The evening of the third day after we left Puno I was in a mood. A bitter wind had come in from the west, whipping the tent viciously as we set about staking it on an empty hillside with little shelter. Normally a little evening wind would be nothing more than a minor challenge, or perhaps something to shout into, to enjoy the exhilaration of bellowing at, or along with, rowdy nature. But this particular day had been a long one.
Up at 4,500 metres on a bike loaded with heavy souvenirs, climbing a gruelling four mile constant hill is particularly tough. I like to think of myself as having decent cardio fitness, but this hill was a challenge too far for me to ride: I had to push up the relentless, unforgiving climb. Little by little, one step at a time, breathing deeply, focussing on that stretch of tarmac five metres ahead. Peruvian road builders appear to get a kick out of placing an incline wherever possible, and to ensure it’s as long as it can be. But on a day when we were heading west, to the coast and off the Altiplano, long climbs weren’t expected.
Indeed, by the time we reached the peak of the mountain we were climbing, we were a breezy 700 metres higher than where we’d been on Titicaca.
So I was ready for a night of deep sleep by the time we stopped to set up camp. But I knew what would be ahead: long hours with little rest, doing my best to warm up in the tent. You see, the Altiplano gets cold at night. Drinks bottles frozen solid cold. So cold that you can still feel it coming through your bedroll when you’re in your sleeping bag and a thick tracksuit. I knew it would happen, as it had been that way for weeks. I was tired and knew sleep wouldn’t be coming easily that night.
So I was in a mood.
Although we were as high as I’d ever been on land – and almost as high as Europe’s highest point – this evening was a low point for me. Shouting into the wind this time wasn’t an exhilaration but a frustrated release of tension.
The next morning though came with calm: Herds of sheep and lamas picked their way across the mossy ground, relaxed in their easy search for grass. The wind had settled and the amber morning sun had already begun to thaw through the ice of the night before. And – a refrain Sophie and I have used many times on this journey – what goes up, must come down.
And down we went. For most of two full days we freewheeled down sweeping switchbacks off the High Plane, ever lower to the warm and attractive colonial city of Arequipa. Oh Arequipa, where the buildings are beautiful, the food is delicious and the sun shines bright! Oh Arequipa with your smiling residents, tree-lined squares, comfortable hostel beds!
We were through now with the most trying riding of the journey. No more cold. No more 4,000 metre mountains to climb. No more breathlessness from the altitude. Sure, there’ll be the opposite extreme of heat to deal with, and the bugs of the tropics, but we feel we covered the harder half of the journey first. Northwards now, to the sun!
Vida! Saúde! Felicidade!
As ever, if you’ve enjoyed reading these posts, or if you see value and a challenge in this trip, or if you’d simply like to support a wonderful cause, it would be great if you drop a little sum towards my fundraising goal for the Teenage Cancer Trust. Head over to https://www.justgiving.com/Mike-Edmondstone/ to get involved. Thanks