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.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Altiplano: Nazca to Cuzco - Nov 18

We planned on leaving Nazca at 5:00 to see if we could reach Cuzco in a day. I was going to go with Doruk and Patricia, the Turkish/Peruvian couple staying at my hotel and riding the Chinese bike with the disappearing parts. It seemed like a good plan... after all the man at the hotel said it was light by then. Of course, I don´t think he was ever actually awake (or sober) at that hour, so why did we believe him? We finally got going at 7:30 when it was light, and pretty much had no chance of making Cuzco in a day.

I had read that the road from Nazca to Cuzco was one of the best motorcycle rides in South America, so I was really looking forward to it. It was a great ride... after the first 100 miles of pure crap and construction. It took us almost 5 hours to do the first 100 miles. We were told that the road was closed on the way to Puquio, but fortunately we were able to get through. We had enough delays without that.

THEN the road did get good. In fact it became fantastic. From Puquio we started climbing, and climbing, up to the altiplano (high plains) at more than 15,000 feet. This picture is some of the scenery in the lower altiplano... where there are still trees. Eventually these give out and there is nothing more than some small scrub and grass.

We passed through one of the national reserves at 15,000 feet, land only suited for llamas, alpacas, and vicunas. We saw herds of vicunas, and had to keep a sharp eye out to keep from hitting them in the road.

Between the very high altitude and lack of sleep, at one point I was feeling VERY tired. It was becoming impossible to concentrate on the road, and I know that at that time I have to stop for a while. I told Doruk I needed a 10 minute nap. He said he wasn´t tired and would just sit and wait for me. We pulled off the road and laid down on the dirt. Within about 2 minutes all three of us were sound asleep. Patricia woke first (after about 45 minutes) and said that cars -- the few that there were -- were honking because they thought we were dead at the side of the road! At that altitude there is about 40% less oxygen, and it really takes it out of you. My bike also feels the altitude.

At about 5:30 we stopped for gas and I decided to stay the night in Chalhuanca. Doruk and Patricia went on, as she wanted to visit her ex maid in the next city. I had no interest, and didn´t want to be driving in the mountains after dark.

The next day was more beautiful scenery. While the altiplano can really appear (and often is) bleak and barren, it can also be absolutely spectacular.

At one point I was pulled over on the side of the road having a drink and another motorcycle went by. He turned around and came back to say hello, and it turned out it was Fraser, a Brit I had been corresponding with by email, but had never met. Small world. We rode on to Cuzco together and spent the next two days together while I waited for Karen to arrive.

Nazca... Strange Lines in the Sand, and Mummies - Nov 18

My last stop in the lowlands before heading up through the altiplano (high plains) was Nazca, famous for geometric lines and figure drawings in the desert. Nobody really knows who or why these were created, and theories range from pre-historic civilizations practicing religious rituals to alien beings who left landing instructions and pictures of things they saw.

I took a short (too short... half hour) flight to see for myself, and still have no idea. I am, however, leaning towards the aliens and I think that that is why the Men in Black (posing as Secret Service) were in Pisco.

However, you decide for yourself.

Outside of Nazca, I went with a biker couple from Lima and Luz, a woman from Santiago who was on the plane with me, to visit the pre-Incan tombs at Chauchilla. This was about a 20 mile ride on pavement, followed by a 5 mile jaunt through the desert sands. I had no trouble with the sand, but the couple from Lima were on a little Chinese made bike and pieces kept falling off into the desert. Quality Pays!

The tombs themselves were dug into the ground, the inhabitants mumified, and were well preserved due to the absolute lack of humidity.

Next stop, high into the Andes to visit Cuzco, Machu Pichu, and Lake Titicaca.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Pisco, Isla Ballestra, and the Sand Dunes at Huacachina - Nov 13 - 16

Pisco, Land of Liquor and Critters

Pisco, while famous for the liquor of the same name, is presently not a very interesting place. One of the main reasons is that they had a 7.9 earthquake last year, and much of the city was destroyed. Fortunately, there is still enough pisco (the liquor, not the city) left for a few million pisco sours. I´m trying my best to reduce that amount significantly as I travel through the rest of South America.

The week after I was in Pisco was to be the APEC meeting in Lima. Laura Bush was supposed to make a trip to Pisco, so from time to time I would see a strange guy in a dark suit and sunglasses (even at night) with an earphone. It was either the Secret Service, or Men in Black. I´m not sure which, but then again I´m not sure there really is much difference between the two. In any event, I felt quite safe... both from George W. and any other alien beings that might have been in town.

