by Keith Matteson

The Four-Point Restroom

The power had been shut down for the night.  In the darkened hall, my hand slid along the second-floor wall, guiding me around the corner to the men’s bathroom.  I took a look out the window into pitch-blackness and uncountable stars above.  Somewhere below, our bikes sat in the freezing dirt under laundry lines with some chickens and an old rusty truck.  Orion hung upside down in the sky to my northern eyes.  We were just inside the border of Chile, at Colchane.  The morning would be here soon enough and volcanoes would emerge outside this same window.  We would descend the western slope of the Andes, touch the northern edge of the Atacama Desert, and end up on the coast.

I was looking forward to seeing this region, and dropping down to a reasonable elevation after existing so long at altitudes above 3,500 meters (~11,500’).  We had been cold and short-changed on oxygen for many weeks, and it would be good to warm up a little and breathe normally again.

In the morning, we pulled on our cold-weather layers and started across the dry western Andes.  The road rose and fell between high volcanic peaks in shades of red, brown, and black, with only a thin covering of brush and sparse grass to betray the traces of water found here.  Our goal was to make the Chilean coastal city of Iquique, which took us on a descending route southwest to the ocean.  Curving around peak after peak, we were like tiny insects on bikes, weaving between gigantic pylons.  Once through the cone maze of the Andes, we started down a long valley and then emerged from the mountains onto a long slope high above the desert floor ahead.  The broad apron of rocky debris that we descended, spewed from the high Andes, merged with others to the north and south, forming a broad slope continuing to the west.  There was nothing on this gradual ramp of rock and gravel save for an occasional concrete marker, the rusted wreckage of cars and machinery, and the road itself.  All else had been left behind, leaving us with nothing but the mineral world, no animal, no vegetable, just two tiny travelers and what we carried across this dry, earth-tone planar world.  The landscape simplified into rock, sand, and air, and the view seemed vertically cropped or compressed, leaving the eye with only the horizon to rove in search of something, anything new.  The temperature rose rapidly as we descended, and by the time we leveled out the sun and heat had us longing for cool air.  Once again by changing our elevation we had simply traded one extreme for another.

We were on the northern skirt of the desert.  I had studied my geography before we got into this area.  Considered the driest desert in the world, there are places in the core of El Desierto de Atacama, still well to the south of us yet, that have seen no rain since record keeping began in 1570.  No rain at all in over 440 years.  NASA is using this area to test instruments on the Mars landers for water and biological activity, and they turn up neither here.  If you hold an orange or red filter up to your eye, no surprise – there you are on the red planet.  And it was hot.

As we neared the coastal mountains, we came alongside a small hill, and a sign pointed out El Gigante de Atacama, a huge petroglyph of a man, etched out onto the hillside very much in the same manner as the Nazca lines.  Surface rocks had been scraped aside, exposing the lighter sand underneath to draw a shape in the earth.  It turns out that this is the largest petroglyph of a man-figure in the world, at 119 meters (390’) tall.  The lines extending from his head are indicative of the seasonal positions of the moon.

We turned southward toward a town with fuel and ATMs, to refill both our tanks and wallets.  Having spent so much time in poorer countries, where just being able to buy gas was a relief, we were in for a huge surprise when, once we had milked a bank ATM of Chilean pesos, we found the Promised Land: gasoline in three different grades, a mini-mart with air-conditioning and two more functional ATMs, and every snack and drink imaginable.  The restrooms were out of another world: toilet seats, hot water, soap, and paper towels – “…a four-point restroom!”  For months we’d been happy with restrooms scoring one point or two.  We grabbed some sandwiches and sodas, and sat there laughing in the cool air, overwhelmed by the sudden abundance afforded by being back in a strong economy.  It was like the US again, and the higher prices did nothing to dispel the illusion.

