Crossing the Andes

Crossing the Andes

Believe it or not, the entire reason that this journey took place was due to a bet in a bar. An American called Sean asked me if I'd like to ride a horse with him from Cusco to Bolivia and someone told us that we would die trying. CHALLENGE!

About two weeks later we set off. Cowboy hats, horses, leather saddle bags and the open road of the second highest plain on earth. It is every man’s dream to be so carefree and on an adventure that will be remembered for years to come. Little did we know that the fairy tale would be soon over and that one and a half months of hardship lay ahead of us.

It actually took almost two days to fully get out of Cusco. It stretches far out into the valley, squished between mountains on all sides. The first night was spent in an abandoned house, something that would become quite regular on our trip. The rest of the time we stayed either in my tent or with whoever was kind enough to put us up for the night.

The temperature at night was generally well below freezing. Everything was encased in ice every morning, even to the point where sometimes the horses had ice on their manes. There were no trees and we had to rely on burning dried manure for warmth and my petrol burner to cook the food. I had come fully prepared for this sort of trip from the start whereas Sean often had to wear as many clothes as he physically could to keep out the elements and use the saddle blankets for extra warmth at night as he didn't have a roll mat.

The terrain varied quite regularly on our trip. We would find ourselves in amongst endless rice paddys for a few days, then nothing but mountains and then finally nothing, all the way to the horizon. We tried following the railway lines, power lines, rivers and sometimes roads; always heading south (ish)

We found the local people to have odd advice for us. Our general meetings would go a little something like this. We'd round a corner and there would be a local person gawking at us with their jaw on the floor. (Guess there weren't that many six foot white people on horses in the area.....) "where are you going?" they'd ask. We'd tell them and they'd smile and retort "You and your horses are going to die, would you like a drink?" So whilst hospitable they really were under the impression that what we were trying to do was impossible, yet the Spanish must have done something similar.... that thought always kept me going....

Riding into towns was an even more complex affair and usually involved being surrounded by the entire population who wanted to know everything about us and to help by giving us food for the horses. The further along we went, the less we were told that we were going to die, in fact once we’d passed the half way mark, it was barely mentioned. This definitely boosted our moral. We even had to change the horses shoes around a town called Siquani and people kindly enough offered to help us which was a huge bonus!

The main thing that struck me about this trip was how much people who had nothing were seemingly willing to give to strangers. They were more than happy to let us put the tent up on their land, show us the nearest abandoned house, invite us to stay at their house even! There was more to it than that though, they were genuinely pleased to help, in some cases sharing what little food they had, their cigarettes, getting alcohol and inviting us to drink with them! In return, we shared what we had as well, even helping to sheer a lama at one point!

Our food sources were often few and far between and overall I lost around 12kg on our trip. The main things that we could buy in towns were sweets, bread and tins of fish. I can’t stand fish and never eat it but obviously had to for sustenance! I still have nightmares about tinned tuna/sardines in tomato sauce! Occasionally we did come across the wondrous tinned peaches..... When we got hold of them it was like my birthday and Christmas all rolled into one. Opening the tin with a gigantic machete and slurping down the sugary mess whilst sharing out the dividends between the two of us was just magical.

We also found the Church quite helpful along the way. There was at least three separate occasions when we were allowed to sleep in spare rooms within the church/monastery. This was very different to what I had imagined our reception would be but I was very grateful. Its certainly the only times we really ate properly without the help of the locals.

As our journey progressed onwards, things got slower and slower. The mental strain of the task ahead as well as being ill, not having enough food/water and just being exhausted due to the altitude was really taking its toll. The combination of the extreme sun light and lack of oxygen had led to us progressing at a trudge. We were covering a maximum of 20km a day. At one point i actually passed out whilst riding and fell to the floor unconscious, Sean organised someone to drive me to the nearest doctor/medical station, where I was rehydrated, diagnosed with a flesh eating parasite, pumped full of anti-biotics and sent on my way. We stayed put for the next few days with the most amazing local family; so that I had a chance to gain some strength. We were less than 150km from the finish line and there was no way I was giving up now!

The final stage of the journey was down the valley towards Lake Titicaca. We had to pass through both Juliaca and Puno to get to the border. This almost proved to be the hardest part of the journey. Walking the horses through a bustling city, with no way round was very stressful for both them and us. It was also very difficult to find somewhere to keep them over night. We eventually made it to the other side of Juliaca and decided that enough was enough. Once we got past Puno there was no more major settlements and we wanted to make sure we had time to sell the horses. We found someone local who looked like they needed them and sold them to them at a massive discount so that they would be able to afford them. It was a shame that we didnt make it all the way but it was still an incredible journey.

Its by far one of the hardest things that ive ever done and something that I will always remember. This was one of the first really challenging that I had ever undertaken and by the skin of our teeth we had made it work. It taught me that the native people were everything. They were the knowledge, the hospitality, the comfort and the help. Without them, the trip would have been impossible and we would have had to turn back or died in the process. This has meant that on all my other trips I have strived to learn the local language and customs and have as much interaction as possible. Because of all of these experiences, I have come to the conclusion that the poorest people, are the ones who have the most to give and the are the most willing to share it!