Pisco is also the jumping off place for Isla Ballestras. This is a ¨mini Glapagos¨ according to the tour operators. While that is typical tour hype, it is a good place for seeing (by boat) a significant sea lion and bird rookery.

The sea lions seemed to have been warned of our coming... or else they can tell time since all the tourist boats come at the same time. Several hundred came out to welcome us.

The pelicans also choose this area as a breeding ground, and there must be a million there.

Unfortunately for the pelicans, but fortunately for us, they must share these rocks with their mis-placed cousins from Antarctica... the penguins. Penguins near the equator, you ask, you must be kidding.

But nay, I´ve encountered these little guys before while diving in the Galapagos. I can hardly wait to meet their big cousins in Patagonia.

From Sea Lions to Sand Dunes... on to Huacachina

From Pisco I kept on through the desert to Huacachina, a true oasis. There is a small lake fed by underground springs, that creates this oasis among some of the highest sand dunes in the world (500 meters / 1600 feet).

There seem to be two major sports in Huacachina. One took place nightly in my hostel and involved salubrious amounts of Pisco. The hotel had a nightly BBQ for about $6, which included food and an unlimited quantity of Cuba Libres or Pisco Sours. For the backpacking kids traveling on a budget this was the equivalent of a Michelin 5 star experience, if they could remember it in the morning.
The other sport was sandboarding, like snowboarding but warmer.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Lima: Flying High...On A Kite 11/10/08

OK, so sometimes I just have to do it... whatever "it" is. So there I was in Lima, staying with my friend Jim Sanford. I met Jim in Canoa, Ecuador and he invited me to stay with him. He has a beautiful apartment right on the water. He also likes to fly paragliders... basically a big kite that you hang from and jump off a cliff. Fortunately (for Jim) he can do this off the cliff right in front of his apartment. It being a beautiful Sunday in Lima, we walked along the park and watched all the paragliders sailing through the sky.

Now you have to understand, yours truly is Afraid of Heights. Like, seriously freaked. But that bothers me, so sometimes I just have to do stuff to get over it. Like, yesterday, hanging from a kite 600 feet off the ground. This is not something one does alone when one (certainly not this one) doesn't know what they are doing. You go in tandem with a supposedly seasoned professional. So, after a bit (ok, much) convincing by Jim I just had to give it a try. Here are the results:
First, the takeoff. It's easy: You just hang this kite off your back and walk off a 300 foot cliff. (Then you brown your shorts)

Then you sail all over the cliffs and the ocean. You also try REALLY hard to avoid the buildings. My pilot happened to like the updrafts from the buildings, so we did a lot of really close inspection of many of Lima's finer apartments for sale... generally through the 20th floor windows. These guys can go forever with the right wind, but I was only up for about 20 minutes (although it seemed like much longer).

Landing, of course, is another matter. You just hold on and hope to hell you don't go over the


Finally, we made it back to earth and I could breathe again. Marco, my pilot, was back up with another tourist two minutes later.

Did I get over my fear of heights... Nah! But can't let that keep me on the ground.

The rest of my Lima visit was somewhat anticlimactic, although Jim and I had a great time. I also got a lot of work done on the bike, along with some new tires to get me through the next stretch of the trip. But enough of the big city, time to get back into the desert!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Trujillo: Colonial Town, Ruins, Sand, Colombians and Hairless Dogs - Nov 6

From Chiclayo I went for hours across more desert. Instead of staying in Trujillo the first night, I followed the Lonely Planet´s advice (easy to take with a grain of sand here in the desert) and headed for nearby Huanchaco at the beach. Why wasn´t I surprised when the weather turned cold and windy. The town was pretty much deserted, so the next day I rode on to Trujillo proper.

Trujillo is another old colonial city, but this time there were some really interesting color patterns thrown into the already very interesting architecture. All in all, it´s a very pretty city.

The next day I rode out to visit Chan Chan, another old pre-Inca city. This one is different than most, in that it was build entirely of adobe (mud and straw), while the other ruins I had seen were stone. It is a huge complex, which they are working to resore.

Meet the Colombians

At Chan Chan I was approached by three Colombian guys and a Peruvian who asked me about my bike and my trip. Turned out the Colombians were also heading for Tierra del Fuego on motorcycles. Unfortunately, one of them had had one of his bags come open on the desert detour from Chiclayo and had lost all of his documents (passport, bike registration, etc.). As it turned out, he wasn´t able to get them replaced in Lima and had to go back to Colombia. The others went on, but we lost contact. Asi es la vida.

We spent the day and evening together and had a great time. We went over to the Peruvian´s (Talo) house, ate, and played around on his 4 wheel ATVs. Turns out his kids (ages 4 and 6) are absolute hotshots on these things. Yours truly, however, was not. But it was fun. You can never have too many toys!