After our indulgence of cash, fuel, and food, it was time to head just a little farther west to Iquique.  The land forms a kind of shelf as you approach the ocean, and the highways drop down to the coast through gaps or gulches that funnel you downwards to sea level.  The wind off the ocean is channeled through these gaps, and we were blasted by the rushing headwind until we turned north along the huge dune-like slope that runs parallel to the beach.  A long grade took us down, down, down to the ocean in one smooth grade.  The air forms a powerful updraft along the slope, creating a never-ending slide of air for hang-gliders and parasailers to play on, extending for miles and miles above the city.  The last 1,000 meters down into Iquique was taken in one long unbroken grade along the face of the mountain that rose up from the Pacific.

As we rolled to a stop at the first light, Jalene’s bike died, and that was the last we would ever hear from her battery.  We push started the bike, got it running long enough to find our hostel, and parked the bikes for the night.  Once again, when we were in need, a new friend appeared.  A taxi driver that had grown up there knew where to find batteries for motorcycles, and after trying two or three places, we zeroed in on a shop with a standard lead-acid unit for about $44 USD.  As luck would have it, Jay’s battery chose a tax-free zone to puke out in.  Turns out the Chilean government recognizes that it’s hard enough living in the extreme desert here, and has helped folks out with a little tax relief in the far north and south of the country.

On the way to find a battery, our driver pointed to the many wooden buildings in Iquique made from “Oregon pine” (Douglas fir).  In the early 1900’s, ships carrying products from Chile northward would return with lumber from the U.S. west coast, traded for a good profit in this desert isolation.  Many streets were lined with older wood-sided buildings, the paint peeling away, giving it the same look as some of the coastal towns back home in the northwestern U.S.   And as you’ll see in many port towns, there were some pretty salty characters in the area of our hostel, but didn’t pay much notice.  Later, a taxi driver commented that we were staying in the most crime-ridden section of town.  The folks we were seeing on the street did seem poor, yes, but the signs of vice and alcohol were appearing again.  Jalene and I hadn’t seen much of this since Bogota and other really big cities. I didn’t feel any threatening atmosphere here, but I was aware that people just a little more desperate for money might be watching us.

We enjoyed a couple of nights in Iquique to relax just a bit.  Rolling out of town, we decided to push the easy button and stopped at the first McDonalds we’d seen in ages, kind of a cultural reverse adventure.  Inside, we received a surprise, as we found nothing appealing for a breakfast menu, and settled for the same meager fare we’d been having for breakfast for months -- white bread, white cheese, sliced ham, coffee, and tea.  No egg or sausage McMuffins here!  We didn’t survey any other McDonalds on the trip, before this or after, so I have no idea what we’d find in a big capital city.

But we’d come on this trip to see other worlds, so we left the golden arches behind and took off down the coast of Chile, looking for something new.  As usual, it didn’t take very long to find it.


Take a look at more photos HERE.

The Surprise Box

The thing that kept popping into my skull as we rode through Bolivia was the movie about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  It’s still pretty rough here, with long views often containing little to suggest the modern age.  Imagining a journey by horse or train through Bolivia and Argentina over 100 years ago sure does generate respect for those that lived here.

As for us, we saddled up our modern mules and headed out of Sucre after a fantastic time checking out fossil dinosaur tracks, relaxing in the Plaza, and buying new tires for the bikes.  We decided on a route to take us through Cochabamba to the northwest, and so we pointed the bikes that way, and bounded through valleys and over ridges, following the two-lane road.  The rock in many places has a distinct sheen or polish to it, and the layers presented themselves not on edge, but flat, as though you could read them were they printed with text.  A giant could reach out and peel back another page on which to read the fossils lettering, and the road seemed to travel up the gutter of an open book.

Halfway to Cochabamba, the road swung to the northwest and began to climb higher into pine-covered ridges.  As we rose, the temperature dropped and we stopped to put on layers at some road construction.  My Dad is an engineer, and so it was with some surprise that I observed quite a lot of ups and down to the decking of the newly built concrete bridge over a deep chasm, and I knew it was wrong.  Looking back after crossing, it was quite out of true, visible to the unaided eye.  Instead of a smooth, level deck, it had definite rises and falls between the sections.  I had to wonder how this happened, and how long the bridge will last.  I so wish I’d taken a photo – how did I miss that one?

