Peru seems to be a country of three stripes; the coastal desert which spans the length of the country from north to south. Go in land and you climb into rugged mountains and continue even further east and you pass into the Peruvian Amazon.
I leave the capital, Lima, and follow the Pan Americana highway. To my right as I head south is the Pacific but despite this vast expanse of water all I am surrounded by is sand. It is a proper deserty desert complete with towering sand dunes. But strangely enough the main thing I notice is a intermittent smell, not a nice one, it has a real ammonia tang to it. Then I notice the sheds, the business of choice here is batch chickens, not a pleasant sight or smell for that matter. Plus it puts you off your dinner a little seeing row after row of chickens crammed into small enclosures barely able to move some looking suspiciously motionless. My go to meal here is pollo frito, chicken and chips, that might have to change.
Peru boasts some spectacular sea food, ceviche being their national dish but turn inland through the desert and order at your own peril. I was dished up an ample serving of what looked like stomach at one luncheon spot. I didn’t ask and I didn’t eat it. Batched chicken it is.
The road takes me further inland and into the depths of the desert. It would have its charms if it weren’t for the rubbish. Peru is winning the prize for the most litter, heaps of it line the roads into and out of villages and towns; as I make my way across the sandy expanse I’m treated to a headwind with a difference. Plastic bags, bottles and other detritus fly through the air like grotesque autumn leaves in the wind. Bottles discarded by truck drivers little the gutter full of unmistakeable urine coloured liquid. These drivers need to drink more water, they are a dehydrated bunch. And of course there is the odd shoe lying on the road side.
The climbing starts but not before I pass the Nazca Lines. Now I’ve always thought that Stonehenge was a touch underwhelming for tourists. They travel all that way to see this prehistoric site, undoubtedly impressive and a wonder but like I said perhaps underwhelming to behold, you cant even touch them. Well the Nazca Lines were an anti-climax to say the least. Stood a top of the rickety viewing tower I gaze down on a tree, a lizard with its tail cut off by the road and a frog. I cant help but think that the broom down at the base of the tower has been used liberally to sketch these shapes amongst the rocks. I’ve seen more impressive snow angels. I met a Spanish couple in Nazca who did a flight over the area to take in the full scale of the lines and shapes. They said it was amazing but cynical Harry thinks it was the flight that was the fun part.
From Nazca I turn hill‐ward and towards deep dark central Peru or should I say lofty Peru. Its going to be a long few days. The road starts from near sea level to reach just shy of 4500m. I snake my way slowly, sea slugs have been known to move faster. The roads are narrow and full of blind corners; wonder into the racing line on one of the blind turns and risk becoming a pavement pizza for the lorries don’t hang around and they are road hoggers.
Its not overly arduous, just a game of patience. The mountains are bare at first but dotted amongst them are vast sand dunes the crests of which are well over 2500m, I’ve not seen anything like them. The drivers….arseholes. South America as a whole is the worst so far but Peruvians are taking the biscuit. I think I’ve become pretty numb to what in normal circumstances would be considered a near death experience, I have what would be considered on a morning commute as a near miss daily. But here in Peru I have been forced off the road and into the dirt to a wobbly halt countless times as head on over taking traffic dare me to a game of chicken or a bus leaves not but an inch spare on the road side. As I climb along this waving road a migration of lorries edges past, on the blind turns they sound their horns, long and drawn out the echo across this barren landscape. Drawn out they reverberate like the calls of great mechanical whales (my imagination wonders). They are not saying, “watch out I’m coming”, no they are warnings, “get off my road.”
I must admit I am in a cycling low, what happens between me and the bike is like any relationship, it has its up and downs, it tests your patients at times and perhaps you loose a little love for one another. But it can surprise you, and we are climbing into the mountains to reignite the spark which will drive the push to Patagonia. There is something truly satisfying about climbing mountains even just on the road.
The climbing is measured in days or half days here in Peru, it takes a full day on the bike to reach the top of the first rise at 4500m. Not the heighest I’ve been, no the Pamirs hold that title for now. the Pamir Highway really had a climb in and a climb out of the plateau with a high pass on either side. Here it is not the case, I reach the top, descend a few thousand and then it is slow and steady once more.
I’m in a bit of a pickle, my cash is running low and there isnt a bank for at least another two days, but the cycle gods as always step in. I had meant to plod on up for another few hours but in the small town of Puquio I stop in for lunch, I could have picked anyone of the numerous fine eateries but it just so happens that in the restaurant that I selected that I come across Joanna and Francois and their four children aged between six and twelve. They are cycling from Bogota to Buenos Aires on three tandems. Before you know it I am sat at the table about to join them for lunch when suddenly and without warning as though it is a completely normal thing they all hold hands and break into some sort of lyrical grace, I’m sat at the head of the table awkwardly looking on when I notice that a hand is held up on either side of me. I have to hold hands with complete strangers and endure this unexpected religious musical out burst. I would sell my sole for a free meal.
Sitting with the family is a Father who runs the Catholics in the area. He insists that I stay in the convent with the family for the night. I am not one to turn down a warm bed and a hot shower so I cut the day short. If they keep this up generosity I think I can eke out my supplies for a few days more. Unbelievably this crazy lot are cycling across the continent for a year, I find it hard enough looking after myself let alone feeding and watering four little dependant eating, crying and shitting machines.