Bald Puppies

Also at Chan Chan I met my first Peruvian hairless dogs. This is not a joke. These dogs are bald as a billiard ball. Friendly, intelligent, but ugly as sin. Kind of feels like petting a piece of leather, or cuddling up with an old football. It has been suggested that this breed would be the perfect First Puppy for Obama´s family since his daughter is alergic and they are hypoalergenic. But did I mention UGLY?

Next, on to Lima.

Chiclayo, Desert Odyssy, and Cops: November 4 - 5

Living in Panama has given me a real appreciation for quality driving. Panamanians are wonderful, friendly people until they get behind the wheel. Then they turn into complete maniacs who will do anything to get 5 feet ahead. But compared to the drivers in Peru they are absolutely fantastic! In other words, Peruvian drivers make the Panamanians seem like Canadians (¨You go, eh.¨ ¨No please, you go first.¨ ¨No please, after you, eh.¨) . The Chiclayo drivers are some of the worst in Peru, and arriving in Chiclayo was a bit of a nightmare, but eventually I found a hotel in my price range that had parking. This is always a major consideration for me, and is often difficult especially in city centers.

The major attraction of Chiclayo was actually in the adjacent town of Lambayeque: The museum of the Lord of Sipan. This was a series of tombs from the Moche culture that were found in 1987, and had not been raided. The tombs contained both the bodies of the Lord of Sipan, and those who were ¨volunteered¨ to accompany him into the next life, as well as many objects of ceramic, gold, and jewels. It´s Peru´s version of finding King Tut´s tomb, and every bit as impressive.

Odyssy in the Desert

Leaving Chiclayo on the Panamericana, I soon came to a roadblock and was told that the bridge was out. I would have to take a detour through the desert. You have to realize that I had now hit the vast expanse of Peruvian desert that I would deal with for the next few weeks. All of Peru´s coastal area is sand... lots and lots of sand. And it extends from Chiclayo all the way to Chile! Miles and miles (and more miles) of empty sand!

Finding the detour was tough enough. Of course there are no signs, you just keep asking enough people and eventually you find the detour. And then begins a dirt/sand track of about 25 miles through the desert. It would have been tough enough given the ¨road¨, but the trucks made it a nightmare. Basically, because of the trucks in front of you visibility was about 10 feet. Couldn´t see, couldn´t pass, and couldn´t breathe! By the time I came to actual pavement (more than an hour later) I looked like I had been dropped in a vat of talcum powder. Then it was a few more hours of more desert to get to Trujillo.
As an aside, a few weeks later I met a couple of Brits who had come to the same roadblock. A couple of kids told them that they could get past the bridge if they rode their bikes down the stairs and back up the other side of the dry river bed. They tipped the kids a buck and that´s just what they did. Boy, was I pissed when I heard that! But then, of course, I would have missed out on a good story. And more desert scenery, which actually was in some ways spectacular (although I did get my fill of it.... but I still have the entire Atacama desert in Chile to ride through).

A Note on Cops

I had been warned (common knowledge among bikers who read the web sites) that the cops north of Lima were the most corrupt in the country. Up to this point I had had nothing but good experiences with police in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. I was frequently stopped at police check points (and just as frequently waved through), but usually the police were just bored, curious, and pretty friendly. The questions were always the same: Where are your from? Where are you going? How big is the motor? How much does your bike cost?

These guys even wanted their pictures taken with me. It also doesn´t hurt if I tell them I used to be a cop.

I have only had one experience on this trip with a cop actually trying to get a bribe from me. The conversation went something like this (and by the way, I wasn´t speeding... I knew that the cop was there and was following a truck doing exactly 60 kph):
  • Cop: You were speeding
  • Me: No I wasn´t. I was doing 60 kph just like the truck in front of me
  • Cop: The speed limit is 45
  • Me: No it´s not, I just saw the sign and it says 60
  • Cop: There´s another sign that says 45 over there
  • Me: That may be, but you had a big truck pulled over there blocking the sign
  • Cop: I can confiscate your license until you pay the fine
  • Me: That´s fine, but I wasn´t going any faster than allowed
  • Cop: Well, give me some gas and I´ll let you go
  • Me: I can´t, I only have enough gas to get to Trujillo
  • Cop: There´s a gas station down the road. You can get more there.
  • Me: I don´t have any more money. I need to go to an ATM in Trujillo
  • Cop: Get the hell out of here.

It´s a game. Kind of like bargaining with the vendors. Most of the cops have been great, but occasionally you have to play the game with them. so far I´m up on points. Let´s hope it stays that way.

Next stop, Trujillo.