15 October 2017
Yesterday Tom and I rode 560 km from La Paz, the administrative capital of Bolivia to Sucre, the cultural and ceremonial capital. The contrast could not be more stark.
One of the problems of writing about riding this route is the continual temptation to use superlatives in describing views, roads, and everything and everyone we come across. This must stop – hyperbole inflation simply cannot keep up. Our ride yesterday was long and tiring. It included everything from total gridlock in market streets in La Paz where there are no laws, to high straight roads in the Altiplano, then smaller winding roads across mountains with surface varying from excellent to absent. It was nice. OK?
It was also nice to cover some miles in a southerly direction. Our time in Peru was at that time to me a highlight of the trip so far, and I am glad to have had the opportunity to spend time exploring a small part of that wonderful and fascinating country. Since coming down from the Cordillera Blanca, Mark and I made rapid progress down to Nazca, trying to catch up with Tom and Ian (now jointly known as Tandi. For the record, Mark and I are NOT known as Mandi). Then we slowed down to give them a chance to catch us, following their bike-related delays in Lima. It was not to kill time though that we took a flight in a tiny plane over the Nazca plain to see the famous lines – the more I look at them the more remarkable they seem. Created by the Nazca civilisation between 500 BC and 500 AD, there is still no real consensus as to how or why they did it, although apparently the “how” is easier to explain and does not require extra-terrestrial intervention a la Erich von Daniken, although they are incredibly impressive. Some of the figures are up to 370 m long, and getting any kind of visual impression of them is difficult without aerial flight although they can be discerned from surrounding foothills.
The road from Nazca to Cusco was endlessly twisty and took us in a northerly direction again. One of the ubiquitous features here is the interest all South Americans take in us and more particularly in our bikes. We met a young German couple, Joshua and Joanna, touring on bikes this morning – hats off to them as they were on two well-laden Honda 190 s and taking the slow options – but still have not come across any other more typical adventure riders on big bikes so we are apparently an oddity. From well-healed professionals to peasantry, people gather around and snap each other with or on the bikes. We, the riders, are optional in the pictures.
In some more extremely rural areas, it seems that life has not progressed for 500 years – it really could be rural Europe of the 15th century. All the women wear traditional dress with specific (and sometimes a bit comical) headgear; the men are less colourful but maybe dark woolen suits were in vogue in 1480? In these communities, the women all ignore us if addressed; our attempts at asking directions or even buying food are sometimes met with uncomprehending stares. The men however are much more enthusiastic and shout greetings and wave at us; here, we are most definitely the strangers in the scene.
At long last the four Loose Nuts were reunited in Cusco, and we spent a total of three days enjoying this lovely city, more than a few hours in the Norton Rat bar, an infamous bikers’ hangout on the corner of the main square. Been there, got the T-shirt.
The majestic Spanish colonial architecture and town planning really was a breath of fresh air (although not so much of it as Cusco sits at 3400 m above sea level) after the ramshackle building sites that comprise so many other larger Peruvian cities. During our brief stay there I took a trip to Machu Picchu; Mark had visited there just last year, and Tom and Ian were a day behind us still and had insufficient time to arrange it. I’ll not say too much about MP here because Val and several other friends are going to trek there in a week from now and this will be their story, not mine. I enjoyed it massively however (including my overnight in Agua Calientes); I will just say that it is of course extraordinary and in one of the wildest and most beautiful landscapes imaginable. Ladies, you are in for a treat, should you survive the altitude.
Leaving Cusco on the 10th, we headed for Lake Titicaca. This has to be one of the milestones of the trip, not least because it is somewhere we can all remember at least having heard of from an early age, so being there was always going to be a bit special. And the other Nuts kindly agreed to stay an extra day so I would wake up on my birthday there! Riding as a foursome again felt very good. We also were able to spend some of our free time together poring over maps, planning route options for our onward progress towards the South. It is not totally straightforward – we need to ensure we have enough time to ride the roads and see the sights we want to and still get to Ushuaia at the required time. Where would we be without MS Excel spreadsheets and Google maps?
The ride leaving our rather fine lodgings in Copacabana (we are now in Bolivia) was spectacular (uh-oh – superlative again). Much like a Mediterranean corniche, but with no traffic. Like none. Then we hit La Paz. But not before a short ferry across an isthmus on the lake and the surreal experience of being piped ashore by a variety of competing brass bands while disembarking. The other three Nuts had worked hard to arrange this to celebrate my birthday!
Talking of which, another first for me, and probably for all of us, was going to a world class vegan restaurant in La Paz. This in a continent where we have been offered exclusively pollo, trucha (trout), or lomo de res (beef) to eat. It was superb! Hats off to the inventiveness of the chefs, this was cooking of the first order (Masterchef quote intended). The Nuts treated me – I’m really touched.
Finally, a note on Bolivia. We had probably considered that this country would be the most under-developed of all the ones we will visit on our travels in South America. A case of low expectations. But how wrong can one be? La Paz has both extreme ends of the spectrum in one place; a cosmopolitan city in the mountains from a distance but looking like a film set for a dystopian sci-fi movie close up.
As Mark has commented on more than one occasion: every day a surprise! To start with the bureaucracy on entry took a holiday and the officials were chatty and helpful with our questions on roads and routes. Then the roads had tarmac and few potholes. And our hotel at Copacabana makes it into the top three of the whole trip, with a restaurant serving genuinely good food. And Sucre is lovely. Well worth the 560 km ride yesterday, which took us into the night. Sod the superlatives, I just loved it!