Just before I left to hike the Inca Trail we all met up with the Canadian’s from Huacachina. Right away we realised that we were a pretty sweet crew and decided to keep going with the journey south together when I finished the hike. While all of this was happening Mariska finally became too sick to keep travelling and returned home while Alex also went home because he’s a responsible adult and still had a job. So with one epic squad coming to an end a new one started; Conor, Sarah, Jenna and myself. Our rendezvous was in Puno on the edge of Lake Titicaca and as soon as I finished hiking I jumped on a bus to meet them.
Arriving in Puno was a bit of a shock after the niceness of Cuzco and Arequipa’s town centres. In fact coming over the mountains down to the city through the favelas I had a bit of a ‘holy shit what have I done moment,’ just like I did with Sunny Beach in Bulgaria. For a tourist the sole purpose for visiting Puno is to see the floating islands on Lake Titicaca so the rest of the city is rougher than the other big cities of Peru. Eventually we all arrived at our hotel and set out to explore the one main street in the centre and managed to find ourselves a great rock bar to settle in for the night before going to the floating islands the next day.
Waking up early the next day we made our way down to the docks and onto the transfer boat which would take us out to the islands. Both myself and Jenna love going on boats so we were basically like a couple of kids for the whole trip out there which weaved through the reed beds and past more birds than we could count. Slowly out of all the reeds some thatch huts and towers started emerging until we were floating down the ‘main street’ of a massive village. We pulled up out the front of an island which was about 40x40m, enough for three families to live on and moored up as a welcoming party greeted us. The first really cool thing that we noticed as we jumped off the boat was the really spongy surface of the island, almost like a trampoline.
It turns out that the entire floating islands are made out of densely packed reeds about six feet thick. Over three-ish months the entire community gets together and slowly builds an island from the middle outwards until it’s big enough to live on. Around one foot of the island is above the waterline and it’s so strong that decently sized houses and even towers can be built on them. The entire community then attaches ropes to each other’s islands and drifts around on the lake with the seasons. A couple of hours are spent exploring the island, looking at crafts, playing with the local kids and laughing at Conor when he got too close to the edge of an island and punched through up to his knee.
From Puno we move on pretty quickly to Copacabana in Bolivia. Peru definitely has a lot of poverty but immediately after crossing the border it’s obvious that Bolivia is on a whole new level with half-finished houses and a general griminess everywhere. We arrive in the main street of the town which is mostly dirt and walk into the nicest looking hotel we can find. Forgetting how cheap Bolivia is I’m stunned to find out that a room is only $15 USD per night and book it without a question. From the room there is an incredible view of the lake stretching to the horizon with lightning firing across the sky every couple of seconds.
Copacabana is only a stopover on the way to La Paz but undoubtedly has the best views of Lake Titicaca you can easily get to and being the highest navigable lake on earth it’s actually more like an ocean. So to get an idea of the size of the lake, the next morning before our bus to La Paz we climb the hill just behind the town for a spectacular view. Even from the top of the mountain the other side of the lake can’t be seen and is well worth the sweat to get up there.
That night we are on the road again to La Paz. Bolivia is mostly over 4000m so it’s no surprise that La Paz/El Alto have the honour of being the highest cities on earth and the road there is probably the worst I’ve ever witnessed. It’s either dirt, more than 50% pot holes or diverted through favelas on the outskirts of the city so a night bus is not recommended. The other reason La Paz is famous is for the insane partying that goes on there and mountain biking the death road. Corruption rules in Bolivia and just a couple of years ago it was possible to pay guards at the local prison to have a tour inside, meet some drug lords and watch cocaine being prepared and packaged. Inside the prison! Sadly this isn’t possible ‘allegedly’ anymore because a new government has moved in and is trying to clean up the system. This became clear the first night we were in the city. A couple of hostels and the club we were in were raided by swat teams looking for drugs. It was definitely more for appearances because somehow they didn’t find a thing. In La Paz huh…
Very early the next day we wake up and are collected by a mini van which is taking us to the start of the death road. A while ago some genius decided that the 64km of downhill road would be perfect for tempting fate with two lane traffic on a one way road, with cliffs above and below and all of this on a road in disrepair. There is no traffic any more since a new highway has been build on the next mountain over but all of the other dangers are still there. The road starts next to a glacier lake at close to 5000m and when we arrive the whole area is covered with cloud with close to zero visibility. This only adds to the excitement while the four of us suit up in off-road jumpsuits, pads and gloves.
After a bit of a snack we line up on the edge of the road, listen to a safety speech mostly aimed at Australians and then push off. For the next six hours from the snowy pass we drop around 3500m to end in the jungle somewhere behind the Amazon. The first 20km is paved highway and for me was mostly about seeing how long I could stay at full speed around the corners and dodging traffic. Right away I knew it was going to be one of the best experiences of my holiday. The hype about it being unsafe is really just a marketing ploy and honestly the worst thing about the paved section is trying to find a balance between looking at the view of the canyons and looking at the road.
Another short drive in the van is needed to get to the start of the famous part of the ‘death road’ and man do they announce it well. As we round a corner and see the start of the dirt road a rusty beaten up old sign has a faded ‘death road’ printed across it. At this point we all unload from the van, pick up our bikes, take all of the pre-loading off the suspension and start following our guide down the road.
The first thing we notice is how terrible the road really is. Even being on a mountain bike the suspension was losing the battle to keep me going in a straight line and there was a couple of times a patch of loose rocks started sliding me towards the edge of the cliff. In the end everything was fine and after a bit of drifting and a lot a swearing I was safely on my way. We pass through waterfalls, creeks, washouts, jungle, villages and feel the tropical heat (and less altitude) starting to kick in. Finally sometime during the afternoon our group reaches the end with only two crashes among us. Later on in the day when were are chatting about the ride the thing that we all agreed on is the total amazement that the road used to be one of the main highways across the Andes. The road is insane just being on a mountain bike and imagining two busses trying to pass up there is just total insanity.