Peru, a country known for its Inca culture, food culture, high mountains and pure cocaine. It’s quite a mix, but for a country whose topography allows for a surf scene to thrive next to high altitude mountaineering, alongside the vast amazon over to the country’s east, maybe I should have expected a diverse sensory assault. Assault and general civil unrest would affect me even before setting foot on the continent however, as I turned up at Auckland airport to find my afternoon scheduled flight would now be leaving at 2am, due to the protests in Santiago de Chile – the place where I would be catching my connection flight. A few food coupons and sending my hefty bike to South America free of charge (it would have cost $100 for those looking to fly from NZ) was more than enough to make up for the delay however, as I lost myself reading Carlo Rovelli’s, ‘The Order of Time’. After a few hours attempting to fire those logical scientific neurones I had somehow cultivated between beers over four years at university, I bordered the plane.
Arriving in Santiago after 11 hours of flying but actually five hours after I set off (due to the crazy time difference), I ironically had no time to bask in my own time travel because there was only 40 minutes between landing and the take-off of my connecting flight. It was a confused mad dash at through the airport in the dead of night to the next flight, but I made it and was soon on my way to Lima.
Lima occupied an interesting place in my mind at this point – I associated it with a dusty Kazakh desert in early June (2018). At the time, myself, a Spanish physicist called ‘Pol’ and a Polish guy, Adam, were through the barren stretch that connects the port city of Aktau, to the dive of a town that is Beyneu – where we would head east to Uzbekistan. We’d camped up that night on the outskirts of a small desert village (Shepte) and were talking about adventures we’d had before embarking on our various journeys. Adam had almost cycled around the world a few years ago, riding down the America’s and across Australia, before falling in love with a Thai girl and halting the trip to eek out the rest of his money with her – consequently he offered a word of advice never to do that! I asked about cycling in South America, whether he ever felt in danger riding there? It seemed like an obvious question, as the stereotype I’d picked up from home was that the continent was home to some of the most dangerous cities in the world. He pondered the question for a little while, before answering, ‘yes, leaving the airport in Lima.’ ‘That place was so sketchy I was certain I was going to be robbed…’
Over a year later, I had remembered his words when booking my flight, to ensure I could arrive in the middle of the day and get a taxi to a hostel. That was all well and good, until my flight was delayed, meaning I was due to land around 2am… The hostel would be shut and I didn’t dare take a taxi into town to try find a place to stay with my giant box screaming, ‘please rob me I have expensive items and am completely immobile’. I decided to try stake out in the airport until it was light and I would head into the city with my bags. Of which, only one had arrived. My bike had somehow made the quick transfer between planes at Santiago but my saddle bag hadn’t been quite so quick. The staff were really good and organised for the bag to be dropped at my hostel later that day, whilst also letting me call the hostel on their mobiles to organise a cheaper transfer from the airport once it got light. Perhaps I was a bit paranoid by Adam’s words, but I didn’t trust any taxi but the one sent from the hostel to get me there safe / not completely rip me off.
Funnily enough, once I awoke from my sleep in the hostel, after what had been a nearly 35 hour trip door to door, I found I was situated in a beautiful area overlooking the sea. Families walked the streets laughing and music was being played by buskers and bands on a stage in the plaza. The place reminded me of the streets of Barcelona in Gracia. 19th century boulevards and walkways sporting the occasional tree fine dining bistro were a more than welcoming introduction to the continent. I loved the park opposite the hostel that overlooked the setting sun, the buzz of life from people who would break into dance when they passed the band playing, and smell of the gorgeous Peruvian food being sold dirt cheap at small stalls. The city, or specifically, Barranco, was alive.
The life extended to my hostel (Point Hostel) also, where I’d read locals used the place as a springboard to kickstart their Friday nights. There was only a handful of travellers there playing pool by 8 o’clock, and it looked like it would be a bit of a dead night, until, at 11, the floodgates opened with hundreds of Peruvians coming into the place. In minutes people were playing beer pong and a roulette wheel of drinking games just appeared on the bar – it was madness. The whole place felt like the vibe of university freshers week had been bottled and then released right there. I’d made friends with Leo earlier in the day, he was one of the bar staff on duty that night and we and some other travellers had a real laugh as we moved into town after the bar closed that night.
We’d made friends with some locals that evening, and I spent the next days happily being shown around the city on a personal local tour. From Peruvian rap music flowing off the tops of a chic food court made from shipping containers, to watching the locals midnight Salsa dancing in the park. I was starting to see and understand the real side of the city and began finding it difficult to leave the place. It turned out that what Adam had said about the city was true, the area around the airport was very dangerous, as were pockets of neighbourhoods all around the city. People were forever being killed and Naomi, who took me to the crazy food court, would have her taxi window smashed in with a rock and phone stolen whilst in traffic. Thankfully I never personally witnessed any of the cities dark side, but it was always lurking beneath the surface. The surface of Barranco however was still as sunny as ever, and as I watched the sun set over a perfect looking surf that final night, I knew I’d had one of the most special weeks of the trip.
