Monday, December 22, 2008

Caldera and Vallenar to La Serena Dec 18 -22

Leaving Caldera I decided to take a couple of off-road detours along the coast. The 200 km of dirt through Torotal and Corizal Bajo to Huasco was beautiful. I had an excellent lunch (congrio, a kind of eel) in Corizal, where some of the locals insisted that I share their bottle of wine. They also told me about the main industry in Corizal, collecting algae to sell to the Chinese and Japanese for use in cosmetics.

This was also the day that I saw the first real greenery in weeks. It might look like scrub brush to you, but after a thousand miles of desert it looked like a tropical rain forest to me!

On the 19th I decided to take another detour, along to coast to Punta Choros. I had been told it was good dirt, then a little bit of shallow sand, then dirt again. It was to go to Parque de Pinguinos de Humbolt, where I thought I could spot some penguins on the shore.

The dirt part was great. But then I hit SAND, and if there´s one thing bikers (at least this one) don´t like it is sand. This was truly deep doodoo, and on grades.

The first time the bike went down I had a hell of a time getting it back up. Fortunately there was some drunk (the only person for miles) lying under a cactus. He had tried to get me to pay for going to the beach, which I declined. I hiked back up to him and got him to help (promises of $$), and back on the road. Interestingly, he wouldn´t take any money from me for helping lift the bike.

A few hundred meters down the road, down I went again. Fell on my leg. After lying on the ground going through the routine ´leg´s not broken, arm´s not broken´ etc. I stood and This time got the bike up OK.

A few kilometers more and down she goes again. This time on my foot. Same routine, counting fingers and other extremities. I came up one short, but then I remembered that I have been one short for 30 years, so no new damage! This time I had to take all the luggage off and really struggle to get it back up. Took about an hour. Just as I was leaving that spot, about 20 yards further on, down she goes again! I just stood there and screamed OH F**K at the top of my lungs. I think they heard me in Peru (although they didn´t come to help). I eventually muscled it back up and semi-duck-walked to reach the hardpack.

All the while I kept telling myself: This doesn´t happen to me. This is my friend Oisin´s story (this stuff always happens to him) and I want out of it!

Anyway, I rode on to La Serena with a seriously sore ankle, knee, and back, where I stayed for four days, taking it easy and popping pain pills. Fortunately nothing serious.

As an aside, as I was riding into La Serena I saw this sign. I´m not sure if it was a veterinary hospital, a brothel, or simply some bad translation, but it certainly conjured up some interesting thoughts!

I also have to make a comment, and thanks, about Tonino motors in La Serena. I needed a new chain and sprockets while there. The chain was shot. I went to Tonino and he had a chain and front sprocket, but no spare rear. However, he had just gotten in two new KLR650s. He took the rear sprocket off of one and put it on my bike so I could get back on the road. This meant that his bike was out of commission. Now that´s service!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Middle Chile: Antofagasta to Caldera Dec 15-17

Searching for a hotel in Antofagasta was interesting. Although it´s a major city, it was very difficult to find anything. At a stoplight I pulled up next to Robert and Shaundra Vinet, a couple of Canadians on a BMW, also looking for a place to stay. After looking together, we were able to find one room with three beds. If you think politics makes strange bedfellows, try motorcycling! Actually, they were a very nice couple and we rode south the next day.

Riding south from Antofagasta was -- are you ready? -- more desert. Then, suddenly, a few hundred meters off the road we see this, the Hand in the Desert:

It´s just there, in the middle of nowhere. Now why, you might ask, would anyone construct a giant hand in the middle of the Atacama desert. A very good question. Personally, I think it´s the mummy of a giant alien being that was improperly buried, and his hand was left sticking out of the sand. Other than that, I have no idea... but it is pretty cool!

I spent the night in Taltal, a little coastal town of no particular interest, then got off the main highway to visit the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar (Sugar Bread National Park).

The northern entrance was a dirt road, but really pretty with many canyons and cliffs and incredible colors.

Then you arrive at the ocean, and more fantastic views. There was actually some plant life here, too, and after more than a month of nothing but sand I was thrilled to see something living. I even saw a fox cross the road, the first wildlife in a long time.

