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On the road . November 2009 . Peru and Bolivia

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Chuquiago Café, La Paz, Bolivia, 03-12-09
Plenty of ups and downs

Huanta to Cusco (10 cycle days; 4 rest days; 642km; 11122m)

Huanta to Ayacucho (48km; 706m)
Ayacucho to km 33 (33km; 1164m)
km 33 to 6km after Ocros (82km; 713m)
6km after Ocros to Chincheros (56km; 955m)
Chincheros to Talvavera (83km; 1425m)
Talvavera to 6km after Abra Huayllaccasa (49km; 1288m)
6km after Abra Huayllaccasa to Abancay (96km; 1036m)
Abancay to 5km after Curahuasi (75km; 1547m)
5km after Curahuasi to 9km after Limatambo (50km 1310m)
9km after Limatambo to Cusco (69km; 978m)

Snow-white mud
The uninterrupted climb out of Huanta lasts for 8 kilometres and 267 altimetres after which it flattens a little and then starts the up and down roll past a perfectly white backdrop. Even the mud used to build the houses in this region is white and such a contrast from the rich cerise tones of the last few days.

From turn-off Huamanguilla we drop down 9 kilometres of beautifully crafted piece of highway to Huayllapampa and continue on another 18 kilometres of gradual uphill to reach our destination. Ayacucho (48km; 706m) is more interesting with its mixed Spanish colonial and Mestizo architecture than today's scenery, though the erosion in the cliff faces produced some pretty interesting shapes. Ali has still not fully recovered from his stomach problems, but picks up when he sees Kevin and James again at Hotel Florida. Our room is excellent (40 Soles including wifi) and so is the pizza, beer and chats over the recent cycling encounters.

Kevin and James leave the day after, but we stay on for two more in the capital city of the Huamanga Province, famous for its 33 churches (each one representing a year of Christ's life) and the quirky tradition of placing a little ceramic church or building on the roof of each house. Also, in December 1824 and just a few kilometres away near the town of Quinua, the victorious Battle of Ayacucho impacted the beginning of Peruvian independence.

Great Start?
The police haven't heard of it; the guys at the petrol station where Ali fuels up, have no idea what he is talking about; and unbeknown to me until halfway through the day, we don't actually find the valley-river road. Instead we take the high path towards the 4300 metre pass. Clear sky, warm sun and a cool breeze are about as good as it gets for cycling in the mountains, though the bitumen stops as immediately as the town of Ayacucho does. We already know that it will be one continuous dirt journey until 18 kilometres before Abancay.

The Ayacucho to Cusco route is well documented in cyclists blogs and also known for its uphill-downhill nature: Five passes of around 4000 altimetres with spiralling descents back down to 2000 altimetres. A total of 594 kilometres and 10,416 altimetres with three of the passes on dirt tracks. Still, firing on all cylinders we begin the first ascent. It is up all the way, with only a few minutes when a gear change to the middle crank is required.

As the day wears on, a large majority of the land is filled with eucalyptus forests, smelling like sweet menthol cough drops. A complete contrast are the disgusting egg-burps that develop within the turmoil of my stomach. By early afternoon, I also have debilitating cramps and am feeling completely drained. Why do I have to get sick on the day I leave a comfortable hotel room with all the mod-cons? It all seems completely unfair. Ali is understanding and helpful the whole way, but by 4.30 in the afternoon and only halfway through the first climb, we have pull off at kilometre 33 (33km; 1164m) to camp. I have little left for anything else today.

From A to B via a few Z's
It is freezing when we wake and ever so gradually warms up, making not only the photo opportunities on the way, but the ride spectacular. Icy headwinds have me cursing first thing in the morning though, as we snake our path slowly up the 11 kilometres and 294 altimetres of hairpin bends to the Vilcashuaman turnoff (4168m). A 17½ kilometre roller coaster ride follows taking us past llamas grazing on grassy slopes imitating golden lion's fur and up and down the limestone track to the highest point of the day: El Abra Tocctoccsa (4265m). There is not much around at these heights: only the odd die-hard farmer with his herd of sheep and simple mud brick cottage.

Pedalling up to this altitude is difficult for me. I don't feel sick, just fatigued and very short of breath, making the cycling slow and laboured. Eventually we make the top. From here, the view is quite daunting really, though certainly impressive as far as road building is concerned. We can clearly see the little town of Ocros: only a few kilometres away as far as the crow flies. The Peruvian roadwork department however, have other ideas in mind and getting from A to B never took so long: a 29 kilometre zigzagging plummet to the valley below follows. The surface worsens a little too.

There are no decent spots for camping. Even the ledge we find jutting out overlooking Ocros is strictly for mountain goats. We cycle on and about 6 kilometres out of town, find a ridge just wide and flat enough to pitch the tent at kilometre 115 (82km; 713m). Only problem is the lack of water and neither of us feels like cycling back up the hill a few kilometres to the last waterfall we saw. We survive with what we have, though it means no thirst quenching guzzling after the dusty ride. There is also hardly any traffic on this stretch of road, which we don't mind a bit. The evening is spent enjoying a well earned meal and the spectacular thunderstorm way across the valley in the calm night blackness.

The only thing looking up is the road
We continue the downhill run this morning taking us first to the friendly little town of Chumbes where there is a hostal and a couple of well stocked shops. Also, plenty of water shooting down the irrigation channels to filter. Ali is plagued by wattle thorns and a couple of puncture stops are required. We drop even further to Puente Pampas, where the river of cut green opal tones looks cool and inviting. Especially after 25 kilometres and 1100 altimetres down through desert landscapes of prickly pear, pink peppercorn trees and kilograms of dust.

The next 10 kilometres of up and down take us through similar scenery before entering the colourful little village of Ahuayro with its neat streets and brightly painted mud brick houses. As far as supplies go, they also have a couple of decent sized corner stores and one rather basic place of lodging.

Callebamba, 5 kilometres down the road, gets our vote for friendliest village on our tour so far. Everyone comes out to say hello and wave and only one dog growls. The dogs in Peru are really a nightmare, so this is a complete surprise. Exasperatingly, I'm feeling pretty weak today as well and the only thing looking up after the steep climb a few kilometres out of town, is the switchback road winding its path up the cliff face in front of us.

The 16 kilometre and 700 odd altimetre climb, in essence is not so bad, but it is stinking hot and I have nothing left in my legs. They are completely drained of any energy: l'm constantly thirsty, have random cramping, get out of breath and dizzy: classic dehydration symptoms. Aaldrik's patience is lacking today and complains bitterly about the incessant stopping and time I need to recuperate. I admit, it must be frustrating for him, but I'm also completely frazzled that I just can't get it together to cycle more than a kilometre at a time for the last 10 kilometres of our journey. I'm so pleased when we pull into Chincheros (56km; 955m) and a very decent hotel room is awaiting us. The piping hot shower and washing all my clothes completely drains me and I end up crawling into bed. Ali badgers me to get up and go and find a doctor, but I just want to lie down and sleep. Rest, as far as I'm concerned is all the doctor would order; as well as a 2 litre bottle of coke and some warm soup and bread. Later in the evening I am a little more perkier.

