Lake Titicaca to the Desert Coast
Updated: Dec 13, 2020
It was about 8 am when Christine, Jules and I headed out of the parking lot and down the steep streets of Cusco to find gasoline for the bikes. The girls at the hotel had said the chance of encountering snow on the route to Puno and Lake Titicaca was a real possibility, which added to my interest. I led on the way out of town, taking a main street alongside the airport that was so bad it was hard to believe it existed in a city. Truly terrible.
Our route out of town coincided for about 50 miles, before they peeled off southwest for Arequipa, while my route for Puno wound southeast towards Lake Titicaca.
It wasn’t long before blue sky and stunning roads were in my path, the road climbing high to the altiplano and following an old railroad line. The old and crumbling European style buildings seemed incongruous amidst the local mud brick dwellings with grass roofs and newer tin, speaking of wealthy times of the pioneering railroad's past.
Heights of 13, 14 and 15,000 feet were reached with stunning views of surrounding peaks. Huge herds of alpaca, goats and even cattle randomly appeared along the road and across vast valleys. It was hard to comprehend that the "low" route of a valley was still at 15,000 feet. It just didn’t compute after living in the US. For hours my ride hovered between 14,000 and 15,000 feet.
This somewhat twisted Texas boy continued to have his mind and emotions blown at the reality of what I was finally witnessing in my life. Vast and remote areas filled me with fear and wonder at the peaks and snow above, threatening skies to my left and the sunshine to my right, huge areas filled with alpacas and in the vicinity, a lone women barely visible, keeping watch in the chilly air. No Gore-tex, no modern gear, only the clothes worn for centuries and hard to imagine, capable of surviving some of the storms that inevitably come across the flat and open valleys at 15,000. What thoughts did they think, as every day of their lives they stood alone, guarding herds?
I’d be wondering about such survival in the most remote places, only to spot a tiny figure colorfully clothed and alone with a herd high above me. The scale of things were very humbling.
After a few hours I reached the first sizable town and pulled over briefly to check my GPS, when I heard a voice calling...
After hours, the road neared Puno and I was glad, as the day had gotten cold and gray. I glimpsed the end of the famous lake, Titicaca, across a massive plain and couldn’t imagine I was now at one of the places I’d read about since childhood. I found my way to a small hospedaje and was warmly greeted by the owner. He opened his garage/office for the bike and showed me my room and the kitchen. It was clean, simple and comfortable, all for a measly $10 US, paid in Peruvian soles.
Puno sits at roughly 12,600 feet and I felt the effects when I walked about. It’s funny when riding, as when you climb to 12,000, 13,000, 14,000 and then 15,000, each step the bike gets weaker and breath becomes harder. Getting off the bike and walking a few feet to take a picture in your gear brings huffing and puffing (at least for me), and then you begin to wonder if the next mountain pass will take you even higher than 15,000.
That night as I laid down to sleep, breathing wasn’t too bad, however for some reason when I fell asleep I would jerk awake as if smothering. Not sure what was going on, but I could not sleep, finally getting an hour or so just as the sun began to rise. I was dead tired, it was very cold and raining. I’d planned to visit the floating islands colonies on the lake, but the damn weather curse continued and I didn’t want to stay since the weather report showed rain for a few days. Damn disappointing, but that’s travel. There was still much to see further south, I told myself, and decided the return to Bolivia would bring me back to this area to catch what I missed some day.
I rolled off the next day about 8 am in the rains and gassed up on the edge of town, heading into the now familiar gray clouds and weather. After a while the rain stopped but it remained in the low 40's. The sun eventually broke through in places as I entered a world remote, cold and breathtaking, again on a high plateau and surrounded by winds and snow covered peaks. The landscape was reminiscent of the previous day, but somehow even grander in my mind. It was higher, consistently staying around 15,000 and the winds were strong.
Far apart, herds were seen and despite being far away, I knew that unseen were the ladies watching over them.
A lone dog stood on the roadside, with long patches of foam dripping from his mouth. I wondered if he was rabid, as I’ve never seen a rabid dog before, but having smelled a skunk many miles back I couldn’t help but wonder if he’d been bitten somehow in this remote place.
