The music is our version of “Rivers and Roads” originally by “The Head and the Heart”.
The music is our version of “Rivers and Roads” originally by “The Head and the Heart”.
In September last year, the River Crew left Chesterville, Ontario, in Adrian’s veggie-oil-converted car Tucker and drove to Chicago.
Since then, Tristan and I have canoed 2262 kilometres down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, sailed 3100 kilometres from North Florida to Puerto Rico, and cycled 3500 kilometres from Medellin, Colombia, to Iquique, Chile (without counting the distances ferried, flown—Puerto Rico to Medellin—hitchhiked and bused). Over the 324 days, we each spent a total of 6017.00 $, which per day works out to 18.50 $ and per month is 560.00 $ each—the amount that many people spend on rent alone (it comes to 492.00 $/month and 16.40 $/day if we don’t factor in the cost of our flight home). We visited 8 countries (the United States, the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Chile; 9 if you count Puerto Rico, which I sort of do). We discovered the beauty and the freedom of river travel, the excitement of the sea and the horrors of seasickness, and the challenges and rewards of cycle touring. Everywhere we went we found out, again and again, how shockingly kind human beings can be.
It’s difficult trying to find simple ways to sum up the past 11 months. I think that part of the trickiness of it has to do with the fact that for most of that time, we were on the move—constantly arriving in new places and then leaving them, figuring out new environments, interacting with new people—which means that we haven’t had the time or mental space to think much about what we’ve been doing and how we feel about it in less of an immediate sense than “GOING UPHILL IS HARD” or “This empanada is amaaaaaazing.” Another challenge, when picking through my thoughts about it, is that like most things in life, this trip was a mix: both difficult and wonderful, satisfying and frustrating, commonplace and thrilling. Now that it’s over, it seems to be time to try to sort through the memories of it and to figure out ways of explaining it and understanding it.
One thing that I have definitely learned is that long-term travel is hard. When I have traveled in the past, whether it was for a week or a couple of months, the end of the trip tends to feel just a bit too soon; there is always more that I would have wanted to do, and I have daydreamed about open-ended, no-return-date types of trips for years. I never seriously considered how difficult it would be to go for months and months without being able to make friends that will stick around, or without staying rooted in one place for longer than a couple of weeks. There are strangely simple things that I missed very intensely, like sitting in a familiar living room drinking a cup of tea with milk.
I think that part of the challenge came from our style of travel, where our home was the road (or the river, or the sea), and so although we often took rest-days or even weeks, the norm that we were always returning to was one of movement. In a lot of ways this was wonderful, because it allowed us to see an incredible amount of things and gain perspective quite quickly on the differences between the regions we were passing through. But it was also exhausting, and made us both crave stability and familiarity.
Since getting back, one of the big questions that people ask is what our favourite place was. I find it hard to answer this question, because over the course of almost a year we have passed through so many different places and they have all had impacts on me in different ways and for different reasons. For instance, in terms of landscape, our time in the States was probably the least interesting; but some of the most memorable moments of the whole trip came from the encounters that we had with people along the river. And in Colombia, it was amazing to be in such a wildly different part of the world for the first time, but it was also a difficult period because we were adjusting to being on our bikes every day while trying to cycle through the Andes. Like in any part of life, there were ups and downs in every part of our adventure. Because it’s fun looking back on the ups, here are a few that stand out for me:
– Our very first day of canoeing. It began with a warm send-off from our Chicago host Joel, followed by the surreal experience of canoeing between the high-rises of downtown Chicago. In a few hours we were out of the city and into what felt like the wilderness, accentuated here and there by the strange, dystopian industrial structures that followed us all the way down both rivers. That afternoon we discovered that we could rig up a sail using our tarp and extra paddles, and I remember that afternoon as a warm, lazy, glorious introduction to life on the river. That day was full of all of the excitement that comes at the beginnings of things, and it was absolutely perfect and magical.
– Another great day on the river: my birthday, when we camped by the beach, made a huge bonfire, went swimming in the dark, and had perogies, sausages and champagne for dinner wearing New Years hats that we found at an abandoned restaurant.
– When we moved onto T’ien Hou, the sailboat that we crewed on. Our captain David anchored her just off-shore in Pensacola the night before we set off on the sailing trip, and Tristan and I got to stay on the boat just the two of us, extremely excited about the fact that we had managed to find a sailboat to take us south, and blown away by how gorgeous it was. When we woke up in the morning we climbed out of our tiny bed in the focsle, made ourselves some tea, brought our sleeping bags up onto the deck and watched the sunrise.
– Snorkelling. As someone who goes nuts with enthusiasm every time I watch Blue Planet, it was overwhelming to be able to jump into the water in the Caribbean and within ten minutes find myself floating a foot or two above all sorts of bizarre and lovely creatures, swimming around happily in their natural habitats. I remember one spot in Puerto Rico where Tristan and I went in search of sea turtles, and instead I found myself directly above a spotted eagle ray, with a wingspan of a couple metres, gliding slowly through the water several feet beneath me.
