… following on from yesterday’s post I stopped for a couple of days in the small town of Santo Tomas. I found it quite an interesting place, it had a bit of a Wild West feel.. something to do with the artfully crumbly buildings, and the hats. Situated in a valley at 3660m (12,010ft) the climate felt pretty nice, and sufficiently benign to support some proper tree growth. The first proper trees I’d seen for a long time. It felt good, I love trees.
It was a Sunday as I rolled into town through narrow, winding streets jam-packed with market stalls, food vendors, and people. Another place that sees few visitors, a chap grabbed me for an interview for local radio as I was asking directions to the plaza – usually a good place to start in terms of finding some orientation. The town was gearing up for the celebration of the 192nd anniversary of its founding. In the UK a 192nd anniversary would, I suspect, barely be noticed, but in Peru any excuse for a good celebration. The celebrations were set to last a whole week so the place had a bit of a party mood, especially in the evenings. With no ATM in town I changed a few US$ to keep me going. The girls at the bank were so excited by the appearance of a foreigner that I walked away with some branded merchandise, including an eye-wateringly colourful green and yellow “mibanco” hat to wear.
Little else of note occurred during my visit … I did buy socks… and I joined an audience one evening over dinner in a little comedor that were absolutely riveted by womens bare-fist boxing on the telly. Something of a Peruvian tradition.
Sadly the chest infection that’s been dogging me was slowly getting worse again rather than better, my plan for easier riding and days off wasn’t working. Hanging out at between 3600m and 4000m doesn’t feel high once acclimatized but it is still pretty high and puts a stress on the body that inhibits healing. Being a stubborn git and somewhat in denial I kept going.. slowly trundling north. After all I felt OK on my bike, it was just the breathing that was a bit shit with a persistent cough… My plan included a few more kilometers in the valleys before the high crossing west to Cotohuasi, a camping journey of 4-5 days during which for one 200km stretch the track does not dip below 4500m in altitude, and includes a number of passes above 5000m. Normally it would not have been a problem but on the long, steep climb out of the village of Quiñota at about 4600m the muscles in my chest spasmed and I couldn’t breathe. At all. I almost blacked out and fell off my bike. I’m guessing to do with perhaps the strain from coughing, don’t know. Whatever, I did not enjoy it. Time to turn around and pack it in. The climb that had taken 5hrs of hard work up a steep, loose track only took an hour in reverse to get back down into the valley. An enjoyable high speed plummet. I returned to Quiñota and parked myself there for a while. No hardship. I love the quiet little villages in the valleys, the people are lovely, life is simple, and I have time to reflect. Life in such places has a timeless, durable, self-contained quality that reminds one how fragile our societies back home are… should the lights go out and transport connections fail for more than a few days I suspect a degree of anarchy would ensue, but in places like Quiñota one feels as if the world could crumble and life would go on, barely affected, an absence of Inka Cola not withstanding of course.
As far as riding goes then it is pretty much game over now. It took me 3 days to make my way back to Arequipa with a mix of riding and local transport as far as Espinar where I could get a bus. Arequipa is my best option for now I decided, relatively speaking it is pretty low, just 2300m, and the climate is perfect for recovery – warm, sunny days and mild nights… the food is good and the city full of life. It is a lovely city to spend some time and I have been able to make a few contacts here. For the next week, possibly two, I’ve signed up for some advanced Spanish tuition. I still struggle with grammar, particularly verb conjugations in the various past tenses, and also the way pronouns work. Some good conversation too will help, after all out in the country conversations with the people I meet all tend to have a similar flavour, and I need to expand my general vocabulary. It will not be time wasted, I like the language very much, as of course I do both Spain and Latin America.
If I recover properly in time I still have the option of a ride from the town of Aplao near here up to Cotohuasi and the Valle de los Volcanes. I was mapping it on satellite photos over a beer last night. It would be a loop of about 500km, but I’ll need to be fully recovered as the ride kicks off with a tough dirt climb of 100km from just 600m straight up to 5000m. If I don’t recover quickly enough, or become lazy, then there are some things going on with within the local biking community over the next few weeks that I can get involved with instead. It also means that all being well I shall be back in South America, yet again, for a few more months next year. I do not feel any particular desire to do the regular backpacking/tourism thing as an alternative to riding. I’ve seen a fair chunk of Peru over the years and to be blunt I’m more interested in just spending time in getting to know people and places. Besides, after the freedom of a bike bus travel sucks.