I scout around town looking for a hostel.. Sometimes there is an area where most of them are located and it’s not too hard to pick a decent one. The strike (and the long ride) put me far behind my projected timeline, wore me out and after an hour of wandering the streets in the traffic and fading light, I broke down and asked a tuk-tuk where I could find a nice hotel that has parking for the bike… I follow him to approximately the nicest hotel in town. I am a little horrified, because I’m sure this is a triple digit night… I go in to find out.. more to actually just ask where I can find another less expensive stop. I talk them down from the posted $105 to $65. I’m bone tired and don’t want to keep searching… not in the dark… and to be truthful, a little luxury will go a long way right now.
I take a fantastic hot shower, glory in the first world-ness of my uber fancy digs and go out for a walk. I find a little place to get some chicken soup (still feeling a bit peaked) and snap some pics of the tourist areas. I also buy two very inexpensive.. and soft scarves. Alpaca. They will come in handy for the cold… and hail. I get one from this gal..
The ride out of town rambles around the edge of Lake Titicaca… the highest navigable lake in the world. It’s higher here even than in Cusco.. 12,500 ft-ish. There is agriculture on the banks wherever I look. The most colorful things are little gumdrop colored boats and the red, yellow and orange quinoa, which grows well here in the cool Andean air.
My route starts off on a nice blacktop but as soon as I turn onto route 36, it changes to dirt. It’s a nice solid hardpack… some potholes, for a couple hours. Scenic, is not saying enough.. it… I.. don’t recall having seen pictures like this before. The colors are from movies… they don’t seem real.. and the camera can’t seem to capture them..
There is a highway that crosses the dirt after a couple hours with a sign to Moquegua. I consider taking it. I toss the idea immediately and continue across the road… there is no more hard pack. The road turns to pea gravel and I again consider the highway… but keep going.
The road gets better and worse but the scenery is magnificent, so I don’t mind too much. I ride for another two hours and come to a water crossing. There was a sign at a Y in the road a few hundred meters back. It said the other road is a military camp.
I hop off the bike and have a look around…. The crossing is impossible… it starts off shallow, but drops off steeply in the middle. It is shoulder deep, and swift. I try a few different spots, but the water has cut a 4-5 foot trench through even the narrow areas.
I look to the military area… It’s my only option.
I wander around to the bridge. There are four men wearing black and gold uniforms walking toward me at the far end. The rest of the camp appears to be abandoned. I ask them if I may pass. Friendly, but serious, they agree and tell me “Buen viaje” (have a nice trip)
The road turns to sand. I hate sand. I hate the idea of turning around more. So I keep going..I wiggle and slide my way up the long sandy road.. it goes right over the shoulder of a big volcano… and I am hoping to see some kind of respite from the slow going.. but no. The road seems to go on forever.
I find myself on the banks of what looks like a reservoir. It is a dammed area and I file away a good water source.. it appears there might be many in the area.
I ride past a small town. It looks abandoned except for one woman about my own age washing something in the stream… I make another water crossing but see that the road is narrowning to only a very few little tire tracks… This is not the highway I am looking for. I am lost. My iPhone confirms this.
I return to the small town and meet the washing woman just outside the dirt soccer field. I ask if I can camp here. She says sure, but I have to leave very early in the morning. That is when the shepherds return.
Relieved, I walk down to the water and scoop a nalgene full.. as I screw on the blue cap, my new friend tells. Me no. I can’t drink that. The water from the stream and the lake is salty. She says there is good fresh water nearby.. I wait ten minutes till she finishes her business and then she walks me to the source. It is an underground spring nestled in bright green moss sporting a plastic bottle that funnels an adequate stream.
I collect a nalgene full with plans to boil it… I zip it into my little red hiking bag.
We walk back to “town” (4 or 5 rudimentary buildings and a nice schoolhouse) I ask her some questions.. one of the things I marvel at is the solar panel they have. It is a striking accent to the rustic town. I ask her what it is for.. she says nothing… it doesn’t work. The batteries won’t charge. I never find out what it was actually for.
Just as we are discussing a good place for me to camp, a big white rumbling truck comes up a lightly used path. It is filled with alpaca poop. They dump it in certain areas to improve the soil. It never really rains here anyway, but they hope to grow food without having to go down to the town and buy groceries as often.
She tells me the truck is going to Tacna and they can show me the way. It is late.. 4:00 PM and I am bone tired, but hope to get an idea of where I can make the rigt turn. I thank her earnestly, and hop on my bike behind the dusty truck.
I make two water crossings. The truck has no problem, but it is much larger than I am and the swift water doesn’t bother the lumbering giant… I am nervous at each. A tip over will cost me a great deal in electronics and time… possibly the bike.
An hour later, the bike crests the top of the pass and my dismay is deep as I see the length of the rutted, rocky road.. the dust from a distant lorry plumed in back of its path. It makes long, sweeping turns into the distance… far into the deepening sunset… as far as I can see. I realize I have made a terrible mistake leaving the safety of the tiny village… I am too far into my error to turn around.
