*Peru: A touring adventure

Ed’s note: We found this well written travel piece in our archives and thought it worth sharing. Sorry to say, we don’t know who the writer is. Get in touch if it’s you!

Somewhere between Quito and La Paz. There seemed something wrong with the image in the bathroom mirror and it wasn't my face. Glances in my 'mirrycle' rear view mirror over the last week had almost accustomed me to its glowing patchwork as I cycled along the Peruvian coastal desert. No, it was the reflection of Volcan Misti and Chachoni looming through the window that did it. It was a high window but at 20,000' the severe black cone of Misti was still higher. It was like a poster in a Chinese restaurant which for some reason had been tacked next to the ceiling.

The setting is spectacular, but at 7,000' Arequipa enjoys a Mediterranean equilibrium, poised between the shimmering sandstone of the pampa and the chillier, uncertain climate of the high Andes. The buildings are elegantly colonial, only a tendency to squatness hinting at the geological flamboyance of the region. In fact I hadn't planned on being there at this time; I should have been in Cuzco some 400 miles to the north having cut across from Nazca. However, that road, like the one through the centre, has been made virtually impassable by the activities of the Sendero Luminoso, The Maoist terrorist group. In Lima I had asked advice at the British Consulate about taking that road and was told by a pleasant diplomat that "we can't stop you from going but we probably couldn't even get you body back". I can take a hint as well as the next man, better than most if it concerns my own safety, so here I was, under the volcano.

In addition to various bicycle bits I was carrying the usual white man's burden to South America. A mixture of tales, admittedly quite well documented, concerning the dangers of this untamed territory, together with colonial legends of exotic dissipation. As it turned out I'd met with much hospitality since Quito, intermingled at times it is true with hilarity or blank impassive as this latest flowering of western idiosyncrasy trundled by. Besides one or two Pisco sours, Peru's contribution to world cocktails, my drinking had been limited to beer mixed with Coca-Cola, a local concoction which will probably remain so. Occasionally after a fiesta I had to steer round prone figures or lurching pairs hindering each other home, so eventually it must have had some effect.

I set out early on a clear morning and climbed slowly through the permanent shanty town of shacks and rubbish that constituted the suburbs. It was much smaller than Lima's and the views at least were magnificent, but then South America tends to have slums where other places might have luxury villas. A police checkpoint marked the spot where the asphalt ended and the dirt track began. As usual they laughed when I said I was off to Cuzco and asked if it was some kind of race. No, just a good way of passing the time. And why alone? Well I couldn't find anyone mad enough to go with me ha ha. Bonhomie filled the air and then the road was quiet for a long time. My Spanish wasn't good but some responses had become polished through use and were smooth enough to sidestep questions I couldn't answer to recite my itinerary with deceptive fluency. The tyres crunched pleasingly on the gritty surface and goat bells tinkled across the scrubland. The scale of the country still duped me. A village which seemed five miles away often turned out to be two or three times further and the mountains were so huge they looked close when they were hours or sometimes days away. But that morning there was no doubt that Misti was close. It rose from the sparsely-covered slopes like an ornamental slagheap, its black mass messily crowned with patches of snow.

Rain was my only big worry. In northern Peru I'd been caught in a thunderstorm as I crossed a high pass close to the small mining town of Quiruvilca: within fifteen minutes the landscape was deep in sleet and hailstones and the road was moonlighting as a mountain torrent. Apparently the area was also subject to freak hailstorms (if that's the right word for a regular occurrence) whose golf ball-sized projectiles could dent a car if not the mining helmets the locals rarely removed. Before that I'd been completely immobilised by rain on a clayey surface which clogged up every moving part of the bicycle. The All Terrain Bike meets its match. It couldn't move but it could at least stand unaided.

At 2pm I reached the lip of the altiplano at some 14,000' and scanned the horizon. There were lots of clouds. They gave the strange impression of coming from below the mountains. Stranger still was a powdery white mist which rose behind a low ridge a few miles further on. It seemed to hang, agitated, between two powerful winds. One channelled by the massive shallow valley I was cycling along. Behind me the pampa fell away in hazy obscurity; ahead, the scene of sand, rock and grass was elementally bare. Far away a matchbox sized truck inched silently along the gravel thread that was less a road than a reminder that people had once laboured here in temporary numbers. Until Juliaca some 150 miles further on there were a few hamlets peopled by shepherds and smallholders and nothing else. The land is hard and treeless, rich only in its amplitudes of space. My head throbbed slightly with the altitude and I wished I'd brought some coca leaf with me. It's probably the only drug in the world whose legality depends on its height from sea level. The leaves can be freely bought and sold above 9,000', their mild narcotic qualities recognised as an effective foil for 'saroche', numbing the head and disguising fatigue. A numb head would have been just the ticket.

A couple of hours later the mystery of the clouds resolved itself. Below the ridge was a large salt basin afflicted by sharp gusts which spiraled the powder neatly upwards before abandoning it to the breeze. Discernible between the whirling columns were tiny forms presumably collecting the stuff before it blew away. Clearly there was no need for hurry. Closer to were herds of alpaca looking at me in some alarm. Despite this their expressions were oddly winsome and their circular chewing did not cease. Eventually they took off in a rubbery, undulating run that was unexpectedly graceful, pounds of wool bouncing against their slender frames. They looked like sheep designed by Modigliani.

When the shadow of the hills blotted out my own I decided it was time to stop. It was suddenly very cold. I 'made camp' on a convenient patch of sand i.e. draped a large sheet of plastic (purchased in Arequipa) over the bike, put on every piece of clothing I had and shuffled into the sleeping bag under the sheet. Gradually I appreciated the advantage a plastic sheet has over more conventional coverings, namely that one can see the stars through it. As the night went on the drawbacks were revealed one by one. First it was draughty, then condensation formed, then the plastic collapsed downwards and soaked the sleeping bag. As wet down does not insulate well I eventually ripped off the sheet and lay under a full moon in the large empty salt basin, closer to the heavens and colder than I really wanted to be. Occasionally I woke up to the sound of a passing truck or my own gasping for breath in the thin air.

Breakfast was a big disappointment. The water bottle was rigid with ice, the beans were as hard as buckshot and the remaining banana had become a brittle, if psychedelic, kind of alloy which pinged when I hit the bike with it. In frustration I snapped it in two. The sleeping bag crackled strangely in its carapace of ice and I emerged from it slowly and reluctantly like a butterfly with agrophobia. By my pillow was a neat pile of ice crystals where my breath had frozen. The air was clear and pristine as only mountain air can be. I set off for Cuzco as I did every morning and after that it would be La Paz. The names were magical but also marginal; they were the necessary fictions of my journey, an excuse for being where I was. No need to hurry.

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