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The South Yungas Road

El Gecko campingBREAKFAST AND LOADING up the bike in the morning, I say my final farewells to Luis and Fernando, fine hosts who I’ll miss. Fernando seems to think I can make the hill up to the town, but I’m still doubtful. I roll down the hill to get a run up the steep cobbles. Keeping the revs up I’m fast across the rough surface and the bike attacks the base of the incline and jumps around the oversize cobbles up the hill. I’m standing on the footpegs fully committed now. Stopping would be a disaster and end in a El Gecko camping.certain spill at this incline on this surface. Barking dogs start the chase but give up about twenty metres later with the bike leaping over the boulder-sized cobbles. the engine note starts to wane but all I can do is hang on for the ride holding the throttle fully open. And I make the top with momentum and revs to spare. Reaching the El Gecko Hosteljunction at the top of the hill, I’m carrying on whatever ‘s coming. Parked cars were all there were. There was no round of applause from the onlookers watching me bounding up to the junction, but I got the impression that not many fully loaded 125s are seen taking this particular route and I cruised around the corner without bothering to stop.

On the outskirts of Coroico, the road degrades from block paving to dirt and the pale yellow dust rises into the warm dry air.

South Yungas RoadThe gloves are off; partly for the challenge of offroading across Bolivia and partly because my hands are warm. My jacket is packed away and I wear combat trousers and cotton top to enjoy the warm dry weather while I have it.

The traffic is light compared to European standards, mainly minibuses with a few large trucks tearing up billowing plumes of dust. I stop and get my head face down on the bike’s fuel tank until it passes and what breeze there is carries the cloud away.

I’m on route 40 that intersects the South Yungas Road, route 25. On the map, it’s a bright yellow wiggle joining Cochabamba to La Paz. Back home, this would imply a major route, paved. Not here. Gravel, rock, sand and dust is the order of the day.

South Yungas RoadThe track is often wide but sometimes narrows as it winds its way around the contours of the mountains, not as high as the North Yungas Road but every bit as dangerous. Speed humps are camouflaged by the dust in the villages but I’ve come to expect them and slow as a matter of course. Chickens scatter between the huts and lazy dogs lift their heads and sometimes move out of the way, sometimes not, as I drift by either side.

Puente Villa, South YungasEventually, I cross the bridge to Puente Villa. Despite Luis’ assurances that it is a good road to Cochabamba, there is no indication that it improves any past Puente Villa. I’m not certain Luis has even seen a paved road. I’m already beige with trail dust and taking half a day to travel fifty kilometres could mean taking a dirty and gruelling week to Cochabamba. I hang a U-turn and cross the bridge to pick up the westbound South Yungas road towards La Paz.

A loose and dusty surface, the South Yungas road, slightly smoother with more traffic, otherwise similar to route 40 to Puente Villa. The closer to La Paz I get, the more the surface changes. Asphalt, block paving and cobbles introduce themselves at random intervals. Picking up the speed and leaning round the bends into the descending sun had me hopeful I would be back at the hostel in La Paz before dusk. Grey scars down the side of the mountains had the valley looking like a quarry. There had been some severe landslides here and plant machinery was busy clearing the way.

Three workmen in the back of a pickup called out as I pass. Often I continue but this sounded important. The way ahead was blocked and they pointed up a steep freshly dug dirt track that zigzagged up the mountainside. A red pickup came bouncing down the track and around the corner, disappearing from where I came. I had noticed this track on the way past but didn’t take it seriously as a road. It looked like a farm entrance.

South YungasThe earth was red and loose with large rocks scattered along its surface. I had to keep the revs high to stay in the power band in order to climb the hill. Jumping and bucking over the rough ground, I made the first couple of slopes but, on the third slope, the engine bogged down on the steepest section at the top of the third slope. I stepped off the bike and left it resting for a few minutes to cool down. A minibus came bouncing down around the bend and rocked its way down around the last bend I managed and disappeared into the valley. Looking up, I could see where the bends were dug away. There were at least another four more, as the road climbed like a ladder up the mountain.

YungasOptions from here? forty-five kilometres back to Puente Villa, one hundred back to Coroico, five hundred to Cochabamba. The Coroico route was the only other to La Paz and it had already taken most of the day to get here. It would be dark soon. There was no other choice: this dirt ladder or nothing. After a brief rest and more contemplation, I fired up the bike and did the same as I did in La Paz. Used the engine as well as push at the same time to get the bike up to the apex of the bend. It’s a difficult skill to regulate either the revs or the bike speed without dropping it but I was getting the hang of it. I felt better past that steep section and on the more level ground at the outer apex of the bend and I rested and stopped to think a bit more.

A red minibus came bouncing up the hill and swung round the bend on full lock blocked by my parked bike and was forced to stop. Shrugging and complaining at me, I shrugged back. I started the bike and moved it another metre and a half. The minibus’s wheels span in the earth unable to climb any further, forcing it to reverse down the slope for another run-up and off he bounced around the corner, missing the bike by half a metre and bounding up the hill, only to see him reverse back down again followed by a convoy of four minibuses coming down the other way.

I decided to take off up the hill before he came back. Mounting up and taking a run up on the corner, I leapt up the incline. I’d worked out if I made it to the outer edge of the bend the slope was less severe for the turn and I had more room to gain momentum for attacking the next incline. When the engine started getting bogged down I’d quickly dip the clutch to spin the engine up and let it out again, popping small wheelies over the rubble before losing momentum and balance. I only had to get off one more time to push and, mounting up once more, I shot out from the last incline onto an established track that seemed parallel to the South Yungas road at a higher level. Or it could have been another section of the South Yungas that looped back to join route three, not far away.

Less than three hundred metres to the smooth black surface of route three. The sun was now dipping behind the rim of the mountains and I sped as fast as I could toward La Paz, which was 45km/h uphill to Le Cumbre.  The chill of the mountains was getting to me and I stopped at the roadside to unpack my jacket before reaching the cloud base.

Clicking between the gears, I was able to maintain 45km/h as I followed the road up into the clouds, each hairpin revealing headlamps descending out of the mist. Eventually, the road began to level off and the clouds began to clear before the descent into La Paz. The traffic was building as I was nearing La Paz but the sky seemed brighter although the sun had already set.

In the fading light, the city lights lit up the far slopes of the canyon and the potholes became harder to pick out of the streets. I followed the bobbing tail lamps of the busses and taxis. I fight my way through the gladiatorial taxis street by street, checking the route every few minutes until reaching the hostel. I drop my helmet into reception and power the bike up over the step and through the doors into the lobby.

Carretero Hostel, La PazGabby the receptionist welcomed me back and said “Your face, es negro.” I just said “Si, South Yungas Road…” Gabby nodded politely and gave me the same room I had before and I dragged my bags up and washed before going out to refuel on empanadas and a coke.

The day had been hard going right from the off. Slow, dry and hot through clouds of dust, battle against gravity and mountain cold, fighting city traffic in darkness squinting through dirty glasses and visor.

The uncertainty of it all wasn’t fun at the time but looking back on it at dinner, it was. Especially as my hands had warmed up and the memory of the damp, cold mountain air was now history.


El Camino de la Muerte

El Camino de la MuerteAS THE TYRES left the smooth black asphalt of route 3 and crunched the gravel of El Camino de la Muerte, first impressions were that it was very similar to the Santa Teresa road in Peru, only higher and strikingly more beautiful. At a height of up to 800 metres (2000ft) above the river in the jungle below the mountains, it was a gut-churning experience seeing the road and mountain rush pass in relation to my motion and the distant jungle floor, being so far away, appearing to not move at all.

North Yungas RoadThe cloud was left far behind, clinging to the peak near the start of the road and I was warmed by the sun as I slowly descended. The road weaved in and out of the mountains, some edges having crumbled away revealing the vertical landscape. Cooling splashes from waterfalls that landed over the road and continued along and over the edges. So beautiful is the scenery that it distracts your gaze. With the road at as narrow as three metres in places, distraction wasn’t wise, with death a metre or two away.

