The one universal rule of bicycle touring: No matter how well you plan nothing will ever end up the way you thought it would. And maybe… that’s the biggest reason we do it.
We had made it through Bolivia’s high mountain passes, salt deserts and it’s sometimes dangerous traffic. The western feel of Chile and Argentina with it’s frequent petrol stations and supermarkets was long gone. Dust, forgotten villages and hectic markets was our new reality… and we liked it. It felt more like travelling.
It was very noticeable how our stomachs started acting weird as soon as we hit Bolivia. In cycles of a couple of days we went from good to bad to good. Over and over again. Nothing to weird. But it would soon become worse…
As we cycled towards Chivay where we would meet Daniel (Emil’s friend from Sweden) we had some cold days with headwind and snow up in the mountains west of Lake Titicaca. When we had almost made it to Chivay (just 40 km before the town) Johanna got sick and we decided to take a bus the last bit to the village.
We then got a message from Daniel who informed us he was also sick and had moved his flight one week ahead. We decided we would wait for him in Chivay and spent our days resting and waiting for Johanna to get better.
When Daniel finally came and we were ready to start our epic mountain adventure we left Chivay totally unknowing of what was waiting for us up in the cold and unforgiving mountains.
The road led us up through a valley split by a river and dotted with small villages and it went from being surfaced to becoming very steep and in very bad shape. On the first evening Johanna got heavy cramps in her stomach and couldn’t sleep for the whole night. We still had a couple of hundred metres left to climb on a 4600 meter pass in front of us. It didn’t look good. We started out the following day by pushing most of the stretch. The road was in bad shape but the views were still amazing as we slowly made it up into thin air. Around lunch time we finally had to give up as Johanna was in no condition to continue cycling. We had lunch by a small mud house in the middle of nowhere and waited for a ride. A bus finally arrived and we were lucky to get all our bikes onto the bus and headed towards Caylloma. It was beyond anything we have ever experienced on a bus. The bus was jumping around on the road and you had to use the seat belt not to fly up and hit your head in the ceiling of the bus. We looked worried at each other wondering how our bikes where doing.
After 2 hours of 30 km/h ”bumpy gravel road bus madness” we were finally in the village of Caylloma and immediately realised that it was way smaller than we first thought. We wanted to take Johanna to a doctor but after having visited a small concrete building with a doctor dressed in a thick thermal jacket who couldn’t really help us we realised we had to cancel our plans of crossing the mountains and get to a proper hospital. Two days later we had managed to get ourselves and our bikes all the way to Cusco.
Johanna had a serious bacterial infection and a parasite in her stomach and had to stay overnight in hospital for three days. We were all unhappy and felt like the freedom we had hoped of finding in the Peruvian mountains had been snatched away from us. But as the saying goes: ”When life gives you stomach parasites… make lemonade… or do a side trip into the Amazon”.
As Daniel had travelled half way around the world to meet up with us it felt sad how the whole situation had turned out. After some days of thinking and a quick look at the map Daniel and Emil jumped onto their bikes to go for a tour into the jungle while Johanna stayed in Cusco to recover. It turned out to be just what they were looking for… and a bit more.
So from here on the rest of this blog post will be written by Emil.
With our new GPS software we mapped out a route to the east. From Cusco to Puerto Maldonado. We started giggling and we immediately knew that this was the route we would take. A climb up to 4700 meters and then a constant drop of 100 km down to almost sea level. Time to wear out some break pads and get sweaty in the 35 degree heat of the Amazon. We left a lot of stuff at the hostel with Johanna and managed to leave Cusco with only rear panniers. The new set up gave us a feeling of freedom that would eventually make me and Johanna drop our front racks and panniers for good.
The first day we flew down through the valley out of Cusco. The reduced weight of luggage and the fact that we were only biking on 3300 m.a.s.l made the biking almost to easy. We finished the day of by starting to climb up a long and snaky asphalt road. We had some of our first ”truck-surfing” experiences. Truck surfing is basically the fun game of trying to grab hold of slow trucks that are going up the same way as you. After having managed to grab hold of three different trucks our fingers were blistered and we were totally exhausted… for a change mostly in our arms.