Villages and settlements were few and far between, consisting of small buildings made of mud bricks with tin roofs. Occasionally the remnants of wooden reed roofs displayed the past.
Somewhere on the blowing winds, I caught the sour sniff of sulfur and it wasn't too long before I passed a spewing geyser of hot and acrid water. Just above it lay snow upon the tufts of grass.
After 2 or 3 hours of watching the elevation hover around 15,000 and the green landscape with tufts of snow on the ground, I crested a peak to see a stunning sight. As if a line had been drawn, before me lay a desert landscape as barren as any seen, with massive dunes and sand covering the mountains. Behind me lay a green mountain plateau and before me lay a wasteland at 15,000 feet. I was stunned at such an instant change. Snow lay on top of the sand dunes just a few hundred feet higher than I, and it was amazing to travel solo through it. Mind blown to see a desert landscape so high in the sky.
It had been a long time in the low 40’s and the elevation remained about the same. I was getting chilled but continued on, as I never know what delays may lie ahead. Riding through that desert at 15,000 feet for a very long time is something I'll never forget. As the road made another climb out of the valley, I got a chance to look out at the size of the plane. It was yet another breathtaking sight of so many on this journey. I don't know that I've ever felt so small and so alone in any other place than in those last hours.
Slowly I began to see the elevation dropping on my GPS and despite the incredible sights, I was glad to know I was nearing the edge of the range and eventually the town of Tacna somewhere far below.
Soon the road began dropping quickly into a brown and dead landscape ahead, the temperatures rising as the switchbacks slithered down the mountains.
By the time I reached a small town to try and find a meal, I had to peel out of my layers and open all the jacket vents. After a typical meal in a family restaurant, the stares of the locals tickling the back of my neck, I headed out into the flats below towards the coast, right into wind and sandstorms. Peru is amazing in that only extremes seem to exist. You’re either at high altitudes, or in deserts and sand. There’s very little in between.
I have no idea how people live in these conditions, and every time I convinced myself these shacks were for animals, I'd see someone come out and try to hang clothes or something. Just pulling the camera out for 30 secs got the lens squeaky and sluggish from the powder sand.
After another hour or two of either sand storms or wind, I finally broke out into plains near the ocean and my sand shower slowed, finally reaching Tacna and spotting a hostel I’d starred on the map.
The manager assured me they had parking and the front showed a big rollup door. I carried all my gear in and paid for the room. It had been another long day and after swapping clothes I went down to park the bike. I was told in Spanish it was somewhere down the street and over somewhere to the "derecha". All I remember was there was something to do with a a "dentista" and "puerta azul". Of course I never found it and played around the one way streets back to the hotel.
This time a different guy offered directions again and gave me the hotel card to present. Back I went and spotted a large cochera with an aqua colored gate, running up a one way to avoid more backtracking. The attendant never showed until I began speaking to a little boy playing between the parked cars. She didn’t give a crap and stared at the hotel card for a long time then said “no”, pointing at a different place.
I headed there which turned out to be a car repair place and they looked at me like I was a lunatic. I rode back to the hotel, telling them the story. It had now been an hour trying to park the bike and I was pissed, walking down the street to another hostel a couple of blocks away to find they had both a room and parking. On my return, yet another guy waved at me to follow him and before I could say no he took off in a different direction. I got on the bike and followed him a block away, where he rang a doorbell on an apartment, to which an old lady appeared, conversation erupted and shortly after she crossed the street and opened a dirt lot for the bike.
Back at the hotel and anxious to get some sleep after having none the night before, I was excited to hear the jackhammer on the floor above for the next hour, between the screaming children in the hall. I was too tired to move to another hotel, but told the owner I was leaving the next morning. I looked online and booked the hostel I’d walked to for the next night. Christine and Jules texted me to let me know they were arriving the next day so I went to add another day, but the hostel was sold out.
I finally found another hotel that was pricier but available. The next morning I headed over, to find a brand new place that was relatively quiet and nice, then canceled the previous hostel booking. Just an example of life on the road :D
Cusco to Puno, Peru
Puno to Tacna, Peru