If you’ve been following our progress, or at least trying to, I imagine we’ve painted a slightly disjointed picture of our trip since we arrived in South America a month ago, which is sort of how it’s felt. But now we’re on the road and looking back on our first few weeks in Peru, we realise how much we’ve learned and how useful it’s been to be grounded for a while.
A quick summary of activity since we arrived in Peru: we’ve strolled around the neighbourhoods of Lima, flown to Arequipa and taken in the brilliant white architecture of its historic centre, joined several hundred cyclists on their “Critical Mass” ride round the city, watched the Champions League final with ardent Peruvian Liverpool supporters, gone on some day trips hiking and cycling around town, visited Colca Canyon with condors galore, and filled the gaps in between with yet more admin and a battle with a stomach parasite that became affectionately known as Donald (can’t think why). Are you keeping up?
The beady-eyed amongst you may also notice that the past few weeks haven’t really involved much cycling, and you’d be right. We had always planned a week or two off the bikes between Europe and South America, to get our bearings and acclimatise a little before setting out, but that extended somewhat. So before we get into blogging about the trip, I’ve broken down some of the roadblocks we’ve been faced with (pun intended) as a little explainer.
Some broken pannier clips and the realisation that we definitely needed a better system for purifying our water was the initial reason we decided to stay longer in Arequipa. Both deliveries were scheduled to take up to two weeks to arrive, and we agreed we couldn’t leave without them.
It’s also currently winter in this part of the world, but not as we know it in the UK. The days are boiling hot and dry, but as soon as the sun sets at about 5.30 it turns very chilly. It also turns out that we’ve arrived to the coldest Peruvian winter in years, with lows of -18C reported from the altiplano. Not quite prepared to set out with what we had, we made a bit of a panic run to the outdoors store – I upgraded my sleeping bag to a 4-season and between us we’ve added some extra thermals to layer up come sun down. I cannot emphasise enough how glad I am for that now!
When we started planning this trip, we didn’t much fancy flying in to La Paz and cycling out at an altitude of 3,600m, so the nearest suitable airport to fly to was Arequipa at a cool 2,335m. Our thinking was that we would be able to work our way up gradually to Lake Titicaca at 3,812m, arriving at the Bolivian border super fit, with a stockpile of extra haemoglobin pumping through our veins and ready to take on every physical challenge Bolivia had in store for us.
Well, it turns out it doesn’t quite work like that. Arequipa is, in fact, in a bit of a bowl. Surrounding it to the east (our direction of travel) are steep climbs up to the altiplano – you barely need to travel 40km out of the city before you find yourself at a dizzying 4,500m. And the altiplano is just that – a high plain which doesn’t drop down until you reach the Bolivian jungle. Seeing as the highest we’d climbed on our bikes up until this point was about 400m, we were left quaking in our cycling shoes.
The reality is there is no “easy” place to start in this region, and we were faced with a difficult choice of routes to Lake Titicaca…
Option 1: A quiet route we found on Bikepacking.com – very beautiful and interesting, but unpaved and with sections of deep sand – not ideal for our bike set up – oh and a 2000m climb in the first 3 days up to our friend the altiplano.
Option 2: Take the main road – slightly more gradual climbing, on tarmac (better suited to our bikes), but with endless lorries and buses chugging out fumes and not paying much respect to cyclists.
We didn’t much fancy the traffic, so obviously decided to go for the wildly unsuitable, immense physical challenge instead. There are no places to rest for the day between 3,000m and 4,500m on this route, so prior acclimatisation was essential. Arequipa is too low to prep you for that, so what better excuse than a jaunt to the higher up Colca Canyon to breathe in some of that thin air?
Like altitude sickness, culture shock can affect you even if you haven’t experienced it on previous trips and, when we arrived in Peru, both Chillo and I were more overwhelmed than we thought we’d be. Between us we’ve travelled fairly extensively around Latin America, however we were surprised to suffer a big bout of culture shock, especially on landing in Arequipa.
We were resistant to the noise and traffic, none of the food appealed to us – not helped by the faded pictures on restaurant doors advertising mountains of fried dishes – and we stick out like sore thumbs. With my blonde hair and Chillo towering above most Peruvians, let’s just say we’re never going to “blend in”. All of this we’d experienced before, but perhaps the fact that we were about to set out of here on our bikes made us extra sensitive to all the challenges ahead of us.
So in the end the extra time enforced on us by logistics ended up being incredibly beneficial for our own outlook on this trip. Without having to worry about all the technicalities of cycling and moving from place to place, we were just able to take some time out, ease in to our surroundings and really feel comfortable with where we were. Rather than being scared about setting out on our bikes, as we were when we first landed in Arequipa, by the time we left we were desperate to start pedalling – a much more preferable mindset.
And, as seems to happen almost every day on this trip, we have met some brilliant people who have given us essential advice, support and encouragement. The Arequipeno cyclists we met at Masa Critica welcomed us with open arms, showed us around the city and helped us cycle out of it when we were ready to go; Anna the Polish motorcyclist who we met in Colca Canyon plied us with tips and tricks for the road; Keith, a Canadian cycle tourer who we approached in the Plaza de Armas filled us with hours of stories; and even the online community of tourers on similar trips to us are constantly sharing their experiences and advice. We owe a big debt, and hope to be able to start paying it back.
So we’ve learned a lot. When we planned this trip, we could have looked into the route out of Arequipa in more detail, and perhaps should have given water some more thought, but we’re going to encounter many situations that we’re not prepared for on the road, so why not start that way?! With a month of prep behind us and an incredibly challenging route ahead of us, by the time we left Arequipa we felt ready as we ever could be. I’ll leave it to Chillo to recount what happened next…