The weather was looking ominous ahead, and kept getting colder.  We considered finding a place off the road to wild camp.  The area has a high desert feel to it, with open pines and sparse grasses and brush underneath.  But we eventually worked our way through the dark clouds, and found ourselves in sunshine again on a drying road.  Blue sky after rain has the power to pick up our spirits like nothing else, and with our newfound energy we made Cochabamba and found a place to stay.  Typically, when we are the hungriest, there is a delay, and sure enough, the owner/manager was not there.   Long story short, we finally had the bikes parked and were shown to our room about 90 minutes later.  We walked to where we were told we could find food, but no dice, and we went looking on our own.   At the meltdown point, we settled in at a decent polleria, and ordered another dinner of chicken, rice, or fries.  Monotonous, yes, but it’s reasonably good, deep-fried, fast, and safe (I always like it, anyway).  The morning brought another day of mountain riding to Oruro, where, after looking around, we pushed the easy button and headed for Hotel Sucre, where we’d stayed before on our way down from La Paz.

But in the mountains between Cochabamba and Oruro, we twisted and turned as the road followed the contours around the ends of ridges, and followed side canyons in a typical route to cross an Andean range.  The road this day offered us a few interesting and unsettling events.  First to mind is when we came around a curve going steeply uphill and encountered a tractor-trailer flatbed, loaded with guardrail sections, entirely upside down and blocking the road.  It seemed to have just happened within the last few minutes, as the leaking diesel fuel had only run down the road about 10 meters, and the deep gouges in the asphalt above it were fresh and white, tracing curving arcs far uphill above the wreck.  The cab was intact though badly damaged, as a result of a long slide along the pavement downhill.  I assumed the driver was either inside still, or had crawled out okay.  Either way, the people along the road were simply standing there, so what urgency there had been was now over.  We crawled by it, and I decided a photo would be in poor taste.

Observation number two had to do with the dogs down here.  I’d noticed in Bolivia, and other countries such as Peru, that dogs tended to be seen sitting or lying at regular intervals along the roads.  For months I thought that some of them must be herding dogs with unseen llama or sheep herds nearby.  Today that theory went, quite literally, out the window.  We were following a bus up the mountain, looking for a passing opportunity.  A bunch of garbage came flying out the bus window, and the nearby ditch dog grabbed it, quick as lightning.  And that’s when the whole ecology of roadside feral dogs came into focus with a question: Is the frequency of the dogs along the road directly related to the frequency that cars and buses that come by? (and throw garbage out the windows).  Thinking of other roads in Central America, Colombia, and Peru, and now watching closely in Bolivia, the observations strongly suggest that the dogs control as much road length as they need to have enough to eat.  Busy roads, more garbage thrown, smaller territory needed, more dogs per given length of roadway.  With less traffic, there is less food, more competition, larger territories.  Observations over subsequent days showed that the pattern held.  I can’t prove it but it sure seems plausible, and I wonder if someone might be able to fashion a project of it.  It would need to take into account the size of the dogs, quality of the food, and many other factors I could think of.

We came down out of the mountains and back onto the Altiplano again, descending into Oruro.  I’d been commenting to Jalene for an hour or so about how often I could smell the brakes and clutches on the trucks climbing by or descending.  But as we slowed for an intersection, I smelled it again more strongly, with no trucks nearby.

It’s not a good feeling to be in the middle of Bolivia and watch a puff of smoke come up from under your instrument panel.  Every time we stopped, I saw another puff, and they seemed to be coming from the back of the headlight.  This was confirmed when I jerked my burned fingers out with melted rubber on them.  The headlight connector was overheating and melting, so I unplugged it and we rode to the hotel.  In the gloom of the underground cochera, or parking area, I peeled the insulation away and found the ground wire nearly worn through after being lightly rubbed by the clutch cable at every turn.  With most of the copper strands broken, resistance rose steadily, and the wire was now hot enough to melt the plastic connector and rubber cover.  Surprisingly, after wandering around and asking, I found an auto-electric shop in town that sold me the exact H4 connector, complete with wire pigtails, and I was able to quickly replace the connector for about 3 bucks.  A zip-tie solved the rubbing problem, and I had a headlight again, with no more smoke.  A quick look at Jalene’s bike showed the same issue developing, so I treated her clutch cable to a zip-tie, followed by a new H4 connector a few days later.

