From Costa Rica and beyond

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


James and I were feeling lucky back in Cajamarca when we scored accident insurance (for motorists) on Monday instead of Tuesday and for less money than we expected. Now we could hightail it to the coast. We rushed back to the hotel, packed our things, checked out one minute before we would incur a late charge and loaded our bikes. As I mounted my panniers, I saw that my luck had changed. My pannier rack was broken. The hard rides on bumpy roads had taken their toll. Undeterred, James and I set off to find a welder. But then James`s bike wouldn`t stay running. Hm. We still aren`t certain why his bike was stalling, but after a short while, it was running again and within two hours my pannier rack was repaired. It`s great that workshops and stores cluster by type in Peruvian cities. We had seen them on our drive into Cajamarca and knew where to look for a welder without even asking.

Traveling latitudinally in Peru reveals a lot of variety. The towering Andes mountains that run up and down the spine of South America dictate the varying climates and landscapes. In the east there is jungle and rain forest. Snow capped peaks and green (but mostly treeless) highlands occupy the middle of Peru. In the west the mountains are dry and seemingly lifeless. They give way to desert. Having zigzagged my way through Peru, I have witnessed this transition a couple times and the ride from Cajamarca to the coast was my first experience with this, but definitely not the most spectacular.

James and I spent that night in Pucamayo, Peru, a pleasant coastal town with a nice malecon (walkway along the waterfront) and a bit of a surfer scene. This was simply a place to rest our heads after a day of ups and downs. A local policeman halted us and told us he knew where we should spend the night. The following day we headed south to Trujillo. This is a big city and a good place to look for bike stuff. A local English teacher directed us to the local Kawasaki dealer who then escorted us (on another KLR!) to another shop. Yet more nice people then gave us tips for the next days` travels.

Just north of Trujillo are ruins of yet another pre-Incan society, the Chimu Kingdom. The sandy, walled compounds are expansive and house temples and back to the 9th century A.D. The ornamentation found in Chan Chan (the particular ruin we toured) shows very quickly what was important to this civilization - the ocean and fish! Carvings of fish, pelicans, and nets adorn walls throughout Chan Chan.

That evening, I was checking Facebook and saw that Nick and Ivanka were online. I sent a message to Nick and got a quick response. After just a few messages each way, we realized that there were just three buildings separating us. James and I ran over to their hostel, shared a couple bottles of tasty Cusqueña beer and made plans for the next day.

That day provided us with another epic ride. Taking advice from the guys in Trujillo, we took a shortcut down a well maintained dirt road through the desert. Everything was stony, sandy, and some shade of brown. Hills were small, but grew as we headed inland. Oddly enough, there was a bit of water to be seen. Water was teeming through an aqueduct that at times went underground and even cut through tunnels in mountains. Where it came from and where it was going was unclear, but clearly a lot of money had been invested.

Our shortcut led us to the day`s main attraction - the Canyon del Pato. The farther we rode inland, the higher the mountains rose. Aside from the river we followed there was no water and almost no life. James remarked that it was like driving into Mordor. The constant upward climb, the high temperature, and the wind at our backs caused Nick and Ivanka`s BMW (air cooled) to nearly overheat. So, we took a couple breaks. During the first, I took a dip in the river and found it refreshing, not too cold, but very silty. I emerged dirtier, but less sweaty than before.  The climax of the canyon was a 10 mile stretch through a narrow gorge with very steep sides and a total of 40 tunnels. Signs warned us of tunnels, but also warned us to honk our horns going through them as they were only one lane wide and sometimes curved so you could not see the other side. There was no warning of the rock slide that nearly put a new twist on (or an end to) my journey. As I was about to exit a tunnel, I saw rocks, some of them melon-sized falling just ahead of me. It was too late to stop though, so I just hit the gas and emerged miraculously unscathed. Whew!! At the far end of the canyon, the mountains turned green and we were greeted by rain...and a double rainbow. We spent that night in Huaraz.

