That classic traveller’s tale of stumbling across a special moment with “the locals”
My stomach was rumbling and all I could think about was pedalling as hard as I could to the next town, in the hope there would be a “comedor” selling some form of chicken and rice. I’m not a good cyclist on an empty stomach and am very prone to getting “hangry”.
Having passed through several empty villages my hopes were low. But we eventually came to the village of Iquipuni, where there was a row of cars and buses parked on the side of the road and we could hear noise around the corner – this is where everyone was! We had arrived at a full-blown football tournament, presided over by several stately-looking men. No sooner had we got off our bikes were they beckoning us over to the field and inviting us to sit at their table, which was laden with more types of potato than you can imagine. We were instructed to help ourselves – I had no hesitation in obliging.
Turns out it was June 21st, the Aymara New Year and a national holiday, so the village was hosting a tournament between the three surrounding communities – a whopping 18 teams were playing, as many people proudly told us. That morning many of the locals had climbed up the mountain – Okurani – to welcome the sunrise, similarly to how some people would be doing so for the summer solstice back home. By coincidence, that morning we had set out early when it was freezing cold, and been especially appreciative when the sun eventually hit and warmed up our faces.
We’d planned to cover lots of distance that day, but easily passed several hours chatting away and soaking up the holiday atmosphere. As Chillo and our new cycling friend Jochen carried on chatting to the men, I was called over by the women, who were sitting separately in a circle on the ground dishing out coca leaves. I was promptly given a handful of leaves to chew, washed down with a cup of pepsi, while they asked me all about us and our trip. I got talking in particular to Pamela, a woman about my age who had moved to Iquipuni from La Paz with her husband Ariel – they were looking for a quieter life outside the city and worked in farming as well as several social projects.
Chillo got chatting to some of the children, and earned massive brownie points by brandishing our map of Bolivia. Displaying the map in teacherly fashion he asked “¿Dónde estamos?” – “Where are we?” to Melina, a little girl who was particularly interested. “En el campo!” – “in the countryside!” she quite rightly insisted.
After Melina helped me into my helmet we reluctantly left the party to make it to the next town to stop for the night. While the potatoes were delicious (not even the finest King Edwards in the UK can beat the papas out here), my stomach was still rumbling, but the experience was plenty enough fuel to get us to the end of the day. When we arrived in Iquipuni it was almost as if they had expected us – without hesitation we had been welcomed in by this group of people. They were clearly very busy running an important day for their community, but made us feel like they had all the time in the world for us.
All this within a couple of hours of crossing into Bolivia, a country where a lot of people (travellers as well as Latin Americans) told us not to expect the same friendliness as we might experience in Peru, but they couldn’t be more wrong. It’s different here, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t kind and willing to chat and help if you seek it out, or even if you just pull up at the side of the road. As first days in new countries go, this one will be hard to beat.
This was just a few hours, but a definite highlight in a week of spectacular cycling around Lake Titicaca. The lake is split across Peru and Bolivia, set high up on the Andean altiplano, and it’s the highest navigable lake in the world. While it lies between two countries, there are a lot of shared traditions between the indigenous communities that make up the majority of the Lake’s population – the biggest being the Aymara and Quechua. As Ariel told me, they have Aymara family across the lake in Peru who they visit often. The borders are there, but they only go so far as to separate the cultures here.
In our two weeks discovering the area, we’ve cycled up mountain passes, mastered the art of fending off dog chases, camped on the beach, pelted down 10km descents while blaring out Primal Scream, encountered yet more interesting sleeping arrangements (mattresses filled with rice is apparently a thing?!) and enjoyed miles and miles of (mostly) quiet, (mostly) paved roads, meaning we could just relax and enjoy every new stunning view as it appeared around the corner.
Through all this we’ve been accompanied by our new friend Jochen from Stuttgart, who started his trip all the way north in Bogota, Colombia. We’ve loved having a cycling buddy; generally speaking, cycling as a couple we get on very well (thank god!), but it’s good to change the dynamic every once in a while!! It’s been an incredible week and feels so good to be moving so freely and easily on our bikes again.
After a few days rest in Copacabana (the Bolivian one, not the Brazilian), which was prolonged by Chillo and I suffering yet more stomach problems, we’re now in La Paz, having gunned out or first 100km day to get here. It’s sad to leave the lake behind, but I’ll always look back on this part of the trip as the section that got us going and gave us the confidence that we can do this trip. Our cycle out of Arequipa was an adventure, but I think deep down it may have knocked me a little bit. But now with over 500km under our belt I’m so excited for what’s ahead. All that’s to do now is figure out where we go next!