With the smoke now banished, and a good night’s sleep, we were ready to head across toward Chile and enter a new country.  We were taking a route across the flat, dry terrain on a path that would brush the northern edge of the Salar de Coipasa, another big salt flat of Bolivia.  The road is paved all the way to Chile, which was a surprise, but there were many desvios, or detours, where a bridge was still being finished, or had yet to be installed, and we often were turned down off the road into the softer sand and dust where we crossed a dry arroyo and then climbed back up onto the roadway.  We would sometimes climb over low ridges or cross broad flat areas or open basins, steadily working our way south and west.  In the afternoon, we could look out onto the salar, which on its northern shore has hundreds of little black rock islands poking through the white of the salt crust.  Again, in this open, broad land, with it’s volcanoes developing as we moved further west, I was again strongly reminded of horses and trains, cavalries, mines, mules, and rusty iron.  Finally, late in the afternoon we came to Pisiga, and crossed into Chile with little drama.  Just a kilometer on the Chilean side, we elected to give in to the cold wind, and found a hostel that served us dinner and lock up the bikes.  We had no Chilean money, and had luckily decided to fill the bikes just before crossing, so our tanks were full.  The hostel took Bolivian pesos, and so, with quite empty pockets, we only had to make it to a town with an ATM to get some Chilean pesos.  We fell heavily asleep in the cold high altitude, and in the middle of the night, with the power shut down over the whole town, the stars put on an incredible show out the bathroom window.  Tomorrow we would transition down off the Altiplano into the northern Atacama Desert, and learn why they used this area to test the Mars landers.

Bolivia turned out to be an incredible, beautiful place, but we had to work at it to reveal it.  Along the north coast of Chile, an Argentine fellow on a Yamaha rolled up, and we learned he was on his way to Bolivia for the fifth time.  He agreed it was a bit more work, but fairly shouted with excitement “Bolivia is such a surprise box!” and that captures it perfectly.  Buying gas turned out to be mostly a non-issue, but supplies in general are just a little harder to find here, and selection is something to forget for the while.  Bolivia is a land where, if you find what you need you are happy.  This ain’t the land of WalMart, that’s for sure, and we were quite happy with that.


More photos HERE.

Time Travel

Read on to understand how something in this photo is 65 million years old.

We reversed course out of Uyuni and headed back up the road toward the mountain town of Potosi, where we had been three days before.  This time, rather than finding a cold and rainy city, we came through in the sun, though it still wasn’t very warm.  Jalene and I fueled up at the usual foreigner price, which I don’t much mind as long as they sell us gasoline.

About buying fuel in Bolivia:  Bolivia imposes a tax on gasoline for all foreign-plated vehicles.  For Bolivian-plated vehicles, the fuel costs about 3.8 Bolivianos per liter today, about $0.55 USD.  For all foreign plates, it’s about 8.6 Bolivianos per liter with the tax (about $1.25).  The trouble is that the government regards this as two separate items – the sale of the gas and the collection of the tax.  As such, they require that the fuel vendor fill out two receipts, and this must be done on official receipt books, by hand.  It’s a hassle and takes time.  There are cameras at the stations recording the plates and activities, as well.  Thus it’s no surprise to pull into a busy station in the middle of a city and have them simply say “No” and take the next customer in line, refusing to sell to foreigners.  After a few experiences like this, we always chose stations at the outskirts where they weren’t so busy, pulling up and saying “sin factura” (without receipt) when we requested gas.  Generally at these quieter places, they would always sell you the gas, often at the foreign price, but often for much less, pocketing the premium.  Several times we bought at local prices.  I really didn’t mind if the person pumping my gas was skimming some money (they generally needed it!), as long they would sell me the gas.  Only twice did a vendor go through the whole drill of the official receipt books.  For us moto-overlanders, it is no big deal, but having to go to three different stations, or having a local buy it for you using your jug, as some do, is no fun.

