Bikepacking.com is cycling porn. When we discovered that a Kiwi couple had mapped out an off road route from Arequipa to Lake Titicaca and dubbed it El Camino del Puma, we knew we had to give it a shot, even if deep down we knew our yellow bicycles were not quite suited to the terrain that lay ahead.
Cycling out of a large city is never easy, even on a Sunday morning, so we were grateful to Bruno and Edgar who accompanied us through the northern suburbs of Arequipa towards the village of Chiguata. It felt great to be back on our bikes again even if they were considerably heavier than when we were in France and Spain – we were now carrying 10 litres of water each as well as food for about a week, and plenty of warm clothes for the Peruvian winter.
We arrived in Chiguata (3,000m) to find the locals celebrating Espiritu Santo (The Holy Spirit). The small central plaza was lined with stalls selling religious artefacts and home-made honey, and restaurants spit roasting cuy (guinea pig). Children played on bouncy castles while couples danced in front of a loud band. Two men on horseback then led several donkeys around the plaza carrying large bundles of thin branches with Peruvian flags atop.
We began looking for a hospedaje to stay in that night but alas there wasn’t one. So people told us to seek out El Padre (the priest) and ask him if we could stay with him. We sat outside the church and waited, as the sun went down and the temperature dropped. Eventually he appeared in his black robes and we rushed over to him to explain our situation. He was understanding but asked that we spoke to him after mass! In the meantime the bundles of branches had become a series of mini bonfires and we joined a lovely family from Arequipa who were passing around a bottle of warm purple aniseed liquor.
Eventually the congregation poured out of mass and Padre David reappeared. He was very concerned that he didn’t have an adequate place for us to stay – “it’s not an hospedaje”, he kept emphasising, “it’s a casa retiro” – a building used for religious retreats – “and it’s very dirty”. Apprehensively he showed us to our quarters, and to us it was absolute luxury – a little dusty maybe, but we each had a bed, blankets, a desk and a working bathroom. Padre David was a lovely guy – just a year older than us and from El Salvador, where we’d travelled a few years ago so were able to exchange stories. He’d been in Chiguata a year, and it must have been a huge adjustment for him; in some small way we could relate to each other, finding ourselves in a foreign situation and having to adapt.
The following day we continued snaking our way up the mountain road. The drivers of double-trailer lorries waved and hooted at us enthusiastically before enveloping us in a cloud of dust. We decided we would only climb as far as 3,500m and, as luck would have it, there was a wonderful wild camping spot just off the road in a rocky hollow. Volcan Misti dominates the skyline as soon as you arrive in Arequipa and here she felt closer than ever, especially the canyons and ravines which define her slopes.
We kept climbing slowly the next day, but whilst munching on some lunch on the side of the road realised that we were at least a two-day cycle from the nearest village, Salinas Moche. Running low on water – not ideal when you’re ascending to 4,000m – and unable to find a suitable camping spot, we both reluctantly agreed to try and hitch a lift to Salinas Moche. The first vehicle to pass was a tourist van and the German dentist whose tour it was kindly agreed to give us a lift – “We’re still EU partners for now so should help each other out” – his words, not mine. There was a 30 minute delay while Jose the driver changed the front right tyre after we noticed a puncture and then we were zooming round the remaining bends – I didn’t dare look out of the window! – to the altiplano and on to Salinas Moche (4,300m).
Salinas Moche’s setting on the southern shore of the glistening Laguna Salinas is bleak but spectacular, encircled by a ring of mountains and volcanoes. During the day alpaca and llama graze freely in the pasture leading down to the lake. The village itself is simple, but friendly. Tourists often come in vans on day trips to take photos of the lake and then leave, so the locals were surprised to see us hanging around.