The next day I saw that the Canyon del Pato also exacted a toll on my bike. A part needed to clamp my panniers on the frame had fallen off. Nick and Ivanka also needed to do some bike work, so again, we searched out the workshop district and engineered solutions to all our bike issues. That resolved, it was time to head back to the coast (James headed deeper into the mountains). The ride was a bit rainy and quite cold and at times foggy. We rode over highlands approaching 5000 meters in elevation. Snowy mountains were in the distance.  Soon we were winding our way downward into dry, brown mountains and then to the dry, sandy coast, where the nearest city with any lodging options was Barranca. We erred our way into this busy town and searched for reasonably priced lodging. We thought we might find something beach side, but driving toward the beach brought us into a neighborhood where we were greeted by stern looks and then wagging fingers and finally a couple women telling us we should not be there. We turned around and then found some police who escorted us to the the most expensive hotel in the city. Ivanka and I formed a search party, set out on foot and found other accommodations. Barranca was the most extreme example of the chaos one can find in Peruvian cities. Particularly the traffic was insane. Cars, motorcycles, and mototaxis vied for the quickest ways down roads and around corners. Horns were honked incessantly as warnings and reprimands. Why slow down when you can just honk your horn and power through? Whether on our bikes or strolling the sidewalks, we had to beware. It was good to leave that cacophony behind the next day.

We certainly left a lot of miles behind that next day. We got up early with the hope of getting close to Nazca, where friends of ours were watching the Dakar Rally. The streets were quiet at 7am, but the highway (just two lanes) was already busy with truck traffic. We passed a complete convoy of trucks and were making good progress when we were pulled over by police. They showed us their videotaped footage of us passing a couple trucks. I pointed out that the yellow line was not solid. They said the issue was speed, not the passing. Great. The morning`s hero was Ivanka. While I was lucky to be confronted by the nice cop, the bad cop got Ivanka`s attention. Her looks and her patient explanations and questions (Wow, that is a steep fine. How are Peruvians able to afford that?) slowly won the favor of our accuser. When the moment was ripe, she told him that we were hungry and asked where could we get a good breakfast. With that, the officer returned our documents and, with his colleague, escorted us to a great breakfast place. The nice officer went in and even told the proprietor what we should eat. The pork, bread, and coffee were great - and a LOT better than a ticket!

Chastened, we drove a good deal more slowly after that, but our persistence got us through Lima`s traffic jams, past and over giant dunes along the coast and to the point where we had to head inland again toward Nazca. Just after Lima, we passed a motorcyclist working on his bike. It was our Irish friend, Kevin. He too was rushing to Nazca. A minor problem that the BMW dealer thought was a major problem would keep from him joining us until Cuzco...and that was by way of an airplane, not his bike.

Before Nazca lie vast stretches of desert. We rode into this featureless landscape and watched the sun dip behind us. Just before Nazca, small mountains arise. They reminded me of the Badlands in the Dakotas. By the time we reached Nazca, it was dark. We had vague directions from Kevin who said that our friends were camping near the airport and that the place would be obvious. Well, when we saw "La Maison Suisse," I figured our friends (two of whom are Swiss) would have to be there. They were. And so were a multitude of other bikers from all over South America.

The previous day`s stage had finished in Nazca. It was a dusty scene, leaving all the spectators in need of a shower and some refreshments. Nick, Ivanka and I missed that action, but went with our friends the next morning to the compound where the race vehicles and crews were camped out. The gate was guarded, but two by two we strolled in looking like we belonged there and proceeded to check out the machinery and even joined the crews for breakfast. I didn`t race the Dakar Rally, but I did eat there!