– The feeling of getting back onto my bicycle in Puerto Rico after being on the sailboat for a month. It was like flying.
– Seeing Colombia from the window of the plane as we flew into Medellin. It was so green and lush and mountainous, and it looked like nothing I had ever seen before. After being on islands for a couple of months, the awareness of the immensity of the continent that we were arriving on was daunting and thrilling.
– Climbing Huayna Potosi, in Bolivia. Mountain-climbing is not something that I have ever thought I would want to do or enjoy doing, but it was such a lovely trip. This was due in large part to the fact that we got to spend a lot of our time there drinking tea and socializing with wonderful people, something that we had been starved for. The climb itself was also a really valuable experience for me, because it made me realize that I am often more capable of things than I expect to be, and that doing things that are intimidating can be (and usually is) very rewarding.
– Getting the chance to bike with others after staying at the La Paz Casa de Ciclistas. It gave us so much fresh energy to spend even just a couple of days travelling with new friends; although Tristan and I love each other very much, after being together literally all day every day with almost no one else to talk to for months on end it was very refreshing for both of us to have someone else to chat with and bounce ideas off of. It was also a wonderful way to wrap up our experience of cycling in South America.
There are so many more, but once I start thinking about it all I could go on and on. One more highlight that I want to bring up though is something that I have mentioned many times when writing about the trip: the kindness of people. Everywhere that we went on this trip, whether it was American towns or the middle of the Andes, the helpfulness and generosity of the people that we met was incredible. Complete strangers would be willing to stop what they were doing to answer our questions, give us advice, invite us into their homes, feed us, or ask us about our experiences. Having grown up in and lived mainly in cities, I’m very used to human beings ignoring one another. Every time someone that I don’t know freely decides to share their time or energy with me, part of me is shocked; and afterwards I always come away happier, knowing that it is always worth it to try to connect with others. Our trip was the rich experience that it was directly because of the people who we came across on the road and those who we met using the internet (with sites like couchsurfing, warmshowers, cruisersforum and helpexchange).
Since we’ve been home people have been curious about the dangers that we experienced on our trip. After travelling for so long, we must have gotten into some sketchy situations, right? I was entirely expecting to—we travelled in places where there is a lot of poverty, and where foreigners are said to be targets for the people who live there. I braced myself for theft and aggression, for resentment, and for the possibility of uncomfortable situations.
The weird thing is, nothing happened. Despite the fact that we were on our guard, there was never a moment where I felt seriously uneasy. The only time we had anything stolen was on a ferry in the Caribbean, when I left my hiking boots on the seat in front of me while I slept (which was a foolish thing to do). While we were cycling, every evening we were either asking permission to camp on someone’s property or we were finding an out-of-the-way spot off the road to set up our tent. Sometimes we worried that we might be visible, that someone might have seen us come off the road—but nothing was ever taken, and as far as we could tell, no one ever even approached our tent (and considering the fact that I woke up when even a light breeze rustled our fly, it would have been hard for someone to do so undetected).
And this is what I have taken out of this experience: people, in general, are kind. I know that there is a lot of bad in the world, and that often self-interest can propel people into harmful or aggressive behaviour. I think it’s very important to be careful and to take precautions, and to do what one can to protect oneself; but I also think that it is equally important to approach other human beings expecting the best from them. You can feel it when someone expects good from you—and you can also feel it when someone expects to be hurt by you. We all tend to play into the expectations that others have of us, to some degree. I would rather spend most of my time giving others the benefit of the doubt, and occasionally being let down, than always waiting for something bad to happen. When the bad things do happen, I’ll probably be more equipped to handle them if I’ve got all of my positive experiences behind me to pick me back up.
Rather than danger, the main challenges that we encountered on this trip were the unexpected ones. Something that I found very difficult was coming to terms with the fragility of the human body. I was taught that I can decide to do something, but my body might just say no. And there is very little, short of damaging myself, that I can do against my body’s will. Our insurmountable seasickness and my knee troubles were both circumstances that forced me to acknowledge that I can’t always be in charge; sometimes, my body will be. And although it was hard to wrap my mind around this, in the end we learned that as long as we were willing to be flexible, we could work with our limitations without being defeated by them.
Something else that people have wanted to know is, where are we going next? Already, we have ideas for future trips: canoes on the Paraguay River, motorcycles in Patagonia, bicycles in Ireland and the Mediterranean, a river trip up to the Arctic Ocean. But first, we are very happy to be back in Canada and we plan on staying for awhile, working on the things that we couldn’t work on while we were on the road. I imagine that the next time that we do set out, we’ll plan to be gone for less time. We know now the value of giving ourselves just enough to satisfy our wanderlust, while still leaving us wanting more.
For now though, there are other things to look forward to. I look forward to being able to wash my hands and find a flat, clean workspace before working on a drawing. Tristan can’t wait to gather up his tools and set up his workshop to start building new instruments and developing other projects. I am excited not to be so exhausted from biking and worn down by the elements at the end of the day, and to have enough energy to play my ukulele. It will be nice to sleep in a bed every night, for awhile, and to wake up inside a house that doesn’t belong to a stranger. It will be incredibly nice to see some of the same faces every day, and to get the chance to visit others that we haven’t seen in ages.