Two down, still three to go
Feeling a little more refreshed when I wake, I am optimistic about getting up to the pass. Besides, we had discussed the idea, that we would go as far as I could. "Shanti, shanti" were Ali's words. I do pretty good for the first two thirds of the journey, but the constant climbing on unpaved roads has its toll on my physical and mental stance and by the time we are 1000 altimetres into the trip, I've nothing much left in either department. The next bend reveals another rise in altitude and any gusto I have managed to drum up so far wanes completely.

The subsequent 400 altimetres are not at all pleasant. I have to stop every twenty minutes or so for a breather; I wish I could grow wings and reach the top, but I know its impossible and feel further deflated; I want to camp as soon as possible, but Ali has different ideas. He even hints that we will need to keep cycling until 6.30pm, when it gets dark. I don't know if I can handle that.

The rolling grassy hills countryside is amazing: serene and desolate; just a few llamas, condors and a perfect sunny afternoon. Ali has enough energy to speed off in front, I lag well behind. For the next 10 kilometres I push the slight gradient by myself. We reach the Abra Soracchocha (4231m) getting close on 5pm and I want to set up camp. Ali is adamant there is no water, though I had spotted two small sources. He is still insistent that we go down even though there is only farmland below and we'll never find a suitable spot to camp. He says we'll then need to cycle 43 kilometres in an hour and a half on dirt roads to reach the next town. There is no way we can do that before dark.

I feel so exhausted, I just want to spend the night here, but Ali makes it clear that I have no other option than to take off down the slopes into Pervian suburbia. The sun is setting and the monster nose-dive through the long line of villages is cumbersome on unpaved roads. I get a flat tyre, which holds us up further. It is a beautiful sight as the sun is setting, watching the women lead their cows, sows, piglets, goats, donkeys and any other creature that wants to walk along back home after a leisurely day of grazing on the mountains. Of course, there is absolutely nowhere to camp and next thing I know, Ali is cycling like a madman towards the city below.

Normal road would have been okay maybe, but there is nothing normal about the series of unbelievably dusty dirt-road switchbacks dropping into the town of Talavera (83km; 1425m). I'm not sure how we make it in one piece, in the dark, with buses, taxis and trucks ripping round the sandy corners, sending clouds of dust into the air, making it impossible to see anything. Ali falls off once, I bang into a large pothole and land on my cross bar, which has tears in my eyes for a few minutes, but at 7.30pm we arrive on the door step of Hotel Emperador. I fall up the stairs and into the dribble of hot water shower, woof down my vegetables and rice at the Chifa restaurant underneath and then crawl silently into bed. I'm asleep within minutes.

A little patch of green is all you need
The town has been awake since 5am and is making a hell of a racket. I don't really want to move from my bed this morning. I feel dubious about climbing again today. There's another pass to conquer and I just know its going to be difficult for me. My knees still ache; my body is still tired from yesterday's onslaught, but I'm more anxious about how Ali is going to react towards my sluggish pedalling. On dirt roads and at high altitude I need all the strength and encouragement can get.

It's a bit confusing how we should weave our way out of town and we have to ask in Andahuaylas and someone kindly points us in the right direction when we start heading up the wrong street. The 40 kilometres of continuous uphill is the worst we have encountered yet, but none more so than at the beginning of the day. Again the last 400 metres of climbing are difficult. My breathing is severely hampered as well, but Ali is exceptionally patient today and allows me to plod along at my 5km per hour pace. And although, not quite as scenic as yesterday's ride, it is so much more pleasant. Later in the day, the golden-brown hues of farmers pastures make a spectacular jigsaw pattern in the hillside, the abundance of trucks dies down and serenity returns as we push on up towards the grassy peaks of Abra Huayllaccasa(4125m).

We have full view of the spectacular snow-capped mountain range as we start the descent towards the farmland below. Luckily, one small patch of green appears 6km after the top Abra Huayllaccasa (49km; 1288m) and although we are hardly hidden from the road, it's all we have seen so far. The rest of the terrain is sheer drop-offs. There is little traffic and those who do see us only wave and toot with welcoming gestures. The south of Peru feels very safe and with our private vista across the valley as the sun sets orange on white mountain peaks, its the perfect place to get some shut-eye.

A Fred Astaire dance course on bike
The 4 kilometre dive below is on patchy road, but once we hit the village after the bridge it is obvious that road workers are doing their best to remedy the situation. It doesn't last for long though and as we start the ascent to the highest point (3899m) today, the road has deteriorated somewhat. Its not impassible, nor the worst we have seen, but it takes lots of concentration. Mainly because it is occasionally good in parts, which leads you into a false sense of security and sends you toppling when you suddenly round the sandy corners. I come off in one of these dust holes.

Glorious mountain peaks, patchwork-green slopes, blue skies, friendly village life and one of the most stupendous pathways snaking its way around the Andes you have ever seen, are really worth all the hard work. The government is actually promising to have this section of road bitumenised within four years, but judging on progress so far, I think it will take them a bit longer than that. And of course there are two sides to this coin, while it will make the run from Ayacucho to Abancay a fantastic cycling circuit, it will also bring more traffic and people to the area. A region, which at the moment is untouched, wild and wooly and so incredibly striking.

When we reach the first view of Abancay (3680m) and peer down over our course, I am almost certain that the Peruvian roadwork department got a hold of a Fred Astaire dance routine - one of those spectacular moments when he pirouetted and toe tapped his way to the outer extremities of the dance floor - and laid the pattern on a map of this part of the Andes and said: "yes this will make a fine road". Aerial shots of Peruvian roads must be artwork all to themselves.

Anyway, from this point we further the bone rattling plummet below: all in all, from the highest point to the lowest point it is 56 kilometres of aching hands and numbed feet. We make the halfway point where winds start to whip up a real bluster. The shortcut which most people seem to miss is visible below and we decide to take it after reaching the turn-off and noticing that the highway continues to wind its way well away from where we need to go. It's 2 kilometres of what is more like a riverbed than a track towards Puente Pachachaca. A further 2 kilometres follows on rocky roads until the bitumen starts. We figure our efforts have cut off about 6 kilometres of the normal path and to be honest, the sooner we can pedal on bitumen after 6 days of dirt the better. The gale force headwinds are not something to get excited about and its a sure blessing that Fred has had his influence on this stretch of road, because headwinds soon turn into tailwinds as we mimic one of his twirls. At one stage though, I'm a little concerned that the roadwork department are dancing us all the way back into the mountains again.

