Chapter 7: Over the Andes

Winding Road to Marcapata

By on November 18, 2009 in Over the Andes // 13 Comments

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The previous night´s thunderstorms left the route to Marcapata, at just over 10,000ft, a muddy disaster. However, the mud was very different than along the TransAm and didn´t jam my wheels. I slipped my way up, and up, and up…

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The road was washed out in more than a dozen places, sometimes deep enough where I had to take my panniers off to ferry the load across the water. This made for slow progress on a long day´s climb. The beginning of the ride was through a steep gorge with a mild upward grade. I gnawed on coca leaves and pushed the bike along until the road started to dry out.

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Like always, I came upon a block in the roadway. There were cars, trucks, and motorcycles lined up and parked. I rode to the front and saw the old road on the other side of the raging river, and the impassable new route still being carved out ahead. The heavy rains had made this river crossing fairly precarious. I assessed the situation and figured I could make it through by carrying my panniers and bike over one by one. I pulled up to the edge of the water and began to disassemble the rig.

From behind me a worker with a walky-talky and an orange jump suit addressed me, “Friend, what´s your name?” I told him. “The water is very deep with boulders you could trip on.” I said I would take it bit by bit. “Wait” he says.

He used his radio to make some orders and told me to put my bike in the bucket of the bulldozer. He´d get me over the river with my bike safe and sound!

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I jumped in the bucket with my bike ready to go and everyone started laughing. I guess I would go over separately in a truck once my bike made it in the bulldozer. When I got to the other side I looked back at the opposite bank and waved goodbye. There must have been 20-30 people there waving back, it felt like a Mentos commercial.

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I felt very good climbing away and was told the road ahead is actually paved and that Marcapata is only 40 minutes by car. I like to hear good news but would pay for my willingness to listen to what I wanted to hear. The paved sections were very nice, and smooth, and new, and extremely short. Eventually they stopped altogether and I was left with loose cobble size rock and dirt. I looked ahead and could see houses of a town but hours later it seemed no closer. I could also see for the first time snow capped peaks.

I ascended that day from the strictly jungle climate and vegetation of Quinze Mil to over 10,000ft and short highland scrub. The first photo of this post shows the road ascending to Marcapata. I´d watch a truck pass me and 20 minutes later it was still close in distance, just straight above me. I rode around the main plaza of Marcapata filled with Andean men and woman and was stopped by a group of men.

“You want a soda? How about a beer?” Yep. They passed around a cup and we drank beer as I told them about my trip. Every time someone drank you had to cheers to the health of everyone else. Some men poured a tad out for the land as well. I kept the reigns pulled in on the drinking since I still had alot of climbing left to do but stayed long enough to be polite.

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The weather was crisp, mid 40´s, and rainy that night. I took a very cold shower and went to the plaza for something to eat. I sat next to an Andean woman at a booth and ordered a dinner and a coffee, I was starving. Out came my dinner: rice, potato, some carrots slivers, and in the middle sheep brains. There was no mistaking what this was. I asked the woman “Head?” (I don´t know how to say brain) and she nodded yes. The Andean woman giggled. I ate the whole thing in minutes while thinking of Hannibal Lector. The meat, I suppose you call it, is very fatty of course and tasted normal enough. I would need all the energy I could get for the following days.

Steep and Cold Haul Over 15,500ft Pass

By on November 19, 2009 in Over the Andes // 11 Comments

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The last thing you want to do when you know you have a climb ahead of you is to start the day going downhill. Leaving Maracapata I quickly lost hard climbed altitude with a long muddy decent. I didn´t realize exactly how far I´d be going up until I reached the Abra Pirhuayani pass at 4,725 meters.

Good thing I had my fill of brains the day prior because the climb out of Marcapata was to be the highest point of my trip. This was actually the highest point I have ever physically climbed to and higher than any mountain in the lower 48 states of the US. I knew there was a high pass along my route but didn´t realize until I actually saw the sign that this was it.