About the fuel itself:  Install a GOOD fuel filter on your bike.  Bolivian gas is of questionable octane ratings – I was told as low as 84 at times, and is often full of rust and sediment.  While the bikes seem to run fine on anything we dump into them, my fuel jug looked like it had been used for river water after one station outside La Paz.  With modern fuel injection, make sure you have adequate filtration capability for your bike.  Our F650 BMWs have the fuel injection pressure regulator and the fuel filter combined into one unit, and they cost $170 in the US.  You don’t want to be replacing those!  Ask about a high-pressure inline filter at the auto-parts store and put it in yourself. 

I also strongly recommend one of Guglatech’s in-tank bag filters.  It filters the fuel as the bike is being filled, and you can get them in very small mesh.  Looking like a sock, it hangs inside the tank from the filler neck, so your fuel pump is protected as well.  I installed a 10-micron filter in each bike, and they have lasted the entire trip.  They are easy to install, just replace the fuel filler neck with the new one containing the filter.  They are very durable, with tough fabric inside to protect the filter membrane – we have had attendant’s try to jam the fuel nozzle through them many, many times and they are unfazed by this abuse.  The volume is such that they don’t slow down the fill rate, and they hold all the sediment and rust particles easily.  The very fine particles are trapped in the thick layers of the filter membrane, which gradually turn grey over time, but ours have not stopped flowing fuel.  I will install a Guglatech filter in every bike I own from now on.

Okay, enough tech talk.  On our way up to Potosi again, we noted that all the snow we had seen on the ground three days before was completely gone.  It’s September here, and summer is on the way to Bolivia.  We bathed in the “heat” and enjoyed the dry roads, going straight through town on firm dirt, where we had been in the mud coming in just a few days before.  Heaven.  We fueled up, had a soda and snacks, and just barely avoided the cops as they rolled into the station in response to the domestic violence eruption.  As I write this, people all over the USA are participating in the Women’s March, and so it’s with a heavy heart that I remember the sight of a Bolivian woman getting thrown to the ground at the gas station, presumably by an angry boyfriend or husband, but at least the cops rolled in to intervene, but maybe just to fill up.  I wonder how much justice was served in this instance.  This was a time when I had to check myself, limiting my actions to making it very apparent that the foreigner on the bike was watching everything.  It slowed things down a bit, and 10 seconds later the cops pulled in.  Impulse told me to wade right in, but with Jalene there, my first priority had to be to keep both of us safe.  Sometimes it’s difficult to know what to do.  I try not to second-guess myself too much in these instances.  We made it out safe, and the police saw what was going on.  We got the hell out of there.

Taking a break for a snack, at our self-created "rest area" on the road in Bolivia.

We had a beautiful ride to Sucre that afternoon.  Like many roads in South America, this one is not long as the crow flies, but it can take a long time traversing the twisty road through the mountains.   The path takes you eastward and descends about 1,000 meters (3,300’), then turns north across the Rio Pilcomayo and along a valley up to Sucre.  Along the way, we dropped down into a mostly dry riverbed to get off the road and make some sandwiches for lunch.  Further on, we came upon the old Puente Sucre masonry suspension bridge that now serves pedestrians, and the deck lies at a significant cross-tilt, but the locals were still striding across, seeming not to notice.  Founded in 1538, this old city is the Constitutional Capitol of Bolivia, though the actual governing is now mainly done from La Paz.  Many argue that Sucre was the site where the initial independence movement against Spain began.  While we always love the beautiful historical buildings and parks of towns like Sucre, we really came to see what our friends Mindy and Taylor discovered – dinosaurs.  Or, more specifically, fossil dinosaur tracks.