There will be things that I will miss. I didn’t realize how much I got used to smiling and exchanging calls of “Buenos dias” or “Buenas tardes” with everyone we saw until I was walking around in Ottawa and remembered that it’s unusual, here, to say hello to a stranger. It will be strange, as time goes on, to look back on this trip and remember all of the things which, at the time, seemed entirely commonplace but which after the fact come across as bizarre and outlandish: men driving horse-and-carts down the streets of small cities; tiny, wizened indigenous women walking down the side of the road carrying improbably huge, brightly coloured bundles on their bent backs; children on dusty roadsides pointing and yelling “GRINGO!” as we fly past; mud-brick homes with thatched roofs and no electricity; towering mountains and immense valleys.
I think that there are a lot of things about this trip that will sink in very slowly, over time. Someone said to me that we won’t know how we feel about this trip until long after we are home, and I think that in some ways, that’s true of any experience. Little pieces will resurface and suddenly have a whole different meaning; one memory could gain significance, and another could lose the weight that it had at the time. All of it has made me more aware of myself, of my faults and strengths and weaknesses and abilities, and more aware of other people. I know more clearly what I want, both from my day-to-day and from my life in general. It gave me the time to think through my priorities and make resolutions, while I was away from the rush of normal life. It taught me how lucky I am to be able to freely choose the way that I want to live my life, and reminded me that I should consider very carefully how I use that privilege, because it is rare. It showed me how important human relationships and interactions are, and the way that they have the power to change and improve life immeasurably. It reminded me to be generous—with my time, my efforts, friendliness, curiosity, and with the means that I am able to offer. It made me appreciate the satisfaction that comes with familiarity and the little bits of beauty that are tucked into everyday life.
Now it’s time to see what new kinds of adventures life has coming for us.
The music is our cover of Sweet Hell, originally by Gin Wigmore.
Coipasa, Bolivia – Iquique, Chile – Lima, Peru (July 21 – July 30)
With 8 litres of water, 3 days of food, and an entire 2 litre bottle of Coca Quina (a Bolivian-made Coca Cola-like drink), we turned off towards the Salar de Coipasa, riding with Johanne, as Alfie and Jacob had gone on ahead a few days before. While staying in La Paz we had long discussions, with lots of finger pointing at different regions of the Bolivian map, about what route we should take. The Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat and Bolivia’s most famous salt flat, was on our list of ‘must dos’ in South America. This was until we heard about the more northern, less visited, more natural, and more pristine Salar de Coipasa. Cyclists had raved to us about the flamingos, the surrounding volcanoes, the complete lack of tourists, and its perfect untouched whiteness with hardly any tire tracks. With only a couple weeks left in our adventure it was also the more logical route, as it brought us right up to the Chilean border, and our final destination. To top it all off, Johanne, Alfie, and Jacob were all headed that way on their salar tour which would, for them, also include Uyuni.
The dirt road we were on slowly turned to a mixture of sand and salt and tire tracks disappearing in all directions. As we rode on towards the volcanic island in the centre of the salar, the surface we were on became smoother, harder and whiter. We followed our ever lengthening shadows in search of a perfect camp spot. Our search did not take long as there is a hardly anywhere on the salar where one could not camp. As the sun set, we put up the tent, cooked up some pasta (using the salar’s salt) and settled in for a cold night.
And it was a very cold night. The sun finally rose and warmed our blood enough for us to cook up our eggs, thaw our water, and pack up. We rode across, into the whiteness with the volcanoes on three sides, and a perfectly straight horizon on our left. Then, in the middle of the most remote place we’d been, we saw two other cyclists on the horizon. 10 minutes later, we were reunited with Jacob and Alfie who had experienced some incredible hospitality in the small village of Coipasa, which most of the salt mines operate out of. We couldn’t resist a few silly photographs before saying goodbye to our wonderful cycling companions, who then left us to continue on across the salar to Uyuni. Riding with others was so great.
We turned left, and headed towards the centre of the salar. Within an hour we were struggling through the muddy, wet salt. We decided to change our route, and go back the way we had come, as we knew how wonderfully smooth it was. Then again, we tried a new route off of the salar, and got caught in some incredibly sticky mud. After maybe half an hour of hard pushing against a brutal headwind, we were off the salar. Unsure of how to get back to the main road, we asked for directions from the only man we could find in the almost entirely abandoned adobe-style village on the edge of the salar. He pointed off down a narrow sandy track, then went back to peeling his potatoes.
The next four hours were the hardest hours of our entire trip. The trail we were on was mostly sand, which is probably the most challenging surface to bike through (with the possible exception of a solid vertical concrete wall). Both bikes stayed in their absolute lowest gear, and for much of the ordeal we were pushing our bikes. In addition to the horrible surface, we were fighting the most ferocious headwind we had ever seen. Just a few days ago we were talking to Johanne about what was worse, headwinds or mountains? After Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, I was pretty certain that nothing was more challenging and demoralizing than an Andean mountain climb, but Johanne made a good argument for wind, as it is an invisible enemy. After our ordeal on the edge of Coipasa, we were pretty sure that Johanne was right. Four hours down the road, the second vehicle we’d seen that day passed by, and we managed to catch a ride up the rest of the sandy track to the beautiful pavement at the other end. Free at last!