El Camino de la Muerte Some way down the road, I was stopped at a toll gate, You pay to get in these days. like a fairground ride except you bring your own equipment. Further down: traffic. a tour group on mountain bikes, lycra clad adventurers on a briefing watched me and my luggage idle by and out of sight.

Reaching the second toll gate near the end, and a big wooden sign celebrating the monumental road gives the impression that the danger is over. It’s not really, there are still shear drops off the side of the road all the way on down to Yolosa just before and below Coroico. What’s more, the road surface turns from coarse rock and stone to fine sandy powder and dust. The front wheel feels the urge to move sideways away from the weight of the bike. Steering beyond a few degrees has diminishing effect and has to be slight and smooth as well as gently leaning around the bends.El Camino de la Muerte

The temperature had risen steadily as my altitude dropped along the road and I was now sweating under the same jacket that was keeping the chills away only a couple of hours earlier.

Now climbing the cobbles into the mountain village of Coroico, the bike had noticeably more power now as it was catching its breath. Through the bustling Coroico, North YungasPlaza and down the steep cobbles the other side, brought me to the gate of the El Gecko campsite. A family-run hostel and campsite with stunning views over the valley at the end of El Camino de la Muerte, North Yungas.

My tent was erected on the edge of the lawn overlooking the mountains. Warm weather, sand flies and mosquitos. You can’t seem to have everything. Pinpoint spots of blood on my arms revealed the presence of near invisible sandflies. Tomorrow, forty-eight hours of incessant itching would begin… I don’t know how that works, but I cover up from now on.

Coleman Rainforest 2Once base camp on the lawn was established. I collected my laptop and notepads together in a satchel and set about climbing the cobbles to the village. It wasn’t too far but still arduous. At 1700 metres, the altitude was noticeably easier to on the lungs compared to Titicaca or La Paz. I was out of breath but I could still carry on climbing.

Coroico is a beautiful little mountain village. Plenty of accommodation, cafes and restaurants but hardly any wifi, or even places with a spare socket for recharging. The opportunity to write, edit videos, blog and even read with the kindle app disappeared with the slow death of the battery charge.

“Free Wifi,” says the sign in the Cafe window and I order a coffee and sandwich. “No, senor, no WiFi.” Ah well, look out of the window then. Wifi in Coroico seems to be a marketing ploy rather than a technology. Time is yet to catch up with Coroico.

Coroico is the ideal honeymoon spot really since there’s nothing much else to do. There’s not much to do at the campsite either, so I walk to the church on the hill above Coroico and back. Hot and dusty, I sip water and rest in shade and explore possible escape routes for the bike should it not make it back up the steep cobbled street from El Gecko to route 40 through the middle of town.

Coroico PlazaI’d left my phone with Fernando to charge. I’d be glad of that later: no book, no light, no wifi or PC. I’d look forward to reading the Kindle. My equipment list needs some tweaking to accommodate ‘vida sin electricidad.’ A quartet of young French travellers had arrived and pitched their tents not far from mine. “Bonjour!” I call. They turn… nothing and they look away. What am I invisible? They stick amongst themselves and we share the campsite as separate factions. Me in my group of one and them in their group of four.

El Gecko HostelAfter dinner around the Plaza, I return to El Gecko about an hour after sunset. The French quartet are socialising around the table about fifteen feet from my tent. I secretly hope they aren’t going to be long, or loud, and I retrieve the phone from Fernando and retreat to the tent with my Kindle app, tucked up in my sleeping bag reading against the gentle murmur of muted conversation and laughter.

I check the map on the phone for tomorrow. I could not see the value for me staying another day in Coroico. Route 40 from here intersects route 25 and wiggles its way nearly five hundred kilometres to Cochabamba. I could head there tomorrow. In any case, I have to cross the river at Puente Villa fifty kilometres away first. A good opportunity to assess the state of the road before deciding whether to commit east to Cochabamba or west to La Paz. Where the faster roads are… Meanwhile, I bundle the blankets into a pillow and settle down into the sleeping bag to the lullaby of crickets, frogs and distant dogs…


Escape From La Paz

La PazThe pure blue sky of La Paz hides a secret spring-like climate behind its weather statistics. On paper, the temperature and rainfall averages look similar to the UK. In reality, the brighter sun, clearer skies and lower humidity provide a radiant heat easier to contain beneath clothing.

Plaza Murillo, La Paz, BoliviaPlaza Murillo holds the seat of government and a bird feeding station. It’s thick with police, military guards and pigeons. The University staff with their shockingly loud fireworks for protesting for higher wages have intensified the police presence without doing anything about thinning out the pigeons. I have to find my way around this inconvenient obstruction. Mostly, the demos have been peaceful but the longer they continue, the more fractious they get.

Mi Teleferico Amarillo Qhana PataA real gem of La Paz is the ‘Mi Telferico’ Cable car system. There appears to be no practical map available for the system and how it all links together to be able to explore the city. By trial and error, I spend the day moving from one line to another until the whole system has been explored and I have an overview of how the city is covered.

The colour coded cars take you from the heights of El Alto along the canyon of La Paz to Irpavi and across the gorge from one edge to the other. It’s the best way to see the city.

Over the next 5 days, I explore La Paz and take advantage of the relatively fast WiFi at the hostel, reading, writing, studying life; that sort of thing.

Higher Ground Cafe, Calle Tarija, La Paz,Don at the El Condor and the Eagle in Copacabana gave me a tip to find Higher Ground Cafe. I find it easily enough: down Calle Tarija, just up from the purple Teleferico station that’s unfortunately not yet finished construction. Still, it’s not too far to walk down the hill from the hostel. Just harder getting back.

Calle Tarija is the next street to Gringo Alley (Sagarnaga) and off Linares. It means there are lots of English speaking tourists flocking together. The owner, Mark, is an affable Aussie and his cafe makes for a good place where I can pretend to be a Digital Nomad, a worker from cyberspace.

Gringo Alley: Streets of alpaca-wear stores and fake asian North Face outlets. European coffee drinkers, recharging iPhones, absorbed in the WiFi universe.

I check out some likely locations online to pick up a real paper book -in English- for when Kindle runs out of power. “Spitting Llama,” on Linares just around the corner: now a tour company with cafe. “No Senor, closed maybe two or three years ago.” Another address at 1315 Calle Mercado. Steel shutters. Shrugs from neighbours. Not the first time I find expired businesses still experiencing a zombie life on the world wide web. I give up the search and settle for a coffee.

“El Camino de la Muerte.” A poster of young adventures on mountain bikes. “The worlds most dangerous road,” the poster boasts, at odds with the holiday vibe of the poster.

Wednesday 30th May
Death Road, Groves Road, North Yungas Road, El Camino de la Muerte… the road of many names…

Yes, I was nervous. I don’t like heights…

Since entering my awareness, Bolivia’s ‘Death Road’ had become impossible to ignore: something I could not just ‘not do.’ Like going to Paris and not visiting the Eiffel tower, or going to Cusco and ignoring Machu Picchu. Besides, I had also read that Coroico is at the end of that road at an elevation of 1700 metres. At this latitude, that means warm weather, a summer break from the spring-like chills of the ‘city in the sky.’ All less than a hundred kilometres away.

El Carretero Hostel, Catacora, La PazI loaded up the bike and squeezed its swollen bags through the Hostel doors onto the pale sunlit cobbles on the lane outside. Checking the map, it’s simply a right turn at the crossroads and straight on over the hill to route 3. The cobbled road was steep and the bike steadily rumbled its way upwards before reaching the smooth bleached concrete slopes that became so steep that the bike could no longer grunt its way another inch.

I put my feet down squeezing the clutch front brake: not enough traction to hold the bike on the hill on the front wheel alone and slid backwards until I let the clutch out to stall the engine and lock the rear wheel. Steering and propping the back wheel against the curb, I stepped off the bike and started the engine using it to power while I pushed the bike up the hill, collapsing at the next corner to calm my racing heart and suck some oxygen out of the thin air at the corner in a driveway. I’d only gone about 20 metres and round the corner was another 30 metres, just as steep. Beyond that, I could only guess from the angle of the roof gables of the houses continuing up the slope.