From the start of the asphalt, the trip into Abancay is a meandering 14 kilometres and relentless 629 altimetres. When you see the Abancay sign, you still have plenty more climbing to do to get up into the centre of town. By this stage, I'm ready to rip any dog that hassles me apart limb by limb; and one such ankle snapper bears the brunt of my anger. We stop at an internet café to see where Kevin and James are lodging. They haven't left a message as they never expected us to arrive today. They had taken 7 days to do the trip: slight pang of envy on my behalf.

It was easy enough to find them though: Abancay (96km; 1036m) is not that big and they always head towards the most affordable place where they can wheel the bikes straight into their room. Including wifi and conti-breakfast, Hotel Imperial is quite a posh place. We park our bikes, shower and work out that the best pizza restaurant is quite conveniently two doors down. Perfect; as is the pizza; as is seeing the boys again.

Behind closed doors
Kevin and James leave the next day and even though we would like to follow suit, I am just too tired to think about a 1500 altimetre climb. Besides, I need to wash and clean some of our gear and we also have to stock up on supplies for the next three days of cycling to Cusco. Unfortunately, protests in Abancay have the whole town bolted up for the entire day; at least from an outsider's point of view. I enquire at our hotel as to what is going on and when I'm told that there will be no shops open today, the look of horror on my face probably sparked the following compassionate act.

The lady owner beckons me to follow her. We walk down the street and stand by a closed door. Protesters march by and she tells me we have to wait until they are well out of range. They move out of sight and she knocks on the barred metal door. A crack appears and she pleads with the girl behind it to let me in. I'm shuffled behind closed doors.

To my surprise, I find myself inside a supermarket with about 20 other people, all doing the same thing: purchasing their daily supplies. It is really well stocked and I am easily able to buy up for the next leg of our trip. After paying, I join the queue of locals also waiting to leave. Like entering, we have to linger around until demonstrators have disappeared. I remain there for nearly an hour, before I am released onto the street again.

We pile outside together clutching our plastic bags, obviously full of groceries: quite ludicrous really. And it is now apparent to me that this is occurring the whole way down the main street in various businesses. I had no idea before. Why would I think otherwise of someone slinking behind closed doors, other than that they were going home?

We have hardly any money left, only just enough for a bit more food and to pay for our hotel room. Ali leaves the confines of our hotel only to discover that all the cash machines are behind bars. We stay inside for the rest of the day as the atmosphere outside gets a little more hostile than we would like. Behind the closed doors of our hotel, we feel quite safe, but not quite protected enough to avoid the watery eyes and stinging noses from the teargas set off to control the demonstrators.

Enough hairpins for a grand coiffeur
The climb out of Abancay is pretty steep and just as relentless as the climb in, though today's journey is smoothed over by immaculate tarmac. It makes pedalling so much easier. Still, its going to be a long climb and will probably take us most of the day. We realise by the time we are a third of the way up that we have to sit put zigzagging our way on this one mountain for the full 36 kilometre and 1496 altimetre duration. I didn't count the hairpins, but I wouldn't mind betting there were enough to create a mighty fine beehive coiffeur.

The last couple of kilometres are the most difficult, but as we pass the 810 kilometre marker there are only a few more metres to Abra Saywite (4047m) and before the spiralling descent to the Saywrite archeological site. We had intended to camp here, but as it wasn't that much to look at, we decide to move on down as far as we can for the evening. Its a smooth ride below past some great contrasting red rock against blue skies.

Due to the protests in Abancay, we were unable to withdraw money for the next leg of our trip, but it was rumoured to us that the little village of Curahuasi has an ATM. Unfortunately, this is not true and so we push on out of town to find a decent campspot. The first available site comes 5kms after Curahuasi (75km; 1547m). A beautifully green patch with a stream running past. We wait until it is quiet on the road before carefully descending down the wattle thorn loaded track.

Sleeping on a hairpin
It rains all night long, so the hour spent trying to fix the flat tyre in the morning gives the tent a little more sun to dry out. We don't get on the road until 9.30am and by the time I have fallen the 6 kilometres to the first bridge, I have had another flat. Puente Huaynarimac (2082m) follows immediately after the village full of delicious looking fruit and avocados and the out-of-place, but welcoming Hospedaje Quinta. Five kilometres later and we are crossing Puente Cunyac (1990m) and five minutes down the track I have another flat. Sand-flies are atrocious in these parts and it is definitely not the place to camp, though the river runs wildly past us and there are a few spots more than suitable to set up the tent.

The canyon is still cool with cloud cover as we enter, but the skies clear and it becomes unbearably hot. The climbing continues and the energy drains, but not anywhere near as much as during the last 2 kilometre climb into Limatambo. It is steep. There is plenty of accommodation in and around this town and it is also obviously a permanent route stop for the tour buses. Prices are quite a bit higher for normal produce than elsewhere in Peru and stores are poorly stocked: especially on the fresh fruit and vegetable front. I manage to scrounge a few mangy looking carrots, two apples and a couple of bananas, before finding a lady with some decent tomatoes. Appears we'll be digging into the chuño [freeze-dried potatoes] and hongos [dried mushroom] stores for tonight's dinner.

Moving out of town, looking for a place to camp is quite unsuccessful. Its potato country like you have never seen before and every bit of land is used for crops. Ali has an another untimely flat tyre today but this time, I pull out thirteen thorns from his back wheel with my tweezers. We keep climbing and as dusk is morphing into dark, we resort to pitching smack bang in the middle of a raised piece of land on a hairpin bend 9kms after Limatambo (50km; 1310m).

We set up as quickly as possible, not without me perching my dumpsack a little too close to the edge which sends it hurtling towards the highway below. Ali finds my scramble after it most amusing. I'm not so sure I needed the added exercise. An inquisitive woman from the house a few hundred metres away comes over to say hello. She approves of the tent and wishes us a good night's rest, though it's a rather slopey, noisy and stormy night's sleep. Next morning thank goodness, the skies are clear.

It is roughly 17 kilometres of constant uphill pedalling to Abra Huillque (3768m) from where we camped. There are so many little farms and villages in between, full of curiously friendly people, before the landscape quietens close to the top. Gravel mines take what they can from the sheer white cliff faces in this barren area. From here 27 kilometres of pretty well flat travel take you as far as Izcuchaca: also known as Anta. We are excited about the chance of the fast and smooth cycling, but the black thunder cloud that waylays us for nearly an hour under a pine tree has other ideas. It not only drops bucket loads of water but hail stones as well. Temperature drops dramatically under 10 Celcius. Brrrr!

The sun comes out again: enough to get us up and past the turn-off to Urubamba and even higher to our top climb (3750m) today. It even stays with us while we begin the 8 kilometre descend along the highway overlooking the suburban sprawl of Cusco. It doesn't however stay with us until we reach Hospedaje Estrellita. Stuck in a downpour for another half an hour is quite frustrating when you are so close to your destination: Cusco (69km; 978m). Feeling like you are coming down with the flu doesn't help either. We roll our bikes into our lodgings, as do most overland travellers who get to Cusco: this place is known well in the biker's world. Kevin and James had only arrived today as well, so they are surprised to see us so soon. And in keeping with tradition of when we meet up with these boys, we trundle out in search of one massive sized pizza fit for four hungry cyclists.

