Posts Tagged ‘coast’

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!

Reggae, rain and a dodgy beard

Despite contending with mountains and ice I have hugely enjoyed the thirty three days I spent cycling through France. It was a privilege to cycle through the big alpine landscape and the Champagne countryside but more than anything I am grateful for the goodwill and hospitality of the French people. I am grateful to the people who took me, fed me and gave me a bed for the night on three separate occasions and to the strangers who bought me breakfast in cafes twice. I am grateful to the man who saw me cycling and insisted that I take ten euros to buy myself a coffee and some food. I am grateful to the supermarkets for stocking 1 litre bottles of coconut flavoured Yops. I am grateful to whoever decided to build tunnels under the Alps when I was tired of cycling over them. I am grateful for all the bike lanes (France has many) and to the French drivers who often gave me so much space that I feared I would be unwittingly responsible for a collision between them and a vehicle coming the other direction. I am grateful to the farmer who found me rough camping in his field the morning after a storm and instead of chasing me off his land with a shotgun gave me an understanding nod and a smile. Finally I am grateful to the French Alps and The Jura for teaching me to man up and for making the next leg comparatively easy. In fact the only thing I am ungrateful for is that scrappy mongrel who gave chase and very nearly sunk his teeth into my left ankle near Nice. You are a disgrace to your country. Vive la France!

After a brief visit to Monaco I crossed the border and arrived in Italy to a very Italian welcome. It was carnival season and soon after crossing the border a festival procession passed by with children on floats wearing an array of different costumes. Whilst waiting at the traffic lights and watching the display a young Italian girl threw a full bucket of confetti over my head. I cycled off chuckling and haemorrhaging confetti in my wake. In Switzerland I heard the locals describe the French as a little “chaotic”. I wonder which adjective they would choose to describe the Italian mentality. I cycled past cars at jaunty angles in Italian town centres, less parked and more abondoned with hazards flashing and as I approached Italian cities the apparent distance to my destination would intermittently rise and fall according to which road signs you chose to believe.

I had to rest in Genoa. There was no getting away from it. The hills and cold had taken its toll on my body, or more likely my student days of hedonism and indulgence which had spilled over into my postgraduate life had led to some serious deconditioning. This, I realised, would take a while to reverse. In any case I have lost almost 10% of my body weight in the last two months despite a voracious appetite. To ensure my weight plateaus I have introduced a new meal into my daily routine and “Middle breakfast” will now take place between breakfast 1 and breakfast 2. Twice I have wondered which component of my bike was clicking only to realise the sound was emanating from my left knee. This then proceeded to become painful and swollen. My back has been giving me the occasional spasm and I have some tendonitis in my hands due to clutching too hard to my handlebars. I took heed of my accident and emergency acronym RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) and put my feet up in Genoa for a few days before pushing on. My plan was to take off into Cinque Terre; a strange rugged coastal landscape with terraces spread over steep hills. My Lonely Planet guide to Cycling Italy described the riding as “demanding”. I naively shrugged this off forgetting that whilst I might be on a world tour as opposed to the average LP reader, I have a fully loaded touring bike and a dodgy left knee. But reinforced with cappuccino, cold pizza and a tubigrip I felt up to the challenge, at least mentally.

A rouge glow at dawn heralded the change coming my direction. The weather turned and it was my fault. I had commented to a friend the previous night that since reaching the coast I had been lucky with the weather. Hex number one. Then foolishly I believed the forecast on the BBC weather website and should have known better. The sullen murk descended and I was robbed of the views that I had worked so hard to enjoy, but every so often the grey veil lifted to reveal a glimpse of the landscape below. The road snaked towards and away from the coastline in a series of sharp chicanes. With an offshore breeze this gave the strange sensation of slowly fighting a headwind on the descents followed by exuberant sprightly climbs uphill with the aid of a tailwind. But things were about to get even steeper. I had saved money on my map of Northern Italy and mine gave little information about the altitude although I was in little doubt as to what lay in store. All the signs were there. The road I had started on was a series of S shaped curves on my map and I saw a sign stating that the road was open but that coaches were not allowed to proceed. I noticed young Italians passing me in four wheel drives with skis and snowboards strapped to the roof racks. Worryingly I also realised that even those Lycra-clad hill junkies of the coast were nowhere to be seen.

I began the thirty five kilometres of almost continuous uphill climbing and by lunch had reached the pass, cycling from roughly sea level to 1200 metres and back into the snow zone. My knee was complaining but I felt exhilarated and glad for the challenge and the change. The Riviera had felt crowded and claustrophobic with little countryside and I had been yearning for some wide open spaces. A group of Italian men bought me a glass of wine at the top of the pass. “Fantastico!”, pat on the back and I plunged down the other side to the pancake flat terrain of the Po river delta and on to Venice.

