Searching the Internet for travel companions has riskier potential than a blind date. I ignored my wise-trepidation and posted on Mountain Equipment Co-op’s website for “trip partners” confident that nobody would sign up for 17-days of mountain biking Peru. Shockingly, nine women from across Canada quickly booked seats near mine on a Latin American airline that none had heard of before.
We met for the first time at Pearson International Airport but we’d been organizing our trip on Facebook for months. We were bringing our own bicycles and obviously didn’t need 10 bike-pumps. Some women were bringing tools for bike repair. I agreed to contribute items for human repair: malaria meds, antibiotics for typhoid, Diamox for altitude sickness, methylmorphine for fun, an Epipen, a suture kit and tissue glue. I hoped if I fell apart I could just glue myself back together. While stowing surgical scissors inside my kit—I realized someone I’d never met before, perhaps the architect, or the biologist, the police constable, or maybe the tuba player—might actually have to sew-up a trip partner, after a tumble in the Andes. It would be great if we liked each other.
The largest sand dunes in the world dwarf guilt
You unwittingly become an unpaid tour leader when you organize a trip and invite strangers. The stress happened immediately pre-departure. Upon my recommendation, nobody was renting a mountain bike in Peru. Check-in, unexpectedly, slapped standby tags on $20,000 worth of bicycles belonging to my trip partners. Seeing all our bike-cases emerge on the conveyer belt in Lima resulted in massive relief—surpassed minutes later when our guide greeted me with kisses. I had found him on the Internet too.
I happily handed the reigns of responsibility over to the guide from Peru Adventure Tours. However, guilt lingered when the executive assistant discovered that her bicycle had incurred damage. Her hydraulic brake fluid was leaking. Then the logistics manager’s gears malfunctioned on our first ride. She missed the sunset-dream of cycling on the compressed sand, along the ocean-cliffs, of Paracas National Reserve.
Peru Adventure Tours proved themselves seasoned professionals as they skilfully distracted us with sandboarding while their mechanic healed our bicycles. We screamed across monstrous, white, mountains of sand in our super-charged dune buggies and bonded with laughter when sandboarding crashes proved that snow tastes better than sand. Peru is home to the tallest sand dune in the world. Nazca’s Cerro Blanco is a staggering 6,791 ft.
The second-deepest canyon and the highest-largest lake in the world test our partnership
The Colca Canyon is 2-times deeper than the Grand Canyon. Our descent would take hours on a rock-strewn, jarring, track. A reprieve from biking occurred as the pins and needles set into hands and feet. The colourful villagers of Huambo surrounded our group. Strong hands pulled us from our bikes and past a matador, socializing outside a stadium. Inside the bullring, the brass band’s loud, repetitive melody whipped the crowd into excitement. The large wooden doors closed. Still in cycling helmets and shoes, we danced in the choking dust, centre-ring. Smiling men in ten-gallon hats shared their bottle of chicha with the executive assistant and marketing rep. The intoxicating liquid is traditionally made of fermented saliva and corn. Then the unthinkable happened. Ten bulls were released into the ring with us—no matador. The crowd threw rice at the bulls. The horny bulls didn’t notice us. They only had eyes for each other.
High on the festivities, not chicha, we continued our descent. I rounded a switchback. The architect was on the ground, her bike near the canyon edge, her helmet in pieces. She clutched her arm and our guide ushered her into the supporting 4×4. A half-hour later, the day turned into night. I came around another bend. The social worker was limping towards me. “I think I’ve broken my ankle.”
Our guide was still somewhere in the canyon with the others. I offered support and inexpert translation services to my injured trip partners in the tiny canyon hospital. I translated the admissions sign: $1.50 for sutures, $3 for unspecified extractions and $30 for an autopsy. I told them not to die—it was too expensive. The teacher produced her wallet to pay for their examinations and injections. The cigar-smoking doctor said they could get x-rays in the city of Puno, beside Lake Titicaca, a 3-day journey away.
The support and codeine I offered the architect and social worker became an unspoken reciprocal agreement when we arrived in Puno. Still suffering themselves, they brought me stomach medication and bottled water. For 2-days, the police constable and I clutched our respective toilet bowls, devastated to be missing Lake Titicaca’s reed islands. I lay in bed shivering and the teacher showed me her photos of reed boats.
Would Machu Picchu crush a trip partner’s lifetime dream?
Machu Picchu was never The Lost City of the Incas—romantically titled by Hiram Bingham. The locals knew it existed. Bingham paid a farmer just pennies to lead him there in 1911. Today, Machu Picchu is literally being crushed under the weight of tourism. At 5:30 a.m. a never-ending procession of tour buses, depart the town of Aguas Calientes below the ruins. Each day 2,000 tourists pant and push their way through the archaeological complex. My friends were not panting. We’d acclimatized having come down in elevation to Machu Picchu’s 7,970 ft, after biking at 15,700 ft.
The tuba player declared Machu Picchu top of her list of “things to do before she died”. Her words worried me as I sprinted with a full bladder, over the impressively large ruins, trying to get a photograph without hundreds of tourists blocking the view. The only toilets at the site are outside the turnstiles. If you leave to use the facilities, you must queue at the entrance gates, all over again.
“Machu Picchu was the best day of my life,” the tuba player confessed later. Surprisingly, everyone thanked me for organizing the Peru trip.
I have to go back to Peru because I didn’t sample the popular dish, roast guinea pig. Would I advertise to Internet strangers again? Absolutely—not for practical reasons such as cost-sharing but purely for the fun.
First published by DreamScapes Travel & LifeStyle Magazine. Images provided by Kirsten Koza.