In search for somewhere to stay, Jose told us to speak to the lady who owned the mint green painted corner shop. She led us out the back of her shop into a courtyard with nine squat, terraced rooms. Our room was small but adequate given the lack of other options: a corrugated metal door which you locked using a padlock (luckily I brought mine); a sagging blue tarpaulin ceiling; a table and chair; a light bulb with five wires attached to it; a metal framed bed with a thin mattress and several tired-looking blankets. The concrete walls were painted a mixture of light blue and white, and there was even some graffiti written in black pen: HENRY. Outside, a cockerel and two hens roamed the dusty courtyard – no need to set our alarm clock then. There were also two flush less toilets – ‘varones’ & ‘damas’ – which stunk. Unfortunately for me, the cubicles hadn’t been built for anybody over 5ft 5, and so as I took a pee in the freezing cold I had to crouch over and look straight into the murky water. In hindsight, I should never have agreed to the 20 soles (£5) per night the owner was charging us, but being so thankful for a place to rest our heads after an eventful few days, I didn’t have the energy to negotiate. We were warm(ish) and dry. It would do.
After a day off to acclimatise we decided to head to Salinas Huito, a village on the other side of the lake. The road was a washboard – our poor bikes – and sandy – pushing bikes at 4,500m isn’t much fun – but this is where our story takes a surreal (but nice) twist. A white pickup pulled over and a charming man introduced himself as Manolo – a presenter from a TV series called Reportage al Peru. Think Simon Reeve or Michael Palin. Manolo asked us a few questions about our trip while his two cameramen took some photos and filmed us cycling into the distance.
We arrived in Salinas Huito as the school brass band was playing ‘The animals [or cyclists] came in two by two” and were instantly mobbed by a group of inquisitive students in their blue and white uniforms and carrying oversized western-style rucksacks.
- Where are you from?
- How much does your bike cost?
- Is Salinas Huito bigger or smaller than Salinas Moche?
- What football team do you support? ‘Crystal Palace’ I replied – blank faces!
- Are you two cousins?
There was no hospedaje in Salinas Huito and so a teacher called Esmeralda took us uphill to a rather nice-looking house which turned out to be the Puesto Control for the Reserva Nacional de Salinas y Agueda Blanca and the ranger on duty said we could sleep on the floor. And then who should turn up? Our new celebrity friend, Manolo del Castillo, and his production crew who very kindly invited us out to dinner.
That night we decided we had bitten off more than we could chew with our chosen route to Lake Titicaca. A combination of the wrong bike set up – we needed tarmac not sand! – as well as the altitude and a lack of water refill stops meant the path ahead would be incredibly challenging. It was more than we were ready to take on at this point in the trip – similar sections lie ahead of us, but at the start of our South American journey we needed something a little more straightforward, so we decided to look for a bus. Local bus information was limited and conflicting, so Manolo’s production manager offered us a lift to Imata on the main road between Arequipa and Juliaca.
The following day was fascinating if very stop/start as we followed Manolo and his team around in the back of a pickup, filming and photographing llamas, alpacas and vicunas from every possible angle, as well as us two Brits exploring the bizarre rock formations at Bosque de Rocas de Mauca Arequipa. We’ll have to wait for the final edit to see if we made the cut!
We were eventually dropped off in Imata mid-afternoon. A small central plaza with a church and a school led down the hill, over the train tracks to the pista – the main road. We both felt depressed instantly. Gone was the tranquility of the previous few days, now we were faced with a busy road with gas-guzzling buses and lorries whizzing by. To cycle or not, that was the question. The answer was easy, especially after we had spoken to Geovanni, the owner of the Casa Ciclista in Juliaca. We hailed down the first bus, somehow managed to fit two bicycles, eight panniers and two rucksacks into the luggage compartment below and went to Juliaca.
As we had been told by many different sources, Juliaca can only be described as a shithole (apologies to any juliaquenos out there reading our blog). But Geovanni’s hospitality was first class and his Casa Ciclista a haven from the city’s grim streets. It was here that we met Jochen, a 39-year-old German cycle tourist, with whom we decided to cycle the northern shore of Lake Titicaca and cross into Bolivia. Our first week on the road in South America was certainly an adventure, and we wouldn’t change the sequence of events for all the tarmac in Peru!
The blue lines represent the sections we cycled