What an experience to expose your children to; the papa, Francois, feelings are that nothing will happen to them, when people ask what about the dangers of the road he says that God will look after them. They are exposing their younglings to a whole new world where they live by relatively meagre means with no television, hot water nor all the others normalities that we take for granted. Living with the bare minimal is a thing he wants to show his children that and the world. We have all seen the swathes of Venezuelans along the roads, carrying all they could carry as they try to find a place to start a new life, at the Peruvian border there were masses of refugees and the NGOs to go with them. Francois’s theory is that he is showing his children just a slight taster of what some people are forced to endure. Albeit they know that they have a home to go back to in the south of France.
At dinner that evening we break bread once again, but not before they have broken into a second rendition. Religion is beyond me. Francois sings in a deep churchy voice which just seems unnatural to me. I sit in silence patiently looking on whist my soup goes cold. What are the chances that I so fortuitously chose that particular restaurant? Are the powers that be at work? (the cycle Gods I mean).
It seems that some people have children and that’s that. Life is put on hold until they have flown the nest; but when will that be? I’m in my thirties and next for me is moving back in with the parents. Other parents say, “ kids, so what, I guess they will just have to come along for the ride.” Their gift to their children, travel.
There is something about accents that is immensely satisfying, perhaps its the air or the commanding views. It is by fair my favourite part of this journey, reaching the lofty heights. I feel revitalised, satisfied. In place of the Himalayan yaks are llamas and their smaller less woolly cousins vicunas. In a series of lakes at around 3500m flamingos can be seen wadding in the shallows, filtering the waters with their long hose like necks bent over like Alice’s croquet mallet. My oldest brother used to call flamingos goollies, my uncle having taught him this misplaced slag for ones testicles.
Mountains can always be a bit fickle and throw a curve ball; as I’m happily going about my third day climbing bathed in patches of glorious sunshine I turn a corner and all hell breaks loose. That’s if hell is an icy whirl wind of sleet and hail. I suddenly get pelted with ball bearing like icy shards which sting the skin, the temperature plummets to below zero and once the hail turns to icy rain I’m soon soaked to the skin. The valley which I’m rolling down is probably one of the most picturesque I’ve had the misfortune of cycling. Head down, shivering uncontrollably I only have eyes for the road, my head lowering into my torso like a tortoise, I am well and try dishevelled. I know there is a village ahead so I grin and bare it begrudgingly. When I stumble into the less than warm restaurant I can’t feel my fingers and I am a right sorry state. God I wish my gloves weren’t at the bottom of the bag that I cant prise open with these useless fingers.
So after some hot soup and a coffee I head to the community centre where I intend to spend the night, its only bloody closed. Up goes the tent almost on the door step, it is the first time I have had to cut a day short and bunker down to ride out the weather. I wonder if I will ever feel my toes again as I lie there at just two in the afternoon wearing everything I own, curled up in a ball and cold to the core. It was a long cold fitful night. Dinner was a no go as there was not a chance I was huddling over a stove out in the elements.
In the morning after I’ve de-iced my bike and walked across the crunchy frost to do my business a kindly fellow comes to open up the community centre. He beckons me over and before you know it I am warming my icy chilblains in a kitchen cupping a mug of piping hot tea. Well I think it is tea, though it looks more like an old twig broken up into the teapot but its free and hot. He even offers me breakfast, what a treat, its not even half seven and I’ve eaten twice. After posing for a few pictures off I go. It was just what I needed after such a fricking cold night. There is an epic decent coming up as my reward.
Unfortunately as I’m cruising past lorries on the down hill my bike gives a serious shudder and I’m almost shaken off. The back wheel has broken, the bearings of the rear up have been on the way out for a while, what a disaster; it has had a good run though, some 17,000 miles but there is no more riding until I get it fixed in Cusco so it looks like I will be doing some hitch hiking again. I’m a bloody part timer.
Patrick and Celine are one year in to a two year road trip across the Americas when they find me by the road side. To fit me in one of their two children is confined to quarters, the bike fills the free space in there camper van so their ten year old daughter has to go to bed! They are very French, smoking like chimneys, drinking coffee and much of the discussion is about food. They nor I have been overly impressed with the food across this continent, so food back home is a hot topic. Aside from the sea food on the coast which was exquisite the rest is pretty dismal. They are yet another example of these bold families who give up everything at home to be on the road and explore the world. They have a ten year old daughter and a fifteen year old son. Patrick tells me that his gift to his children will be no a penny of inheritance but the gift of travel.
They are a great bunch and kindly offer to give me a ride all the way to Cusco with a few stops on the way to see the odd llama and occasional ruin. We camp over night half way to the city and I find myself in the camper, it smells like a home, dinner is cooking and the place smells like heaven to me, a real home cooked kitchen smell (I know that doesn’t make sense but you get what I mean). Then it’s sundowners on the mountain side, eating slithers of saucisson smuggled all the way from France and sipping none other than a Bombay Sapphire and tonic. A G&T what more could an Englishman ask for?