Up on the roof: Copacabana to Huatajata - South America: a first time for everything - CycleBlaze

September 18, 2013

Up on the roof: Copacabana to Huatajata

Wherever you go, you can't avoid traffic problems, can you?
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WE HAVE BEEN up on the roof of our ride, as French puts it - and we´ve been up in the stars. We thought our first day here was beautiful but that was nothing compared to today. We finished exhilarated, delighted and privileged. There´s no other way to put it.

We climbed today higher than we have ever been on a bike. We went up to a thin-air 4 250m, getting on for half the altitude of cruising airliners. The air was weak, clear and brittle, the light piercing and without horizons. We had the world to ourselves on a road as silky as a débutante's knickers.

Triumph! We get to the roof of the ride... although two in the group took a taxi and everybody's luggage with them
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Truthfully, it wasn´t that hard. Titicaca, after all, is already up in the sky, and we had set off from its ice-cream salesmen and the feigned world-weariness of the youthful backpackers. But, still, the opening kilometres were tough: The gradient couldn´t stay like that without putting us on the skin of the moon after 12km of climbing.

High, high up... and someone has thought to paint the altitude on the road
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We rose above Copacabana, more appealing at a distance than from the ground. We rose and twisted through huge folds of warm red earth and sun-bleached grass. A woman in black herded sheep, goats and two small pigs in front of us. She came from nowhere and, since nowhere is all there was up here, that was where she was going as well. Except that appearances delude, because now and then a man and a loaded donkey would crash from undergrowth to our left and take a steep and unconsidered stone path towards the valley. The men wore dark trousers and an orange waistcoat, the donkey a grey blanket to protect it from a load of branches and leaves.

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Collectors of col signs have a disappointing time in Peru and Bolivia. Rarely do climbs have names and never, so far, have they had altitude signs at the summit. The most we had today was a yellow line with the altitude added that was probably drawn by other cyclists. That´s not to say, of course, that it wasn´t extensively photographed.

The rise may have been 12km but the descent went on for 28, helped by a smaller intermediate climbs which pushed the altitude back up again. But who was complaining? This was a ride of breathtaking beauty, beside cliff walls on one side and oil-artist views of the deep blue Lake Tititcaca to the other. And, beyond the lake, jagged mountains pushing snow-capped tops to the clouds. It would have been a travesty to ride anything but slowly.

In time, of course, we fell to the lake and a busy village which traded on a crossing provided by a dozen barges of rough timber, propelled first by punting with long, water-whitened poles and then slowly by an outboard motor hardly up to the job.

The boats waited in the shallow water for their turn to cross the narrow neck of the lake
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And gingerly we made our way aboard
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The road rose immediately on the other side, and for four kilometres of front wheel higher than the back we were taunted by the sight of a young lad riding faster than us with more luggage, full camping gear more tied than hung from his bike. We caught him only when he stopped to read his map, looking for a white road that showed all the signs of not being there.

We never got his name but we learned he was 24, a Bruxellois who spoke French and Dutch equally well - rare in the Belgian capital - as well as English and Spanish. He was en stage in Spain, he said, although circumstances contrived to prevent our asking what sort of apprenticeship it was.

We parted with cries of bon voyage and presumably he found his back road because we never saw him again.

When the road dived and flattened, we rode through villages with neatly finished houses, carefully drawn curtains and overall signs of moderate prosperity. There were poor smallholdings as well, of course, and the side roads were unsurfaced, but there was little of the real poverty up on the plain.

We rode through a peloton of children walking home from school, laughing, joking in their smart and well-kept blue uniforms. Children here, we think, go to school only in the mornings. Education is free until the end of university, we learned. We slap hands with three teenage girls walking the other way and their giggles last until we are out of sight. It´s been fun.

Our day ends at an improbably grand hotel beside the lake. It has been the best day yet. Thank you, South America.

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