Posts Tagged ‘Peru’


As I’m winding up this journey I’m getting a touch nostalgic so I thought I’d revisit some experiences from the road. I’m often asked what was the most frightening or dangerous moment during your trip. Probably, it was this one from Peru…


I feel muscles go taut, my whole body as tensioned and thinly tremulous as a tightrope walker inside my sleeping bag. It’s a familiar paralysis. I’m rough camping tonight, and offbeat sounds bring an anxiety that feels primal, that lives in my guts, and even if the sabre tooth tiger is now a policeman, a wandering drunk, or a curious farmer, it can’t be reasoned with, it won’t be allayed.

I stay still, dimly breathing, opening my ears and letting the sounds rush in. I hear the prickle of rain blown into my tent, and the breaths of wind, drawing, billowing the fabric. I think again about how safe spaces mutate into ominous ones when you’re sealed away, blind and sensitive only to its murmurings. I can’t hear footsteps now. Perhaps I never did. A dream maybe, or the fidgeting of trees: the innocent pretence of boughs knocking against one another in the night.

The blue glow of my watch says 3 am. I try to remember where I am. My brain zooms in like I’m moving a cursor on googlemaps : South America, Peru, somewhere in La Sierra. I’m far from a town. That’s right, it was raining. There was a house, silhouetted against a violet sky: aloof, concrete, long-shadowed and as empty as I’d hoped when I peered in through the paneless window. The roof, I saw, jutted out giving me three feet of shelter for my tent and a chance to escape the worst of the rain.

Rough camping is always haunted by stray sounds and grumbling portents, and camping in wild, unpeopled places can feel less adventurous than nights in the edgeland, in the half-light and jumbled shrubs of droning roadsides where car headlights tear strips into the night and streetlights twinkle like stars.

During these nightly detours there’s a feeling of stalking society. I’m awake to the clank and grumble of industry, the pylons that hiss like vipers, the harangue of farm dogs that have fixed my scent. It’s thrillingly outsiderish: the thief at the window. Childishly fun like a game of hide and seek. I worked out that over the last six years I’ve spent around 750 nights seeking out two metres square to make my own campsite. Like twilight, most nights have melted away and escaped from memory, though a few I recall now as glorious victories: the Jordanian cliff top, the Californian sea cave, the middle of a French roundabout, a derelict Ottoman castle. Others I remember as stonking defeats, and these I’ve catalogued under labels which invoke timeworn horror movies – The Night of the Fire Ants, The dawn of the Scorpion under my thermorest, and Midnight of the Flood. And when it doesn’t go wrong, when the footfall is not the axe murdering sociopath you know it must be, you experience a sense of escape that washes away all of that gut-buried fear and seems to make the whole process ecstatically worth it.

Crunch crunch



I’ve been here before too, the moment when all doubt evaporates. The feet – I’m sure now – are pacing out a careful circle. I’m being considered. I’m being surveyed. Someone, perhaps, is coming to a decision about me. The feet turn backwards and move to the other side of my tent, near the door.

Nothing for it now, I’m busted. The footsteps are too close, too precise, for me to have escaped notice. I revive myself in a jolt and sit up, unzip my tent and peer into the shadowy shape of a man whose face I can’t see well until he kneels down and I glimpse his eyes and stop caring about what he looks like because I’m staring at his right hand and the gun clutched within it that rises up and becomes aimed at my head.

The gun is black. It gleams metallically. It looks new. It looks illusory and weird. I see the black hole of the barrel. Something inside me falls and stays falling. I’m not breathing.


I’m babbling. Spanish comes in a messy flood, words clambering over themselves and pronunciation gone to shit.

‘I’m a tourist, it was raining, I needed somewhere away from the rain. What’s your name? I’m Stephen. What do you want? Please, you don’t need the gun’

‘Fuera’ – Get out. Not angry, not calm. Just instructive. I move. It happens in a flurry, I’ve twisted out from my sleeping bag, my shorts are on, I’m scrabbling to leave my tent. I’m saying ‘fuck’ a lot. And now I’m standing in front of a man with a revolver pointed at my guts. I can see his face now, wet with rain and streaked with mud. His eyes are wide, penetrating, moonlit. I notice that I’m shaking. I notice that he’s shaking too. His gun-hand wavers.

I’m reassured then in a wave. He’s scared. Scared enough to do something rash? I feel myself spiraling again. He angles the gun up a little, I judge the trajectory to meet my chest. My lungs, my heart, my aorta, my trachea, my spinal cord.

