When_we_look at a map it is natural to see the highlights. Bigger cities get bigger names on the page. Country borders rise up to delineate an otherwise unbroken horizon. To see great cities by bicycle and to check another country off of our list is a tremendous thrill. Yet often the best riding in life is unexpected, and the most exciting roads are those that have no names and no signs and few people. Just a few days from Chile in the Peruvian city of Arequipa, we set out on some lonely roads to Lago Salinas and beyond. It felt like a ride around another world.
We climbed from the moment we left Arequipa and didn’t stop till we found winter. Starting in the hot sun at 7600 ft, we climbed a grueling dirt road for a day and a half until we arrived at Lago Salinas, a mountain-stream-fed lagoon in an eternally frigid, windy, Peruvian drizzle that can only be found above 13,500 ft. The road was deserted and alternatively bumpy, sandy, muddy, or inundated with water at the top. We were hungry and under-prepared. We arrived to a small cluster of buildings on the southeast corner of the lake, a small pueblito known as Moche before nightfall. There was a single small tienda run out of the front room of a woman’s home. No simple restaurant or hostel existed, and the prospect of tenting in rain and sub-freezing temperatures was disheartening. I had had one of the worst days of my life on the bike, bonking in the cold and struggling to turn the pedals over for the last few hours of the ride. We begged for the storeowner’s help, and in short time we had a place to stay in the spare room of her friend’s home, as well as hot plates of rice, eggs, and potatoes.
We hardly slept due to altitude sickness. Piercing headaches kept us up unwillingly while we craved the sleep we needed to recover and heal from the past day of riding. We were in the middle of nowhere, and despite our tremendous blessings and good fortune, we felt very alone and somewhat daunted. The next morning we woke to snow. Pressing on that next day we took the old road south of the lake, determined to descend out of the high altitude Peruvian winter we had stumbled upon at Lago Salinas. “Road” is such a strong word sometimes. Perhaps “trail” or “pathetic vestige of mistaken vehicular activity” would have been more appropriate on this occasion. We struggled to climb the sandy path that slowed our wheels to walking pace. At times the road would simply disappear or become submerged under a lake or stream. This gave us the rather fun opportunity to simply ride out into the tundra-like snow and rock fields at nearly 15,000 feet of elevation and make our own trail. We are confident that vehicles do not pass that way for days at a time. It’s entirely likely that if the rain and snow were to stop, our tire tracks would be there waiting for the next set of bicycle adventurers to find.
It’s tremendously humbling to struggle all day against slow, sandy roads and steep climbs and only manage a walking-pace accomplishment of fifty kilometers. It can be disheartening to ride through empty places with no towns or tiendas to buy a simple Coke and sit in the shade to rest. These lonely places don’t have names or even the recognition of existence on Google Maps. This is flyover country, the space between where travelers find themselves and where they’d like to be. We relish that solitude, the intoxicating sense that we might be one of the few people to ride a bike here, ever. And though we might only see a handful of people, our interactions with them are that much more meaningful. Simply seeing another face on these roads is reassuring; for the Peruvians who see gringos riding these terrible, random, Andean dirt roads…we must be terribly peculiar. We descended goat paths out of the wintry mountains and after braving some tooth-rattling descents into the desert valleys below, began our many sandy, steep mountain passes on the road to Moquegua. We ran out of water and discovered that in over a hundred kilometers of consecutive 4000+ meter passes, there are no towns and we were lucky to see three vehicles…and even more lucky when those vehicles donated their half-consumed bottles of Inca-Kola and bags of bread to us so we could survive.
Now we leave Peru and all its goodness behind us. As you read this, we’ll be setting our tires on Chilean soil for the first time. The finish in Ushuaia has never seemed closer. Yet for all of the highlights ahead and behind us, our minds still flock to the solitude of the empty, unremarkable, and yet still extraordinary worlds we are privileged to explore by bicycle.