As I sat in Nazca`s sweltering heat listening to plane after plane take tourists to view the famous Nazca Lines (an indulgence I cannot afford), I decided it was time to get outta there. Cuzco and Machu Picchu beckoned. So, one day ahead of my friends, I headed east (again). Almost immediately, the desert highway took me up thousands of feet. After the first big climb, I added clothes. Still, the road led upward. The scenery changed from desert to green highlands with blue lakes, tiny stone homes belonging to shepherds, and white peaks in the distance. Again, I added clothing - this time almost all the clothes I have along.

Cuzco is a lovely city set in a bowl. The rooftops are terra cotta colored. The foundations of some of the more important buildings downtown are still the product of Incan craftsmanship. Aside from that and a few ruins though, visible traces of Incan society and design (such as the puma shaped city layout) are few and obscured. This city is very much a product of Spain. Its central plaza (all the central plazas in Peru are "Plazas de Armas"), the churches, the residence (of the archbishop), etc. Cuzco has many quaint narrow streets that are home to restaurants and hostels and stores, all catering to tourists. Our favorite restaurant was an Australian owned restaurant called Los Perros (the dogs), famous for its delicious 16oz hamburger. I also especially enjoyed the market which I visited on a free city tour. We sampled a soup made of frog, seafood, and bull`s penis - it`s not ready for export. We also tried a juice made of blended tropical fruit, dark beer, malt, and a raw egg. That was very tasty and not all that unhealthy.

Cuzco`s pull as a tourist destination is owed in large part to its propinquity to Machu Picchu. My rider friends and I negotiated a package deal that started in Santa Teresa. We rode through the Sacred Valley to Santa Teresa where we stayed overnight and enjoyed a dip in its geothermal pools. The next day we walked along railroad tracks through a valley below Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes which is supposedly only reachable by foot or by train. After a night there, we left our hotel at 4:30 am and hiked up to Machu Picchu. We thought we would enter the ruins before sunrise and be joined only by others who had hiked up. Well, as soon as we arrived at the gate, buses were arriving from Aguas Calientes and the gate was still closed as the sun rose. Regardless, the ruins are truly amazing. Not even our tour guide, who had suggested the possibility of Incan contact with ancient Egyptians and extraterrestrials, could dampen the grandeur of this world wonder. It had rained all night long, and the hike up was through drizzle, but the sun soon burned through the clouds and gave us a splendid morning. I was impressed by the condition of the ruins. I hadn`t expected to find roof supports still standing after over 800 years. One could easily imagine the dwellings as they were when they were new. Of course the setting is also breathtaking. Perched on a green mountain with towering summits all around. Fantasy writers could hardly imagine a more dramatic setting and design. I took a lot of pictures, but they all seem rather cliche, as we have all seen so many photos of Machu Picchu - but it was still a thrill to be there.

Two days later, Marc, Nick and Ivanka, and I left Cuzco for Lake Titicaca. I am writing this in Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca. We drove most of the way here yesterday through grand valleys, past more snowy peaks, and up a very nice, gentle highway. We decided to camp last night. Mark chose a small dirt two-track where we hoped we might settle for the night. Just out of sight of the road there was a very gently sloping field - ideal for a campsite. We set up our tents and discussed food options. Nick and Ivanka had some curry paste. Mark and I drove to the nearby town, picked up some veggies and soon a quinoa curry dish was on its way. It was cold and a fire sounded really ideal, but how? There was not a single tree in sight (over a vast landscape). I spotted some dung while dicing potatoes. I collected a few armloads of dung and with a little assistance from kerosene, we had a nice fire that kept us warm until bedtime. My first dung campfire! Another first was in the sky. The clouds departed and provided us a view of the Milky Way. Mark pointed out the Southern Cross to me - finally!! I didn`t know that it points due south and could serve like our Northern Star. It was an amazing evening!

By now, this blog entry has probably bored and fatigued you. If you need a little pick-me-up, check out this video produced by Nick and Ivanka. I don`t think Peru (or any country) has ever seen motorcyclists shake their asses like this. Enjoy!

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