The next day we biked into the Bolivian border town of Pisiga with the only goal of spending the rest of our Bolivian money and finally getting treats after our challenging days on and around the salar. Armed with nothing but a few chocolate bars, we crossed into Chile, our final country. After declaring all our food and equipment, we were repacking our bags when they noticed the deer skull on Avalon’s bike, and told us we would have to go to the court in Iquique, 250 km, the next day for a hearing as we had “attempted to smuggle in illegal animal matter.” We managed to talk our way out of the misunderstanding, which we were quite proud of as it was an indication of our decent level of Spanish (but Avalon was sad to have to leave Deadly Dolly the deer skull behind).
Since you can’t bring fresh food across the border, our plan was to get some Chilean money and buy groceries for the 250 km ride to Iquique. Unfortunately the town across the border didn’t have a bank, an ATM or even a store. So I rode back to Bolivia, changed the 25 american dollars that I had to Chilean pesos, and we hit the road, hoping to find a town that had food we could buy. Again we were attacked by the terrific headwinds we had encountered the day before. We were back to riding in our lowest gear at 5 km an hour (but this time, on a paved road). We only made 20 km past the border that day, and had a difficult time finding a campspot that was out of the wind. We finished off our bag of rice and lentils for dinner before getting into the Bolivian chocolate. Again, it was an incredibly cold night, and we probably only survived because we had each found big warm coats on the side of the road that same day (how fortuitous!).
The next day we were really desperate for some food. After 10 km of hard biking, we finally reached a village: Quebe. We rode into what appeared to be a complete ghost town. After some searching we managed to track down a person who told us that the next store where we could buy food was 80 km away (which would have taken us two days in the altiplano winds.) He asked us food what we had, and we told him we had a can of tuna, a pack of crackers, and some chocolate. He then gave us a bag of eggs, juice and oranges and invited us to come into his adobe-style house for breakfast with his wife and children. He left, and returned with a whole skinned llama leg which we ate part of with rice and bread. We never got his name, but that man really saved us. Our luck had obviously turned. 20 minutes down the road we managed to flag down a truck, and got a ride all the way down to Huara where we took off our long-johns and mitts for the first time in days.
We were then in a complete desert, the driest place on Earth, known as the Atacama Desert. There was absolutely nothing growing anywhere, and parts of the desert have never seen rain. We found a nice place to camp behind some ruins before riding our final 50 km to Iquique, our most southern destination. We had a little 2 day vacation in Iquique where we were able to finally drink the tap water (the first time since Puerto Rico), and shop at an actual grocery store. Iquique has recently become quite wealthy as a port city which serves the altiplano, and on mining money. It is also a famous city for paragliding, so after selling our bikes we made our way up to the impressive 600 m sand dunes which overlook the city and jumped off. Once the thrill of the flight had worn off, we were really quite sad to have said goodbye to our bikes (which we managed to sell in one day for more than we’d paid for them).
After 30 long hours of buses and cars, we were back in Lima, relaxing with my university friend Manuel, who was born and raised in Lima. Manuel showed us fantastic hospitality and kindness, taking us to all the trendy areas of Lima, including Miraflores, Barranco, and Chorrillos. In only two days, it felt like we’d seen all of Lima, which really is an incredible city. At midnight on the night of July 30th, Manuel drove us to the airport where we said goodbye to both him and South America.
It has really been a wild ride.
p.s. We still have a final blog post to publish and a couple videos before the end of the blog!
Our cover of “Lost in my Mind” originally by “The Head and the Heart” (although for some reason the recording was really poor and seems to warble in and out sometimes).
La Paz, Bolivia – Coipasa, Bolivia (July 13 – 20)
On my final day in La Paz, I decided I should really check out Bolivia’s most famed road: El Camino de la Muerte. On the morning of July 14, I loaded my bike onto the roof of a van and joined Alfie and Jacob (their blog here), two cyclists living in Chicago, for a ride up to the beginning of the road. We started up at 4700 m surrounded by alpine snow, making sure that we’d have as much downhill as possible. El Camino de la Muerte, or the Yungas Road (its original name) is one of the only routes that connects the Amazon rainforest to the capital city of La Paz. It is famous for its incredible cliffs of 600 m and its lack of guard rails, and is considered the world’s most dangerous road. Up until they built the new road, which bypasses the dangerous bottom section, there was on average one death per day on the road. Do not worry, today it is a much safer road, as the road is virtually free of vehicles, and only crazy cyclists ride on it (and some—only the really crazy ones—ride up it).