I sat panting on the curb watching the cars revving their nuts off and honking at the corners warning of their commitment to their ascent. There was no way I was going to make it to the top with this gearing or engine size in this atmosphere. I’d have to retreat to the main road and head east to where the orange routes were painting themselves on the screen of the sat nav. The big trucks that make it into this basin city have to escape somehow. I’d find out where.

La Paz, BoliviaTurning the bike around and rolling downhill on brakes and low gear was easier but no less dangerous. The white concrete was smooth and with barely enough grip. Stopping would be a challenge and my prayers for no traffic were answered, at least until the cobbles where the slope eased off to manageable levels,

Continuing the wrong way down the one-way street was an uneventful but useful shortcut, as was turning into the traffic without any clues from the rear of the traffic lights. The other road users didn’t seem to mind and there were no honks of judgement or rebuke and I turned to go with the flow of the minibuses along Calle Sucre.

Using the direction of the sun as my guide brought me halfway out of La Paz on Route 3 before having to stop and check with the sat nav. The outward bound traffic was thinning. It felt like whoever travels to La Paz stays in La Paz.

Illumani, La Paz, BoliviaAt the city limits, there was me, a coach and two heavy trucks belching black smoke against the force of gravity; all making our way out of La Paz’s bowl in the sky, from 3700 metres uphill toward La Cumbre Pass at 4600 metres. There was little power available for overtaking and a maximum speed of 40km/h but I took advantage of the unnecessary outward bound speed humps and potholes to maintain my speed by standing on the footpegs to roll over the obstacles and get ahead to breathe diesel free mountain air, while the trucks were forced to slow for the speed humps.

The weather was clear and dry with a few wispy clouds wafting over the mountain peaks and tumbling down the mountainside into the valley below. But it was becoming noticeably cooler the higher I got and I was glad of the suns rays for its radiance.

The bleak mountains and stark jagged rocks sheltered the ice in the shade with a hint of tentative plant life clinging for its life onto any surface. 40Kmh, clicking down the gears to try and make some progress only saw the suffocating engine cough at six thousand revs searching the rarified air for precious oxygen. Patience was the only remedy. Entering the cloud base, brought a chill familiar to riding in the British winter. An icy dampness that found its fingers between clothes and skin.

Soon, progress slowly levelled out and then downhill. I was over the pass. This side of the peaks, the clouds were tumbling over the peaks and falling below the cloud base and down the mountainsides and across the road.

El Camini de la Muerte, Death Road , BoliviaLess than two miles in the grey foggy mist. There it was, the entrance to the Death Road. Heralded by a tired and solemn-looking information board and a sign instructing traffic to now pass on the left so the drivers are able to see how soon their wheels will be going over the edge.

I propped the bike on its side stand and walked to the edge of the junction to look down the sunlit valley at the thin yellow ribbon of road slicing its way through the trees and around the mountainsides into the mountain jungle below and to the east.

Watching the road for a few minutes, I could see zero traffic either direction. The Death Road’s new replacement was here behind me continuing into the grey cloud around the other side of the mountain. I saw no traffic here either.

After a quick drink from the water bottle, I slipped my helmet back on and started rolling down the gravel track known as the most dangerous road in the world…

North Yungas Road, El Camino de la Muerte, Bolivia


La Paz

El Condor and the Eagle Cafe, CopacabanaThe bike started on the first blip of the starter button after 5 days of inactivity and I walked it over the steps under engine power into the street before loading up the bags. One more visit to El Condor and the Eagle Cafe to pass away the morning and I was off to Huatajata on the way to La Paz via the picturesque peninsular track toward Isla Del Sol.

Andes Mountains and Lake TiticacaAs usual, the track was rough to the point of requiring a flagpole to mark a particularly deep pothole. The afternoon, bright, dry and warm with dust hanging in the air stirred up by the balding tyres of long passed taxis.

One wrong turn is all it takes. South to the Tiquina ferry and I find myself at a dead end in a churchyard, dogs barking somewhere in the small roadless village. An unstable U-turn in a rocky garden and half a mile back up the track reveals the junction, half hidden by a bend, that switched back over the peaks and loops south to Tiquina again. Over a dusty crest and the smooth asphalt ribbon of the F2 around the hills to La Paz presents itself for more rapid progress.

The fully loaded 125 can only make 80km/h so I was able to lean the bike around the sweeping bends at full speed. With a good view around the bend, I could use both lanes too. I had to be mindful though, a blowout or something could cause me to slide into the drain one side or over the edge of a cliff the other. With the hill on the right, I’m on the inside track of the curves.

Tequina FerriesTiquina saw fleets of rectangular wooden ferries. Square bow, powered by outboards. Perfectly aligned with the height of the ramps, I follow a taxi and a camper van without having to wait. Three empty ferries patiently drift awaiting the ramp with no traffic behind me. I put the side stand down but stay on the bike to brace against the swell on the lake, as small as it was. Facing the stern I watched On the Tiquina Ferry, Boliviathe ferry flexing with the waves. The strait is narrow, probably half a mile at the most but it took a while, the poor outboards pushing the square bow wave across the channel.

The sun was descending to the west but almost deserted F2 meant I could push on to Huatajata about forty minutes down the road and remain fairly relaxed.

The road is being widened so the surface is new, the main danger being ramps and ridges of new asphalt.

Huatajata HostelMissing the narrow gravel junction to the tiny plaza of Huatajata, I turned back after about half a mile past and found nowhere, not even a campsite. Not only did the plaza appear deserted, it appeared abandoned.

Extending my journey to a hostel on the iOverlander app featuring a reasonable review, found it closed and abandoned. Wild camping was a possibility but all the land along the lake seems to have been claimed by farmers. Private land for miles on end.

The next possibilities were Huarina fourteen kilometres down the road and Batillas the same distance again. Nothing appeared on the maps apps or my field of view diverting through the streets on my way through.

The sun had almost reached the horizon. A half hour and it would be dark. I wanted to avoid riding darkness as much as possible. iOverlander had one hostel marked in Pucarani, another fourteen kilometres south but the map would not load due to no internet connection, iOverlander is not a purely offline map like maps.me but between them, I can divine its location.

The straight bright yellow line on the map between Batillas and Pucarani promised a fast smooth ride but delivered white rock and dust with long straight furrows ploughed by car tyres for thirteen kilometres. No grip and loose uneven surface in fading light made for a treacherous journey. At my top speed of twenty to thirty kph, it would be dark before I arrived. Farms and at fields,fl some waterlogged lined the rail straight trail all the way along. I was noting plan ‘Bs’ all the way. A walled cemetery here some grassland at the side of a bridge there.

Hospedaje with a ‘k’ sound for the ‘j’ is the word for hostel here. No, the locals directed me to the hospital. I was getting uncomfortably cold riding around in the dark and frustrated trying to communicate with the locals. Resigning myself for camping out on the plains somewhere toward the F2, I stopped at a cafe for some food to warm me through the freezing night of the Alti Plano.

“Hospedakhay?” “No!” Finishing my modified vegetarian meal of chicken and rice, the companion of the girl who I spoke to eventually said “Residencia?” and pointed down the road just around the corner from where we were. “Si!” I was saved. A smart looking hostel with secure parking for 30BOB, maybe only 200 metres from where it was marked on the map, but far enough to render it invisible in the terraced streets of Pucarani.

One small wrinkle, check out is 6am…“Seis?” I hold six fingers up to check. The woman says “Si, seis!” and made a sign resembling a tentative nazi salute to indicate I go pronto.”

I awake a couple of minutes before the five twenty-five alarm. Funny how that happens. I had slept in most of my clothes as the night and room was cold. And I was trying to start the bike a few minutes before six. The bike was undercover but it wasn’t a garage. The rooms bridged the garage doors that led to a large garden. Similar to old coaching inns. Still, the bike seemed too cold to fire up. The host came out and unlocked the garage door and I pushed the bike out onto the dark and silent street.