After having crossed the first pass there came a second and eventually a third that we started climbing on the evening of our second day. We didn’t want to mess with the altitude to much and therefore chose to stay at a hostel in a small village at 4200 m.a.s.l. We only had 500 meters climbing left to the top of the gigantic downhill. In the small village we had a hilarious encounter with a bunch of children who had apparently broken into their local school in the evening. They where playing around in the classroom so we decided to go in and have a look. We were quite sure it was the first time a gringo had entered their classroom at least to judge by the reactions and giggles of all the kids. After a short while every villager between the ages of 7-10 years had entered the school and we were playing around, drawing stuff on the whiteboard and actually tried to give them a lesson in Geography. As the classroom only had a map of Peru and it’s neighbouring countries the young students had no idea where Europe was or about the big ocean you would have to cross to get there. Before we went back to sleep in our hostel they tried to teach me some Quechua (their native language). Unfortunately it didn’t stick as good as Spanish so I can’t remember a word.
The room we stayed in was beyond any doubt the cheapest room we had stayed in so far. Daniel fell through his bed as it broke in the middle of the night and I had to sleep on a mattress on the floor. The walls were built by plastic sheets so we initially had a hard time falling asleep as it felt like the snoring road worker who lived next door was inside our room.
The following day we made it up to the top of the last mountain pass and could finally enjoy the absolute craziest downhill I’ve ever done on a bike. 100 km of pure asphalt! We could actually see the clouds below us as they were crawling up the valley. At the top we could stare up at the 6000 meter mountain Azangate and the landscape around us was arid and dry. We were wearing all our clothes and small puddles of water next to the road were still frozen to ice from the cold night. That same evening we would sit in our tank tops 10 pm and sweat in front of a hostel room fan. What a contrast!
The landscape changed drastically as we biked down in 40 km/h. The dry mountain sides soon changed into lush terraces soon to be followed by thick jungle. Out of the jungle covered mountainsides huge waterfalls came falling down joining up with the always growing river we were following on our rapid journey down.
After probably the easiest bike day of my life we arrived in the village of Quincemil where we stayed the night in a hostel. Our first evening in the jungle came like a shock. For almost 2 months I have been used to the temperature dropping far below zero as soon as the sun sets behind the mountains. But in the jungle the only difference between the day and the night was the sound. As the light rapidly faded away the frogs and the crickets started a loud concert that accompanied us through the night.
We woke up strong, feeling the increased density of oxygen in the air. Before we even managed to get on the bike the temperature had already hit 26 degrees. Riding in the jungle was filled with new experiences. We saw big lizards run into the bushes as we passed by and saw multi coloured birds fly from tree to tree. The only way to cool down was to jump into any of the many creeks and rivers that followed the road down into the jungle.
On our third day in the jungle, around lunch time, we stopped in a small village to have an ice-cream. Totally covered in sweat we fell down into a pair of plastic chairs in the shade. A man in his fifties was looking at us from the corner of the small shop we were sitting in. He was wearing a baseball cap, some dirty jeans, a shirt and a pair of wellingtons. After having talked to him for a while we learned that he owned a big property in the middle of the jungle a couple of kilometres away. Always up for adventure and the possibility of learning something new we asked him if we could visit him. Nico, as turned out to be his name, gladly accepted and told us it was possible to reach his home by bike… but that we might have to push them for some shorter parts. After having travelled by bike quite a lot you get used to locals always exaggerating the difficulty of road conditions, elevations etc. but Nico’s easy description of the road to his house turned out to be a big understatement.
Together with Nico we turned of the asphalt road onto a small walking path. The walking path was followed by a river crossing and after that it was basically a small track through dense jungle. We had to carry our bike over at least twenty fallen trees that blocked the way and also had to cross the many creeks by the primitive “bridges” (read fallen trees). We cut ourselves on huge thorns, slipped in our sandals and all in all got quite sweaty and bloody on our two and a half our push through the jungle. The feeling of adventure could not have been stronger. Where were we going? What was going to happen? We had no idea. What a freedom!
When we finally reached Nicos place we jumped into the cool jungle river and took in the atmosphere. We were literally in the middle of the jungle. Nico gave us banana juice that he had made out of his own bananas and together we feasted on a boar he had shot a couple of days ago.
When Nico had first described his “farm” we had imagined something totally different. When we arrived and got to know him during our 4 day stay we learned that he was basically an “Alexander Supertramp” Amazonas style. He had moved there to find balance in life and he lived from what was around him.
Trying to explain our stay with Nico would be hard as it was so special in many ways. Instead I’m just going to let the images talk. Enjoy!
That’s it for this time! As you might have understood Johanna’s quite severe illness has halted our trip for a while. We are currently in Cusco and as Emil got really attached to the jungle we will continue our journey into Brazil and decide our text move once we reach Manaus, Brazil (in the middle of the Amazon).
Until then! 🙂
/ Emil & Johanna
Photo Credit for most of the photos in this post:
our beloved friend, Daniel Gustafsson at vimago.se