Jacob, Alfie and I had a great day of making our way down slowly from the new paved road at the summit to the narrow, wet, muddy track in the rainforest. It is the only road in Bolivia where you must ride on the left side of the road; this keeps the driver (who is usually seated on the left side of the vehicle) close to the drop-off and able to see how much space he has. We dropped from 4700 m to 1200 m in just a few hours. As we descended, we could really feel the air thicken, as we had not been down so low in several weeks. There were waterfalls and rivers to cycle through, and best of all it was almost all downhill and we had hardly any gear to carry. It was a really neat experience. It reminded me very much of El Trampolin de la Muerte which we hitchhiked in Colombia, but was much safer as there was no oncoming traffic to move over for.
The next morning, there were 7 cyclists from the Casa de Ciclistas leaving La Paz. We managed to flag down a couple taxis who drove us up the 12 km (500 m) to El Alto, as we had no desire to ride up the busy highway through La Paz, which we had ridden down a week earlier.
El Alto was as chaotic as ever, and it was a good 20 km before we could really relax and enjoy the flatness of the altiplano. This time, things were a little different, as we now had a cycling partner. Johanne, a Belgian girl who had cycled down from Vancouver (her blog here), was headed the same way as us, and we had made plans to ride together to the Salar de Coipasa. It was really nice having such great company. It gave us an opportunity to confuse our French with our Spanish, and share meals and stories. Later on that day we met up with Alfie and Jacob who were fixing a flat tire. There were five of us that night, and Alfie managed to find us a little shack to stay in where the payment was a short game of the soccer with the neighbouring kids.
Johanne found the altiplano to be a little dull, especially the busy road between La Paz and Oruro, but I was not about to complain about a flat and mostly paved road. Alfie and Jacob lost their tent poles somewhere along the way on our second day out, which meant that Johanne joined us in our tent, and she graciously lent her tent to the boys. We had incredibly spicy rice that evening to accompany the incredible storm overhead.
Oruro is the last big town we’d see until we got to Iquique in Chile, almost 700 km away, so we made sure to stock up. First, we ate a giant pizza, then pastries from the bakery, then chocolate wafers from a street vendor. Then it was time to fill up our food pannier. We left Oruro in the early evening, ready for some remote dirt roads, friendly small towns, and breathtaking scenery.
The road to Sabaya did not disappoint. Parts of it were smooth, flat and had good winds, while other parts were tremendously rough, dusty, with headwinds. We shared some great camp spots with our friends (and the llamas), and even stayed a night in a military base in Huachacalla.
From Sabaya, we turned off the “main” road onto a sandy washboard trail towards the famous salt fats of Bolivia. Although Uyuni is the larger and more visited salt flat, we were talked into visiting Uyuni’s lesser known little sister, Coipasa, which we had heard was more remote, had no tourists, and was mostly untouched. As we pushed our way towards the salar the road we were on became less and less road like, and before we knew it, the sand was getting salty and other roads were branching off in every direction. We had reached the Salar de Coipasa.
La Paz, Bolivia (July 8 – 12)
On our first morning after arriving in La Paz, we met up with Mark and Becc (the Australian couple with the VW bus who we met on the road, check out their account of the climb here) to choose a guiding company for a climb up one of the surrounding mountains.
Although I was initially unsure of whether I would come along (high-altitude mountain-climbing has always seemed to me like a bit of a pursuit for masochists), it was hard not to get swept up in the excitement of the idea while we perused possible itineraries and discussed glacier-climbing and ice-picks. In the end, we chose a company called “Climbing South America,” paid the price (about 200 Canadian dollars for the 3 days, with transportation, equipment rental, meals, beds and guides included), and tried on our equipment.
On the morning of the 9th, Mark, Becc, Tristan and I got loaded into a van and driven up to the first “refugio,” at 4700 m. Because we chose the 3 day option, we got to spend our first afternoon climbing up the sheer face of the nearby glacier with crampons and pick-axes and then relaxing down at the refugio, drinking enormous amounts of tea and hot chocolate and hanging out (a really nice perk of mountain-climbing, it turns out, is lots of time to drink tasty things and chat with friends).
Our second day was almost equally cushy; after breakfast, we hiked up to the second refugio, at 5130 m. It was a difficult walk, especially as we were carrying all of our equipment (including our heavy ski-boot-like mountaineering boots) on our backs, but when it was over we once again had the rest of the day to eat, drink tea, and sit around. The view out the window of our dormitory was incredible: huge, snowy peaks looming just behind us, reminding us of what was coming.
That night we all got into our sleeping-bags around 7 p.m., to prepare for the 12:30 a.m. wake-up that was coming.
Huayna Potosi, which is part of the Cordillera Real, is one Bolivia’s most popular mountains to climb. This is partly because of its proximity to La Paz, and partly because it is a good option for inexperienced climbers, due to its un-technical nature. Its summit reaches 6088 m.
When we all woke up in the middle of the night, the puddles of water on the ground outside were frozen solid and the nearly full moon was shining brightly. We put on our long-johns, pants, snow-pants, shirts, sweaters, winter coats, balaclavas, gloves, mittens, two pairs of socks, mountaineering boots, helmets and headlamps. We carried snacks, bottles of water and thermoses of tea in our backpacks, and when we got up past the rocks we attached our crampons to our boots, got our pick-axes at the ready and watched as our guides attached our safety ropes. By the time we were on the move it was 2:15 a.m., and we had about 5 dark hours of very slow upward progress ahead of us.