I looked around hopefully for the dawn and saw a shooting star across a hint of a silhouetted horizon. Sunrise would be a while coming yet.

I pushed the bike as far as the restaurant on the main road which was on the side of the hill leading up to the main plaza. Should I need to attempt a jump start, I’d have about 40 metres. I didn’t need it. Full choke and holding the start button and caressing the throttle slightly got the bike to a slow tick over before the battery lost too much power. The engine speed picked up and I reduced the choke over the next few minutes and slowly eased the bike east toward the F2, ten kilometres away.

The air was still but with me moving through it my fingers were quickly losing heat through my gloves and knees losing heat through my trousers. Five kilometres along and I stopped to warm up. Two dogs at nearby houses came out and started barking and nervously edged toward me. I fired the bike up and drove toward the most aggressive one to chase it away with the headlamp beam, which worked only while I was pointing toward it, and it resumed the chase as I realigned to the path of the road. I was just far enough away to gain speed enough to outrun it.

A few kilometres later, speed humps for another urban settlement. Two more dogs came from the right and caught me in second gear. I was still accelerating when the closest one caught my boot. I carried on accelerating until it let go and heard the barking recede behind me.

The sky was brightening by the time I reached the F2. Traffic was light, mainly with minibuses ferrying people to work. I stopped a few times to warm my hands around the exhaust and again for ten minutes, leaning against a wall in the bright pale sun full of light but little heat.

RN 1 El AltoA half-hour later, I was in El Alto. Low sun but now full-beam daylight. Traffic was building and becoming ever more competitive for the diminishing road space. This is what I wanted to avoid by planning to stop in Huatajata, arriving in LaPaz in peak traffic.

El Alto and LaPaz are pretty much one big urban sprawl. El Alto occupies the flat plains at over 4000 metres elevation and the road spills over the lip of the canyon along with the buildings hundreds of metres into a crater-like valley of La Paz. To get to La Paz, I needed route F1.

La Paz from El AltoThe junction to F1 toward La Paz remained undiscovered as I found myself diverted into the Centre of El Alto by traffic flow and one-way signs.I was thrilled, once I had discovered myself actually on the F1 but in the wrong direction. Hanging a U-turn at some traffic lights I was riding into the Sun toward the giant loop that descends the crater that is La Paz.

Carretero HostelThe next mission: to find an affordable hostel that can accommodate a bike. I’d read a few reviews on iOverlander and by chance found myself close to the Carretero, all be it thirty metres the wrong way down a busy one-way street. I parked up and walked to it and found it perfect for my needs. I wasn’t risking losing myself around the one-way system so the next gap in the traffic I rode down the street and powered the bike over the tall step and with a helping push into the lobby.

Carretero Hostel, La PazThe journey from the ferry had been riddled with uncertainty. Cold, dusty, obstructed by the language barrier. It wasn’t fun. In ‘hindsight’ I would have been better off staying on the main route to El Alto and chance my luck with the evening peak traffic.

La Paz Mountains IllimaniNow I was here, I could unwind and look back at the journey from a warm and comfortable perspective. I hadn’t been happy about leaving at six but the side benefit was now it was only ten. I had the whole day to explore La Paz and stepped out into streets now bathed in strong, warm sunshine.


Isla Del Sol

Copacabana Bolivia3AM, Cold enough to wake the Zombie White-walkers of Game of Thrones. The fleece blankets had slipped off the Teflon-slick polyester sleeping bag and needed constant readjustment to maximise heat retention.

The jacket I had been using as a pillow was now donned and zipped up inside the sleeping bag for extra insulation and arms deployed as alternating headrests and switched as they became numb. I dozed on and off listening to the waves gently calm and become quieter in the stillness of the night.

Wild Camping TiticacaI awoke before sunrise, cheered to see the shadow of Senor Yamaha’s front wheel and mudguard cast on the tent wall. If not yet warm, I could feel the morning chill receding. I nestled down for an extra hour or two’s bone-warming sleep.

Titicaca ShoreThis time of year, the night temperature drops to between 2 and -2C. Back in the UK, Everything would be dripping with condensation. Not here, I couldn’t even see the mist of my breath. Everything felt as dry as it had been in the daytime. I squatted at the waterside with my toothbrush, unsteady over cricket ball sized pebbles and football sized boulders. The water was like liquid glass, completely clear, sparkling in the bright Andean sun. It tasted like spring water as I washed and cleaned my teeth on the sunlit beach. I expected the water to be icy cold but it was about the same as the sea in the UK but of course without the salt. Plastic bottles and litter lined the shore, as bad as anywhere I’ve seen here, even along the roadsides. I picked a few bits up, maintaining my policy of leaving a place better than I found it but it made little visual impact.

I wasn’t really hungry so I relaxed around the tent for a couple of hours before packing away and bucking and weaving the bike along the shoreline towards the town in search of a hostel, I’d need my fix of warmth, electricity, and WiFi for catching up on things tonight. Frankly, blogging wasn’t working as a portable income but I still feel compelled to keep it going: a mission independent of finance. It’s work, but not as we know it.

Copacabana TiticacaI rolled into Hostel Gabriel at Avenue 6 de Agosto. Saloman speaks as much English as I speak Spanish and between us we communicate quite well. He gives my bike a helping push up the high kerb and the bike idles into the lobby. The tarrif is 30BOB (£3.36) a night, for a shared room or 40Bop for a private. My shared room up on the first floor has two beds and there is no sign of anyone else here. For my 5 night stay, I have the ‘shared’ room to myself.

There are two issues with camping. One, at this altitude I need an arctic grade sleeping bag. Two, I need a regular source of electricity in order to keep up to date with my reports.

The curtained window in my room faces out to the hall which facilitates the walkway to the other rooms as well as a communal area. Its transparent plastic roof provides a warm area for the day I saw no one else when I was using it. Almost like I had an apartment to myself.

Cerro CalvarioOut front and squinting up at the peak of Cerro Calvario, the crosses of the monuments give the impression of a cemetery: boot hill would be my nickname for it. The short but steep climb takes probably twenty minutes to half an hour up irregular stone steps. The altitude challenges the lungs. The intention is to take some pictures of the sunset over the lake but ignorance of the fact that Bolivia’s time zone is an hour ahead of Peru puts me an hour too early and a leisurely hour and a half is spent at the summit in meditation and contemplation while the sun slowly drags its warmth and light below the horizon.

Down the Avenue toward the lake on the left is a cafe called El Condor and the Eagle. A fascinating Irish cafe run By Don, from Ireland and his Bolivian wife. He makes his own bread which makes for an irresistible breakfast sandwich. Don is full of local information and gives me tips on local bureaucracy, residency, La Paz as well as Isla Del Sol. There is a stack of handwritten notebooks where customers are invited to share their wisdom, experiences, favourite books, poems and song lyrics. It becomes the ideal office for planning the day…

Avenida 6 de AgostoClosing the door behind me entering El Condor and the Eagle, I assume I’m the first customer of the day since they open at 7 and it’s still well before 8. Don, explains a bit about the blockade at the northern part of the island. Which was a blow, as I had planned to land at the north port and hike the ridge path to the south. Not currently possible. Something to do with the inland community not getting a share of the tourist profits. Even so, at the ticket booth at Copacabana harbour, I ask for a ticket to the north. The vendor says nothing and ticks the south box on my ticket and I wander along the wooden jetty to join the queue for the boat.

The wooden ‘bus’ boats are wide, basic and slow, powered by twin outboards. It’s a ninety minute cruise to the island which gets us there shortly after ten. Stepping ashore, a local man collects a 10bob fee in addition to the ticket, just because he can… This is not publicised well but Don had warned me about it.

Yumani Inca StepsThe Isla Del Sol port of Yumani is an area about one hundred metres wide by thirty metres deep between water and Inca Wall. To the right are the Inca steps which lead up to Yumani Pueblo nearly two hundred metres above the lake. I hoick my backpack containing only water bottle and jacket onto one shoulder and stride to the steps. Some young German girls were laden with full touring kit, were occupying the full width of the path bent forward step by slow step and I quickly skipped around them on the steps, as they gasped for scarce oxygen with the effort, and I steadily climbed into the village.