This place was so pretty I did something I haven´t done yet on this trip: I decided to camp! Although I have been carrying a tent and camping gear for months, I avoid using it like the plague. In Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru camping is neither common nor safe. However, I still much prefer a bed and a hot shower. But this time I spent the night on the beach, and enjoyed it.

A big part of the enjoyment was meeting Alberto and Ana Vargas, who were the only other campers in the area. Fortunately, Alberto is a Chilean chef, now living in Spain. We went to the next town, bought food and wine, and had a great barbeque... Alberto cooked and I poured. We all have to do what we do best!

From Pan de Azucar I went to Caldera. It was here that I finally saw a doctor about my breathing problem, and found out that there is a microscopic mite in that part of the desert that excretes a protein that many people are allergic to. This was evidently what was causing my sinus infection (damn them little buggers), and a course of antibiotics, decongestants, and antihistamine cleared it up. Unfortunately the little bastards had caused me to miss Bolivia.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

San Pedro de Atacama: Great Stuff in the Middle of the Desert - Dec 10-14

San Pedro de Atacama is located, as you might imagine, in the middle of the Atacama desert. More miles of desert before arriving at the town. Along the way, aside from sand, are many open-pit mines. Copper is a major income source for Chile, or at least was until the bottom dropped out of the market due to the current global economic crisis. Also, there seem to be more street dogs here than I´ve seen anywhere... which is why many people also call it San Perro de Atacama (for those who don´t speak Spanish, learn it!)

The first night I rode to the Valley of the Moon at sunset. Hundreds of like-minded people were there to watch the sunset, and we all climbed up the sand dunes for a good view. It was also at moonrise, and it was supposed to be the brightest full moon in 150 years due to the proximity of the moon to earth. As you can see, it was a bright moon, and the land is truly a surreal moonscape. I went back two nights later at 2 am with a group from my hostel after a very successful ¨wine tasting¨ (lots of wine, not much taste), but that´s another story :)

The next day I rode to
LagoChaxa, the the flamingo preserve. Pink, white, grey... seems they´ve preserved all kinds of flamingos (if you´ve never had flamingo preserves on toast... oh, forget it). This lake is actually in the middle of a large salt flat, miles and miles of table condiment in which the brine shrimp that the flamingos feed on grow.

The following late afternoon, after all the tourists busses
had gone, I rode out to Lago Cejar. I had been warned that it was very hard to find the lake, as there are only a couple of tracks through the desert and no road signs. This was very true, but it was hard-packed desert and I had a lot of fun dirt riding through it. Finally arrived at the lake, paid my entrance fee (it might be the middle of absolutely nowhere, but they manage to put up a hut to collect money), and had to rip off my clothes to take a short swim. This is a very salt-laden lake, so you´re supposed to float very well. Also, since it´s in the middle of the desert, I assumed it would be warm. Wrong! I really don´t know how well I would have floated. It was a quick in-freeze-out, then rinse and get dressed. The desert really gets cold and night. On the way back I had another fun ride, despite the fact that couldn´t find the trails. Fortunately, GPS worked fine and I just kept heading in the direction of the town for the planned wine tasting referred to above. No further details to be provided.

On my last day in SP I rode to a set of thermal springs for a swim. Not as hot as I would have liked, but a relaxing day.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Chile... Arica & Iquique to San Pedro de Atacama- Dec 5 - 11

Desert. Desert. Desert.

At last I had reached Chile, and the end of the Peruvian desert. Only to find (actually no surprise) that now I was REALLY starting the vast Atacama desert of Chile.

Sand and wind were to be my constant companions for at least a couple of weeks more!

On occasion I did get the company of a friendly ¨dust devil¨. Other than that, the only things in this part of the desert are open-pit mines... mostly copper.

This part of Chile does not attract many tourists. Can you imagine why? I spent a few days in Arica, mostly doing errands, then headed to Iquique to visit some people I had met in Peru and then head down the coast. Iquique is surprising... it´s literally at the end of the road in the desert, but is actually quite pretty. It was built for mining, and there are many old 1800´s buildings still standing.

The coast is pretty, in a very rugged sort of way, with the desert leading right down to the water.