Huevos Amigos
When we first arrive at Hospedaje Estrellita, we aren't too impressed with the bare basic accommodation and share bathroom situation in a rather ramshackle building for 15 Soles per person, but after spending a few days in Cusco and seeing what a million plus tourists per year can do to a city, our lodgings become a bit of a sanctuary. This feeling we can owe mostly to the owner and his brother, who pleasantly potter around at old men's paces all day long, cleaning, working or serving in the well stocked shop next door. Breakfast, also included in the price, is the best part of the day: most of the time, we laze in the courtyard in the morning sun, enjoying eggs done any way we want, fresh bread, jam, butter and limitless tea and coffee. The atmosphere is great and the way the owner delivers breakfast with a quiet "Huevos Amigo? [eggs friend?] " sticks fondly in our minds.

A little too much
Cusco itself, declared a World Heritage site in 1983, is the historic capital of the Inca Empire. Saqsayhuamán, a precision stonework complex within walking distance of the city is also on UNESCO's list. And then there is Machu Picchu, with the same prestigious status and probably the most desirable Inca ruins on a travellers "to do" list. Unlike Saqsayhuamán, where the Spanish removed large quantities of rocks to build churches in Cusco, Machu Picchu's remote positioning meant it was never discovered during the evasion and hence never ransacked either.

Everything about these three places spells spending money; and lots of it. Cusco is great for eating out: everything you could possibly want from all walks of cuisine. It also has some beautiful old buildings and churches and a great market for souvenirs. Though, touts and street sellers are quite bothersome throughout the city and so is the US$12 entry fee into Saqsayhuamán. While I'm certainly impressed by the mystery surrounding how on earth the Inca's managed to build such walls - many of the polished round cornered blocks interlock with meticulous correctness that you can't even slip a piece of paper between them - the site is patchy. You can't walk in many places due to current excavations which are messy, non atmospheric and take up a large portion of the walled area. Furthermore, the repair work is so remotely different from the original that it looks totally out of place.

But the most disappointing news of all is we don't go to Machu Picchu. We have been deliberating for months over whether to do it or not. Many long term travellers have the same dilemma and are striking this tourist attraction from their itinerary. It is solely due to the outrageous costs involved with getting there and while there are ways around this, it takes firm commitment and determination to find local buses and walk considerable kilometres along rail tracks and up mountains to get there. Personally, after our cycling efforts to date, I'm not really prepared to pack breakfast, lunch and dinner along with the waterbag just to join the other 4000 daily visitors for a few hours of entertainment.

And just in case you are wondering what sort of cash we are talking about: in 2009, the government monopolised the train journey from Cusco, and it will cost you US$32 one way to Agua Calientes. From here a bus ride to the entrance is US$7. So, double these fees and add it to the US$44 entrance fee and you have the grand sum of US$122 per person for a round trip. For us the entire outing would be equivalent to almost two full weeks on the road, all expenses included.

Instead, we spend quite a bit of time with Kevin and James, cooking, eating out and planning the next leg of the journey together. Ali and James manage to live through a very speckled hangover from one two many pints of Old Speckled Hen in the English pub on the corner of the main plaza. Kevin recovers slowly from a weak stomach and I try to rid myself of the flu. And after an amazing 23,000 kilometres on my existing bike components, its time to find a new 7-speed cassette, chain and crank set. I would also liked to have changed my completely shot rapid-fire gearing and back derailleur as well, but finding these parts is almost impossible and I am better off sticking with what I've got for now.

Team Bike is just down from our hostal, but Russo Bike on Avenida Tacna seems the better choice of the two shops. Parts are not top of the range and it pays to check everything you buy with a fine tooth comb, but at least they have a selection to choose from. Labour is also very cheap but not particularly experienced. The young mechanic tells me it is impossible to reach all seven of my gears and sets it with just six. He also has no idea about how the screw system works on my front derailleur. I spend quite a while readjusting my bike when I get it back to the hostal.

And after four days of rest; of copious food consumption; of meeting other cyclists; of general bike maintenance; and a game of darts (Ali-5: James-0), we are all prepared to pack the loaded bikes and set off into the real Peru once again.

Nearly all the way with a couple of easy going lads
Cusco - Peru to La Paz - Bolivia (9 cycle days; 2 rest days; 679km; 4641m)

Cuzco to 6 km. after Cusipata (87km; 80m)
6 km. after Cusipata to Aguas Calientes (81km; 827m)
Aguas Calientes to Ayavirí (81km; 429m)
Ayavirí to Juliaca (96km; 266m)
Juliaca to Puno (43km; 252m)
Puno to Juli (81km; 368m)
Juli to Copacabana - Bolivia (62km; 465m)
Copacabana to Batallas (91km; 877m)
Batallas to La Paz (57km; 356m)

The beauty of camping wild
Bikes are packed and the four of us are ready to leave when one of my tubes blows in the sun. Still, better at the hospedaje than on the road. There are plenty of overland travellers around to keep everyone occupied in conversation while I fix it. The trip out is easy enough and to be expected for a virtual 30 kilometre downhill run, though the highway is really bad around San Jeronimo. We stop in the bustling village of Urcos at the market for lunch and continue on towards a dubious horizon. Somehow, we miss the full brunt of the storm, though Kevin and James, quite a distance in front, get a bit wetter than we do.

Our roadmaps and road signs do not correspond at all and it is always a surprise as to when a village will appear. We pass Quiquijana quite sooner than expected with its lone hospedaje. The following town of Cusipata also has one very basic lodging that we see, but we would all prefer to camp or try and make it to the next big town. A blue gum plantation with terraces, perfect for camping on, comes into view 6 kms after Cusipata (87km; 801m) and we decide to grab the opportunity while it is there. There's one ledge perfect for all the tents and right in between some of the most colourful mountain sides. The stunning panoramic view only adds to the beauty of camping wild.

A dream come true
We all agree it was one of the best nights sleep in a while: flat terrain, peaceful environment, well away from the highway and snuggly warm in the tent. Blue skies, warm sun and a cool breeze begin the day: perfect cycling weather and the grassy plateau, just slightly going up means we really zap along for the first 30 kilometres. Kevin needs some bike adjustments and we stop at a mechanics in Sicuani after 59 kilometres. Takes a few tries to find a place with the correct tool, but when we do, Kevin quite expertly shows us how to remove and tighten his bottom bracket in just 30 minutes. We also stop for lunch and while Kevin and James are dining on a set meal for 2.50 Soles each, Ali and I are picnicking on the sidewalk and watching the clear sky turn very black indeed.