The last sign I spotted was for the path to the north, which I would have been walking down if not for the blockade. I guessed I didn’t want that one now and continued straight on, losing myself in the labyrinthine back alleys. Returning from the edge of a gorge too deep to cross to the viewpoint I clearly see less than a few hundred metres away, I encountered another lost soul.

Isla Del Sol, BoliviaMax was Portuguese but sounded Italian. He was fifty four but looked a lot younger and we shared similar philosophies for life and travel: mainly a preference for solitude but in this case an exception in sharing these stunning views over the lake and distant mountains. It made for a pleasant change.

Isla Del SolFor the return cruise, I nabbed a seat on the roof. High altitude, full sun reflected by the lake, people were breaking out the sunscreen. I just pull my hat down further and covered up with long sleeves. It turns out I’m in a group of four Brits and an Aussie. An hour and a half break from struggling with the
Spanish language. The Aussie had taken the Isla de la Luna option, which left not enough time for enjoying the Isla Del Sol. “Not worth the time you lose,” was the verdict: a bare island with some small Inca ruins but largely a nature reserve.

Stepping onto the Copacabana jetty, I invited Max for an evening drink at around six thirty. He said he’d meet me at my Hostal. I never saw him again.

I had planned to leave for La Paz the next day but the hostel was warm with good WiFi so I stayed one more day. I think I stayed one more day twice.

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Titicaca Nights

Lake Titicaca at NightI had based my original estimate of 400Km a day on smooth roads and big bikes that could sit happily at 120 km/h and even 180km/h, not that you would like to hit one of the unmarked speed humps here at that speed.

The cafe I’d earmarked for breakfast in Puno was closed so I skipped it heading south through town to pick up highway 3S again. Losing track of the shore, as it diverged away from the road, I’d also lost track of the days, Friday, I think it was. I turned left off the bypass into Ilave for breakfast just as the chill was Ilave SOATgetting to my knees and fingers. Ilave rang a bell. I had prepared my documents earlier ready for the border ceremony, into Bolivia, and checked the insurance details. La Positiva, There was a La Positiva across the road at the Yamaha shop which was closed. Well, well, if it wasn’t the exact same place as the address on the document. I still had three weeks to run on it so not worth hanging around for, besides it appears it can be done online decoding the Spanish notes.

Fish Farms on TiticacaThe farms weren’t solely confined to the land. Cresting a rise on a bend, Lake Titicaca once again presented its full fresh water blueness in the early afternoon sun, supporting floating frames far along the shoreline with fish farmers in their boats tending to their trout cages. I pulled over in a layby for a while, sitting my cold carcass on the ground leaning back on a rock absorbing the sun’s rays.

Yamaha YB125When my blood temperature rose above reptilian levels, I set off to Copacabana. It was only 45Km away so I would be there early afternoon. Time enough to get across the border and find a reasonable hostel. It was too cold to camp.

Titicaca BootsToday’s ride was decorated by the proximity of the lake under a deep blue sky over a deeper blue water. The anonymous-looking unmarked junction east to Copacabana almost slipped by unconsciously, disguised by a shanty looking town. I only recognised it by the curved triangle that each lane made with the main route. Checking the sat nav I doubled back the twenty metres plus braking distance.

Pomata LighthouseThe border town of Kasani was a handful of Kilometres and I was at the border control by 2pm. Two offices required my visit to depart Peru, one for me and one for the Yamaha (Khamakha, they confusingly pronounce over here.)

The place appeared abandoned but for the uniformed agentics and me, their only customer. Emerging from the Sunat traffic office, the chain that had been draped across the road had mysteriously dropped and Senor Yamakha and I idled across through the tentative arch on the hill that heralded Bolivia.

Bolivia Peru Border, KasaniThe border complex resembled an abandoned barracks with assorted militarised looking individuals meandering as if searching for significance in their lives. I viewed them as sharks in a pool. If I showed no fear they might not feel the need to justify their existence and attack.

Office one: Migraciones, Passport. “Occupation?” (Restricting the temptation to say Journalist or Wizard) “Computer Engineer “(always a safe bet.) “How long are you here?” (quick think of a number) “Two or three weeks” where are you going? (What’s best, near or far?) “Copacabana.” “Fill in form. Mesa aqui!” “I fill in the form with a plastic pen secured to the plastic table tethered by plastic string. Stamp! Vamonos!

Office two: Aduana Nacional. Senor Yamakha! “How long are you here… etc.?…Will you go to La Paz?” “No, just Copacabana.” (I don’t know why I said that, even I don’t know my plans”) “I give you one month!” “ Gracias, Adios!” I have 30 days to explore Bolivia… still, I’m not rushing. I’ll probably go to La Paz.

Office three: Policia (I don’t know why). The office is cool and bare with a shrine to Santa Maria in the corner with a candle hissing its last moments as the wick approaches the melted remains of its predecessors. A small shaggy white dog lifts its head up half disinterested and puts it down again. The officer behind the battered wooden desk reflects the same attitude. There are no computers here, the only item giving away which century we are in being the cell phone the officer glances at as it buzzes a message.

“Buenes Tardes,” I say as I offer my passport without him having to ask, holding crash helmet and fresh documents from the border experience in the other hand. He’s a friendly guy and smiles at my broken Spanish accent. My passport indicates Hannover as my birthplace “Allemagne?” he asks “Nein, Inglaterra… Great Britain.” I reply. “Ah, Gran Brettagne.” “Si.” I nod “Manchester Hunited!” he exclaims excitedly “Si.” I smile. He opens a hardback ledger, similar to what hostels and campsites use and fills in the hand-drawn columns using the closest pen to hand. I am now fully written into Bolivia, I exit the office, cross the deserted square and mount my iron horse, drifting out onto the high plains on the Bolivian shores of Titicaca, thinking of Clint Eastwood and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Even John Wayne gets a couple of brain cells.

Fifteen minutes later, I’m rumbling the Copacabana cobbles, so close to the border that it is. Still early I turn left down the bouldered surfaced road down to the beach. There’s no doubt that this place exists for tourism; the floating water busses moored in the bay, cafes lining the harbour. I turn left away from the harbour to explore the camping spots marked on ioverlander.com, a great app that Nikita showed me while buying the bike.

Titicaca ShoreI buck and swerve along the lane a couple of kilometres past camping ecolodge and Kasa Cultural as far as I can go: a mound piled across the road as it continues along the shore out of view. The sun still looked a way off the horizon, too early to pitch up for the night so I return along the shore earmarking flat patches of grass suitable for my tent.

Sunset at TotaraAfter dinner at Totara’s roof terrace watching the sun plummet toward the horizon, chased by the invisible chill of night, I delicately ride across the dust and boulders lining the shore back to where I hoped I remembered. Dogs leapt unseen out of the darkness under the trees, barking and chasing the bike almost knocking me over. One bit my leg and got a mouth full of shin protector before letting go and disappearing somewhere behind. Ignoring dogs is my only strategy for staying upright, so far it’s working.

Moments later I found a deserted spot on the lane with a patch of grass big enough for the tent. It was flat and smooth and best of all, silent apart from the waves lapping at the centuries smoothed boulders on the beach. The lights of the town shimmering across the surface of Titicaca.

Wild Camping TiticacaWithin half an hour the tent was up with the interior decked out for a good night’s sleep. Annoyingly, the thin pole for the door shelter broke leaving the porch limp and forlorn, not that there would be rain tonight. The sky was a pure indigo with a bright crescent moon above a Venus on full beam, the distant horizon lit by the fire of the sun. Inside the tent, it didn’t feel so cold but then, the night had only just fallen.

Peace on the lake seeped into my heart.

Lake Titicaca at Night


Life on Mars

Cabell Hostel CalcaThree days later, I checked out of Hospedaje Cabell and rode into Plaza de Armas for a final omelette and latte at the cafe on the Plaza and hit route 28B down the Sacred Valley of the Incas through Pisac and down route PE3S toward Ayaviri, 268 km south-east closer to Bolivia and a thousand metres further away from sea level.