I unfortunately took few pictures and maybe two videos of this climb. Thinking back most pictures and videos of the entire trip were of times when I felt strong. The last thing I want to do when struggling is to stop and set the camera up. At any rate the landscape was barren and cold and rain followed me up for the first couple of hours. I had to alternate between pedalling the bike at about 3mph and walking the bike at 2.5mph. Eventually I became so dizzy I couldn´t hold a straight line while riding. I would space out and swerve across both lanes before pulling back to my side of the road. I figured this is was an inefficient method and dangerous if a truck passed by so I walked the last few miles to the summit.

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I hitched a spare inner tube around my shoulder and around my seat post to put some of the weight of the loaded bike on my body instead of my arms as I walked it upwards. I was working hard enough where I didn´t get cold even with just the shorts and cycling sandals on. I kept a wad of coca in my cheek if for nothing more than a placebo effect.

The climb from 2300ft to 10000ft wasn´t nearly as taxing as the climb to 15,500ft even though my overall gain was less for the day. Also, the previous days ascent was spread of 40 miles where as this days ascent was 17 miles straight up. I watched the barometric pressure on my watch plummet to below 19 inHg and the oxygen content at that altitude left me reeling like a drunk. As I narrated a short video I noticed my speech was slightly slurred as well. It´s not all that unpleasant a sensation as I wasn´t suffering from the high altitude headache that is also common at these elevations.

That being said with only one night acclimization at 10,000ft I was not prepared to be working hard at this altitude. My resting heart rate at sea level has been in the low 50 bpm range but was now over 100 bpm when I lay in bed. This makes for a fitful night of sleep at best.

I put on all my clothes for the quick decent out of the snow and ice and with teeth chattering I didn´t have to touch the pedals for almost 20 miles to the town of Tinqui. By the time I went to bed (at about 5pm) I had a mild fever of 99 degrees that stuck with me for the next 3 days. I like high altitude adventures so my spirit was positive during this jaunt but this was physically the most difficult day of the journey so far.

From this point on there are hundreds of miles of high altitude passes and descents. The miles will go by slower and the effort will be much greater. However, the scenery is utterly astounding. The feeling of coming across a continent and watching the world change under your feet day by day is awe inspiring and humbling.

Down in the Pampas and Cuzco

By on November 20, 2009 in Over the Andes // 15 Comments

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I descended out of Tinqui in a cold rain with a fever on my way to Cuzco. After a few hours of long descents and high rises I could see the fertile valley of the pampas thousands of feet below and prayed my brakes were going to land me safe and sound far below.

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I climbed again up to about 14,000ft but this time it was clear, sunny, and dry. There were a group of road workers just after the summit as I began my way down who warned me to go slow and take it easy. I couldn´t believe how far down I was to fall before arriving in Urcos to start the traverse over to the ancient city of Cuzco. I had given my brake pads a quick glance the day prior and assumed they´d hold up.

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As I descended I rode the bike like a motorcycle, looking through the hairpins to where I wanted to go, not where I was going. I wasn´t passed once by a car and had an easy time passing 18 wheelers as they crept their way down the slopes. When I finally arrived at the base in the town of Urcos I could take off all my cold weather clothes as it was down right hot in the valley.

After a few hours of riding and waiting out a thunderstorm in a gas station ( I wanted to stay dry since I wasn´t feeling well) I made my way through the miles of urban sprawl into the Plaza de Armas in the historic center of Cuzco. I sat in front of the cathredal until a tourist came up to talk to me. This was the first English speaking person I´d spoken to in person since getting on the plane in New York in September. He was British and had ridden his bike from Vancouver to San Diego before decided it was too dangerous to proceed further south via bike. I had him take a pic of my arrival.

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As we conversed other tourists came up to have their picture taken with me and the bike. We both got a kick out of that. This city is crawling with sight seers from all over the world and rightly so. Cuzco is a very beautiful city with an incredible history dating back to the Incas. The city is a World Heritage Site and most of the visitors are here either coming or going to Machu Picchu as well.

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There will be no Machu Picchu for me this time but I´ll be spending a few days here to recoup and re-gear for the next leg further across the Andes and down to Nazca in the desert. There are many more high passes left, including two around 15,000ft and a run along the altiplano at 14,000ft that will require me to camp most likely. I bought a used tent from one the of tour shops, a durable parka shell and pants in the market, and proper gloves. My jungle hammock, mosquito netting, and machete are fairly useless at this point and I wasn´t able to sell them to the tour operators either.