The weather can change everything and it does today big time. It turns bitterly cold; headwinds hit us and it starts to drizzle. The terrain begins its ascent and it is the commencement of one horrible journey. Eleven kilometres after Sicuani, we pass under a bridge that says Agua Calientes is only eleven kilometres away. Signposting proves to be wrong yet again, as it is actually 17 kilometres. I really wouldn't have made the distance if it weren't for my two shielders: Kevin and Ali. Shunted in behind them, I can just manage against the wind, though it is still hard work. I also can't let the moment pass without thanking David Bowie, Muse, Joe Jackson, Weezer, Weezer and Weezer for almost a third time - until my iPod Shuffle totally crashes in the rain - for the motivationally merry music that kept my legs turning for what we all thought were the last 4 kilometres of our trip.

Wet and miserable under the shelter of a tiled overhang, we decide to brave the subsequent 6 kilometres. Like some bad joke, they are even steeper; even wetter; even colder and a flat tyre just before Aguas Calientes (81km; 827m) even more wearisome than I can explain. What I can tell you though is, it was like a dream come true, when we dipped our exhausted, cold bodies into the warmth of our private thermal bath for the first time. Even though the place is very badly run and you could fault quite a lot, the few hours of steaming ourselves and floating in warmth were about the best thing that could have happened all day.

Weird but wonderful
We had been greeted at the entrance by a man who claimed to be an organiser and Kevin, James and I sort out our very makeshift accommodation. Only seven soles each with free use of all the thermal activities, so we could hardly complain. For five soles each we could have camped on a slope, but decided instead that Ali and I would take the massage room with one bed in it, while Kevin and James didn't mind laying out their mattresses on the concrete floor around their private thermal bath. The boys also organise dinner in the restaurant for 7.00pm, which when it comes time to eat was locked up and clearly not going to provide them with anything nutritious at all. They arrive on our doorstep, cookers and food in hand. Huddled together on the floor of our massage room we couldn't have got any cosier if we tried.

Like I said before, Agua Calientes has many flaws, but it would have to be the most unusual place we have ever visited before, adding to the long list of charms Peru has on offer. If this place were in Ecuador, or worse still Costa Rica, it would cost you at least $US25 to get in the door. While you might get a bit more standard and the possibility of clean toilets, you really have to admire the appeal of this unkempt place. Steam rising up from the surging water channels; bubbles oozing their way out of the earth by your feet; the salty mineral smell following your every move as you pan the mist covered mountains and grasslands surrounding you; pools of different size and temperature at your full disposal as well as a eucalyptus steam room which they call a sauna. Quite wierd, but certainly wonderful at the same time.

We don't however think it is particularly wonderful when they try and kick us out of our room at 7.30am stating that they need to clean the area. Kevin has a few strong words with the maintenance man and we buy ourselves an extra hour.

Pollo sin pollo, por favor: [Chicken without chicken, please]
The boys take a dip and a steam bath in the morning, but I'm still feeling the effects of the flu and prefer to keep my hair dry. Although it might be deliciously warm in the water, outside it is bitterly cold. We start the 10 kilometre and 275 altimetre climb to Abra La Raya (4369m) around 9.30am. It is quite the open-air shopping spot for tourist produce and venders are out in force today, since the train which runs three times a week from Puno to Cusco is expected in an hour or so. After a few photographs, we roll down the other side and slide into Santa Rosa for lunch.

The weather turns on us again as we head out of town and this time the thunder and lightning are right above us. Winds smash us from the side and icy rain whips our cheeks, which is about as much fun as it sounds. The guys shield me again, but somehow I just can't keep up. Ali pushes me from behind and then we discover the slow leak in my back tyre. I don't know what it is about storms, me and flat tyres, but here we are again roadside fixing the damned thing.

Truth is, my tyres are completely worn and wattle thorns have worked their way into the rubber and are almost impossible to find. Problem is, there have been no decent tyres to be found anywhere in Peru. All way too knobbly or too cheap and nasty looking: they probably wouldn't even last a few hundred kilometres We are hoping a bike shop in La Paz will have something to offer.

An hour later and the clouds are white and fluffy instead of black and heavy and we are flying down the flat stretch of highway towards Ayavirí (81km; 429m). Now we really are on the Altiplano, where the Andes are at their widest and home to the native ethnic Aymaran people. Tibet aside, this is the most extensive area of high-altitude plateau in the world and averages around 3,750 metres for its entire length. Bright pink flamingos wade in the green swampy waters, brown grassy plains meet rolling hills that disappear into vibrant cloud formations many miles away. And as an entourage of four we pedal happily into a surprisingly large metropolis in the middle of nowhere.

Around the plaza there are a few hotels to choose from. Hotel Lumonsa looks good from the outside, but the 45 soles pricetag is a little steep for a double room with share shower. Especially seeing as this part of the deal is really grotty, smelly and not hot at all. On the other hand, we have a wifi connection and a neat and clean room. Everyone fancies Chinese today, so the fact that the vegetarian restaurant is closed proves no problem at all. The woman in the Chifa though has a hard time getting her head around fried rice without meat.

James: Can we have two lomo saltado dishes? as he chooses from the long menu list hanging by the door.
Lady: No, we only have fried rice today.
James: Okay then, can we have two fried rice...
Lady: Yes
James:... and two vegetarian fried rice?
Lady: No, we don't have vegetarian fried rice.
James: Can you make fried rice without meat then?
Lady: Chicken fried rice?
Me: No. No chicken or fish either. Without any animal in it. We are vegetarians.
Lady: No, we don't have fried rice without chicken.
Kevin: How come you can't make fried rice without chicken?
Lady: We don't have it.
Kevin: What do you mean you don't have it? It's just the same thing, but without chicken
Lady: No, it is not possible.

We all look at each other for a while and discuss what we are going to do. Meanwhile, others come and go taking their little polystyrene containers away. For a place only serving fried rice its doing a roaring trade. The woman has obviously had some time to think about our situation and after about ten minutes addresses us with:

Lady: How about fried rice with egg?
Me: Sure, that's okay, So long as there is NO animal in it.
James: Okay. Two normal fried rice and two egg fried rice please.

A few minutes later...
Lady: is onion okay?
Ali: Yes, onion is okay; almost laughing.

A couple of other tables fill up in the restaurant and our rather bland tasting rice dishes come out.
James: Do you have some soya sauce?
Lady: No, we don't have soya sauce.
James: Do you have any sauce at all?
Lady: No we don't have any sauce.

As we are eating, the table next to us is served. To our bewilderment they are dished up with four servings of lomo saltado: the dish that James had initially asked for. What more can I say?

With a little help from my friend
Apart from tripping over the pavement and falling flat on my face just outside our hotel, not much else happens in the town of Ayavirí. Well, I suppose the couple of ladies at the market who try and make a few extra soles out of me with their bad adding up and subtraction skills and the shop owner who directs us to a café selling bread and pastries saying "you won't much like it there, though", are worth a mention. We leave at 9.30am again and have a sailing time riding the 32 dead-horizontal kilometres into Pucará. A short shower has us sheltering under the roof of the local botica [pharmacy]. It isn't such a dilemma though, as we have found some excellent cheesy bread, bananas and are quite content on watching the local running race taking place in the village while we refuel.