‘Get into my house’. There’s a tremble in that voice too.

OK, it’s his house. Think, think. But I’m numb, my mind’s snagged, insensate like my skin, unaffected by the cold and slicking rain.

Who is this? The infamous Ladrones perhaps, one of the bandits I’ve been warned of. There’s a flash of a conversation I had with a biker three weeks ago who’d been shot at, he’d showed me where a bullet had grazed his bicycle frame, it had sounded so fantastical I’d chosen not to believe him. Or maybe he’s one of the Rondas Campesinas, the local vigilantes who patrol rural Peru and fill in for the police, that would be better.

I walk towards the front door of the house, too fast, and he follows shortly behind me, the timbre of the footfall somehow worse than before. I feel the tendons in my neck in tension as I listen for a shot and wait for my back to explode, and blood to soak the front of my chest, movie-style. No shot comes by the time I reach the wooden door which creaks open under my shove.

‘Sit down. Who are you?’

A light comes on. I sit on a wooden chair by a table. I see a small stove in the corner that I must have missed when I peered in the window, but there’s little else to suggest this is anyone’s home.

‘What do you want?’ he says

My mind races to explain the rapidity of his questions, the flustered zip of his eyes, that catch in his voice. But something strange is happening: his fear has stopped precipitating more of my own. I start to wonder if it holds some key to getting out of this.

‘I’m just a tourist, from England. I’m travelling by bicycle. It was raining. I needed somewhere to camp’

He eyes fall away from me, to the side, he scrunches up his dirty face, he seems to be thinking. And with a small backwards lean, the gun falls down to his side.

‘It’s cold tonight’

‘Si señor’

‘Would you like some soup?’

Soup. Right. That would be wonderful. It wasn’t high on my list, but I’ll take it. I nod.

I’m still vigorously nodding as he moves to the stove and fiddles, his back to me. The gun is on the counter now: it’s unheld, it’s beyond an intrepid lunge away, I notice. He turns back to me.

‘Some men came to my home last month. They had guns. They took everything’ he says, explaining my impression that the place was derelict.

‘I bought this for protection. I thought you were one of them’

He smiles for the first time, and I realise I’m doing the same, but in a wildly exaggerated way.

‘Why are you back so late?’ I ask

‘Oro’ he says. Gold.

Of course, the muddy face, and all those holes I’d seen cut into the hillsides. This opportunistic mining is illegal, but local men ignore the rules and make nocturnal forays. Some have died when their holes cave in. They make pennies. The multinationals take it away in trucks.

‘Look what I found’ he walks over to me, digs into his pocket and brings out a wad of tissue paper. Opening it up two nuggets of gold glint in the yellowy dance of the electric light.

‘Wow. How much will you sell them for?’

‘112 soles per gram’; he says with pride. Thirty quid. Probably it’s nothing compared to their worth.

We talk, Vancho and I. He tells me about his family, a wife and three children, a few hundred kilometres away in a poor industrial town on the coast, high in crime and transient, dislocated people. He tells me of how he’s struggling to look after them.

Finally he says ‘Well if you need anything, you can knock. Buenas noches, Señor.’

‘Muchas gracias’ It’s for the soup, for the not killing me, but mostly for not toying with my impression that the world is not the chilling, calculated one of the TV news.

I return to my tent, the rain has stopped and a few stars are out. I fall asleep slowly next to Vancho’s home, listening again to the night. There’s a lulling, reassuring whisper to the wind, and in a few hours the sun will rise.

Two more blog posts to come: the next on Europe, the last one on thoughts of coming home.A new blog will rise from the ashes from this one.
I’ve been very lucky to receive regular donations from the
public over the last three years of this trip since I ran out of money, first through
a crowdfunding campaign and then through the ‘donate/ buy me some noodles’
button on this website. Along with income from travel writing and giving presentations, this has been essential for me to continue. I’m seriously
running on empty in the final weeks of my trip, so if you’ve enjoyed this blog
and would like to make a small contribution so
that I can sneak into a café and buy myself a coffee, or sleep in a hostel to
escape the snow, I would be immensely grateful. Here’s the link…

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!

Sun and death in the lands of the Inca

Dodging The Drop  
Riding the World’s Most Dangerous Road in Bolivia

A waft of frigid mist drifts across the splintered wooden crosses, cloaking their detail, and a shiver ripples through my arms and down my back as I watch their shapes fade threateningly back to life. They were erected as memorials to the backpackers and locals who have plummeted to their death, and the abyss lies just a few feet from where I’m standing.

