Unexpected Encounters on a High Altitude Tandem Tour

Why do some people pack their panniers and drag their bikes half way around the world to go for a long and sometimes difficult bike ride? I suspect there would be as many answers to the question as cyclists who pedal off into the blue. One reason we do it is because of the unexpected encounters we enjoy in the process. Our high altitude journey from Puno in Peru to La Paz in Bolivia was rich in such encounters. We had our first even before we pedaled out of Puno.

For twelve days we had acclimatized ourselves to the high altitude of the Andean highlands using trains to visit Cusco and Machu Picchu. On our last morning in Puno we discovered that we needed an Allen key for our tool kit. In the warren of streets, below the station, in one of many hole-in-the-wall hardware stores, a small white haired man came to our rescue. He was an American who had lived in Peru many years. John Kustner was trying to find a spare part for an engine, a ship’s engine he was rebuilding.

I looked at him with interest. Before we had left home, we had seen part of Michael Palin’s television series about his travels around the Pacific. In this episode Michael had visited the M/S Yavari moored on Lake Titicaca in Puno’s harbour.

“Are you working on M/S Yavari?” I asked and was delighted when his face lit up. Before long we were on our way down to the harbour for a very special guided tour of the historic ship which had been built in England in 1862, shipped to Lima and then carried in pieces on mule back over the Andes to this lake. The engine John was working on was a Bollinger semi-diesel engine which had been similarly carried across the Andes in 1917 to power the Yavari. Today it is the only one of its kind left in the world and John’s passion to fix and get it going again was infectious.

The next morning we set off on our loaded tandem. The ride out of Puno along the shores of the lake was a hazardous dodging of potholes, pedicabs, mini buses and big tourist coaches. A gentle climb away from the lake exhausted us and a drink from my water bottle left me struggling for breath! Our bodies were not yet completely adapted to the altitude (11,400 ft).

We had agreed not to push ourselves on this part of the trip and, well before lunch, pulled into the small town of Chucuita. After a very good Bolivian meal we got talking to another diner. He was a Canadian missionary priest who was working in the area. In half an hour we learnt more about the countryside and its people than any guide book could tell us.

Heavy rains that year had broken a two-year drought. After years of oppression by the Incas and the Spanish, the checkerboard of fertile green fields had been owned by the local people for forty years. The brilliant green potato crop bloomed brightly with white and mauve flowers. Interspersed were the dusky red quinoea fields, the ancient grain crop of the high plains, beans and pumpkin. Peruvian women sat at the side of the road where the lushest grass grew, watching their sheep and the occasional cow. Pigs, plain brown and piebald, were tethered at the side of the road where they grew fat and sleek.

The priest also told us where we would find budget accommodation. We followed his directions up a rutted track to Pousada Santa Barbara. It was a lovely place. The pousada had a flower-filled courtyard surrounded by simple but clean rooms and a basic cold shower. We watched the Peruvian lady manager as she ground fiery hot peppers between two stones to make the ubiquitous red-hot sauce served with all Peruvian meals. She gave us some Inca potatoes in a rich peppery sauce and later that evening insisted on dressing me in her Sunday best. No wonder the women look so stout. The thick woollen skirt was gathered at the waist and overlaid a huge cotton petticoat! She perched the wonderful round top hat with its narrow curved brim on my head and over my shoulders she arranged a multicoloured shawl. We had seen this used as a holdall for babies, llama sweaters and market produce!

The next day we continued about 50 miles along the lake to the town of Juli situated high on a hill. Late in the afternoon, with of church bells pealing, the plaza burst into life as the Virgin of Copacabana was carried out of a crowded church after a special mass. She was on the second day of her long journey through South America to celebrate the year 2000 in Rome. As the little statue with her fancy clothes was driven through the town, the pious stood in awe but a younger man passed by. “What a load of rubbish!” he said under his breath.

Our destination the next day was the home of the Virgin, the city of Copacabana in Bolivia. It was slightly overcast as we set off over the hills behind Juli and then down onto a plain where in the distance heavy, grey clouds massed. Before long we were biking in driving rain. We first looked for a caf� to shelter in and then tried to wave down a mini bus to take us and our bike. We were out of luck so sheltered for a long time in a hut, where kindly people sold benzine and other petroleum products.

