The Ups and The Downs

by Sara Dykman

The last few weeks of riding have been anything but flat. Since Cusco we have either been going up thousands of feet or down thousands of feet. With each uphill we are happy for the views, the fly-free breaks, and the end to another slow 4,000 to 6,000 foot climb. These climbs have consistently taken us two days to complete, while the down hills (many paved) are two hour joy rides.  And as we have slowly crept upwards or flown downwards, we have had many, more figurative, ups and many downs.

Sometimes the roads feel this steep, but mostly they are well graded and we just trudge along.
Sometimes the roads feel this steep, but mostly they are well graded and we just trudge along.

Bike touring is not about being comfortable and taking in the views. It is about being hungry, exhausted, sore, lost, frustrated, hot, cold, dirty and overwhelmed. It is about being hungry and tired and ready to quit, but continuing, and later basking in the satisfaction of having continued. It is continuing and being rewarded with a fun mile, a scenic view, or a spontaneous roadside encounter. When I look back over the last few weeks it is the moments, both the highs and the lows, which I will remember. It is these moments that I hold on to and use for the next challenge, the next literal up or figurative down in the road.

After climbing a hill for two days, we are rewarded with a downhill and awesome views.
After climbing a hill for two days, we are rewarded with a downhill and awesome views.

The first figurative downhill occurred on a very literal uphill.  It was our first multi-thousand climb since leaving Cusco. My face was itching, but it was difficult to know if it was from the hundreds of hungry flies lurking in the valley or something more.  By the time we escaped the flies, climbing thousands of feet above their river homes, my face not only itched but was swollen and on fire. I cut out all allergy prone foods with no luck. It wasn’t until a few days of applying sunscreen that I was more confident than our new sunscreen was poisoning me. Having arrived in Huancayo, where pharmacies are like Starbucks, I have splurged on expensive sunscreen and am happy I am not allergic to bread, rice, or potatoes.

We believe sunscreen is the culprit, and I hope we are right.
We believe sunscreen is the culprit, and I hope we are right.

The first climb upwards, left my face a huge, beat-up ball. To make up for the toxic sunscreen, we were greeted at the top with a spiraling, paved, downhill. These 40 mile down-hills are surely my favorite part of the last few weeks of riding. Don’t get me wrong, I honestly like going uphill. I like watching the valley floor or cutting river slowing shrink to nothing more than a line or color. I like watching the layers of mountains once hidden from view cautiously appear. I like watching the roads twists below, and I like wondering how the road will lead me through it all.  BUT, more than any of that, I like going fast down hills.

The river gets smaller and smaller as we climb out of the valley.
The river gets smaller and smaller as we climb out of the valley.

My absolute favorite part of a downhill is a perfect curve. In a perfect curve the road hairpins to the right, cutting through the mountain’s side, uncut mountains surrounding. In the perfect curve, you need to bend your right leg and lean into the curve, lean until you believe you could fall. And all the while the road reveals itself with just enough time for you to keep leaning. So much of bike touring is about going slow, having time to think and wonder and think some more. On a perfect curve, you are in the moment, concentrating to not fall while the wind blurs your eyes and ears.

As the hills continued, slowly up and quickly down, our figurative ups and downs continued as well:

Upper: Biking the strata. Each climb starts at around 7,000 feet and climbs to around 13,000 feet. Because of the dramatic differences we are able to slowly cycle from deserts, with cactus and sandy buttes, to Andean mountain views. It keeps things from being boring.

At the bottom of climbs succulents erupt like fireworks and cactus stand guard in the hot sun.
At the bottom of climbs succulents erupt like fireworks and cactus stand guard in the hot sun.

Downer: 26 flats. At the bottom of a hill, where the roads are full of spiky plants, I biked two feet off the road, and then had to spend an hour or so putting 26 patches on my tubes. For the record I had new tubes but want to save them for absolute emergencies.

Cactus put 26 holes in my tubes. Ouch.
Cactus put 26 holes in my tubes. Ouch.

Upper: Fixing Nia’s air mattress. The valve of Nia’s air mattress broke, but after finding an intrepid women and doubling the weight of her air mattress, Nia is back to comfortable camping nights.

Downer: Dealing with the honking. I am going to limit this rant to a few sentences, though because EVERY single car that passes honks in our ears, I can’t limit the ranting when I am on my bike. EVERY CAR HONKS before they pass, as they are passing, when they are happy, when they want you to get out of their way, etc. Cars here have the attitude that honking is the equivalent of slowing down and being respectful. It really is annoying.

Cars honk to say thanks, I hate you, get out of my way, look a biker, I am driving, I am a rude SOB.
Cars honk to say thanks, I hate you, get out of my way, look a biker, I am driving, I am a rude SOB.

Upper: Meeting Luis. At a bakery in Chincheros, where we were surprising the women behind the counter by ordering 14 rolls (who are these people that need so much bread?), we met Luis. Luis invited us to camp in his yard, and seeing as the sun was quickly falling we accepted. That night Luis took us out for two dinners, leaving us able to roll to his house and try to sleep (there was band playing in the town’s square, but the music felt as if they were playing in his yard).

Luis treated us to TWO dinners and a great place to rest for the night.
Luis treated us to TWO dinners and a great place to rest for the night.

Downer: Miles of construction. I understand that construction leads to better, safer roads, but dang-it, it sucks. Twice we were forced to wait many hours at the bottom of 6,000 ft climbs, for construction. It is mentally devastating to sit in the destroying heat with hundreds of hungry flies before a big hill, when your goal had been to get an early start to climb in the morning’s coolness.  Oh well…

Upper: Biking one-lane road.  We spent two days biking on a one-lane road that either shared the valley floor with a beautiful river or was forced by canyon walls onto the sides of the mountains. Starting in red rock, sandy cactus country, the road followed the canyon upwards twisting with the river like a dance.

The road twists and turns with the river.
The road twists and turns with the river.

Up and Down. Up and Down. All the way to Huancayo. As we get ready to head out today, we know that the hills are waiting for us. We are ready, I mean, these climbs, these ups and downs, are why we are out here.

to the flies
to the flies