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Day 72 – 94: 'Salta – Cusco'

7,589km from Ushuaia

We have made it to Cusco!! 7,589km from Ushuaia, 59,365 vertical metres climbed (over 7 times the height of Everest!) and only 4 full rest days since Santiago 37 days ago.

Having endured one of the toughest legs of the challenge thus far, the immense relief and jubilation that we felt pushing our bikes into the Plaza de Armas in Cusco was fairly overwhelming. Having covered 390km in the preceding 3 days leading up to our arrival, we had adopted a state of barely functioning delirium. Whilst dragging tired bodies through traffic filled, narrow cobbled streets we managed to lose one another before all reappearing at different ends of the central Plaza, mud coated and exhausted.

The last few weeks have provided the Team with a relentless string of obstacles. Extreme weather, endless bike problems, immobilising illness, sustained cold, and high altitudes have done their best to slow our progress. Archie’s parents and his brother Dominic (our knights in shining armour) had amazingly travelled out to meet us in Cusco, very much coming to our rescue with lots of spare bike parts from England, some good food and a huge amount of much needed TLC. This amazing added relief from some of the torments of our cycle touring challenge has made Cusco an oasis of relaxation, replenishment and our biggest milestone of the trip so far! Amongst fixing up our bikes we have been thoroughly enjoying a few days relaxing and exploring the Historic Inca site of Machu Picchu.

A reflection from Dominic on first seeing us:

‘They arrived into the main square in Cusco at about 3pm and the looks on their faces were mostly of relief, coupled with exhaustion. Archie had contracted a fever earlier in the week and so to meet up with us they had cycled 390km in 3 days having been delayed by Archie’s illness. I don’t know if it was the beards or the tans, but it took a second before I realised it was them, and probably would have been longer if they weren’t with my dad, who had gone to find them earlier. The bikes were battered and dirty, Guthrie’s face and jacket were covered with mud, and they all looked far thinner than when I had last seen them, later confirmed by the scales in the hotel. All I can say is that it’s great to see them and 4 days rest with a trip to Machu Picchu will do them a world of good!’

The last section of the trip has seen us leave Argentina, climb through Bolivia and teeth our way into Peru. Northern Argentina didn’t provide us with an easy passage, as we should have come to expect. Severe thunderstorms incomparable to anything we have witnessed left us cowering in our tents, sporadic gasps and shrieks answering to the tremendous crashes of thunder. With a few more long days on the bikes we quickly approached the Bolivian border at Villazon. Within metres of the border we were hit by a wall of Bolivian culture. Very busy bustling streets lined with stalls, Quechua people in their elaborate dress shouting and gesturing with fantastic smells of street food provided an amazingly dramatic contrast to the baron landscapes of sparsely populated northern Argentina. It was not long however before we were back out in the wilderness. Having decided the road to Uyuni and the salt flats was not suitable for our fairly fragile bikes, our first Bolivian leg towards Tupiza gave us a small introduction into the Bolivian Andes. By this point in the trip our bikes were very much approaching the end of their short but amazingly intense lives. It was on our way to Potosi that marked the halfway point of the UTA adventure, up and over multiple 4,000m plus climbs, that we experienced our worst problem yet.

After a brisk early morning ride, what appeared to be a fairly innocuous noise similar to a stone hitting the frame actually transpired to be Toby’s rear hub (The back axel bit) snapping in two. Suddenly being stranded in the very remote and desert like Bolivian landscape with very few passing cars was a sudden realisation for us all of how unsupported we actually were. An amazingly calm team discussion produced the decision that the other 3 rolling bikes would cycle the final 92km to Potosi leaving Toby to walk the 5 miles to the nearest town Vitichi where he would hitchhike, taxi or bus to Potosi to find a potential fix. However, in true Upping the Andes style, events didn’t turn out quite to plan. Tom had waited in the small cluster of mud huts that was Vitichi to make sure that Toby would be able to catch a lift while Guthrie and Archie pressed on as Guthrie was suffering from a stomach bug. After only a few enquiries into potential rides we met Juan. In our very best animated Spanish Tom and Toby explained the problem to Juan who took a particular interest in the bikes. After telling us to stay put he disappeared off on his beaten up motorbike leaving us fairly clueless as to what he was planning. On remerging from his own mud house he returned with a brand new rear hub that by some unexplainable miracle matched the setup of our bikes and that could potentially work as a temporary replacement. Nervously the 3 of us dismantled the rear wheel of the broken bike ‘Maria’ (how do you solve a problem like Maria…) very unsure if this was going to be successful. After a couple of hours of wheel building that Juan was insistent on doing most of himself, we had a temporary fix that we hoped would make it to Potosi! Riding on a very cheap Argentinian rim, and a Bolivian rear hub found in the desert from our saviour Juan, Maria limped on! On setting off Juan raced passed us on his motorbike only to meet us a few kilometres down the road with freshly picked peaches!

A few hours of wobbly cycling for Tom and Toby in pouring rain saw their exhausted body’s fall 40km short of Potosi as darkness drew in. Fuelled by the jubilation of somehow avoiding our first four wheeled transport as well as the news that Guthrie and Archie had made it up and over the 4,400m pass to Potosi, Tom and Toby decided to press on into the night. After a huge mountain assent with a hobbling bike and with temperatures dropping below freezing, Tom and Toby rolled into the Plaza to meet Archie and Guthrie. After a small little celebratory jig we all retired to the sanctuary of a hostel.