Walking uphill is one thing—even walking uphill across a glacier in the middle of the night is something that I can imagine doing without a huge amount of trouble. But walking uphill at an altitude of over 5000 m is another thing entirely. I have never moved so slowly. When I have hiked in the past, I have definitely found it challenging, but in a very different way. My muscles usually complain, I get a bit out of breath from the exertion, I get hungry. Here, it was instead a game of patience. Mostly, my muscles felt fine; I was never hungry. But to maximise the chance of making it to the top, we had to move at a snail’s pace. Anything faster and our lungs would fall behind the work, and our heads could start to pound. Every 30 or 45 minutes we would stop for a break—just long enough to drink some water and catch our breath, but not long enough to let the sharp cold get too far into our many layers. And then it was back to our march: one foot a few inches forward, then the other, plant your pick-axe, and start again. I was roped in between our guide, Julio, who led the way, and Tristan, who followed behind me. If one of us slipped when we were walking along a steep drop-off, we were relying totally on Julio to react quickly enough to keep all three of us from tumbling downwards. We were happy to have an extremely experienced guide: Julio has been taking hikers up Huayna Potosi twice a week, on average, for 10 years.
As we walked, my eyes mostly stayed on the snow just ahead of my feet, and I tried to latch onto thoughts distracting enough to keep my mind off of the task at hand. Every once in awhile I would glance around at the surreal landscape stretching out around me, at the lights of the climbers ahead of us, or at the moon, and it would occur to me that I was climbing up a mountain in Bolivia.
We made it to the summit just after sunrise, around 7 in the morning. Because of the popularity of the climb, we had to jostle a bit for sitting space among the dozen or so other climbers at the top.
With the sun finally warming us, we were able to take a few minutes break to nibble at our snacks and watch the landscape light up far below us. It was a pretty triumphant feeling, looking down and realizing how far we had come—and also being able to celebrate making it all the way to the top. We had been prepared, both by online accounts and by our guides, for the fact that quite a few climbers turn around partway up the mountain. I had come to terms with the idea that the experience would be worth it even if I didn’t make it to the summit, but it felt pretty good to be up there watching the sun come up.
Although we had taken a couple of painkillers and altitude pills along the way to ease headaches, the altitude sickness set in with some more force once we had arrived at our destination. But after all, we had only made it half the distance; we still had to tackle the descent to our second refugio, followed by the hike back down to the road access. And let me tell you, at that point, several hours of hiking was really, really not what I felt like doing. At all.
As we began to make our way back down (taking much bigger steps than we had been able to on the way up), I understood why most mountaineering accidents happen on the descent. It was hard to keep from stumbling, hard to remember to step widely (so that the crampons didn’t trip me), and we had run out of water, so our headaches got worse the further we went. Since the sun was up, our breaks could be longer, but mostly I just wanted to make it back to the refugio and collapse (matters were made a little more urgent by the fact that I needed to pee very badly—and it is hard to pee, as a female, when you are attached by rope to two other people and are wearing a harness and three layers of pants).
By 10:30 we made it back to the refugio, where hot soup was waiting for us. After our early lunch we packed up our stuff and hiked back down to the road access at the first refugio, a hike which felt improbably longer than it had the day before when we had ascended it. All four of us slept right through our van-ride back to the city, and after a quick stop for a popsicle we parted ways with Becc and Mark and made our way back to the Casa de Ciclistas to lie down and stay immobile for many hours.
After travelling just the two of us since December, it was so great to have had Becc and Mark’s company for a couple of days; on the road one becomes even more appreciative of how nice it is to meet people who are easy to get along with and fun to have around. And since we’ve been semi-constantly on the move, we’ve rarely gotten to chance to spend more than one day with anyone we’ve met along the way. Getting to socialize and trade stories with the two of them was a big perk of going on the climb!
On Saturday evening (after a much-needed day of lazing), the kitchen in the Casa de Ciclistas became a bustling hive of activity as Brendan, from Ireland, prepared stacks of pizzas to feed the hordes of cyclists, and Paul, from France, baked a cake for dessert. Beers appeared, all twelve cyclists were crammed comfortably into the living room, and we had a long, multilingual night of exchanging stories and feasting.
Today Tristan and I plan on checking out the Sunday market and then heading over to a pub to watch the final World Cup match between Germany and Argentina with Becc and Mark. On Tuesday morning, we’ll be getting up out of the city and heading south, towards the salt flats.
Puno, Peru – La Paz, Bolivia (July 4 – July 13)
We left Puno after a day’s rest with a new pair of woolly long-johns (for Tristan), a few more baked goods in our bellies, and a sunny lakeside road stretching ahead of us. Our ride around Titicaca began beautifully, skirting the lake and taking us through little villages full of woven-reed structures and tiny homes tucked into the rocks above us. That day ended with a spectacular thunder, lightning and hail-storm which caught us just as we were setting up our tent. It was the first rain we have seen in quite a while.
