it empty, the gun wielding man introduced himself as Pedro and told me that he was the tenant. Smiling now he ushered me into his home and put the gun aside. I had scared him, apparently. Last month an armed man had appeared at his front door. The bandit had levelled his gun to Pedro’s temple. The stranger stole everything in his small and modest home, he had invested in the gun afterwards for protection. He was a miner, he told me. It made sense – around the hills I had noticed small tunnels dug into the rock, these weren’t commercial mines, the companies were digging for gold the other side of the pass, this side was a free-for-all. Pedro’s family lived in the city of Trujillo a few hundred kilometres away, he worked at night in the tunnels hunting for gold, hence his swarthy face and late return home. He gave me a steaming mug of cocoa and some rice and briefly disappeared. A minute later he was back and unfurled a piece of cloth on the table, two gleaming gold nuggets were displayed for which he told me he will sell in the city for 112 Soles a gram (roughly 30 pounds). I thanked him for the cocoa and rice with far too much enthusiasm, because that’s not really what I was thanking him for.

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!