On first consideration it might seem surprising that people still die whilst cycling the North Yungas Road in Bolivia, a road eagerly referred to by its more popular and dread-inducing monikor – El Camino de la Muerte, Spanish for ‘The Death Road’. If a person were going to be a little more careful than usual, I reason, surely it would be at a location in which ‘Death’ was half the title. But, teeth chattering in the sub zero bite of 4700 metres above sea level at the very start of this now infamous freewheel, I change my mind.

The name it seems is just an invitation to push the boundaries of good sense and later bath in the glory of having nearly died, but not. This truth emerges as I catch glimpses of the fired up faces of the bikers, creased and flushed with surging adrenaline, as they rocket down the unsealed track next to a chiasmic drop which flanks the Death Road for most of its course, the reason behind all the crosses and the well-deserved reputation.

I’m here on my loaded touring bike, cleats detached for this ride, and in the midst of a throng of bikers who have opted instead to join an organised tour. In all seventeen companies now sprinkle the Death Road with bikes and riders and the setting is as staggering as the premise of riding it. Cut into the jungle-clad mountains of the Yungas, just one hour from Bolivia’s most populous city of La Paz, the foreboding rock-strewn track twists an almost continuous descent for over forty miles. Whilst rallying down over three and a half thousand vertical metres, riders travel not only from altitude to lowland but from cloud filled cold to humid tropical heat and from unsullied fear to, fingers crossed, celebration and relief.

After peering tentatively over the unguarded road’s edge and briefly marveling at the sheer cliff face and remote tree tops beneath, I wonder whether the Paraguayan prisoners of war who constructed this road in the 1930s had any inkling at the time of its eventual fate. Over the years the Death Road has claimed thousands of lives and is now a feared and notorious but popular attraction along the deeply rutted Gringo Trail of South America.

Inside the hostels of La Paz myths concerning the Death Road abound. A car flying over the edge only one week ago was the current star of the rumour mill, batted around mostly by a bunch of Israelis just back from a tour, one nursing a broken wrist after he had thrown himself from his wayward bike before it had thrown him into the jungle. To find out some hard facts, I decide to ask the experts. ‘The risks are very real. And this road is not the place to cut corners.’ Proclaims Derren Patterson of Gravity, the company home to the original posse of guides who dreamt up the ride back in 1998 and who still boast an unrivalled safety record. ‘The interest for most companies is to sell the tour as cheaply as possible because cheap backpackers often only look at the price tag without thinking that in Bolivia there are no standards for activities like this.’ Cut corners, it emerges, come in the shape of re-welded frames, underpaid guides, cheap parts and even fake brake pads.

Researching the road’s murky past only led me to further question my decision to join these thrill junkies. The Death Road was the site of Bolivia’s biggest road accident when, in 1983, a bus carrying over one hundred passengers hurtled over the precipice and tumbled into oblivion. By the mid-90s it was official once it was christened The World’s Most Dangerous Road following a review by the Inter-American Development Bank who estimated that 200 to 300 people careered off its edge every year and that, per mile, there were more fatalities here than on any other road on earth. Not long after this unsavory honour was bestowed on the North Yungas Road guides and backpackers arrived in force, keen for a slap of adrenaline and a photo on Facebook, complete with a boastful caption. By 2006 the riders had it almost all to themselves once the construction of a new thoroughfare to the jungle was completed, taking with it most of the traffic. Amongst the cyclists who have dared not all have reached the small town of Coroico near the finish line. In the last twelve years eighteen “I survived The World’s Most Dangerous Road” t-shirts have gone spare.

A view from the upper reaches of the Death Road

It’s near the top of the descent that resides the most hair-raising section. At this altitude clouds frequently invade the forest, obscuring both the three metre wide sliver of rugged terrain ahead and the vertiginous drop immediately beside it. I watch as the wind drives dense whirls of cloud into the foliage to reveal an exaggerated and menacing vista, tempting and deterring the gathered riders about to take the plunge. Rows of impossibly deep Vs made up of converging mountainsides stretch away, becoming ever more blurred by a distant and sullen murk. Jungle hugs every bulge and whim of the mountains; beneath the cliffs it hides the twisted and rusting metal carcasses of hundreds of trucks and cars. As well as the magic of the precipice, it’s exhilarating too being so enclosed in nature.

