On the Road to Lima
Alum encounters dangerous beauty on South American jaunt
by Kevin Cashman ’95
March 31, 2011
After his 3,000-mile bike trek through Latin America, Kevin Cashman '95 married Birgitta Peterson '96, moved to Brunswick, Maine, and launched Apogee Adventures, a outdoor-adventure company for young teens. Above, he holds son Sam, 4; Birgitta holds Jack, 1.
Editor’s Note: This is a longer version of the article that appeared in the print edition of the winter 2001 issue of Dickinson Magazine.
Months before leaving I’d lie awake at night asking myself, “Why are you doing this? Why are you leaving a good job, warm apartment and a wonderful girlfriend (Birgitta Peterson ’96) to cycle over 15,000-foot mountain passes, ride on unmaintained dirt roads, and risk physical injury and sickness? Why are you going for three-and-a-half months and not a couple of weeks?” I worried I might be making a mistake.
I hatched the idea of bicycle touring in Latin America as a senior at Dickinson. After graduation, I traveled and worked in the Western United States. I bicycled across the country one summer and took a few trips to Europe. But that was four years ago. I had settled down to some degree, and was now a director at Overland, a company offering biking and hiking trips to teen-agers in the summer months. I had switched from taking trips for myself to planning them for others. I had become an office rat and didn’t know how or if I could make the transition from desk jockey to bicycle jockey.
Still, I couldn’t let the idea of doing a bike trip in Latin America drop. I told myself I’d have time to do it in the future, but I only half-believed myself. I wasn’t getting any younger, and I felt that each passing year took with it another opportunity to realize my goal. A choice had to be made.
Matt Klick and I became great friends through Overland through our shared passion for cycling and adventure travel. I knew he would be a great partner on a bicycle tour: He spent part of his junior year living abroad and studying in Chile. His Spanish was excellent, and he had a strong desire to return to South America. It seemed the perfect opportunity for both of us. We quickly planned a window of time and picked out a tentative route: We would start in Punta Arenas, Chile, and finish in Lima, Peru—a distance of more than 3,000 miles.
On February 4, 2000, we departed Newark International Airport bound for Santiago, Chile. From Santiago, we caught a domestic flight to Punta Arenas, a sleepy city located on the Straits of Magellan at the very bottom of South America. We stepped off the plane and immediately felt the strong winds and chilly temperatures. It was summer here, equivalent to our August, but conditions were harsh. The landscape reminded me of eastern Wyoming, and its endless miles of prairie. My stomach was unsettled as we caught the bus into town. Had I made a mistake?
We bussed and spent our first days visiting Chile’s most famous national park, Torres del Paine. The weather couldn’t have been better, and the scenery was spectacular, but we were anxious to get moving—to face the challenges that lay ahead. We saw two French southbound cyclists in the park before leaving and asked about the route north. “Oh very difficult,” they said with concern in their eyes. “The roads are in bad shape, and the winds whip at 60 mph. Very difficult. You are forewarned.” They then looked at our bikes and asked, “Are these good bikes? They don’t look very strong.”
“Yes, they’re good bikes,” we replied, but we felt like saying, “They look pretty flimsy to us, too, just like our confidence levels right now.” We loaded up our gear; tent, sleeping bags, stove and pots, etc. and set off. The bikes alone weighed close to 75 lbs.
We rode for three days across the pampas (plains) of Patagonia. The winds stayed remarkably calm, but the horrendous roads kept our progress to a crawl. “Ripio,” the locals called it. They were narrow roads of dirt and stone, pockmarked with holes. We crossed into Argentina and spent a night in the small town of El Calafate. At our campground we ran into another European cyclist. Having a few days under our belts made us a little too sure of ourselves. When I asked the Swiss man, Jonas, “Where are you coming from?” he replied, “I’ve been riding for 20 months from Alaska.” What does one say to that? Mouths agape, we listened to his amazing stories for hours.
The roads north continued to fluctuate between poor and awful. We crossed high deserts and the Andes to drop back into the green valleys of Chile. The rains came down and the landscape became more jungle like. The rough roads were beating our bikes daily, and we kept things together using hose clamps and zip ties. We reached Puerto Montt, Chile after almost six weeks. We knew we’d never reach Lima at this rate, especially when the roads sometimes kept our progress to seven mph. We took a bus to Santiago.