Our bad day was not yet over. We knew that the first 20 kilometers in Bolivia to Copacabana were unpaved. Our tandem does not have tires for rough roads so we planned on this important one being in a reasonable state. We were wrong. The unsurfaced road had received a battering that rainy season because it was in constant use by the huge tour buses bring groups from La Paz to Peru. We dodged pot holes and huge puddles. When the tour buses passed we were sprayed with muddy red water. Frequently we pushed the tandem up steep hills and often ground to a halt to scrape sticky red mud out of the fenders. For a while, three Bolivian youngsters on their tough husky bikes accompanied us. They teased us as they rode effortlessly around us pointing to our skinny tires and laughing!

We were jaded, tired and very muddy by the time we arrived in Copacabana so took a day off to explore the town. A highlight of our wanderings the next day was discovering the ‘horta del Incas’ on top of a hill overlooking the town and the lake. This huge stone structure is a complicated ‘sundial’ built so that at the spring and summer solstices a ray of light shines through either one of two rock holes onto a rocky cross bar. The guide, who waited at the top of the hill for tourists, explained that pre-Inca inhabitants of the area had built it.

Our road out of town was a broad well-built highway which climbed eight miles to a 15,000 foot pass, the highest we had ever biked. We, a sixty-six year old captain and fifty-six year old stoker, were delighted when we made it. Our bodies had adapted well to these altitudes. It was a dark gloomy upward ride with clouds hanging low over us and the grey lake far below. When we started downhill, the clouds began drifting away and soon the lake and its surrounding hills were bathed in sunshine.

Our 50-mile ride that day took us to lakeside resort of Huatajata and another interesting encounter. Outside the restaurant where we ate that day we saw our first Totora reed boat which, for centuries, fishermen on the lake had used. They are beautiful small craft made entirely of a reed which grows by the lake and, mysteriously, on Easter Island.

Then, just in front of the Hostel Inti Karka where we decided to stay, we saw a huge shed where some people were working on a gigantic 50-foot reed boat. We had stumbled onto the home of Maximo Catari, one of a group of men who still build reed boats. Catari was building the boat for Phil Buck who planned to sail it from Chile to the Easter Islands. He had been inspired as a boy by Thor Heyerdahl’s Kontiki and Ra ocean voyages. He hoped that his journey would be part of the ongoing endeavour to show that the people of antiquity used reed boats to sail across oceans. Two of the men working with the Catari family, the Limaches, had built the reed boat, Ra II used by Thor Heyerdahl to cross the Atlantic.

We had arrived at a crucial time. Reed boats are made by lashing together prepared bundles of reeds to shape the craft. Two thick 50 foot long bundles of reeds formed the hull. Another giant bundle now had to be lifted up and pushed between the two parts of the hull to form the heart of the ship. As they needed many strong arms to complete this job, we spent the rest of the day on the bundles of reeds working with Catari, his relatives, Phil and his Chilean wife Eli. We have since heard that the vessel, named ‘Viracocha‘ (the sun and creator god of many Andean cultures) will be sailing from Chile with an international crew of seven men in January 2000.

We needed one day to bike into La Paz fifty miles away. All went well until we reached the outskirts of the city where, in driving rain, we had an unexpected encounter with something sharp in the road! We were just outside the guarded entrance to the Bolivian Airforce headquarters so we had an interested audience of guards to watch the tire and the tube being changed.

The International Airport of La Paz, which we biked past next, is the highest in the world at 12,174 feet. The city itself is at an altitude of 10,740 feet but nothing I had read had prepared me for the six mile ride down the steep sides of the dramatic canyon in which the city is set. The rain had stopped, but it was still terrifying racing down the busy road which wound steeply into the city. I control the disc brake with which our tandem is equipped and use it when the captain yells, “Brake!” The ride down was so steep my right hand was aching by the time we rolled into the heavy traffic in the city below.

Our high altitude bike ride had taken us from the highest navigable lake in the world to its highest capital city. We had delightful encounters with interesting people and pushed ourselves to new limits. You can be sure that as long as we have our health and strength we will be packing our panniers again for our next adventure in slow motion travel.