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My slick new sweater and some flawless Inca stone work.

I´ve been asked to find some new Alpaca slippers for my woman so off I go to see if I can acquire a pair before I leave.

Cock Fights and Riots Spice Up the Days

By on November 27, 2009 in Over the Andes // 6 Comments

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You never know what a day will bring you. When I left Cuzco the day wore on like any other with long climbs and long descents. Traversing the Andes proved to be alot of hard work. At the end of the day I had been ascending for about 4 hours when I arrived in the small town of Curahausi with a flat tire when I got an unusual invite.

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I´d like to say it´s enjoyable to coast for 30 miles through narrow valleys watching the foliage change from highland scrub to lush green with cacti and palm trees. That in and of itself is fun indeed…but of course it´s not in and of itself. Every time I descend for over an hour I pray it will end, and lessen the elevation I will inevitably have to climb again.

I want to make it clear that once you get into the Andes its not a nice rolling ride until you descend on the coast. It is a constant steep rise up one mountain side followed by a steep fall into a valley on the other side. Each time thousands of feet are gained and lost. You kind of have to go mentally numb when you finally stop coasting at 30mph and have to start huffing and puffing uphill at 3mph.

When I nearly walked into Curahuasi I stopped at the first roadside stand for a coke. There were two men there, a boy, and the woman who ran the counter. I chatted it up with the men when they asked if there were roosters in the US. Then they asked if we have cock fights. Nope, it´s illegal anyway, I told them.

Well it was my lucky day for in just 45 minutes Curahuasi was hosting a cock fighting extravaganza with competitors from all over this part of Peru. They told me to head over to the stadium to see the show.

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There were maybe 20-30 fights lined up and taking place in this arena made just for cock fights. The birds would come out tended to by their owners and briefly displayed for the crowd. Then large barbs were tied to one leg of the bird while the crowd made bets amongst themselves based on which bird seemed stronger when displayed (usually between 20-100 Soles, divide by 3 for dollars).

When the birds were ready the owners would briefly hold them close enough so they could peck each other and get riled up. Then they were placed on the ground about 4 feet from each other and everyone was made to sit down so as not to obstruct anyone’s view (the host made sure everyone was sitting still and the band was quiet before a fight could start).

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Sometimes the birds would just peck around on the ground and ignore each other until forced together. Once the fights began they were over quick, usually in less than a minute. A bird would fall to the ground with its feather bright red with blood and that was the end. The owners took the birds away and the crowd went back to chatting and drinking beer. To be honest there wasn´t much enthusiasm about the matches. On TV people always shout and shake fists full of money at the cage. I wanted to get the crowd to show a little more pizazz. I watched a few fights, had a chicken and rice lunch (I breiefly wondered if I was eating the losers), and took off once the rain rolled in for the night. I had to prepare for more climbing the next day.

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At times I´d take a minute to look back at what I had been climbing all day. Sometimes it looked more like a mini-golf course than a road, with pavement going in every direction. Leaving Curahuasi I would climb for three hours and still see perfectly where I had started the day´s ride. Once I got to the top I would take a minute to eat something and dress for the long cold descent. The pass before the city of Abancay took me a total of 7 hours to climb, four hours the day prior and three the following day.

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Usually the drop from a pass is somewhat treacherous with hairpin turns, rockfall, rain, and traffic. As I fell into Abancay I noticed quite a few hazards in the road. The further I got the less they seemed to be from natural causes. Eventually I was certain I was headed into some sort of trouble in this city.

The streets were filled with broken glass, smoldering tires, trashed cars, and lots of broken glass. Great, I am wet and exhausted and now I am in a war zone… I don´t want to be repairing flat tires from all this glass damnit (this would prove to be quite a problem later on).

Every window in the city courthouse was completely smashed and laying on the sidewalk. Military police, federal police, and city police were lining the streets in full riot gear with shields and machine guns. Almost everything was closed with the protecting metal doors pulled tight over store fronts and restaurants. This was Paro… a district wide protest for better wages and human rights. Signs were posted in front of businesses stating “Closed for Paro.”

