From: Cusco, Peru
Back in Cusco after a 12 day trip to the jungle town of Puerto Maldonado. Six
of those twelve days were spent cycling up over the Andes to their very edge
and then down their steep backside all the way to the jungle.
- Distance cycled: 490km / 305mi
- Mountain passes crossed: 2
- Highest point: 4,751 m / 15,587 ft
(higher than any point in the lower 48 USA)
- Lowest point: 0m / 0 ft
- Oddest camping spot: a graveyard or a rural school classroom (tie)
- Total crashes: 1
- Total spent: $40
This was my first cycling trip with a partner. Despite my initial apprehension,
the trip went smashingly well. I wasn’t concerned about my friend’s physical
fitness, she’s in great physical shape and has the steely willpower of
a warrior. Rather, I was uneasy that the sanctity of solo travel, as I’ve been
practicing for months now, would be marred by the presence of another.
In the end, my fears were unfounded, in no small part because my partner
possesses that essential travel mojo that makes for the best traveling buddies.
You know these people, they’re relaxed, open-minded, and aren’t afraid to
compromise on the little stuff. They’re also strong, independent, and
can take care of themselves. Most importantly perhaps, they keep their heads
about them when shit goes down. And, boy, did shit go down this trip.
It is the morning of third day. Ahead of us is the final and highest pass in
our journey out of the Andes. Only 4,000 vertical feet stand between us and the
promised glorious downhill plunge into the jungle. Beginning outside the small
town of Ocangate, we amble along pleasantly through the valley, breakfast still
settling in our stomachs. The mood is high.
After a short time, the human influence on the land begins to fade away. The
fences penning the llama herds end, and the little scratches in the ground that
mark cultivated land peter out. The road changes as well; the gentle incline
has turned upward sharply. We are headed out of the valley.
The rough and rugged landscape of the Andes far above the timber line.
Once the road turns up, Bron and I’s chatter abruptly stops. We pause once more
to adjust our MP3 players, both choosing suitable auditory motivation. My
choice is electronic music with a heavy, steady, and relentless beat. We each
settle into our own private place and push off towards the apex.
The curve where the steep incline more or less began
A mountain is something you must climb alone. You might be accompanied by
others, but they don’t climb the mountain for you. Only you can bring yourself
to keep those pedals turning and your grip firm on the bars. The correct state
of mind takes you farther than physical prowess ever will. Pounding bass in
your ear to urge you forward doesn’t hurt either.
We continue in silence and at our own pace for several hours, stopping every
few kilometers to sync up. Each bend in the road reveals more incline. It’s around
midday now and the weather is taking a turn. Dark ominous clouds roil overhead. We
turn one corner to see the road ahead disappear into a thick white wall of fog.
The temperature plummets.
It’s cold at wet at the top of the world.
We press forward into the fog. A light frigid rain begins to spatter our coats.
Before long the rain transforms into a wet heavy sleet that smacks into your
face and melts, flooding down your neck as an unpleasant stream of frosty
water. Unconsciously, we drift closer to each other, matching our paces. Who
wants to be alone in the dark chilly wetness in the middle-of-nowhere at the
top of everything?
We’re not immune to the altitude. This high, oxygen is hard to come by. The
instant you stop for breath, the icy bite you’ve been keeping at bay with
determined pedaling returns with a vengeance. You’re cold so you pedal faster,
which works for a short time, but you can’t sustain it at this altitude. Tired,
you stop to rest. A cunning trap.
At one point we pass three young children on the side of the road. We are miles
from anywhere, in horrible weather, and these children are walking down the
road as if coming home from school. The children (and their bloody mean dog)
stop and sit on the curb some 20 feet away and watch us attempting, rather
undextrously, to peel a little mandarin orange. After we greedily snarf it
down (lunch-time had long since past and we’re running low on energy) I’m about
to start on our second one when I feel a twinge of guilt. Not seeing any orange
trees in the immediate proximity, I figure a sweet orange would be a nice
treat. After all, we will get out of this freezing situation and find more
oranges. I can’t say the same for them.
I scuttle over and hand one of them the orange, attempting to make small talk
in Spanish and Quechua. They say nothing. I stare at them for a moment. An
eerie emptiness stares back. Then their dog goes utter apeshit.
Scrambling back onto my bike, we push off into the headwind, heads down,
pedaling furiously to outrun the dog berserking at our heels. I toss
a glance over my head as we round a bend, the kids are still sitting there,
orange in hand, expressionless.
Several curves later we stumble across the sign indicating we’ve reached the summit.
Cold. Stark. Unassuming. We made it.
And so passed the first challenge of the trip, or so we thought. Coming up
soon, more cold, piercing winds, scorching heat, and lots of blood (and
a little screaming).