From Pucará to Calapuja (40 kms), the road worsens and unfortunately, halfway along this stretch, so does the weather. Though the rain is minimal, the side-winds atone for the hardship of the ride. Even the boys have a hard time in the bluster and we push on down the highway in a tight diamond formation; me of course having the prime position to the right of Kevin and tucked in behind James who is alongside Ali. The tarmac returns to its immaculate condition after Calapuja and a few kilometres later we make that right turn that has my dear friend: the wind, thrusting us towards Juliaca (96km; 266m). Twenty-four kilometres have never seemed so easy.

What's going on in their heads for pete's sake?
Juliaca is another massive township, a city really; and it takes a while to navigate our way into the heart and find Hostal Luquini where we can just roll the bikes in. Ground floor accommodation is always a draw-card for bike travellers: engine or no engine. And although the 60 soles room rate is a little more than we usually pay, none of us are excited about the prospect of further searching for an alternative. Three Dutch motorcyclists have also chosen these lodgings for the night: Auke and Marieke and Jan Gerben . Jan Gerben's 1943 Harley Davidson really steals the show and it's also nice to hear their perspectives as motorised bike travellers.

We have a room opposite Kevin and James and just our luck that Ali and I pick the one with the hot water system that takes more than an hour to heat up; and then it is barely luke warm. The boys have instant hot water, so I'm not impressed: not so much about having to wait, but the fact that the owner just conveniently forgot to tell us this detail. Had I known, I wouldn't have been standing naked with the cold water running, waiting for it to turn hot. Had I known, I wouldn't have had to jump into bed fully clothed to warm back up again: remember we are at 3838 altimetres here. Had I known, I would have simply demanded another room.

Pizza is not great at the chain restaurant down the road, but it is hot and filling and we totally woof down three large ones between the four of us in no time at all. Beer is outrageously expensive, so we opt to buy a couple of bottles on the way back to consume in the garden of the hotel. We walk into a liquor store and yet another surreal conversation is launched.

Kevin: Do you have big bottles of beer?
Young boy shopkeeper: No, only small ones.
Kevin: Okay, how much are they?
Young boy shopkeeper: 18 Soles for the six pack.

We umm and ahh about what we need. I don't like the standard beer, only dark beer and that would mean someone else would have to drink them with me. James doesn't mind. As we are about to hand over the money, I spy large bottles of beer at the back of the room.

Me: Are they large bottles of beer?
Young boy shopkeeper: Yes.
Me: So, can be buy them instead
Young boy shopkeeper:Yes.

He goes and gets the 6 bottles we want and we hand over the money. He hesitates.

Young boy shopkeeper: There is a one soles deposit on each bottle.
Me: Okay, no problem. We are quite used to this by now. So, when are you open in the morning?
Old Man Shopkeeper: 11 am
Kevin: That late: 11 am?
Old Man Shopkeeper: Yes, we are open until midnight, so we don't open until 11.00 in the morning.
Ali: It's okay, I'll will bring them back tonight then.

At 10.15pm, Ali returns with the empty bottles, but the shop is shut. The next morning, at 10.00am, on a chance, Ali goes back, but they are still not open. Nor are they at 11.05am either...

Floating theme park
I have another flat tyre when we wake, so Kevin generously gives me his spare-used Schwalbe Marathon XR to get me puncture-free to La Paz. Since it is only a short ride to get to Puno today, we gave James, who loves his sleep, the pick the time we should depart. Eleven was his hour of choice. Leaving Juliaca is easy, though not if you were to obey the road rules. The highway leading out of town has "no bicycles" signs clearly displayed on the roadside. We are not the only ones to violate convention and it is no wonder when the alternative side path looks like a recently excavated rock quarry.

The 30 odd kilometres of road up until the turnoff to Sillustani are excellent and we make good mileage along this stretch. The climbing and the roadworks begin here, both of which slow me down at least. Kevin and James are in flying form and complete the 240 something altimetres to reach the top climb (4022m) of the day, well before I get there. From the top we can see across the concrete jungle of Puno and the famous Lake Titicaca, home to the indigenous Uros tribes and their floating reed islands. It is a very quick 4 kilometre plummet to the train station and Hostal Qoñi Wasi right in the centre of Puno (43km; 252m). For an extremely touristy town, the lodgings are very reasonably priced at 30 soles for a clean double room with private bathroom; wifi connection and use of a communal kitchen as well, but the part that wins my heart, especially after yesterday's showering disaster, is the piping hot water with perfect pressure.

Spreading viruses
I don't sleep at all well: awoken in the middle of the night with cyclic cramps. The ghastly eggy burps are back, I have no appetite and diarrhea starts in the early afternoon. Tell tale signs of giardiasis. I have been plagued with this problem for the last few weeks and it just doesn't want to go away. The ingestion of infected cysts is transmitted in three main ways. Although the most common form of transmission is from person to person and commonly due to poor hygiene, I believe brushing my teeth with contaminated tap water in a few dubious places is the cause. I think I can rule out the third mode: venereal. In any case, I feel dreadfully sick. Ali purchases a 2 gram course of Secnidazol (like Tinidazole), to be taken in one go: that's a lot of drugs at once and they do the trick. I feel miraculously better the next day.

The other virus that plagues all of us, except for Kevin because he has a Linux Operating System on his computer, is the dreaded Recycler virus. It starts with James giving Ali an infected USB stick and Ali detecting it in Cusco. We later discover that all of James' electronic apparatus are infected. Ali also has it on his computer, USB stick and it is possible it is on two of his hard drives as well. This in in turn gives me the scare that I may have introduced it to my computer as well. Luckily, I discover that I didn't used any of the external drives after the infection. The boys spend the best part of the day downloading disinfectant and unlocker programs and manage - fingers crossed - to rectify the problem without either of them loosing any photographs or vital information. It is quite an anxious time and James has learned that you can't do anything unprotected these days!

Floating theme park
The virus issue had prevented us from visiting the biggest attraction in Puno: Islas de los Uros also commonly known as The Floating Uros Islands. We are all still quite keen to go, so decide to visit early the next morning and then start cycling towards Juli around 12.00pm. James and Ali are riding the cyling taxi's down to the port, which in hindsight is probably one of the main highlights of the day.

The Uros date back to pre-Incan times and are famous for their ingenious use of the totora plant. Not only do they sculpture beautifully ornate boats with this reed, but it is the main construction material for the islands that they live on. The plant generates such a dense root system that they naturally entwine and create a one to two metre thick layer, known locally as khili. This is the only ground support and naturally the islands are continually rotting away. New surface reeds are therefore added on a quarterly basis to ensure longevity of the island. Each island has about a 20 to 25 year life span and before that is up, 8 months of construction begins to fashion a replacement island.