I ride on wobbly legs and a growling stomach for another hour.. and dream of the moment when my boiled water reaches my cracked, dry lips… I dare not stop. The chance of the road improving occupies my mind entirely.
My hopes are shattered as the sun dips below the last of the mountains and I know I must stop. My arms are lead weights and my back and legs are a stream of fire as I roll off the main road into a sandy ditch. There is no good place for the bike to rest… it is otherwise in the direct path of travel. Either side is a steep, rocky up or down.
I am at 14,500 feet above sea level. The air is thin and even thinking seems to take great effort.
It is nearly dark and I have to find a hiding spot for the night.
I see a large bush and settle on that for shelter. I don’t know what the social situation is here.. or the animal one… My experience has been that if there are not many people, you are generally left alone. OR even that help is more likely here than in a busy area. Also, animals usually leave you alone if you leave them alone. Usually.
I download all my bags under the bush and cover the bike with my tarp. I look for my nalgene bottle and am horrified to discover that it has worked its way out of the zippered bag somewhere along the path. Impossible to know how far back… The hair stands up on the back of my neck.. I’m in trouble.
I pushed myself too hard today with only a small breakfast and a single cup of coffee.. and only one small bottle of water… My legs and feet are cramping from dehydration and loss of electrolytes… I was counting on the water to boil pasta and rehydrate myself…
As I settle into my dilemma, I think about all the other choices I could have made.. knowing it is just a waste of time. I am here now, and this is my reality.
Feeling quite alone and suddenly chilled, I pull out my bedroll and coccoon myself with all my clothes on and try to sleep. It is going to be a long night.. it is only just past 7:00 now. Every effort is a major undertaking. The air is so thin, it takes me fully five minutes to recover my breath from turning around and zipping up my sleeping bag. I cover my mouth and face with my new scarf to save precious moisture from being completely exhaled into the air… I don’t know how long it might be ’till I can get water and nutrition.
The night is long and cold. I roll over three or four times and only when I am extremely sore… because the effort seems extroadinary.I’m up before the dawn… I’m not really sure if its dawn or not because there is a moon low and bright just over the horizon… it is beautiful, but I am more interested in the possibility of the brightening day…
The predawn light shows a tiny speck of headlights low and far on the bottom of the mountain. If they are coming this way, it will be almost an hour before they get here.. I have time to gather my bags and pack my sleeping gear. I do it slowly and try to breathe normally. My mouth is sticking to my mouth. I keep having waking dreams about drinking water…. splashing it all over my face.. waterfalls..guzzling water. Swimming in water.
I watch the headlights bounce slowly towards me. I’m only half packed. The sky lightens to an early morning glow. The lights get closer. I uncover my bike.
Finally, the pickup bumps and skids up the last hairpin turn.
I stand in the road. I hope and hope they are friendly…. and that they have water.
I wave my arms.
They slow and roll down the window a little. I tell them I need a little help. I hold out my tin cup and ask for water. They don’t have any. I ask for help rolling the moto out of the sandy ditch. A man reluctantly comes out from the passenger side and helps me push it back onto the road.
The driver gets out. And then a woman from the back seat. It is a family and I finally tell my story. I thank them for their help…. and they ask if some milk will help. YES!!! anything will help!! Milk is great! Soda, gatorade, anything wet. They pull out four cans of evaporated milk. I give them the equivalent of ten US dollars. I cut a hole in two of the cans and guzzle the precious, sweet liquid… I am going to be able to make it now. I tell them I spent the night here and they all remark how cold it is… They are surprised that I am ok… They eye me curiously and the passenger that first helped me begins to pull up some of the dried out green rock moss and grass. It is a good fire making material.. The others help me drag my bags back to my bike.. there is a single woman that gets out of the truck also, and asks me how I managed to get here.. I tell her, and with a surprised face, she says “Sola?” Yes. I am alone. “Que valiente!” she remarks.
The blaze begins to dwindle and they all pile into the car and wish me luck.. they lumber off in a bumpy cloud of dust.
The bike sturggles to start and finally chokes to life.. I’m relieved but still agonizingly sore from the previous day. I push my leg over the bike… I have to get down… I won’t last long at this altitude.
The trail seems worse than the day before and I struggle with the bike in the moondust and rocks. I’m really not a good dirt rider to begin with… I drop the bike. Again and again… and catch it from falling a dozen or more times. I can feel my body is sluggish and protesting the effort, but noone can help me now. I need to ride… as I near town, I crash into a ditch. Two moto riders help me push it out.
Finally, three long hours later, I see pavement… I want to laugh, I’m so happy to see blacktop. I roll onto the smooth surface and ride into the tiny town of Tarata. For some water.
I feel better and better as I descend into thicker air… my body is sucking up all the liquid I’ve poured in, but I still need rest. I find a hostel right away, get a bed, push my bags into the room and close my eyes.
The next day, I wake ravenous. I grab a bit of bread an jam and make for the border. I want to reach Iquique.