As I begin the descent an internal monologue kicks up, a perhaps predictable “DEATH road… be careful!” on repeat. But soon another voice takes over, going something like “YEAAAAAAH! I’m riding the DEATH road! WOOOOOOOOH!” My enthusiasm though is soon subdued as I begin wobbling wildly in the aftermath of a collision between my front tyre and a fist sized chunk of rock. I pull swiftly over to the right as a fleet of Konas and their hooting jockeys rampage past, each sensibly screaming “Coming left!” as they go. As a one day aspiring father I start to wish that I too had suspension. Throughout these upper reaches water patters onto the rocky road surface from high above, only the truly courageous, skillful or imbecilic veer to avoid getting wet; I am none of the above and receive a sopping for my cowardice. After each hairy switchback another huge curl of terror-inducing trail reveals itself along with one very clear impression – roads do not belong here.

The soundtrack of the Yungas doesn’t seem to fit with the chilling vista, a timid and quirky blend of squawks, buzzes and clicks attest to the richness of life that lurks in the nearby greenery. Underneath and barely discernible there’s another layer of sound – the trickle and gush of hidden jungle streams. At times it’s tempting to wonder at the scenery, to glance behind, to search for the source of that strange jungle sound, and then the inner voice shouts ‘DEATH ROAD!’ and I reign in my curiosity and refocus my attention on my juddering bicycle and the ever present peril to my left. Today, I remind myself, I’m careful. Every so often someone is going to do their best impression of ET going home and I have promised my mum I will not be the next abyss-bound silhouette.

At one of the viewing points en route I skid to a halt and begin chatting to a gaggle of hyperventilating but for now stationary bikers and as I discover, The Death Road draws all sorts. ‘My son challenged me to give it a go!’ a pudgy middle aged man confides with a nervous grin, now bathed in perspiration and perhaps questioning the wisdom of accepting a dare from a sixteen year old. Roughly twenty five thousand riders enjoy the buzz and bragging rights every year, from masters of downhill to slack fast food junkies and from multinational gangs of backpackers to honeymooning couples, competing for glory. The tour groups issue their riders with elbow pads and helmets, as we clamber back onto bikes I can’t help but consider what the protective kit and their human contents would look like after a hundred metre free fall and a jungle canopy crash-landing, but to avoid an embarrassing panic attack, I try hard not to. Behind a van trails our group of riders so that the guides can assist in case of accident, or get a front seat view if one of their clients flies a short cut to the finishing altitude.

Towards the lower reaches I relax a little more and gravity spins my wheels ever faster. The temperature rises, clouds evaporate, multi-hued butterflies dance beneath my handlebars and fetching purple flowers and banana plantations fill my peripheral vision. Then all of a sudden I’m coasting through a village and towards a rumbling river, above birds of prey glide languorously in low loops and Bolivia welcomes me back from the edge of reason with beaming children and ogling women festooned in bowler hats and traditional pollera skirts of shocking pink. I spot the father of the teenager, his face now as iridescent as the skirts but also alight with jubilation. I exhale my relief knowing that I too have made it, although I’m concerned for my brake pads, they are now at death’s door. The bikers swiftly pile into town and just as rapidly into bars where they high five and down celebratory beers. Others pull wheelies but most don’t feel the need to show off any more than donning their “I survived…” t-shirts. A quick body count by a guide confirms that, this time, everyone gets one.

There’s a subset of cyclists who enjoy climbs, I’m one of them, and from the off my inner masochist wasn’t entirely happy with the prospect of spinning downhill for hours. Where’s the payback? I needed to know. Where the pain to go with the gain? Fortunately for the guilty, the Death Road has another currency – you pay for the freewheeling with fear and there’s now no doubt in my mind – it’s more than a fair price.

But of course for the vast majority the Death Road will fail to fulfill its eponymous promise, in fact for me the opposite was true and I finished the ride not just giddy with relief, but fiercely alive. They could change the title, somehow though, I don’t think it would have quite the same draw.

An island of sun and a lake in the sky 
Visiting Sun Island in Lake Titicaca

After escaping the action of La Paz I headed west to the shores of Lake Titicaca, the largest lake in South America and the highest lake of it’s size in the world at a lofty 3812 metres above sea level. The road around the lake holds me tight to it’s shore, often just a few faded green fields melting into the lake water lie between us. Further out, amongst the passive blue ripples, rise the giant mounds of islands that from a distance resemble the humps of huge sea monsters frozen in time. Beyond the islands, and the invisible opposing shore, hover snowy mountain tops, their bases lost in a grey-blue blur which hangs mysteriously over the lake.