The longer I rode, the thinner both the traffic and the air got. The sun got hotter and the wind got colder, letting me know my altitude was increasing, eventually peaking at 4300 metres. The road along the valley was much straighter than the Ayaviri, Perumountain passes around Ollantaytambo and became straighter the further south I went. The scenery changed from steep alpine rocky giants left and right creating a natural channel, to rolling wispy grass hills and wide open, flat plains. It didn’t seem like planet Earth at all. Arriving in Ayaviri felt like landing at a moonbase. I had an option of campsite here or hostels. The air felt so cold, even in this clear blue sky with the suns rays irradiating me, that I opted for the relative warmth of a building rather than nylon shelter.

Ayaviri Bus Terminal, PeruWalking around the town and looking at the landscape, it wasn’t the moon I was on, it was Mars. No vegetation apart from thin grass lining the hills, dust stirred up by the three-wheeled motor rickshaws and a sky bluer than I’ve ever seen. It was noticeably harder to breathe simply walking about. Mars has a thin atmosphere too. The altitude here is just short of 4km above sea level. Staying in the sun to absorb the warmth through my jacket, I grabbed an early dinner at a Polleria and retreated to the hostel.

I lay on the bed with my jacket on and hood up typing up my recent adventures wriggling my cold feet still encased in their boots. I’m on the Alt1 Plano, a giant plato stretching cold empty miles between Peru and Bolivia. It’s not going to get any warmer, I imagine this is how it’s going to be until I’m finished in Bolivia.

Ayaviri Hostel, PeruAt half past six, the warming influence of the sun is subtracted from the day’s equation, I get ready for bed. My urine is dark amber, reminding me I need to drink more water if I am going to avoid a dehydration episode like I had in Bogota. I climb into bed still wearing my jacket with the hood up. There are three thick blankets and my feet soon warm up. My room is cold as it’s on the side away from the afternoon sun. If I’m lucky, I’ll catch the early morning sun’s rays through the windows. I’m going to need some windshields for my hands on the bike and start wearing my rain gear for insulation. Tomorrow I’m bound for  Puno, only 167km, or if it’s going well, Copacabana 284km plus a border crossing on the Bolivian shore of Lake Titicaca. We’ll See…

Wednesday 16th May
The sunlight beams through the frozen gap in the curtains that I open as wide as I can. The sun brings plenty of light but little warmth. The people I see out of the window are clad in heavy coats and hats and the moonbuggies travel up and down with their modified car alarms attempting to emulate a siren for ensuring optimum progress through the meagre traffic.

The shower had two faucets: one labelled Frio for cold and the other labelled Caliente for just as cold. I skip it. I notice some itchy bumps on elbows and knees. Wherever the insects were, they weren’t out in the cold. Their home was probably in the thick warm, woollen blankets.

This morning, I am not hungry. The water out of the tap tasted fresh and clean so I topped up my bottle and took a few gulps. The bike was already packed just as I’d left it loaded in the lobby. Full choke was needed to start in the cold, thin air and soon I was off through the city centre of Ayaviri and onto 3S south. The road was laser straight for Kilometers on end with little change in altitude. The cold was getting to my knees. Puno, I would stop in Puno.

The stark landscape slowly transformed into rich farmland, trees began to appear and some undulations and bends in the road began to appear. I was back on planet Earth.

Puno, PeruThe roads began to curve and undulate and suddenly, Puno presented itself in its full mediocrity while rounding a bend over a rise and descending into the suburbs. The beauty of the place was wholly dependent on its proximity to the lake. Bolivia’s version of Skegness or Margate, with its fairgrounds and sparse, ramshackle attractions.

Hospedaje Sol, Puno, PeruI cruised along the city’s coast and spotted a hostel sign among many I ignored. “WiFi y Aguas Calientes” Perfecto and, with permission, I rode into the courtyard reception and unloaded the bike. My room was upstairs. The WiFi only worked outside and I was in the shade which made it a chilly and short session. I tried the shower: cold dribble. The duchas calientes were not included in my ensuite, they were in a block downstairs past the building site that was pouring concrete into vertical wooden cases laced with steel rods, making columns. I skipped it, I wasn’t sweating in this climate. I’d keep…

Hostal Sol Secure ParkingMy room was room No 1 at the back, away from the road but next to a fairground that would spark up Gangnam Style and La Macarena as soon as the sunset. Ah well, what else to expect from previous experience. The bed was warmer than the one in Ayaviri, with its 5 heavy woollen blankets and apparently uninhabited by creatures other than me. The double bed meant I had two pillows so was able to sit comfortably and type up some notes. The ambient temperature was warmer than last night too… and I began to get comfortable, which had been a warning Puno fairground, Titicacafrom mother Ayahuasca not to settle for, and I abandoned the temptation to stay one more night. Anyhow, Copacabana was only 145Km away. It doesn’t sound much but the bike is slow. Even on a loaded YB125 that does a maximum of 80km/h and average of 50km/h it means 3 hours in cold wind.

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Into the Valley

Santa Maria, Machu PicchuSaturday 12th May, The Aussie chatter in the morning woke me early before the sun had a chance to warm the tent. I doze and wait for the sun to smile on me.

A bright fresh morning for tackling the cliff road back to Santa Maria. Earlier, brighter and drier along the road it looked less foreboding. There was more traffic which stirred up clouds of dust out of the powdery track.

Route 28B Abra MalagaThis time I drive straight through Santa Maria and continue toward Ollantaytambo. Abra Malaga wasn’t quite as wet and cloudy at the peak but it was bloody cold. The road was drier too and I felt more confident leaning around the 61 hairpin bends without fear of sliding under the barrier and down a couple of thousand feet of vertical rock.

Arin, Cusco, Peru 28BI checked the maps.me app. Arin. That’s where one of the people lived I was planning to hook up with. A friend of a friend. I rattled my fillings over Ollantaytambo’s coarse cobbled roads and out onto the asphalt to the east toward Arin and Pisac.

The smooth straight southeasterly 28B contrasted with the winding mountain pass over Abra Malaga. Rolling along the valley floor without undulation felt like the high mountain walls were directing me like a ball along a gutter.

Museo Inkariy, Calca, PeruI rolled into Arin just before 4pm and I was hungry. Stopping at a cafe, I looked for accommodation on the apps on the phone. Campo Verde Pitusiray was just down the road just before the Inkariy Museum. I’d stay there. I finished my coffee and got back on the bike.

Arin, Campo Verde Pulling into Campo Verde, it didn’t look like a campsite. I rode up the grass lane to the farmhouse, the family were out with their harvest of Maize spread out on tarps in the field looking at me quizzically. The youngest woman approached and I showed here the camping emblem asking if this was ‘aqui’? She pointed at the peak of Pitusiray and said no motioning over the peak. Apologising, I got back on the bike and started to leave but hesitated after glancing at the gathering clouds. Rain was on its way. Grey streaks painting the sky between the peaks sandwiching the valley. The direction I was riding.

I parked the bike and went back up to the family asking if I could camp along their drive for S/5. The woman happily agreed and I put the tent up as fast as I could. The wind picked up while I was attaching the rain cover, which became a wrestling match. The rain arrived not long after the gusts just as the pegs were going in and I dived into the tent before getting a good soaking.

I was in a field at the foot of a mountain. When the rain stopped, the young woman came to warn me that water can come gushing down the mountainsides and I should move. There was a bungalow down towards the entrance. I put my tent up on the porch.

The concrete was harder than the grass under the mattress but I was sheltered well and tired enough for a good night’s sleep.

Calca Plaza de ArmasSunday 13th May, I woke at dawn, cold even with the two fleece blankets over the sleeping bag. I buried my head to minimise heat loss and waited for the sun to warm the tent. I opened the flap of the door to help dry out the condensation. The family drove a few head of cattle by the tent toward their maize field, I waved and bid them buenas dias. When I emerged from the tent I could see the cattle had already set about eating the stalks and leaves left from the harvest. In a way, this seemed a backward way of life but at the same time, so much more holistic than what I knew back in the UK. No unemployment, fewer rules and regulations, the family happily working together, they had everything they needed, Self-sufficient, like.