Also at this point my helmet busted. I was upset because it is so comfortable, but what can you do? I gave it to my friend´s son Noah, who immediately decided that he wants to be a motorcycle rider when he grows up. I understand that he now sleeps in it! Noah, we´ll look for you in the next Dakar race.

Leaving Iquique I headed down the coast, and then across a few hundred more miles of desert to San Pedro de Atacama. Even though it was more sand, some of the colors coming into San Pedro at sunset were spectacular.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Arequipa: Last Stop in Peru - Dec 2 - 4

Arequipa is a pretty colonial town (are we seeing a pattern here?). It was a few days to unwind and take care of errands. Also a good chance to eat, as it has an abundance of good (and ethnic) restaurants.

One of the more interesting things, however, was visiting ¨Juanita¨. Juanita was an Incan girl sacrificed to the mountain gods about 5o0 years ago. She was found frozen by some arqueologists a few years ago, and they have built an incredible museum dedicated to the find. At the end is Juanita herself... still frozen in the ice, but now in a glass freezer.
Arequipa was my last stop in Peru. Since Bolivia had been scratched, it was now on to CHILE.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Plans Change: Scratch Bolivia; Sillustani to Arequipa - Dec 1

I was planning on going to La Paz, Bolivia, and then on to cross the Uyuni Salt flats into Peru. Mo and I had talked about doing this together since riding across the Uyuni alone is not considered to be a particularly bright thing to do. Unfortunately, Mo was probably partying somewhere and couldn´t find his typing finger: I hadn´t heard from him for more than a week, so had been having some concerns about riding this particular stretch alone.

But when I woke up in the morning health took the decision out of my hands. I was having a lot of trouble breathing. Remember, I was at more than 12,000 feet altitude and there is about 40% less oxygen there. I was feeling panicky from lack of air and felt like I just had to get to a lower altitude... FAST. La Paz is even higher than Puno, so that wasn´t going to do it. I had also wanted to see Arequipa, so there was some consolation to the sudden change of plans.

Aside - Fast Forward on Health: I found out a few weeks later (yes, this continued at lower altitude) that the problem wasn´t lack of oxygen. A local doctor in Caldera, Chile, examined me and found that I had a sinus infection. My nasal passages were so swollen I couln´t breath. It was probably an alergic reaction to some things in the desert, and antibiotics, decongestants, and antihistamines cleared it right up.

After leaving Puno I stopped at the town of Sullistani. The homes around here are different than other parts of Peru.. very interesting. Made of rock instead of adobe, and generally round. Lots of llamas outside.

Many had a special place for raising cuy... roasted guinea pig. Looks real cozy until you realize their ultimate destiny.

After the village I visited the pre-Incan funeral towers that make the place famous. These people were incredible engineers. They formed the blocks in such a way that they have withstood centuries of earthquakes. The blocks are even different sizes so that they won´t set up a harmonic vibration... ingenious!

Leaving Sillustani, back in the village, I came across a parade. Lots of local color, and men parading around as bulls. Everyone was very enthusiastic until the heavy rains started.

The ride from Silustani was again across the Altiplano, mostly at 13,000 to 16,000 feet. It was barren, lots of llamas and vicunas, and COLD! Just to make sure I wouldn´t be too comfortable, someone threw in some high winds and rain. It was the first time on the trip that I had to break out the electric jacket and gloves, and was I ever glad I had them!

Finally arrived at Arequipa, the second largest city in Peru, fought the traffic, found a hotel, a HOT shower, and had a great Turkish dinner. Go figure!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Puno: On the Shores of Lake Titicaca - Nov 27-30

The town of Puno isn´t all that interesting, but there are interesting things to see in the area. We took a tour to Uros, a series of floating islands. Actually, they are bunches of reeds that the people build houses on.

They also make boats from the reeds. They last about three months, and then rot... leaving all the tourists in the middle of the lake to be eaten by piranahs.

We also went to Taquille island. This is supposed to be a very traditional culture, still using the traditional clothing. Unfortunately, we had a crappy guide who hurried us up the hill from one side of the island and back down the other side. It felt like the Bataan Death March, especially since we were doing this forced march at 12,000 feet altitude! It really was a shame, because we met other people who raved about the tour. The guide really can make all the difference.

