The Andean High Life
November 30, 2017
Words & Photos: Eileen Schwab & Andy Hovey
“You’ve got the rest of your life to sit at a desk.” this was a phrase I’d often say while scheming away on my latest idea.
So when I said, “So… I was thinking we could travel down the Andes… farby bike,” Andy wasn’t at all surprised. It sounded just ridiculous enough to lodge in our minds and slowly take form. Now, after six months of travelling high-altitude dirt roads down the Andes, we can't imagine seeing the world any other way.
Exposed and moving across the land at a human pace we meet road workers, shopkeepers, kids and villagers. We sleep on the floors of restaurants, bathhouses and churches, and attempt stealth-camping in treeless mountains and barren deserts. We’re not going far each day, but we’re seeing everything and everyone along the way.
Time and time again, locals warn us that their country is full of bad people and that it’s not safe. But their country folk are forever proving them wrong and filling life on the road with memorable encounters.
"We’re not going far each day, but we’re seeing everything & everyone along the way."
Mayors and mountain passes
Within moments of our arrival in the cute Andean village of Laraos, the portly, friendly-looking mayor emerged to greet the pair of dirty, sweaty gringos with bikes. He then welcomed us with a hearty handshake and we shared a few pleasantries, including the obligatory confusion over ‘Nueva Zelanda’ and ‘Hollanda’, which was once again left unresolved. He helped us settle in before we set off to eat our way through the narrow village streets.
The next morning we pedalled along empty roads, past alpine lakes and the occasional farmer, whose eyes lit up in delight or confusion before he or she waved enthusiastically. A monstrous mountain pass loomed ahead and hours passed as we pedalled up the snow lined zig zags etched into the towering pile of spires and rubble. Winching closer to 5,000 meters, our bursts of pedalling were punctuated by us slumping over the handlebars, gasping in the thin air.
At the top, the afternoon light gave glow to everything in sight, and the pain was quickly forgotten, as always seems to be the way. A brisk descent was followed by a hunt for a campsite. There our usual evening routine unfolded — pitching the tent with frozen fingers, fetching water, making a warming cup of tea, and cooking up a rather average dinner of instant mash and suspicious-looking canned tuna.
Another stunning pass clocked, and another well-earned snooze to come.
"So, I was thinking we could travel down the Andes… by bike."
Battles of will and wind
Living in Wellington, New Zealand we are no strangers, but a week spent crossing the Andes from the Atacama desert into Argentina blew the knowing smirks from our wind-battered faces.
We sheltered in ditches to eat our biscuits. We lay down our bikes, and stretched out flat beside them, our willpower almost broken. The wind didn’t care about the two little specks attempting to make their way across the large and inhospitable landscape. Eventually further progress became impossible.
We pushed past a cluster of Do Not Enter and Warning signs into an abandoned looking mining camp, where two weathered men were stationed. It's a tough gig – miles from anywhere, freezing cold and there’s nothing to do. Could we possibly spend the night? The wind!” we say, motioning towards a solid flag pole quivering violently. The men gruffly invite us in.
The long orange building is a series of four bunk dorms, with a kitchen at one end and a bathroom at the other. Neither of the men say a word to each other, the whole day and night. One watches TV in his room, while the other watches the same channel in the kitchen. The gas hob burns on full in an attempt at heating. A scrawny cat strolls the hall like a peacekeeper, excited to have new companions. The evening passed awkwardly in silence but showed, once again, that people will always lend a hand.
Pulling into Manallasac we had high hopes for a warm bed and a cold beer. It was a flat and dusty place and even the plaza, the pride of any Andean village, was uninspiring.
We rolled around town, asking (in our broken Spanish) everyone we passed where we might find a room. Eventually we came across a mother and daughter on the roadside, stomping alpaca wool rugs. Behind them was an adobe brick building full of potatoes, some chickens, and a few dogs. “Looks grand,” we said. “We’ll take it.”
The family, which also included more kids and an aunty, later joined us in our room to cook dinner. This came as a surprise to us — we were oblivious to the cooking area in the corner. Dinner was quinoa and potato soup and the family insisted on sharing it with us, despite our protests. We felt guilty for receiving food from people with so little. Is it always those with the least that most want to give?
Overnight, the rats put on a fiesta for their local community, busying themselves in the pots and pans in the corner of our room. One rat, which we affectionately named ‘Horse’, seemed to be close to toppling a sack of potatoes bigger than us. At 5am the family’s mum, let herself in to shoo away the rats, collect a few potato sacks, and head out to the field to dig. It was clearly time for us to rise and pedal south.
Andy and Eileen spent six months riding down the Andes in Peru, Bolivia, northern Chile and Argentina. Illness forced them to take a break for a while, and now they're back to keep pedalling to Patagonia.