Copacabana is another popular stop on the Gringo Trail, a ‘path’ that I swore to abandon once I had made it as far as Cusco in Peru. A wave of drug dealers, gangs of Israelis revelling in their post army exodus, overly assertive restaurant touts and chocolate selling hippies surge through the cobbled streets. I sniff out the cheapest hostel in town and set about trying to repair my only boots which have a jagged gash which now reveals half the sole. South Americans have much smaller feet and finding replacements my size has been impossible. Tomorrow I want to escape the masses and trek across Sun Island.

The tree scattered hills behind Copacabana slowly deflate behind the frothy, parabolic wake of our boat and the expanding blue of Lake Titicaca. I sit hunched up, hugging my knees to my chest and shivering on the open top deck of a boat heading for Sun Island, one of the lake’s largest and famed for the array of Inca ruins pockmarking the rocky terrain. I am engulfed in different languages, I recognise German, Hebrew, Spanish, French and Portuguese. Amongst the assembled tourists is a German chewing coca leaf and a couple of French tourists who have embraced Bolivian culture to the extent that they are adorned in the loud colours of the traditional knit-wear. I smile secretly to myself as I imagine them wondering into the arrivals terminal at some major European airport, still festooned in the traditional garbs, perhaps also with alpaca fleece coats and pan pipes.

We chug along beside the southern end of the island. The choppy, tight undulations of the terrain have a wave-like quality, the land seems like an elevated, drab version of the lake itself. Spiky succulents sprout out of the rocky slopes and shore side wooden fishing boats break into a wobbly dance as they meet the churning wake of our craft.

We walk from the beaches up the rocky path with a guide who has a crooked toothless grin and a cow boy style hat, as large black and white birds of prey patrol the sky above. He takes us to an alter, the original sacrificial table used by the Incas when they killed virgins on special ceremonies. He talks us through the presumed details of the brutal process, the murder and subsequent removal of the heart. To demonstrate he raises a clawed hand enclosing the imaginary heart fresh from the virgin’s chest, the circle of gasping tourists fix excited and appalled eyes on the hand.

Afterwards I set off with Coni, a Swizz girl I met on the boat. For three hours we walk the path as it arcs and dips over the rolling spine of the island, the dark blue view of the lake never escapes my eye line. As I amble past terraced fields and watch the gulls gliding from lake to shore, I admire the tranquillity of the setting, impressed that it’s now a world away from the violent and dramatic distant past we have been privy to. 

City of the Incas
Visiting the ruins at Machu Picchu

The train seemed the most time-conservative way to reach Machu Picchu. I take a seat opposite an American couple from Colorado who chat away in that relaxed and familiar way that Americans have when they strike up conversation with strangers. A little later an older American lady sits down next to me, a conversational non-sequitur who rambles through topics, from the people she has met with very large feet to what happens to horses when they get a cold. The train tracks coddle the bank of the Urubamba river, frothy and eye-catching. With the passing minutes the forest grows thicker, trees overhang the far river bank, their creepers and vines dangling into the water like a congregation of still and pensive fishermen. The train finally stops at Agua Calientes and I step onto a platform full of jostling, confused tourists and hotel porters.

Crowded buses make runs up the hill to Machu Picchu but I feel a little guilty about taking the train instead of the trekking option so decide to redeem myself by hiking for an hour uphill to reach it. In the morning heat it’s a sweaty battle up, but when I emerge from the jungle foliage and Machu Picchu shouts it’s presence, I stop dead and appreciate the enormous landscape which is swimming in sunlight and throngs of sightseers. The feeling is akin to walking onto a stage and the curtain being drawn to reveal the audience because surrounding the ruins runs a huge circle of the blunt, verdant cones of even grander mountains.

After joining the shuffling hoards, and trying to covertly listen to knowledgeable tour guides, I make it back to Agua Calientes where I am chuffed to catch up with Tom, a good friend from my time in Liverpool, along with his wife Thea and her parents. That night the town is alive with outlandish costumes, noisy drunks and dancing backpackers. The occasion is a saint’s day, although as I have learnt of late, the Peruvians will take any excuse for a fiesta.

So in contrast to my usual type of blog piece, this month I decided to write three short pieces about popular tourist activities in Bolivia and Peru. For the next post expect my more usual tales of adventure from a remote part of Peru as I cycle one of the toughest routes so far, taking in over five passes each in excess of 5000 metres altitude and hitting some notoriously bad roads on which I will climb higher in one week than from sea level to the summit of Mount Everest. Once through the central highlands I’ll join the coast and scoot along to Lima where I plan to visit projects looking at TB control in the shanty towns around the capital as well as a project which is focused on the eradication of tapeworm infection. I will report back next month.