Saturday there was a great local market in Puno. It stretched on for miles, and you really could buy just about anything. I settled for some rubber glue for my tire patch kit. Very exotic!

Then we visited the boat ¨Yavari¨. This was an old steamer brought in pieces to Lake Titicaca in 1870. It took them 6 years to haul it up the mountain on the backs of donkeys and re-assemble it! It is now being restored by an English woman who bought it as scrap for $3000.

That night we had drinks with Sylvia Owen, the dermatologist I had met on the road from Cuenca to Loja, Ecuador. After a few mishaps, she had decided to ship her bike back to Montana and do some traveling by more ¨civilized¨ means. It was nice to catch up.

On Sunday, November 30, we left Puno, kind of. Karen was flying back to Panama, and I still had my bike in Cuzco. So we flew together to Cuzco, and she continued on (same flight) to Lima to catch her flight to Panama. I went to my hotel, packed up the bike, and rode back to Puno. I was planning on then riding to La Paz, Bolivia, but as you will soon see those plans changed.

I was not looking forward to the ride from Cuzco to Puno. After all, I had just done it by train a few days before. Wrong! Of course, it was a totally different trip on the bike. I saw much more, and from a totally different perspective. The altiplano is incredible.

Llamas I expected... and saw. Sheep did not surprise me. But I really had to stop a few times to watch flocks of flamingos in the river. That I was not expecting!

This old man was tending his sheep and let me cross his land to get to the river where the flamingos were. He was facinated by my motorcycle.

I stayed at a decent hotel (Hotel Monterrey) in the middle of the pedestrian mall in Puno. For you bikers reading this, I highly recommend it. The staff, especially Fidel, was great about helping me lay down boards over the stairs so that we could park the bike safely inside. Since I hadn´t been able to find anything else in Puno with parking, this was particularly appreciated.

Tomorrow, plans for Bolivia... but plans change!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Train to Puno: Piscos on the Orient Express - Nov 26

The train from Cuzco to Puno was, in so many ways, a ¨trip¨. Unlike the train to Machu Pichu, which is pretty utilitarian, the Puno train is deluxe. In fact, it is an old Orient Express train that they refurbished for this trip. Mahogany paneling, brass lamps, linen tablecloths... the works.

There is also an observation car on the back, and as we rambled down the tracks many villagers waved and shouted greetings. Then again, most of them spoke Quechua or Aymara, so they could also have been yelling ¨get the hell out of our back yards, Gringos¨. And I don´t really understand the universal hand signals they greeted us with. Fortunately, they were also smiling, so I think the natives really were friendly.

Peru Rail tried to keep us entertained during the 10 hour trip, with various local bands, fashion shows, and even a class in how to make the perfect Pisco Sour. After the demo, they asked for a volunteer to try to make one. Of course, yours truly was the first to jump up and volunteer. I figured that at the vary least I was going to get a free drink out of this (ever the economiser). Of course, my Pisco Sour was perfect... they didn´t know about my many years working as a bartender!

There was one stop along the way, at about 14,000 feet, for the entertainment to change and the natives given a chance to earn some shekels. Little did they realize that Karen had honed her bargaining skills in Asia... and nobody bargains like the Chinese! Once she figured out what she wanted, she just waited until we were being literally shoved back onto the train (knowing there wouldn´t be another tourist along for three days) and then gave them her final price. She got the best deal on the train!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The ¨Lost City¨ of Machu Pichu - Nov 25

Machu Pichu. I was here a few years ago on my way to a project in Chile, but it was Karen´s first time. For both of us it was facinating.

But first you had to take a bus from Aguas Calientes that hugs the mountain through some of the tightest switch-backs ever seen. As previously stated, yours truly truly doesn´t like heights, and made Karen sit on the down-hill side of the bus!

Machu Pichu itself was an Incan city, re-discovered in the early 1900s. It is an architechtural and engineering marvel, and they had to carry stones up the mountains from many miles away. We had fantastic weather, and fabulous views. We were also lucky to find an excellent guide.

This is the ¨classic¨ picture of Machu Pichu, although many of the guide books (for some unknown reason) don´t include Karen and me. Poor planning on their part, undoubtedly.