These settlements were formed in the 1500's as strategic self-protection against the advancement of the Incas. Initially, they lived on boats and with necessary expansion started tying them together. The woven reeds decayed which lead to the discovery that the totora plant soil floats at a particular point in its life cycle and by removing blocks of soil and sawing them to size, they could easily create large floating wedges. In the event of a defensive, they could detach the rope anchors staked to the bottom of the lake with sticks and float to safety.

Nowadays, most of the Uros descendants live on the mainland and the few hundred remaining on the islands make a living from tourism. While the whole idea of a floating island is bizarre; the history of this indigenous group interesting; and the bouncy feel when you walk on the totora reeds for the first time, unique: the set up at Islas de los Uros is painfully like entering a warped Disneyland theme park. We had decided, due to our time scale, to fork out the 120 soles plus 20 soles tax (not mentioned) for a private boat. On the normal boat it costs only 15 soles per person, but we would have to wait until one filled up and then you have no say about where you go. Apparently, we have a full scope and can dictate our route.

Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell the skipper of our boat that. He found it impossible to deviate from the structured tourist course: Isla Uros Manco Papac; the Restaurant Island; followed by another with a hotel or something akin. We have had enough after the first stop-off; where we are greeted by barefoot locals in brightly coloured costumes and sat down for Pablo's Spanish rendition of how the island came into being and what sort of souvenirs the island group has on offer. Grandma, who according to James, sat in the same position six years ago, is grinding seeds with a curved rock and demands money from me when I take a picture of her actions. We simply ask our boatman to steer us around the islands and possibly take us to someplace, where the other tourists don't go. I mean there are about fifty of these floating homelands and the vast amount of water between them to choose from.

Well, I tell you the guy must have turned hot and cold all over, because he just couldn't bring himself to do something other than the norm and after the outlandish excuse that he doesn't have enough petrol, he starts taking us back down the channel, returning to port. We are having none of this and demand he turn around, go back and steer us around the islands. The next lame excuse for not meeting our wishes, is there are too many boats and he might crash into them. I'm beginning to wonder if this guy has ever gone any further than a few hundred metres into the island group.

He does take us back, but just floats in the same spot for a while, not daring to venture any further. So much for having full license to do what we want; obviously that doesn't come with the private boat package. You need to pay even more for the "extra special service", though no matter what you pay, I doubt you'd get much more than the well trodden totora tourist trail.

House with no street-name
Twelve midday and we are navigating our way out of Puno. The roads are atrocious, but no confusion about the route. Roadworks hold us up a couple of times before the road improves and we stop for a bite to eat in Acora. The highway returns to its former dishevelled state, but there is no stopping Kevin. He is way off in the distance, his adrenalin pumping owing to tomorrow's exciting return to his homeland Bolivia, after residing in Germany for the last thirteen years.

Traffic is mighty aggressive today and pushes us from the roads a few times. More annoying though, is the incessant horn honking. Peruvians are world class experts at this. The landscape is pretty well flat grassy farmland connecting with ochre dirt and blue skies. Plenty of scruffy, shaggy donkeys for me to appreciate and heavily fleeced llamas to laugh at too. The unusual grooves in the red rock formations also capture my attention for a brief moment, as I am amazed at the mud brick homes with shiny corrugated roofs randomly dotting the vista. Most unusual, as there are no streets and yet this is a community of a decent size.

A town can be spied off in the distance, but is still ten odd kilometres away. I'm pretty well exhausted by the time we reach the turnoff to Juli (81km; 368m). I have been trying to keep up with the boys' speed all day and that always has it's toll on my energy. Halfway up, I resort to pushing the steep slopes past the interesting local market and up to the plaza. Here, we book our reasonable rooms at Hostal Los Angeles, though how they price structure is quite a mystery to us all. The boys pay 5 soles more for a double with share toilet and shower facilities than our 25 soles rate for a double bed with private bathroom.

So much has happened in the last 24 hours that I completely forget about my earlier sickness and the fact I still have a large dose of active drugs whirling around inside. I actually feel great albeit a little fatigued and foolishly order one beer when James goes out for the evening nightcap. Unfortunately the result is me spending the rest of the evening and wee hours of the morning hugging the toilet bowl heaving my heart out. Even my mother's wonderful remedy of emptying your stomach completely and rinsing it with Eno [effervescent salts] doesn't stop the pain and dry reaching. I haven't felt so bad for years.

I later investigate and ascertain that Tinidazole (Fasigyn) has similar effects as Metronidazole (Flagyl) also used to treat giardias. You need, as I stupidly found out, to avoid alcohol at all costs as it can cause severe vomiting, headache, and gastrointestinal discomfort by inhibiting aldehyde dehydrogenase, which is essential in breaking down alcohol. Boy, did I do the wrong thing!

Kevin's big day at the COH-pah...coh-PAH-cah- BAAAAH-naaah...
Rather tenderly, I set off up the hill out of Juli. Kevin asks me if I'm not feeling weak. I am, but according to him, I don't look it. Nonetheless, it's a burdened plod up the 2 kilometres and 98 altimetres required to reach the top climb (3964m) of the day. The boys are way out in front. I mainly have my head down and am concentrating on the pedals going round for much of the first half of the day. We pass the turnoff to Desaguadero mid morning and reach Yunguyo around lunchtime, where we take a break to put some nutrition back into our bodies. The boys head down a side street for a set meal and we picnic in the plaza in the sun. The town is bustling and quite a bit bigger than we had expected. In fact all the major towns on the Altiplano have been surprisingly large. I spend our last coins on eight small blocks of Sublime, one of those Peruvian delights I will never forget: chocolate almost as creamy as Cadbury's Dairy Milk with the added crunch of crushed peanuts. I think I may have just got my appetite back.

Kevin will be crossing back into Bolivia today after not living in his homeland for 13 years and he is excited about it, that is for sure. Copacabana is where we all go our own separate ways as well. Cristian and a few other friends of Kevin's will be meeting him after a days rest to cycle the last lengths of his 11 month journey from Mexico City to La Paz and James has decided to stop-over for just one night, meaning Ali and I will be back to our early starts again. Its only 3 kilometres from our lunch spot to Kasani and the Bolivian border crossing. All runs very smoothly and the officials are not quite as bureaucratically concerned as the toe-tapping, stamp-flamboyant men we met on our entry into Peru. Getting out takes a few minutes. Kevin's Dad arrives as the boys are going through the paperwork motions and we make sure we cement the occasion with our cameras. Getting in is also no problem, except the first official is hesitant with our 60 day visa request. His boss overrules and we get the time we need.