Leaving the city was made tough by goodbye’s, but also the knowledge of what lay ahead. I’d briefly scanned the profile of the east-bound road heading into the Andes, to see one monstrous climb. This was bigger than anything I’d seen before, and I like to think I’ve ridden some big mountains on this trip. The road went from the sea straight up to 5000m. No descents or small summits beforehand, it was just one climb over 140 km’s. I wasn’t sure if it’s huge length and therefore shallow gradient would be a help or a hinderance, as I would be set to spend a lot of time cycling at altitude, completely unacclimatised and fresh from a sea level week in the city, enjoying a few cerveza’s.
So began the biggest single climb I think I will probably ever do on a bicycle. I’d set off late from Lima; feeling tired after a hundred Peruvians had once again rolled into the bar for the next friday night, meaning sleeping until they left at 2am was impossible. After I’d escaped the cities mad traffic and roadworks, it was already the afternoon. For the remainder of that day and most of the second, I cycled entirely uphill. After taking an early refuge in a small village, I decided to go for the summit the next day. I’d spied a small dirt track that deviated from the main road, that crested the ridge at a higher elevation than the main road, meaning I would be riding my bike over the 5000m threshold for the first time. The track was really steep and the gravel loose, making the first hour and a half really tough going. As I continued up a set of snaking switchbacks, I came out on shallower section with a small wooden outpost at the side. Here I would meet my nemesis in the form of a mining security guard who informed me I could go no further. The whole road was apparently for the mine only, even though it led to small villages. I tried to argue and threw my toys out the pram a bit but it didn’t get me anywhere, I had to descend back the way I came.
I knew I no longer had enough time in the day to re ascend the main road up to 4800m and get over the other side before nightfall. I was knackered and really feeling the altitude already. On the way down (you’ve never seen someone ride a bike down 700 vertical meters and look as miserable as I did then) I contemplated why they stationed a security guard halfway up a private road. It made no sense. If you don’t want people riding on the road, you surely put someone at the start of it. Thinking about it was no good though, his job was to stop me from going on that road, and that was what happened.
Thoughts of waking up acclimatised and fresh for the second attempt at the pass were quickly dashed when I woke with a headache. As I slowly made my way to the top, it only got steadily worse. I was drinking and eating fine, I just knew that I needed more time to adjust that I hadn’t given myself. The final few kilometres passed at a painfully slow pace and there were no ‘glory’ photos to be taken at the top. I snapped a quick picture of the 4818m sign and passed on down the other side. After just half an hour of descending I immediately felt better, I gulped down the beautiful thick air whilst weaving my way between the peaks to the town of La Oruya.
The place was at 3700m which was hardly ‘low’ so I decided to take a day of rest to acclimatise. During the night, the locals were having some kind of fiesta, letting off fireworks and dancing to a guy playing the trumpet. This Peru place was nuts!
When I got back to riding again, of course the road went straight up to 4000m where I found myself riding across these high-altitude plains. They were green but pretty much barren apart from the grass and moss – it felt like riding on Mars or a green version of Tajikistan. It’s funny how you recognise the same types of landscapes thousands of miles apart. Also, how the people, their houses and way of life are spitting images of each other. Yet the gods they worship, languages they speak and way they are perceived by the public often couldn’t be more different.
I loved riding along these plains, eating up the high altitude miles as my body now felt much better. I climbed up to the city of Cerro de Pasco – the mining capital, and hence the polluted city in Peru (and some say the world). At 4400m it has to be one of the highest cities around as well. I picked a dirt track road leading out of town, away from the giant lead and silver mine that is literally devouring the the place, and began my descent. This road was the reason I came to Peru. It twisted and turned around beautiful mountains with barely a car in sight. It felt like a nice, wide downhill mountain bike route, and I gleefully rode it for over 50km’s until I came out on the main road again. I’d descended over 1500m, but when you start from such a height, it was still set to be damn cold at night. I picked a town and a cheap guesthouse to stay in, ignoring the shouts of gringo by idle locals bemused at what had just rolled into their small village.
The next day I continued on the never-ending descent that was the road, all the way to the city of Huanuco. I’d received a message from Naomi, there was to be a birthday surprise waiting for me in the city. She told me a hotel to check in to before she turned up, fresh off a 9-hour bus journey to get here. That evening we went out with some of her friends to a locals night of regaton and some strange drinking etiquette (they open one beer per group from a crate that’s on the floor, then you fill a small special cup, drink whatever you pour in, then give it to the next person in the circle to do the same). It was a great night, but the surprises didn’t stop there, Naomi had planned for us to go to Tingo Maria, a vibrant town nestled in the mountains and next to the Amazon. It was here I had my birthday, and where we would spend the days going on various excursions in the jungle, checking out caves, sliding down zip-lines and swimming in the pools of waterfalls. Genuinely it was such an incredible few days, a birthday I won’t ever forget and one the kindest things someone has done for me on this trip.
We got on like a house on fire, and after returning to Huanuco to say farewell, it was tough to do so. Five hilarious days being shown around cities and jungle will be a standout section of this whole trip, in fact it’s things like this which this trip is all about, if sometimes I myself need reminding of it. To meet real people and explore the places between the major dots on the map, that why I left home. Now I faced the reality of some solo days riding high in the mountains to ponder. If ever there was a place for that, I was learning that it was Peru.