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I rolled up and down the streets with glass crunching underneath nodding hello to the various armed personnel. I found a Chifa, or Chinese restaurant, with the metal doors closed only halfway down. People were eating inside so I climbed under and had an interesting Peruvian take on Chinese food.

Strong rains had forced everyone, even the police, inside by nightfall at the city was a ghost town. I enjoyed the surprises at the end of each day.  Something completely unexpected had spiced up otherwise arduous days behind the handlebars.

Flat Tires and the Altiplano

By on November 27, 2009 in Over the Andes // 4 Comments

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I am all for people protesting for their rights. I don´t mind a riot now and again. But for the sake of God why all the glass? All travelers on inflated tires suffer… even the common man. An otherwise beautiful day of riding was punctuated by 5 flats!

I managed to get to the bottom of the valley below Abancay when my rear tire went mushy. I hate that feeling. I have to take all my panniers off to flip the bike over get the wheel off. Then, due to my wheel set, I have to wrestle the tires off the rim, usually skinning a few knuckles in the process and made doubly hard in the rain. Then I have to inflate the new tube with my travel pump… which takes roughly 300 pumps. That adds up to 1500 pumps for the day.

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I had gone through all my spare tubes and had to start using my patch kit. I was following a river uphill in a very scenic gorge with a tail wind. The ride would have been one of the most pleasant and productive had it not been for all the flats. Glass was embedded in the tires and would go unnoticed causing multiple flats.

After 10 hours I managed to reach Chalhaunca 75 miles upriver on two patched tires at a mushy 35 psi a piece. As I came into this small town the streets were again nearly paved with glass. I got off and gingerly walked the bike through the mess as people hurled glass bottles into the road behind me. All the llanterias, or tire repair shops, had cars, bikes, trucks, and motorcycles lined up in front of them. It seemed the only thing the Paro protesting was accomplishing was making a miserable day for the people driving around town. I bought another patch kit and spent the night repairing all my tubes.

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Out of Chalhuanca I had 20 more miles following the river up before I zigzagged west up to the Altiplano. This is a high plateau at roughly 14,000 ft. The scenery is stark, the weather is windy, and there are lots of Alpaca and Vicuña roaming around.

Vicuña are a more slender and rare species similar to an Alpaca or Llama in appearance. They live on the upper slopes of the Andes and have the finest wool in the world. They can also survive on very little water which is a good feature on the arid western slopes of the Andes.

Once over the edge of the plateau I had about 30 minutes of sunning cycling before a headwind kicked up. Even on gentle downhills I was reduced to walking the bike, head down, through the wind as slow as 2 mph at times. There is nothing to stop the wind up here and when it blows you feel it.

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The wind brought rain (this wasn´t arid Altiplano) and I was shivering with all my clothes layered on. I went over a pass at 4300 meters before descending into a valley where I planned to camp with my new tent. However, the small valley was the resting spot of a small town and its Alpaca grazing land. The town did have one restaurant with a bed available for rent… it was the dog´s bed and I have never slept in a dirtier room in my life. I wanted to leave town and camp but daylight was up, I was soaked, and the road out of town was straight up again.

The town was called Marcapampa and was a typical Andean highland village. There was no electricity this night, there is no wood or anything to burn so no fires, and it was pouring rain. What a dark, miserable, and cold night. I don´t want to live on the Altiplano, that´s for sure. I have been here before, a year ago, and am always astounded at the hardships the people who live here must face to survive. The Alpacas are their livelihood and gawking at a gringo was their entertainment during my stay. Everyone spoke in Quechua, giggling with each other, but I did catch “Los Estados Unidos” enough to know they were laughing at me.

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Maybe its my fashion sense that gets people laughing?

I made it to Puquio, in another valley off the Altiplano, and passed some interesting sights. I have seen caves in the cliff sides ever since arriving in the Andes but these ones looked like they were being put to use. It looked very Hobbit like and a good place to have a campfire and a few beers with some friends. Most likely livestock used this as shelter during bad weather.

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