In ‘Mountains of the Mind‘, an elegant cultural history of our relationship with the world’s tallest peaks, Robert Macfarlane explores a concept that, embodied in a single word, is key to understanding our attitudes to epic summits. The concept, writes Macfarlane, ‘revolutionised both the perception of wild landscapes and contemporary attitudes to fear’. He continues: ‘The mountains were full of authentic and visible dangers – catastrophic shows of rockfall and avalanche, blizzards, precipices – and therefore they were reliable places to experience the Sublime.’

Macfarlane is referring to the Sublime (two syllables: ‘sub‘ as in David Fairclough, ‘lime‘ as in Harry) as described by Edmund Burke in the 18th century; the idea, as Macfarlane puts it, that a thing can ‘seize, terrify and yet also somehow please the mind by dint of being too big, too high, too fast, too obscured, too powerful, too something, to be properly comprehended’. Or is he? Three months in Peru may have skewed our thinking, but we wonder if by ‘Sublime’, he actually meant the mythic, majestic Latin American chocolate bar (three syllables: ‘sub‘ as in Ole Gunnar Solskjær, ‘li‘ as in Peggy, ‘me‘ as in the merry, merry month of).



We never worked out how popular Sublime bars are in Peru. Although they’re available everywhere, we didn’t see a single Peruvian eating one. However, these small blocks of chocolate and peanuts – not moreishly nice, but by no means nasty – have assumed cult status among touring cyclists faced with the vast, never-ending Andean peaks of central Peru. Indeed, for cicloturistas in search of a quick energy boost that won’t burst inside their panniers (bananas) or doesn’t weigh as much as a bowling ball (the preternaturally gigantic Peruvian avocado), Sublimes usually come to constitute the major part of their diet.

Confusingly, there is not just one Sublime but many. The standard is the clásico (S/.1, or about 22p, dimensions of a skinny matchbox; pictured directly above), while the thin version (S/.0.50, comparable to a finger of Fudge) will do in a pinch. However, the holy grail is the extremo (S/.2, the size of a small remote control; pictured at the top), rarely seen but worth hunting down. Within this holy trinity lie official variations on the theme. We were rather taken by the almond version; broadly neutral on the ice cream bar interpretation; disappointed by the white chocolate variant. And then there are the unofficial, home-made cover versions: cakes and biscuits, chiefly, but during a research trip to a half-dozen ice cream parlours in Huaraz, Will even found a heladería that made its own.

When armed with Sublimes, and we don’t like to travel with fewer than half a dozen, there remains a key question: when is an appropriate time to crack open the first one of the day? When, in other words, is it Sublime Time? (Two syllables: ‘ti‘ as in ‘for two‘, ‘me‘ as in Brian.) Nutritional advice on this has been hard to find. Ruth usually waits until mid-morning. Will, though, has been known to have one with breakfast. After a night camping on the way up Punta Olímpica with Alex, who eats his own bodyweight in Sublimes on each ride, Will even tried crumbling some into his breakfast porridge. It’s not an experiment we’ll be repeating.



Ten days ago, the appearance of a Peruvian ‘salida‘ (exit) stamp in our passports marked the disappearance from our lives forever of the Sublime, which fellow riders had forewarned us is unavailable in Ecuador. (Dirty secret: this is what touring cyclists talk about when we meet. Not the joy of the journey or the poetry of the road or the state of the worlds through which we’re passing, but chocolate.)

Before crossing the border, we spent our last remaining soles on several fistfuls of clásicos, but only one remains. We are somehow muddling through with the help of various Ecuadorian snacks, the best of which are proving to be Manitoba chocolate-covered peanuts. However, none has yet come close to matching what Macfarlane describes* as the chocolate bar that ‘continues silently to dominate both our imaginative relationship with wilderness and our conceptions of bravery and fear… the decorous pleasures of the Sublime’.

* Probably.

from Macas, Morona Santiago, Ecuador