The sun was clearing the mountains now and beaming down on me. I spread the tent on the drive to dry it out while I packed the bags and strapped them to the rear rack. By the time that was done the tent was dry and packed away on the front rack.

I rode back to Arin for breakfast at 9.30 but found nowhere open. I didn’t realise it was Sunday until I arrived in Calca further down the road. I caught sight of a desperately needed ATM in the main plaza and an open cafe opposite, perfect. Around a table in the porch were half a dozen Aussies, Rucksacks piled on the footpath nearby. They were talking loudly and I’m sure they were part of the group that was at Santa Teresa a couple of nights ago.

I asked them if they knew of any WiFi nearby, I needed to find a campsite or hostel without randomly riding around Peru. “We haven’t had WiFi for ten days.” boasted a rather loud young blonde girl. I inferred a ‘no’ from that response. It also suggested that this was part of the group from the campsite at Santa Teresa.

After breakfast, I rode around the town looking for accommodation. A hostel that was indicated on the map was in the middle of a Sunday street market so inaccessible by moto.

Cabell Hostel CalcaThe campsite on the map couldn’t be found where it was indicated, one hostel was S/80 a night and three other hostels were closed. It was Sunday. I rang the bell at Cabell on the main road through Calca and was answered by a young woman who spoke excellent English. The room reminded me of a Cornish cottage, low ceilings, small window looking out into the garden and polished wooden floorboards. The bathroom was next door but there was no-one else on the same floor as me so was almost an ensuite. It was perfect.

Calca is a plain town with no tourists except for stray hikers. I had a comfortable private room with good wifi for catching up on blogging and videos. The cafes were cheap and the days warm…


Lost City of the IncasThursday 10th May. Nobody warned me of the enormous queue at the bus station. The hundred metre line hadn’t moved for twenty minutes until a convoy of four buses arrived at the same time. A flurry of activity and we were soon tacking up the hairpin bends up the mountainside for the next half hour towards Machu Picchu. There was little information or apparent organisation at the gate. A long queue at the entrance was confusing the issue but when I asked one of the guides about Machu Picchu mountain, he pointed for me to edge around the crowd and I bypassed the queue into the site. He advised I should go to the toilet before the tour but also that I wouldn’t have time and I should hurry if I was going to make it at all. So “why mention it,?” I thought.

Aguas Calientes BusesAsking the way a couple of times ensured I was hurrying my way up the right set of steps alongside the citadel and up to the checkpoint where I signed in at 7.45. With relief, I paused for a minute to recover from the climb and catch my breath. Up ahead were a couple and their guide about 20 meters up the steps. I caught them up and asked If I could tag along. Kalwant and his daughter, Laura, from Florida were finishing up their four day Inca Trail experience.

Montana Machu PicchuThe Inca Trail is an exclusive selection of guided treks throughout the Sacred Valley of the Incas and has limited numbers, which creates a long waiting list. You can’t just turn up a and walk the trail. Kalwant and Laura had booked this trip seven months previous in October. Kalwant at seventy years old was a comparative gazelle moving up the mountain. It would be hard to allow myself to appear feeble in such company. Laura confessed they were training for months on fully inclined treadmills but were unable to simulate the thin atmosphere. Me? I trained for nothing. Adventure itself was my exercise.

The climb was a relentless series of uneven rocky steps, sometimes steep, sometimes narrow, sometimes both. We met a few early risers clambering back down. Not everyone made it to the top but those that did said they couldn’t see anything because it was all was shrouded in cloud.

Sacred Valley in the CloudsAbout halfway up, we began to catch glimpses of the citadel below through breaks in the cloud. The weather was perfect for the climb, the cloud shielding us from the heat of the sun. I frequently removed my hat to wipe the sweat from my forehead and allow the high mountain air to cool me in the shade. By the time we had reached the peak after the two hours climb, the morning sun had burned away the cloud, leaving us a perfect view.

Montana Machupicchu SummitAt the peak, there is a thatched shelter and wide viewing areas. There were already about 15 people up here in various stages of taking selfies and getting in the way of each other’s panoramic video sweeps. Kalwant gave me a bag of trail mix and we took photos of us all around the summit.

Descending the steps was easier on the lungs but harder on the knees. Many more people were climbing the mountain now making the descent somewhat busy and frustrating on the narrower sections. They were climbing under full sun but at least getting good views on the way up.

Machu Picchu Mountain SummitWe signed out at 11.15. Three and a half hours after starting the climb. Machu Picchu Mountain is 650 meters higher than Machu Picchu Citadel, which itself is 400 metres above Aguas Calientes.

Following the guide into the citadel, we turned left along one of the terraces passing some Llamas busy keeping the grass trimmed. My colleagues had a flight to catch so had to hurry around the citadel while I rested in the shade enjoying the view and a half melted chocolate bar before embarking on the trail to Inka Bridge.

Inca BridgeThis short trek is not for the fearful of heights: a narrow path with sheer drops and no guard rail. It was a personal challenge which I could not let beat me. Seeing some people standing on the edge looking straight down turned my stomach. I passed those sections close to the rock face head turned away from the drop, trying to focus on other things.

There are a number of guides on Machu Picchu and I quickly tagged onto an English speaking one leading a group of six Brits. Machu Picchu is a fascinating place that has an energy about it and where every stone tells a story. I was conscious that this was Debs dream and I was in it. If she was alive, the mountain climb might have killed her.

I had intended to walk back to the town but the 400 metre descent was too much to think about after scaling Machu Picchu mountain so I bought another bus to save my knees from a further hammering.

Huillca Wasi Hostal, Machu PicchuThe shower in my room had a hot and cold tap but left me only a selection of cold left or cold right. There are hot springs on the edge of town from which the town gets its name Aguas Calientes (Hot Waters). I borrowed the hotel’s towel and marched up the hill to the thermal baths.
Hot Springs Machu Picchu“Eases muscle aches and gets rid of toxins,” the sign says as I soak in the warm waters. “Where do these toxins go?” I wonder looking at the dozen people in this murky greenish water. The warm waters certainly ease muscle aches and pains and I felt refreshed heading back into town for dinner.

I had been puzzled when I first walked through Plaza de Armas in Cusco, about all the massage services being relentlessly touted. I can see why now; so much hiking and sightseeing around the Sacred Valley. There would be a lot of stiff muscles and joints around after a day at Machu Picchu and various trails.

Check out was at nine. I was out at eight thirty for coffee and empanadas before treading the sleepers along the railway back to Hydro Electrica. There seemed to be even more people hiking the railway today; both ways. Unless people were already grouped or paired, no one spoke to each other; not even greetings.

The Gardens of MandorA couple of kilometres along the track is Jardines de Mandor. The name was written in my notebook from recommendations I picked up a while ago. I paid the entrance fee and left my bag in their storage room and meandered around their gardens. A small river of pure crystal mountain water runs through the Gardens into the Urubamba. The river Mandor, barely bigger than a brook with crystal clear water too good not to taste. Pure cool mountain water with a natural sweetness.

The Gardens had a natural feel that fostered a sense of peace and tranquillity, Not so much cultivated as curated… Returning to reception scratching unexpected mosquito bites, the owner encouraged me to visit the restaurant where I bought an unnatural Coka Cola and sat in the garden overlooking the river resting my stiff back and contemplating life.

Vendprs along the Machu Picchu RailwayCollecting my backpack and crunching along the loose ballast along the track back towards Hydra Electrica, I was back at the Inti Watana restaurant within a couple of hours for rest, refreshment and another two nachos and blob of guacamole.