The Incans were pretty clever. Even their method of building steps on the terraces used for agriculture was interesting... rocks built as outcroppings from the walls

The setting was some of the most spectacular in the world. Although this was the rainy season there, we had picture perfect weather to appreciate the incredible scenery. Imagine having to haul rocks through these mountains to build the city! Truly impressive.

Next to Machu Pichu is the mountain of Huaina Pichu. This was also built on. Tourists now line up for the privilege of climbing it. Only about 400 a day are permitted, so they are there VERY early in the morning to get a ticket. Needless to say, we decided to pass on this particular spiritual quest. I´m blaming it on my artificial knee... that´s my story and I´m sticking to it!

After the day visiting Machu Pichu, we took the train back to Cuzco. Tomorrow we hop aboard another train to visit Puno on Lake Titicaca.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Cuzco and Ollantaytambo: On the Way to Machu Pichu - Nov 20 - 24

Cuzco, the Sacred Valley, and Machu Pichu are all about OLD stuff (totally appropriate for my South-At-Sixty tour). The history of the area ranges from pre-Inca, through the apex of Incan culture, through the Spanish colonialists.

Jeff, the owner of the Norton Rat bar (a biker hangout) had made arrangements for us to get a hotel where we could leave the bike while we went exploring outside of Cuzco... Thanks Jeff! For me it was the most expensive hotel so far on the trip. Fraser (who I rode up with... see the last post) also got a room there, but for him it was the cheapest hotel he had stayed with in his several months on the road. Just goes to show you... different perspectives!

A note from the Small World Department: At one point I walked into McDonalds on the Plaza de Armas. I went in to use the restroom... I swear I was NOT having a Big Mac Attack! Anyway, I walk out of the loo and hear a male voice calling ¨Hey, Steve¨. Now you might find this kind of hard to believe, but I´m not that well known in Peru, much less in Cuzco. Anyway, it was another biker, Mo from England, who I had had lunch with in Panama two months before. He had left Panama a month before me, but there we were in Micky D´s. Since Karen had not arrived yet, it was a good excuse to have many beers together and catch up.

Karen arrived on the 22nd, after spending a night in Lima at my friend Jim´s (the same one who got me to walk off the edge of a cliff holding onto a kite. Thanks again, Jim). We spent a few days exploring Cuzco, a facinating colonial city. As always, Karen met a facinating new friend in the marketplace!

I also got to meet up with the daughter of an old friend from high school, Jean Weiss´ daughter Samantha, who happened to be in Cuzco. Another note from the Small World Department. Sam was, I assure you, much better looking than Karen´s new friend.

Karen also decided that Cuzco was the perfect place to shop for a few new pets: One llama and one small Peruvian named John. Unfortunately, we found out that only one of them is house broken, and since they only come as a pair we decided not to bring them back to Panama.

We then took a bus to Ollantaytambo, where we would catch the train to Machu Pichu. We wanted to be in Machu Pichu in the morning, before the train full of tourists arrived about 9:30, which meant getting there (the town of Aguas Calientes) in the afternoon. There is only a train from Ollantaytambo in the afternoon, nothing from Cuzco. I had been to Machu Pichu a couple of years ago and had arrived with the hords. I highly recommend finding a way to do it in the morning.

Ollantaytambo turned out to be facinating. It´s an old Incan town, and still retains many of the original streets and buildings, only slightly modified to suit modern needs. Many of the doors are Incan originals. Some of the tourists (not US of course) also appear to be from the Incan days.

One of the highlights of Oyantaytambo was a visit to a family´s house to sample the chicha they make. This is a type of beer made from corn. Karen, of course, sampled her fair share. I, of course, had to keep up.

The family also raises cuy, a local delicacy. This is actually guinea pig, and there were about a hundred of them running around the house! I´ve never actually sampled this. There´s this whole pet thing that I can´t get over. They also leave a lot of little pellets in the living room!

The family´s method of storing food was interesting, if a bit primitive. I´m now thinking of throwing away the refrigerator... who needs it!

Karen also made a new boy friend. His name is also John, and I think he was ready to propose marriage... or something equally illicit. He made it quite clear when I tried to take a picture with him that he really prefers blondes!

At about 4:00 we got on the train (actually, it´s more like a trolley car) for Aguas Caliente. We spent the night there, then up the hill to Machu Pichu.