Only 10 kilometres more from the border till we reach Copacabana - Bolivia (62km; 465m), but there is a hill to navigate before sailing down into the port. Kevin cycles to the beachfront to stay with his Dad. With James, we find rooms at Hostal Sonia and its a great place to stay, away from the touristy part of town. All the mod cons and a bright sunny room for just 50 Bolivianos (7 Bolivianos = 1 US Dollar) for the both of us. We cruise along the beachfront in the afternoon, before resting at a cafe stall to soak up the glorious sun and watch the boat activity in the water. This is so different from anything we have experienced in the last few weeks. Besides being swarmed with tourists, the place has quite a pleasant Mediterranean feel about it. And that is fine for a day or so. We couldn't last much longer anyway: Copacabana doesn't have an ATM. Quite ludicrous considering the town thrives off its sightseer population.

So, Ali and I have made it into country 39, without too many dramas and normally, I would write something about country 38 in reflection. It would probably take up this spot on the page, but unfortunately I'm not quite up to it yet: I'm not talking physically here, but mentally. So much has passed by my eyes in Peru: landscape of every form possible; people with hearts and smiles as wide as all our oceans put together; beauty to make you want to sit down and stop for a week to contemplate; wild ruggedness like I never expected to see; and an overall friendliness that was second to none. All this along with the 30,000 odd altimetre and 2,600 kilometre achievement in basically two months of travel has left me astounded; touched; and gob-smacked that I don't quite know what to say about this profound country. While Colombia still remains number one for cycling, Peru has toppled Pakistan off its post and is firmly planted in second position. You'll be hearing more about it later, that is for sure.

Dodging storms in a small world
The climb out of Copacabana is not difficult, it is just very long. A lot longer than you first think. When you have reached the top climb (4251m) of the day, you will have only completed 11 km and 375 altimetres of your journey and the road, after a petite fall, continues to wind its way up and over another hill. This goes on for 100 altimetres worth of ascent, though a couple of short downhills are thrown in for variation. The wonderful free-fall to the ferry crossing at San Pedro de Tiquina is a wonderful end to the first leg of a journey, where one moment Lake Titicaca is to your left, next to your right and on the odd occasion you find yourself driving through the middle of this massive expanse of water. It is more like an ocean than the highest navigable lake in the world - you can thank Ali for that last piece of trivia. The road is unbelievably excellent and we fortunately dodge the rain storms for the first half of the day.

The ferry ride costs five soles each including the bikes and takes no more than five minutes to get to the other side. And just to reiterate how small our world is: Cristian's wife, Luisa and her daughter just happen to drive onto our ferry as well. She had just left Cristian with Kevin about an hour ago in Copacabana. The climb, on a much lesser quality road, from the ferry goes on quite a distance. By the time you are making the drop into the next small village and flying along the flats you have done close to 700 altimetres for the day.

Rolling terrain will take you all the way through a touristy looking, but contrastingly dead Huatajata and then the corresponding ghost-town of Huarina where the local alojamiento [lodgings] looks like it's seen better days. We promptly decide to pedal a further 10 kilometres into Batallas (91km; 877m). Unfortunately, our assessment in the town prior was a little hasty, because the hospedaje - for want of a better word - is really dismal. The 30 Bolivianos compared to 50 for the fabulous room in Copacabana, is a total rip off: no shower, a makeshift toilet arrangement that would turn most people's stomachs, two sagging hammock-like metal beds. At least we have a light and it would be nice to think that the woman was going to put the money towards improvements, but on inspection of the area, it appears that little has been done to fix the place up in years. Its a pigsty!

Come back little white line, come back
The rain is pelting down this morning and neither of us feel much like cycling along a highway into a one-an-a-half million plus population city. But then again, neither of us much feel like staying in this grot box any longer than we actually have to. Around 9am, we pedal out onto the highway. There's a slight gradient in parts and a slight headwind nearly all the time. There's nothing particularly slight about the rain though, but it is better to keep pedalling than stop. It is too cold to stand still. As to be expected enroute into a big city, the traffic is thick, fast and has little respect for two wet souls slowly pushing along the same path. A little white line, where roadworkers once marked the shoulder with string, comes and goes at random. Strangely enough, when its with us, I get an automatic sense of safety. A little barrier to stick behind. Mind you, I'm not exactly sure the vehicles can really see it. When it disappears, I hear myself whispering: "come back little white line, come back".

Entering the outskirts of the world's highest capital is a concentrated effort, but not the most difficult cycle dodging we have ever done. The unkempt surroundings on the other hand are tougher to comprehend. The roadside is just one big dumping ground for anything Bolivians wish to discard: from wine bottles to babies nappies; food scraps to car parts; unwanted bricks; cement; gravel piles; newspapers; plastic. You name it.

We reach El Alto (the top) at around lunchtime after a pretty solid innings of cycling. Enclosed in a basin, La Paz sprawls its way up the sides of the mountain towards the surrounding and higher altiplano. It is one of the most accessible panoramas of an entire city I have witnessed. We catch just a glimpse of the permanently snow-covered peaks of Illimani too: the highest mountain in the Cordillera Real. Pretty good viewing after such a miserable weather day. From this vantage point we plot our course into the city and while it takes some time to swirl down through the concrete jungle, we seem to be heading in the right direction. James tells us later that he took the highway and it plonked him right out near Chuquiago Café, owned by Cristian and Luisa. A possible choice for the way out. Yes, in order to continue our journey through Bolivia, we have to climb back up the 500 odd metres that we have just plummeted down.

La Paz (57km; 356m) has some of the steepest streets imaginable and often badly cobbled as well. You do not want to get lost here. Finding ourselves close to a market area, we ask a couple of obvious travellers with a Bolivian guidebook in hand where the Plaza de San Francisco is. We are apparently not too far, but need to walk down a crowded footpath before shunting out on a highway that leads us directly to the square. I peer up the street we need to climb. It is monstrous and I opt to push. Ali makes it halfway before doing the same. By the time I've heaved everything over the footpath a couple of times, navigated the deep cobbled potholes and puffed my loaded bike up the steps of Hotel Fuentes, I'm ready for a massage and a nap. We are a little out of our league in this hotel: its posh and had James not been staying here, we probably wouldn't have gone anywhere near it. But here we are standing on parquet wood flooring with horizontally perfect beds covered in clean linen and fresh snuggly doonas, hot water spurting out of nice fixtures, an almost flat screen tellie with all the channels an English speaking foreigner could possible wish for.

Good enough reason?
So we have made it to La Paz: another milestone and the start of the next big leg of the journey. From here to the Chilean border is going to be one of the most challenging stretches of cycling we have embarked on so far. Long expanses of deep sand and washboard surfaces with limited options for obtaining water and food supplies. So, if you are wondering why anyone would want to compel themselves to long periods of loaded-bike pushing and only achieving 30 kilometres a day: its because we'll probably experience perfect starry nights too; encounter incredible landscapes with silly rock formations; soak in thermal bathes and capture some of the pinkest flamingoes in the world on camera. Good enough reason?

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