In a limestone quarry in Sucre is a wall 1,500 meters (5,000’) long and about 100 meters (330’) tall, and it is covered with over 5,000 fossil dinosaur tracks.  The footprints of eight species cover it, mostly saurapods and therapods, and the longest continuous set of fossilized tracks yet found crosses that wall.  Originally the shore of a large, shallow lake, the prints were preserved as diatoms formed layers of limestone over the top of them, and as the Andes rose, the layers were turned vertically.  The limestone was of high quality for use in concrete, and so a large concrete and cement works operated a pit here for years, digging first down and then sideways, before running into a section of lower quality rock, unsuitable for making cement or concrete with.  They stopped digging, and as the crumbly rock wall eroded away, the mudstone layers with the fossilized tracks began to be revealed.  Today most of it is exposed, and the race is on to protect the soft mudstone from erosion by water movement, and damage from plants, whose seeds lodge in the flakey, friable rock face and start to grow.  The Bolivians are working hard to gain UNESCO Heritage protection for the site, and with it will come much needed money to seal the face of the rock as well as the ground surface behind it, to protect it from groundwater penetration.  Work has begun, but it will take a huge effort to save this incredible resource.  Parque Cretacico is an educational park, headquartered on the opposite side of the quarry, where one can see the whole wall, and learn about the animals from life-sized models.  Standing under the largest, it’s easy to understand how it pressed so deeply into the mud of the shoreline.  I was pleased that they kept things focused on education, and didn’t turn it into a theme park environment.  In the afternoon, a guide took us right down to the base of the wall, and we could walk anywhere as long as we did not touch!  This was the amazing part, as we could see evidence of layer after layer of tracks recorded here.  You could examine the texture of the shoreline sand and the ripples, and imagine the shallow water moving over the beach.  Some of the tracks meandered across the wall, some up and down.  They ranged from small three-toed tracks the size of your hand, to monstrous circular tracks a meter (3’) across and 10-20 cm (4”-8”) deep.  The nerdy kid in me loved this place, and even Jalene came away awed and impressed.  Our guide gave a great presentation in both Spanish and English, and answered all of our questions.  Later on, we spoke of our various interests, and he wanted to know more about where I picked up so much information about paleontology.  I admitted that Paleontology and Geology classes in Community College were inspired by books I received in the mail as a grade-school kid.  My parents signed me up for the Junior Science Series of books, which arrived in the mail every month or so, and you got to put in all the color pictures yourself, lick-and-stick.  I can still taste them.

Up close, this is mind-blowing.


Lots more photos HERE.

Salar de Uyuni

In the early morning light of the equinoccio de primavera, and its promise of warm days to come, the mining city of Potosi, Bolivia was as yet still cold and raw.  High in the Andean Cordillera Central, even with the sunshine, walking around on a Sunday morning trying to find an open café was not much fun.  We circled around the streets a while, and ended up back where we started.  During our cold, wet arrival our hostel the night before, we missed that there was a kitchen available for us to use.  Having now discovered that, Jalene made a breakfast of oatmeal and fruit, and we packed up the bikes.

The ride out to Uyuni from Potosi takes you through rolling mountains and high desert.  I just loved this day’s ride, as we rolled along through terrain seemingly straight out of a model railroad set, with rugged, weatherworn rocky ridges and a narrow-gauge rail line winding around, crossing and re-crossing the road.  Brown and red bands of rock in the ridges stood out, and far-off rain clouds dropped ribbons of water down onto them in the distance.  We crossed over rises where the snow from the day before lay all around, but our road was dry and the sun was on us.  Eventually we passed down into flatter land, cruising through open valleys with broad marshy areas holding large herds of llamas.  Except for these low wet basins, we were passing through a very dry country, and the sand and rock was peppered with cactus plants in all their various forms, some round and plump, some tall and corrugated, some palmate with broad, thick disks of green spreading in the sun.  Most had spines and thorns, but some were smooth, and a few were showing a flower.  Sometimes we would come through a little settlement or farm, and one could see very old structures directing water, either canals dug or stone aqueducts built, running out from the springs or creeks and toward the towns and fields.  The value of water here was made plain by the tunnels hacked through solid rock, connecting aqueducts to route the water where it was desperately wanted.