We left Santiago at 7 a.m. on a Sunday to avoid heavy traffic. We climbed for two days and crossed the Andes at 13,000-plus feet. Two more days of downhill brought us to Mendoza, Argentina. We spent the next week bussing and cycling to the Bolivian border. Six weeks to Lima, and we had to keep moving.
The economic difference between Bolivia and Chile/Argentina is stark. As soon as we crossed the border, begging children, shoeless and dressed in dirty rags, stopped us for money. Sanitation was poor and open sewers, smelling of urine, were common. Up to this point we had been drinking water straight from the tap, a luxury we were about to lose. Yet, Bolivia was enchanting. The people, dressed in traditional, bright-colored attire, approached us and asked questions about our trip. Street markets bustled with activity. We marveled at how far our money could take us and bought full meals for $.20 US. This was the South America we had come to see! We bussed to Potosi, the highest city of its size in the world at 12,000 feet. After taking a few days to acclimatize, we pressed on for Sucre and Cochabamba. We had no idea what lay ahead.
A week into our riding, Bolivia’s campesinos, or farmers, staged a national strike against a government tax on potable water. In protest they blockaded all major roads with stones, thorn bushes, junked car bodies, and in one case, the carcass of a dead horse. They allowed no motorized vehicles of any kind to get through. Tensions were running high, and two gringos on bicycles weren’t necessarily a welcome sight. A few protesters threw stones, and we were stopped and held at a number of blockades.
At one blockade, when I tried to pass through, a farmer in the crowd grabbed the rear wheel of my bicycle and popped the tire with a nail. “No hay paso,” he aggressively stated. “No one passes.” We pleaded with the group to let us through. “We understand your cause, but we’re tourists. Please let us pass.” After awhile they did, and at the end of the day we reached the city of Cochabamba, where we thought we were safe. The following day riots between protestors and the military police broke out. A teen-age boy was shot and killed blocks away from our hostel, and I watched as a Bolivian protester was pushed through a glass window. What were we doing here? For days we were stuck in Cochabamba not knowing how or when we’d be able to leave safely. On day four the airport reopened, and we caught the first plane out of the country to Cuzco, Peru, leaving an enchanted but desperate Bolivia behind.
Happy to be in Cuzco, we rented backpacks for a change of pace and hiked the Inca trail to Peru’s most famous archeological site, Machu Picchu. For three days we trekked through rain and clouds that covered the Andes towards Machu Picchu, reaching heights of 13,000 feet. Our last morning we awoke before sunup to hike the final three miles to the ruins. We hoped to be among the first to explore the site before busloads of gringo tourists arrived. The early morning wake-up call was worth an hour of crowd free tranquility. We spent most of the day exploring, taking in everything the Inca civilization had accomplished. We returned to Cuzco before setting out for Lima. We had three weeks left.
In Peru, each riding day was spent either climbing or descending but never both. We’d drop for hours to 6,000 feet, only to climb on dirt roads back to 13,000. In three weeks we crossed eight Andean passes. Our final pass to Lima topped out at 15,080 feet. We arrived in Lima early on a Sunday morning in an attempt to avoid the crazy traffic. We had made it, yet we were both so tired and ailing from intestinal problems, it was difficult to get excited about reaching our goal. The smog and extreme poverty of Lima didn’t help either. Nonetheless, we celebrated our accomplishments by sleeping late and gorging ourselves on cebiche, a traditional Peruvian dish of raw fish “cooked in a super tart lemon juice with chilies and onions. We toured the city by foot for a few days, packed up our bikes and flew home on May 11.
It’s hard to capture all my thoughts and feelings about this trip in a few pages. There were days I loved and days I hated. When I first arrived home, my Dad asked me what I learned about myself and the world. In short, I learned how stubborn and pigheaded I can be. I learned what it’s like to feel really lonely. I learned how fragile life is and how important relationships are with those you love. I learned how incredibly lucky I am to be from the United States … how driving a car, hot showers, paved roads, clean water, a stable government and a promising future are all geographic privileges. Would I do it again? On the plane ride home the answer might have been no. But now, sitting at my desk contemplating printer jams and windows that don’t actually open, I can’t help but finger a world map and wonder what the roads are like in Tibet in the summertime. I hear Mexico is nice, too. …
Read how the company he founded after his trek reaches out to fellow Dickinsonians.