The next day we crossed the Peru-Bolivia border at Yunguyo. After a bit of wandering around between the various buildings and officials, we finally got our passports stamped by both countries and were able to carry on. Based on what we had read online and in our guidebook, we had expected some sketchiness from the Bolivian officials but everything went very smoothly.
Soon we got to Copacabana, a pretty (and touristy) town on Lake Titicaca, where we stopped for a cafe break. There, for the third time, we ran into Mark and Becc. In the afternoon the previous day, Tristan had pointed out a brown VW bus passing us: it had surfboards on the roof, bikes on the back, and Alberta plates. Just after he mentioned it, the van pulled up onto the side of the road ahead of us and two cheerful Aussies got out to greet us. We chatted for a couple minutes, traded information about the border coming up, and said goodbye. We briefly saw them again at the border crossing in the morning, and decided that if we ran into them again we would make a point of properly chatting with them and hearing about their trip (we later found out that after living in Canada for a few years they started their driving trip up in Alaska in June 2013, and have been making their way south ever since). In Copacabana, we finally got a chance to spend a bit longer getting acquainted, and when we headed out we traded email addresses with plans to meet up again in La Paz.
From Copacabana, the road turned into the hills, and we spent a couple of days climbing and descending, and then climbing again. It was a nice change when the road turned away from the lake and leveled out, although the spreading houses and cultivated fields made it a bit of a challenge to find camp-spots.
On the 7th as we approached La Paz we found ourselves in the chaos of El Alto: wide roads full of many lanes of traffic all weaving apparently at random and public-transit vans pulling to and away from the side to pick up passengers, regardless of other cars (or bicycles) in their path. When we finally got to the border between El Alto and La Paz, we pulled over and took a chocolate break to try to soothe our frazzled nerves before descending into the capital.
Despite the horrible and apparently interminable traffic-jams, I was pleasantly surprised by my first impression of La Paz. In some way that I can’t exactly put my finger on, it feels less stifling than other large South American cities that we have visited; it might have something to do with the aesthetics of the architecture, or maybe there is less smog because of the altitude (which is 3666 metres, making it the highest capital city in the world), but either way it’s a nice place to be.
One of the things that has made it so nice is that we have a great place to stay: the La Paz Casa de Ciclistas! On our first evening we went out for giant pizzas with some of the fellow cyclists staying there (our dinner table was quite international, with us Canadians, a couple from the Czech Republic, and two solo-cyclists, from Ireland and Belgium). It’s great to arrive in a new place and to have a home there right away, full of friendly people.
Cusco, Peru – Puno, Peru (June 29 – July 3)
After over a week in Cusco, we finally managed to hit the road again. We had no idea what to expect for the 390 km stretch, all we knew was that there was a big mountain pass to get over, and then we’d be on somewhat flat roads. The map showed a few towns, but you never know what services they might provide.
We had a long pleasant descent out of Cusco following the rail all the way down. We then entered a river valley which we followed slowly along through small villages separated by beautiful barren landscapes. Finding camping was pretty easy for a change, and we managed to camp in some great spots. The nights have been cold, leaving a layer of frost on the tent and our things. Once the sun comes up, it warms up and we generally had favourable winds.
Then came the long uphill. Using only the highway markers as our measure of distance, we had a hard time telling how far we had come and how much of the uphill remained. Once we passed the village of Marangani the landscape became very barren and beautiful. With snow capped mountains on our left and steep grassy hills on our right, we cycled up, stopping often to take in the view. Other than the odd road worker, it was just us and the alpacas. To our surprise, at around 11 am on our third day we reached the summit at 4338 m, our highest pass yet! Other than a shortness of breath, we didn’t feel any of the symptoms of altitude sickness. At the top there was a funny little tourist market selling alpaca products to the buses that stop there.
Then came the long descent onto the altiplano. The altiplano is the high plain which extends from southern Peru to central Bolivia also known as the Bolivian Plateau. We were very excited to finally be out of the crazy mountain roads and onto a more reasonable gradient. We coasted down at breakneck speeds with the wind behind us into this new landscape. The road leveled out, and we continued along with yellow hills all around us. We passed through many small villages, slowing down just enough to get over the speed bumps which greet us at every town. It was a cyclist’s paradise. We cycled into the evening, and finally found a camp spot. After 113 km (which included climbing up over 4300m), we were exhausted.
The next day swept us along at a similar pace. Our first hour of morning riding was brutally cold, even with all our layers, winter mitts and big boots. We stopped in Pucara and bought eggs and bread so that we could cook up a warm breakfast. There we met David, an English cyclist riding north who left southern Argentina in January and plans on making it up to Colombia. We shared some details of the road to come and decided we could probably make the 120 km to Puno where we could get a room at a hostel and take a day off.