We had a grand surprise as we neared Uyuni.  The road had flattened out and some clouds come over, and we were in an occasional bit of rain.  Then we saw them – two bicyclists with orange reflective tape plastered all over their bikes, and we could not mistake that this was Genevieve and Michael, whom we had met at our Cusco hostel stay.  We laughed and hugged and had a brief, excited chat before they had to be off, and we too.  They were coming up from Uyuni and we going down toward it, so we exchanged info about the road ahead for each, and were on our way.  It’s always a huge instant recharge for me when we see people we know by chance along the road and get to say hello again, even for just a brief few moments.  We wished each other well and, in my mind at least, prayed for their safety, and that we would someday meet again with time for stories.

Welcome to the town of Uyuni.

Dusty and tired, we rolled into Uyuni, on the edge of the Salar, and found a hostel with a nice garage area for the bikes.  This town was originally a stop along the railway line, where rails from the north, east, and west all came together.  As such, one of the things this town is famous for is the Train Cemetery, where one can see long lines of old steam engines and cars left to rot from days long gone.  Jalene and I never got out to see them, and I’m sorry about that now, after seeing some really amazing photos taken by others.  Don’t miss it if you go there.

The Salar de Uyuni itself was a different story.  We both really wanted to see it, and get out on the biggest salt flat in the world.  It’s so big and so smooth that the space agencies use it as a mirror to calibrate their laser and radar surveying satellites.  We got up the next morning and rode a bit north to Colchani, where you can take a dirt road out to the west, gradually changing in composition from dirt to salt.  After a bit of wandering through a potholed section where you could see the mushy wet salt underneath, we made it out onto the hard, thick, white crust of the Salar, and stopped for photos.  As we were having fun with that, a small black spot far out on the Salar slowly grew, and another moto rolled up with a fellow from Argentina aboard.  He told us about the Dakar Rally monument about 5 kilometers further out on the salt.  No problem, he said, just ride generally west, and you can’t miss it.  So we took off, following the dark line of tire tracks that we thought went in about the right direction across an otherwise completely featureless plain of stark white.  Soon enough, something big loomed on the horizon, and we soon found ourselves converging with other vehicles on the immense Dakar Rally monument.  Someone built a huge stack of salt blocks and then carved into the familiar stylization of the Touareg tribesman with his folds of fabric covering all but the eyes from the blowing sand.  Flags of many, many countries were strung up like prayer flags nearby, and everyone was grinning and welcoming each other in a way I’d never really seen before or since.  We rolled the bikes up in front of the giant salt carving and took a few victory photos, with the crowd cheering us and helping out.  One woman even did a little video interview of us for a project she was doing.  A French couple wanted to know about the Dakar Rally, as they had never heard of it.  “Are there any French competitors?”  After explaining that it was originally the Paris-Dakar Rally years ago, and it is recognized as the toughest race in the world, I simply had them google Cyril Depres on their phones (5-time motorcycle champion from France), Stephane Peterhansel (7-time winner in cars, 6-time moto champion, from France), Richard Sainct, Hubert Auriol, and Cyril Neveu (all French Dakar moto champions) and they were astonished.  I simply loved the looks that came over them as they realized they were standing in front something that the French racers have excelled in!

The Salar is a strange place, where you can have fun with perspective in photos.  The surface is perfectly flat, a uniform white color, and stretches to the horizon unbroken.  As such, there are no objects in view for scale or size reference.  If you wish, you can place a camera, park the bike well away from it, walk toward the camera until you find that perfect spot where you can hold up your hand and have the bike seemingly in your palm.  There is nothing in the photo except you and the bike, and so the viewer has no way to tell how big anything is.  People construct all kinds of interesting photos in this crazy, empty environment. It was fun to watch them having so much fun with it, and to play around with it ourselves.  