Descending the path through the trees to the siding, a train looked all set to go with its big diesel polluting the silence. The car park was alive with groups of hikers and fleets of minibuses. “Collectivo?” I asked. It was half-past two. No collectivo until tomorrow morning. A taxi would be S/20. I decided I would walk. What would I give for a 10Km ride? S/10 would be OK so as I walked, I held out a S/10 note in my hand to tempt any passing vehicles; there would be many judging by the car park at Hydro Electrica and the single road access from Santa Teresa.

Two minutes later the first minibus stops and accepts the offer. Three Peruvian looking workmen were smiling and chuckling, maybe at my unconventional ruse, I don’t know. This was a private vehicle and I climb into the front passenger seat, arm out of the window admiring the scenery as we followed the river back to Santa Teresa.

Inka Tours, Santa Teresa“Aqui, por favor!” the bus stops and I step out and cross the road into the Inka Tours campsite. The tents were out again and crowds of twenty-something Brits and Aussies were milling about. The WiFi was on but there was no internet connection. Not an environment I was keen on hanging around in.

Checking the offline app, Maps.me, I located the hot springs to the North of Santa Teresa.and hopped on the bike for the 4km ride for another long soothing soak. The trail was wide but rough following the path of the Urubamba river

Hot Springs Santa TeresaThese springs were the same temperature as Aguas Calientes, around 36C, but were crystal clear, flowing from one pool to the other, finally overflowing into ornate showers where we could use soap and shampoo before the water drained into the river. This site was far bigger and more natural with a large cafe area where groups of hikers were chilling out. I stayed for a couple of hours. I hadn’t realised there was a campsite here. Much quieter than Inka Tours.

Banos Termales de CocalmayoDarkness had fallen by the time my wrinkled fingers dressed my cleansed and soothed body and then sipped a Pisco Sour listening to the blend of the sound of the river between the mountains and the murmur of conversations around the baths. Returning to a tent just here would have been the perfect finale to the day. I could have been tempted to relocate but I was off tomorrow anyway.

In the darkness, I followed the shuddering headlamp beam back over the rocks and grave back to Inka Tours. Gangnam Style was blaring out of the solitary PA speaker and the elevated chatter and whooping of the gyrating hikers had upped a couple of notches. There was still no internet connection so I retreated to the tent to read some Terry Pratchett on the Kindle before being effortlessly drummed, cheered and whooped to sleep.


Machu Picchu Basecamp, Inka Tours Campsite, Santa TeresaWednesday, 9th of May, after a sleepless night, listening to the kindergarten crowd shouting along to Gangnam Style, La Macarena and various blaring popular banalities, I emerged when the sun began to warm my tent to find a deserted campsite with the staff packing away the tents. Presumably, the hikers were now nursing a hangover through the Sacred Valley, Gangnam Style.

Today was the day to head to Machu Picchu. I had wanted to bike to Hydro Electrica where I could walk along the tracks. Two issues held me back. One: find a safe place for the bike with my worldly belongings packed on it. Two: packing everything away again. So I decided to leave the tent and bike where it was and walk the 10 Km to Hydro Electrica and maybe get the train from there.

Collectivo bus from Santa Teresa to Hydro ElectricaI packed the basics in the rucksack and stepped out of the campsite to follow the road that followed the river toward Machu Picchu. A car pulled up next to me and asked where I wanted to go. He wanted S/30, about £8. I declined the offer and the price dropped to S/20. No, I’ll walk. I crossed the river and the sun beat down on the pale shadeless track. After a kilometre, I rested under a solitary tree for a drink of water. Putting the bottle away, I noticed a bus coming round the corner. I watched it approach and stood up as it pulled up next to me. The driver asked “Hydro Electrica?” “Si, quanto es?” Six Soles! Result. I climbed aboard.

The road resembled the narrow track I travelled on to Santa Teresa on yesterday, narrow, dusty and twisty yet not so far above the valley.

Hydro Electrica Railway StationHydro Electrica was not what I expected: something like a mini Hoover dam in Nevada. It’s a car park at the end of a railway siding with a few buildings scattered along the valley and a railway siding lined by cafe and souvenir stalls. I could hear the horn of a train echoing around the mountains, followed five minutes later by the train itself.

Hydro Electrica Railway StationAfter watching the shunting and activity at this make-shift station, I headed down the track ignoring a sign next to a rail side hostel that pointed out a pathway up through the woods to Machu Picchu. I thought it easier along the tracks and continued around the bend following a pair of Swedes until we came to a dead end. It looked as if there had been a landslide some years ago and it was left here abandoned on the tracks.

The main line to Machu PicchuBacktracking the 200 metres or so to the footpath, the ascent through the trees emerged on the main line and I turned left to follow the sign to Machu Picchu. Passing another cafe, Inti Watana the menu caught my eye “Nachos con Guacamole” followed by soup and a main course. S/10 bargain. Not what I expected. Two nachos ‘con’ (being the operative word) guacamole… Still, there was plenty of soup and a decent main course.

Inti Watana Menu, Hydro ElectricaIt was gone 2pm by the time I set off. The 10km walk is reckoned to take 2 hours. It’s not a lonely trek, this one. The walk to Aguas Calientes is a popular one saving $33US each way for a 10km ride. There were a lot of people walking towards me. Presumably the Machu Picchu morning crowd on their way home.

Entrada Nachos con GuacamoleThe heat of the day was tempered by the valley’s forest canopy arching high over the tracks. The railway follows the river round in a horseshoe shape around Machu Picchu which remains invisible from the valley floor. It remains about 3Km away as the line circles it yet constantly out of sight. No wonder the Spaniards didn’t find it.

Vendprs along the Machu Picchu RailwayScattered along the railway are food shacks and vendors, campsites and hostels. Everything you’d expect along a roadside. It’s a bizarre arrangement but it works well to regulate tourism and preserve the site.

Rail Bridge between Hydro Electrica and Aguas CalientesA few trains passed me both ways on the single track. A delicate act of scheduling, I imagine, so as they cross at the very few passing places.

It was gone 5pm by the time I strode up the incline to Aguas Calientes past the surprisingly opulent hotels. The steep mountains enveloping the town seemed to bring on a premature twilight. I was glad of the earlier collectivo bus that stopped to pick me up else it would have been dark a couple of hours before my arrival and my stiff back would have been stiffer.

The road between Machu Picchu and Aguas CalientesI ducked into the first hostel I found to try my luck at finding a dorm. The young receptionist could not understand my Spanish or English but worked out I wanted somewhere to stay the night. Presumably, as I was standing at the reception of a hostel. “S/30?” I agreed and she beckoned me outside, leading me to the main square and up an alley to another hostel, Huillca Wasi. A private room with a view out to the mountains and ensuite. It was more than I hoped for and only about £8 a night.

Huillca Wasi Hostal, Machu PicchuThe girl helped me check in and led me to the bus station kiosk to buy tomorrow’s bus ticket up the hill to Machu Picchu and then to the ticket office to the attraction itself. Walking to Machu Picchu is a 400m scale up rocky stairs, taking about one and a half to two hours. I wanted to be fresh at the site so opted for the S/40 single; more expensive than the hotel.

There were three options for Machu Picchu:
1. Machu Picchu Citadel S/150 ($46)
2. Machu Picchu Citadel plus Machu Picchu Mountain S/200 ($61)
3. Machu Picchu Citadel plus Huayna Picchu S/250 ($77).

I’d heard of Huayna Picchu and that it was popular and often crowded despite limited ticket numbers so I opted for number 2 not knowing anything about Machu Picchu Mountain.

Schedules are tight and my ticket time was between 7 and 8am. Just to make sure, I’d be out of the Hotel by 6am for the half hour bus ride up to the entrance. I was set, ready and booked for the big day. I could relax and have something to eat before resting in a comfortable bed after two weeks of camping. I wasn’t even going to come here and had no interest when Debbie had told me Machu Picchu was her dream but I found myself in Cusco that I wanted to honour her memory more than any personal desire to see it. I thought of her a lot along the way; during the ride across the mountain pass of Abra Malaga, the narrow cliff road to Santa Teresa, the walk along the railway to Aguas Calientes. This was a pilgrimage in her memory and, already, I’m glad I came…