We said goodbye, and took off in opposite directions. We made quick progress along the beautiful road to Juliaca. Juliaca was an awful place full of noisy cars and horrible streets. Its only redeeming feature was the excellent roasted chicken and the 5 ice cream bars we got there. We eagerly left Juliaca with our eyes set on making it to Puno. The wind then shifted and we encountered some pretty serious hills, making the 45 km to Puno quite challenging. En route, we met Justin and Louis-Philippe from Quebec who were also riding to Puno. We had a nice time riding with them, and before we knew it we were looking down at Puno, and the enormous Lake Titicaca. Lake Titicaca is South America’s largest lake (almost 200 km long), one of the highest navigable waters in the world (3812 m), and boasts inhabited floating reed islands.
We’re taking a day off here in Puno before tackling our next stretch which will bring us around (and across) the lake to La Paz. We absolutely loved the ride from Cusco to Puno and would recommend it to anyone who isn’t afraid of a little climbing.
Cusco, Peru (June 22 – June 28)
After over a week, we are still in Cusco. After travelling through the Caribbean and South America for 5 months, we have finally gotten sick. It may have been the water, or something we ate, but we have been severely incapacitated for the last week, mostly staying in our hostel room. So, seeing as there isn’t much news to report, here’s a list of all our stuff.
Bikes Our criteria for bicycles were: steel frame (smooth ride, tough, and repairable), 26 inch aluminium wheels (common in South America), cheap (we paid an average of 70$ per bike), comfortable (we ended up switching out the seats), rack mounts, and the right size.
GT Palomar Bicycle – Named Mrs. Mustoe
Trek 820 Bicycle – Named Franklin the Beastie Bike
Schwalbe Marathon tires: 26 x 2.00 – $35 each at Wallingford’s Bike Shop on Oak St. in New Orleans
Blackburn EX-1 rear Racks – They come with lifetime guarantees!
Planet Bike Ecoracks – These we have been using as front racks
Mec panniers – Thanks mom and dad for delivering these to us!
Homemade panniers using drybags
U-lock – Masterlock brand
Camping: We just set out with the camping gear we already had. The tent is over 6 years old and has been set up and slept in hundreds of times. I re-waterproofed the fly and the seams of the tent body before we left, but it still leaks a bit when it rains hard. Although the sleeping bags are often overkill, they’ve been real nice when we hit freezing temperatures.
Tent and groundsheet – MEC Tarn 3
Zip together sleeping bags – MEC Hybrid -12
Blue foam mats
Cooking On the river, we barely used the cooking stoves at all as it was always more convenient and more fun to make a fire. While cycling we find ourselves using the stove to cook our evening meal as it’s a chance for us to eat something other than rice and chicken.
Cooking Stove (MSR Whisperlight International) – Burns naphtha (white gas / Benzene) and gasoline!
Water filter (MSR Hyperflow Microfilter) – The filter cartridge broke when were in Guaranda Ecuador. Since then we’ve been boiling and buying our water. We have no idea how lucky we are to have good drinking water come out of our taps at home.
Stainless steel cooking pot and pan
2 bowls, 2 cups and 3 spoons – The third spoon is for when we eat with guests
Chinese meat cleaver
Clothing We need clothing for all weather (+40 to -10 Celsius). This has been frustrating; while cycling along Ecuador and Peru’s coast, we were carrying panniers full of cold weather gear which felt like it was weighing us down, then up at 4000 m we wondered if we’d ever wear our sandals and shorts again.
Socks and underwear
Toque and sunhat
Boots and sandals
Rain coat and rain pants
Electronics For a trip of this length, it has been really nice having a laptop with us. Since we hadn’t planned or researched the trip very much, the laptop allows us to plan as we go: researching routes and accommodation. It also makes writing and phoning home much easier and it’s somewhere to save our photos and videos.
Laptop – Eee PC 1025C Asus netbook (Windows 7 starter, 2.00 GB Ram, Dual Core CPU 1.60 GHz)
DSLR Camera – Nikon D50 with Nikkor 18-70 mm f/3.5-4.5 lens
Point and shoot camera – which we use for videos and broke in Puno, Peru
Iphone – We use it for music and to access wifi, but truthfully we could easily do without it as we never got around to actually setting it up as a phone.
Headlamps and a rear cycling light
Fun Although we love canoeing, sailing (sort of), and bicycling, it’s nice to break up the day with other activities.
Books – we are carrying 5 books at the moment
Settlers of Catan
Ukulele and Mini-box-banjo with songbooks
Repair Kit Despite what other Pan-American bicycle tourists say, South America is filled with bike shops. Just about every town we pass through has a few bike shops with decent parts. Sure you might not find super specialized parts, but then what are you doing in South America with such a specialized bike?
Bike tools – cone wrenches, bottom bracket tool, pedal wrench, spoke tool, chain tool, Allan keys, patch kit, adjustable wrench, chain oil and grease
Spare parts – tire, brake pads, axle, nuts and bolts, tube, spokes, and shifters
Tent repair kit
Tape – Duct tape and Electrical tape
South America guide book – thank you Oma, it has been very useful
Pocket knife – can’t live without it
First aid kit – literally can’t live without it
Sure, we could do with a lot less. But when you’re travelling for 11 months, it’s nice to have a few luxuries.