Cycling in Italy is a competitive sport and the common questions I had got used to “where have you come from?” and “where are you going?” were replaced with “how many kilometres have you done today?” from the Italian cyclists, invariably male. I enjoyed the Italian sense of humour as much as the landscape. Whilst friends in England have compared my new bearded look as akin to that of a Morris Dancer, Italians commented on my hairy visage by putting an arm around my shoulder, grinning and saying “hello homeless man!”. Whilst in Italy I also briefly appeared in the local newspaper in Ferrara, Italy’s “City for cyclists”. I was described as “The Real Forest Gump”. In a town near Ferrara a street gang of elderly Italian men stopped me in the street to comment on my shortcomings of bicycle maintenance.

“You need to oil your chain”.
“I know, thanks”
“Your saddle is too high”
“I think its OK”
“When you come home you will have huge ass”
The gentleman then pranced around with his hands held out behind him to mimic my grossly engorged buttocks. His posse roared with laughter.

The ride from Venice to Trieste was complicated by torrential rain which persistently without cessation for three days and nights whilst I cycled and rough camped at petrol stations, staying clear of the swollen rivers. Many times as I cycle I sing. This is not a habit I had at home and for good reason. The more horizontal the rain and the more punishing the headwind the sunnier my songs become. On the third day I had bashed out an assortment of reggae classics and I was launching into “in the summertime” by Mungo Jerry when I spotted a hunched figure walking through the aerial onslaught in the road ahead. Poncho, beard, pack, a look of resolve. An adventurer. As I greeted him he turned towards me and his face lit up.

“You’re are the first travelling man I have seen in two months” he said with a French accent
“Where are you walking to?”
“I walk to Mongolia!” He announced.

After establishing we were on equally preposterous missions we took some time to share food, tea, stories of alpine cold and tips on how to live cheap on the road. Mateo is a French sculptor and as he walks he leaves cairns along his route. I hopped off my bike and walked with him for fifteen kilometres through the night. We camped together in the park before parting ways the following day. I admired his pluck and his ambition but also his resourcefulness. On his year and half march across the Eurasian landmass he gets by on very little by cooking on open fires and resolving to never spend money on accommodation. “There is always somewhere to sleep” he told me. He had no map but simply walked towards the rising sun in the morning and followed his compass bearing east through the day. This is his blog, in French but with good photos of his work.

Croatian drivers are faster than the Italians. This is a significant statement. In Italy I had begun to suspect someone was putting amphetamines in the Foccacia. As I cycled down the Adriatic coast cars and motorbikes whizzed by and I tried not to look at the roadside memorials, most for young Croatians and many I suspected had died on the road. The fierce weather continued to slow my progress but the rust coloured rock of northern Croatia looked spectacular in the wet. Whenever the sun came out I converted my bike to a rolling drying rack, clothes flapping in the breeze. A cycling rag and bone man. I knew that soon there would be no more putting on wet socks in the morning. Friends were waiting near Zadar with curry, beer, a bed and means to wash and dry the sodden conglomerate mass of fabric that used to represent my clothes.

I said goodbye and set off but again the recurring theme of my journey showed its teeth. As I rode through the hills I saw a flash in the distance. Sheet lightning. Soon I was in the midst of the storm. I had seen electrical storms of this intensity only once before in India. Forks of lightning were visible every ten seconds and I saw one hit the ground perhaps only two kilometres from my location. Milliseconds separated the spark and the boom. In the hills I was exposed and vulnerable. I sought refuge at a small cafe and ate Jaffa cakes whilst I watched for two hours as storm after storm rolled in and lightning lit up the horizon in almost every direction as I looked on. The next morning began with crimson patches of light scintillating over the eastern sky and the new day was a stark contrast to the one before. Sun, sea and the winter tranquility of the Adriatic coastline conspired to make this the best cycling of my trip so far. I coasted south over gentle undulations with the help of a slight tailwind. By nightfall I had covered 160 km. My front light wasn’t working but with little traffic and a full moon I continued into the night, exhilarated and high on endorphins. I reached Dubrovnik, the pearl of the Adriatic, on the last day of February. Time to kill with another friend, time to rest my knee and time to explore the nearby island national park of Mljet.

I leave Western Europe behind with my budget in tatters and hoping to gain some fiscal control in the cheaper and beautiful Balkan lands ahead. Tomorrow I start on my way to the next stopping point, the European capital of culture and the end of continent number one… Istanbul.

Random statistics from my journey so far…

Distance cycled: 3470 km
Top speed: 67.1 km/hr (The Approach to Gap, Les Alpes)
Countries travelled through: 8
Nights I have paid for accommodation: 9 / 58
Most amount of Milka consumed in one sitting: 450g