After some tough weeks of riding through the mountains of Peru a break from the bikes in Cusco and the surrounds was in order. Perfectly timed with this was a visit from my mother and her best friend Lacey, and what followed was some bike-free weeks of eating and drinking and being merry. Mum and Lace had set themselves a task of fattening us up and fed us lots of yummy foods, which, combined with the scrolls at the French bakery down from the wonderful Hostal Estrellita, provided us with some extra padding.
Our time off the bikes with mum and Lace included a wonderful five days down in the Amazon jungle where we were spoilt at an eco-lodge spotting exotic birds and wildlife; then a week in the cities of Cusco and La Paz, getting cultured up. Jules realised she had gained two allies – mum and Lace hold holy the idea of 'beer o'clock', drink wine like its going out of fashion and spent most of the days wandering the streets checking out menus and avoiding museums – Jules happily wined and dined along with them.
During this little sojourn we also visited Macchu Picchu, which is normally very expensive to get to, and way out of our budget – so instead we took the cheap option of a tough 6 hour bus ride, a 2 hour walk along the railway line and then an hour and a half climb up to the ruins. My poor mum accompanied us but luckily could see the adventurous side of the very long day it took us to get there. However, she will be forever scarred after travelling along some of the rough roads of Peru – and of course she is now terrified after knowing quite how bad some of the roads are that we ride on! Luckily Macchu Picchu was worth all the hype – we had a great (if slightly wet and rainy) morning of wandering the ruins and exploring the picturesque setting of mist and jungle.
We had become very settled in Cusco and our home-away-from home at Hostal Estrellita, but soon it was time to say goodbye to the Mum and Lace (though we would meet up with them later) and ride up and across the altiplano in the direction of Lake Titicaca and Bolivia. We were a little reluctant to leave Peru as we had had such an amazing few months travelling through the stunning countryside and meeting amazing people. Peru was definitely on our list of favourite countries – though admittedly this list is very long. Our last week on the altiplano was no different, camping in friendly villages, at police stations, riding alongside the world's largest high-altitude lake and watching the unfurling of miles and miles of high altitude grassland.
Arriving in Bolivia was quite an experience – we rode in on election day, which in Bolivia means that no local vehicles are allowed to travel anywhere, plus there is a ban on alcohol for three days. Imagine if during elections in Australia we were told we couldn't drink alcohol or travel anywhere– there would be a revolt! However, it was a great way to arrive, with everyone out cycling the streets and we had the normally crazy streets of El Alto and La Paz all to our selves.
It is always enjoyable arriving in a new country and finding out all the interesting differences. For example, we quickly discovered that buying fuel for our stove is a whole lot easier in Bolivia. We have a Trangia which uses 'methylated spirts', which in most of Latin America is known as 'industrial alcohol' and is sold in hardware shops. In Bolivia we found our fuel in alcohol shops scattered everywhere throughout the towns and it was labelled “alcohol potable 96%'. Scary stuff.
Bolivia is a fascinating country - it went from being an important player in the colonial crown, with huge amounts of silver being dug out of the mines of Potosi and sent to Spain to help finance the Spanish empire, to now being the poorest countries in South America. It is a very colourful country – indigenous culture is very strong and the streets are filled with women in brightly patterned skirts, a bowler hat perched atop their heads, selling piles of stuff and knitting. Most of Bolivia seems to be an open-market as there appears to be a great reluctance to sell stuff inside shops, which makes for chaotic streets filled with small stores and food-vendors.
Other interesting points we soon discovered about Bolivia: it is completely landlocked (having lost its coast in a war with Chile); however, despite being landlocked it still has a marine force. Bolivia has the world's second largest high-altitude plateau (after Tibet), the country stretches from the Amazon jungle all the way up into some of the world's highest mountains, it has the world's highest capital city and most importantly they sell delicious “saltenas” - which are like little juicy empanadas.
Also, we quickly discovered that Bolivians love to protest. The whole time we were in Bolivia there was something going on – either a protest against a road being built in the Amazon (which shut
parts of the city and country down for weeks, as indigenous groups walked more than 400 km to protest in the capital), or a train strike, or a miners strike which shut the roads (luckily we could still weave our way through the rocks, glass etc scattered along the road). People power is still strong in Bolivia and Bolivians seem to take the disruptions fairly calmly, which was a good lesson for us-anxiety-driven westerners. It is important to learn to go with the flow in Bolivia and not take things too seriously – life is not meant to go according to plan anway.
The Bolivian roads are also notoriously bad – very few asphalt roads, and lots and lots of very bad roads or sandy tracks! Its always a bad sign when the roads are so bad that everyone (including us) opts for the sandy tracks on either side of the washboard road. These tracks were a lot more fun as we could go zooming along, making split-second route decisions and only occasionally ending up in the bushes, or sliding sideways through the suddenly deepened sand.
We left La Paz on the asphalt highway but two days south of the city we left the stupidly-busy main road (which had been two days of not very enjoyable riding!) and headed out on the much more interesting backroads of Bolivia. Corrugations, rocks, sand, lots of llamas, lots more sand, quite a bit of dust, amazing vistas, meteor craters, tiny farming communities cultivating sand into quinoa, the world's largest salt flats, impressive volcanoes, colourful indigenous ladies - It was quite a trip.
We were lucky enough to meet up with Joost, Michiel and Siska, cycling buddies who we had been meeting up with all the way down from Alaska. They were great fun to cycle with and always managing to sniff out a beer at the end of a hard day (even when we were camped in the middle of the altiplano, beside a huge meteor crater). So even while the riding was tough, and involved lots of semi-tracks, and lots of pushing through sand and over rocky outcrops, it was always fun. We also learnt a bit about Bolivian off-road riding – including that it is not necessarily best to try and take a short-cut across a seemingly short and easy looking mud-flat.. as it will quickly become soft and will require pushing the bike for 14km!
This route also involved a couple of days of cycling over the Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat. This was a trippy 100kms of white flatness in all directions, which came with great photo opportunities, an impressive sunset over our tents and the depressing realisation of how small and insignificant we really are. We all tumbled off the salt flat, dirty, smelly, burnt, with cracked lips from the dry cold and desperately in need of some civilisation after a dusty week. It was another perfect opportunity to meet up with mum and Lacey, who had been spending a few weeks travelling around Bolivia (though in a lot more civilised manner than us) and who were waiting for us in the tourist town of Uyuni.
However, our reputation took a further battering when we tried to find them at their hotel after coming off the salt flats, and having not showered for a week. Their hotel looked horrified at our appearance and the hotel owner told them “some dirty girls came to visit you today”.... that just about sums us up! But nothing a scrubbing in the town showers and some good spoiling at a pizzeria by mum and Lacey couldn't fix! This was then a perfect opportunity for a little side trip with the bikes into Northern Argentina to sample the wines and fine foods and for Mum and Lace to fatten us up some more! No complaints here!