My solo cross-country cycling expedition from the Arctic to the Andes in 2016, not only fulfilled a childhood dream of exploration but also brought history alive. The geography, flora and fauna of the land filled me with awe. Enduring hardship, misery, catharsis and happiness, this was a voyage of discovery for me. Below is an account of some of my most unusual and phenomenal experiences.
The Dalton Highway (one the most dangerous roads in the world)
The vast continents of North and South America are filled with incredible swathes of geography encompassing tundra, glaciers, mountain ranges and the fabulous and rich cultures of the Maya, Aztec and Inca civilizations. My 15,000 kilometers bicycling odyssey was filled with experiences that jostled for space in my mind but there are a few that remain etched in my memory as unusual and full of surprise. At the top of the list is the Arctic tundra. Millions of square miles of wilderness lie to the Far North of our planet, a haven of boreal forests of fir and aspen, vast lakes, icecaps, roaring wild rivers and countless other species including wildlife like moose, polar bears, grizzlies, caribou, wolves and migratory birds. The Dalton highway is a 750-kilometer-long, mostly unpaved and un-serviced highway, used by oil tankers to haul the precious liquid gold to Alaskan ports. It is noteworthy because it is counted amongst the most dangerous highways in the world and that tag has attracted the most diehard adventurers and travellers. It begins from Fairbanks and ends at Deadhorse, 400 kilometers above the Arctic Circle near the Beaufort Sea. I pedalled along this dreaded highway for over 10 days bearing the unforgiving conditions of the Arctic, surviving on minimal food and water, considerable struggle, hardship and lots of grit!
Santiago de Tequila, Mexico
The bewitching town of Santiago de Tequila lies in the province of Jalisco in Mexico. This is the birthplace of the famous alcoholic beverage ‘Tequila’ which has been popular since the pre-Hispanic period. This fermented drink is made from the blue agave plant and it was the Franciscan monks that set up the first distilling operation in 1600. The unit still exists in the town under the name of La Rojeña, the renowned Jose Cuervo factory. I took a tour of this factory which is the oldest functioning distillery in the world. The town took my breath away with its beautiful architecture, colonial homes, archways and the awe-inspiring centro histórico. It is strange, but I knew very little about Central Mexico when I first embarked on my journey. I had heard of the famous monuments, churches and ‘Pueblo Mágico’ cities of Guanajuato, Guadalajara, Oaxaca and San Cristóbal but I had not come across unique references to Tequila! This charming town is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Ancient ruins of Tikal, Guatemala
I cycled across Mexico into Guatemala and was immediately struck by the lush, tropical rainforests and mountainous terrain. Guatemala is home to some of the most gorgeous natural wonders like volcanoes and pristine lakes and colonial heritage towns like Antigua but what soars high above on the map of the country are the beautifully preserved ruins of the ancient civilizations of the Maya people, represented by the grandeur of the pyramids and temples at Tikal. Cycling to Tikal was a journey into the heart and soul of one of the most developed and intelligent ancient cultures on earth. The ancient Maya Empire was at its peak between 250-900CE and the capital of this empire was Tikal, now a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s a complex of five large pyramids, three temples and 3000 other structures. The most impressive monuments were the Temple of the Great Jaguar and the Temple of the Masks. What is unusual and astounding is that an ancient civilization had such deep knowledge of architecture and astronomy and the sophistication to carve, build and create such stunning structures.
Rainbow Mountains, Peru
From the volcanoes and rainforests of Central America I travelled to Lima, Peru, where I cycled deep into the Peruvian Andes up to dizzying altitudes of over 4,500 meters. Peru is a land of amazing discoveries. From the mud ruins of Huaca Pucllana in Lima to the dazzling citadel of Machu Picchu, Peru was unique in every way. It is famous for the ancient Inca ruins, Nazca lines, Pisco sour, numerous species of flora and fauna from the coast to the Amazon, the llama and the lovely vicuna and the Quechua speaking people. But what has fired the imagination of travellers in the last four years is the discovery of the Rainbow Mountains in the heart of the Andes in Southern Peru. They are also called Vinicunca or Montaña de Siete Colores and are situated at an altitude of 5,200 meters above sea level. The Rainbow mountains are now considered one of the most interesting geological formations in the world and lie in the Ausangate range. The mountain range has painted striped colors ranging from dark pink to rust red to gold and a tinge of yellow, all formed in perfect unison. This amazing geological phenomenon is a result of weathering and mineralogy. I had first heard of them while cycling southwards from North America. Hardy travellers and backpackers had posted pictures on Instagram and the adventure of climbing these high Andean mountains excited me as well. The climb was steep and difficult but my high-altitude cycling had hardened me and I was at the summit in just a few hours. The 360-degree view of the mountains around me surpassed anything I had ever witnessed in my life. For as far as my eyes could travel, I saw series of mountains cloaked in an array of pink, maroon and gold gleaming in the sun.
The writer has recently published the book, Grit, Gravel and Gear (Rs 499; The Write Place)