Our rest day in Potosi consisted of trapesing around the city in search of a more durable rear hub for Toby’s bike. However, Potosi had nothing to offer in the way of bike shops, so our efforts were to no avail – ironic perhaps, considering that we had found a hub in a mud-hut! So began the ‘get the failing bikes to Cusco’ initiative. We thought that the ride after Potosi might ease, but, obviously perhaps, we were wrong. The two days out of Potosi saw some incredibly tough, mountainous cycling to the Altiplano. Numerous passes between 4100 and 4300 metres, with the wind resolutely in our face, made for some long days in the saddle. While we have been lucky that no team-members have suffered from Altitude Sickness, it is amazing how draining even ‘easy’ cycling is at 4000 metres. Likewise, a far cry from the boiling hot Chile and Northern Argentina, we have also had to re-adapt to some incredibly cold temperatures, often camping below freezing, so the cold-weather thermals have been rescued from the bottom of our panniers and dusted off!

Leaving Challapata, Maria struck again when two spokes snapped. Unfortunately, our pre-challenge foresight did not run to including a tool to remove Toby’s Bolivian back cogs. Accordingly, a rather nervous two-day spoke-less ride to Oruro followed where we hoped we would be able to get the cogs off and replace the two spokes grudgingly from our four remaining spares. Rolling in to the industrial urban sprawl of Oruro, we felt like conquering heroes and treated ourselves to lunch in a rather dilapidated, and unbelievably cheap, five-star hotel and ate chicken and rum-flavoured ice-cream that tasted like petrol – it’s fair to say the hotel had seen better days! We had not managed to find any bike shops though, so it was a great relief that Guthrie spotted a small bicicleteria as we were leaving town. In classic Bolivian style, it was incredibly cluttered, with tyres, wheels, bikes and tools of all different shapes and sizes hanging from the low roof, and an entire Quechua family manning it. Negotiations and work on Maria having been concluded, and the Bolivian family having warmed to the boys, Tom and Toby found themselves having babies thrust into their arms and multiple pictures taken!

It was outside this bike shop that we met Raphael from Poland. Raphael has cycled 93,000kms over the last decade. The vast majority of long-term solo cycle-tourers we have met have been as mad as you would expect with so much time to themselves, and Raphael was no exception. He decided ten years ago that he couldn’t stand to pack one more Ikea box, left his job at the factory, bought a bike and began his meandering existence all over the world. He has busked his way around almost every country in Europe, Asia, and Africa where he was hit by a truck from behind and had to return to Poland for facial reconstruction and rehabilitation for a broken back. Nothing could emphasise more the obsession that cycle-touring can become and the freedom and sense of adventure that it gives an increasing community of people, than Raphael. He could not wait to get straight back to Africa and back on the bike as soon as he was able! – we thought, maybe we might not be quite so keen to get back on a rolling death-trap quite so quickly!

Oruro to El Alto (the outskirts of La Paz) mercifully passed without incident, but the high altitude of the Altiplano, the resilient wind, and the incredibly dry atmosphere made the ride a little harder than we had hoped. However, our attention was quickly taken over by some of the maddest traffic any of us have ever encountered while getting through El Alto. Ducking and weaving through vehicles and crowds alike became a tiring but weirdly enjoyable game. Unfortunately however, with the fun quickly running out and the riding becoming increasingly sketchy, the traffic continued all the way to the short ferry at Tiquina on Lake Titicaca. After the ferry, the traffic thinned sufficiently for us to join hoards of walkers and cyclists on the beautiful ride high up along the lake edge with stunning views of Titicaca. On arriving in Copacabana, we discovered what all of the kerfuffle was about. It turns out that the entirety of La Paz heads out on a pilgrimage to Copacabana for Easter and we had crashed the exodus, so once again, we found ourselves slightly overawed by arriving in a town on the busiest day of the year!

Bolivia seems to be the country in South America that one goes to with the most preconceptions. Stories of altitude sickness, terrifyingly bad bus drivers, dodgy food, and unfriendly people had mentally prepared us for a grim few weeks. However, while the cycling was certainly some of the toughest we’ve had, we were all very surprised by Bolivia. Poverty is clearly a big issue, but it remains a beautiful country with some truly stunning scenery, the people were on the whole interested and kind, we had some of the best street food of our tour so far, and we left the country with the awesome Lake Titicaca firmly imprinted on our retinas.

Similarly, picking up on cycle-tourers’ gossip and experience, we have heard some interesting things about Peru. One thing is for sure – that they are crazy drivers! Luckily though we reached Puno, at the other end of Lake Titicaca alive and beginning to believe that we and the bikes would make it to Cusco. Such reckless optimism was quickly quashed. Maria lost two more spokes meaning that we had no more spares, and Archie developed a high fever and a bad stomach bug. ‘Puno belly’ was also contracted shortly after by both Tom and Toby. This left the team staring at a three day, 390km stint to Cusco to arrive in time to link up with Archie’s parents but true to UTA form, we managed. Frequent interruptions to progress were made as team members would fling their bike to the side of the road and sprint-waddle for any obscuring undergrowth. Feeling on far from top form, we pushed ourselves through some awful weather to Cusco, making the target time, wet, muddy, tired and ready for a well-deserved break for our bodies and minds.

Today we set out to take on the remaining 1100kms to Lima marking the end of our high-Andean section. There is still some lingering illness in the team, but we feel refreshed and ready to take on the challenge ahead – 5568kms in 63 days to be precise. We would like to say a massive thank you to everyone who has donated and helped us reach £52,000 So far! It has been a huge lift for us in this hardest middle section and we are so excited every time we see that figure move slightly closer to our £80,000 target! We always knew that this would be an especially tough section of the challenge so we are incredibly happy to be almost through it and nearing the 3/4rs point! However, we still have two months and quite a few kilometres still to cover, so please, please do keep the donations coming. They will mean more than ever to us in getting us to Colombia and over that finish line!

The UTA Team

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