We met some guys on dirt bikes at the Dakar monument, turns out to be a tour led by an English fellow that moved to Uyuni and now runs guided off-road trips on and around the Salar.  He made a point of emphasizing how corrosive the salt is.  Living right on the Pacific Ocean in Oregon, I had already decided not to spend too much time on the powdery lake surface.  We didn’t like the idea of salt in the electrical connectors and such, and so turned back toward “shore” after having enjoyed a great time riding out about 10 km onto the Salar.  Others we know have ridden out to an island far, far out in the middle of the Salar and camped there.  Sometimes I wish we’d not been quite so conservative on this trip and had done things like this, as I’m told that the view of the stars from the island is absolutely astonishing.  I’d encourage others to find a balance a little more toward adventure if they can.  No regrets, though, we had a long, long way still to go, and the bikes had been serving us dependably.

Once back in town, I decided that my front tire had gone far enough with me on this trip.  I spooned on the new tire I’d been carrying since Lima, where I’d bought the tire I wanted at a decent price about two months ago.  We try to get every mile we can out of them, and they end up pretty smooth.  It’s always a guessing game of what the road ahead will throw at you, and do you think this tire can make it another day?  Where will we find new ones?  Our rear tires were getting down there, too, and I was starting to look into buying some here in Bolivia.  I could get Brazilian-made Pirellis cheap here in Bolivia.  In Chile, we could get whatever we wanted, but they would be much more expensive.  Tariffs in Argentina made buying tires there out of the question.  As it turns out, I bought the Pirelli rear tires in Sucre, Bolivia from a moto shop for about the same as the internet price in the US.  We then carried them for maybe three weeks before mounting them on the bikes.  Carrying tires is not hard, it’s just another bit of hassle to deal with when packing and unpacking the bikes each day, but it does add several pounds to our load.

Uyuni is a dry, dusty town, but it has several nice places to eat, and a nice plaza and market area to browse through.  Down the center margin of the main drag, they have many old steam engines, boilers and train equipment placed, with a kind of Industrial Sculpture Garden feel to it.  I enjoyed puzzling out how the old boilers fit into the original engines, and how some of the other pieces were originally used.  Anyone with a mechanical mind will love this area, there is so much historical iron lying around.  We cruised on foot through the town, and had some great pizza just a few doors down from our hotel.  The place was filled with a busload of tourists from Europe, and we had some fun conversations, as we always do, with so many viewpoints from so many places all talking at once about their journeys, the strange things they see, or helping others to understand mysteries which they have already found the answers for.  Jalene and I, somewhere along the line, had found that we were becoming those people that could answer the questions more and more often.  We had been on the road over a year now, and had run into many of these mysteries ourselves, and so were morphing into the seasoned travelers that tended to have the answers.  It seems such a short time ago that we were new at this, full of questions, and so nervous at crossing those first few borders.  Now we hardly think twice about it, except to make sure we have all the papers (and snacks!) we need handy once we get there.  We have changed immensely, in knowledge, in confidence, in communications, and in trust of ourselves and, especially, each other.

Our time in Uyuni came to a close with the decision that, instead of taking the road around the south side of the Salar over to Chile, we would see more of Bolivia.  We chose to turn east toward the old city of Sucre, which we were told was a busy town with a lot of history and parks to enjoy.  It was also supposed to be warmer there, and that alone was pretty attractive to us.  But Sucre was going to throw a curveball at us from out of the Cretaceous Period, and we were in for a big, big surprise.


Check out photos of the Salar de Uyuni and Jalene's blog video that we made on the Salar.

Death Road Days

After a bit of rest in La Paz, exploring up and down the steep hills and taking the cable gondola to the top of the plateau above the city to have a look around, we packed up to head out of town to the northeast.  We were headed toward Coroico, which has become the base for anyone wanting to experience the old “Death Road.” This was once a narrow, cliff-side dirt road connecting La Paz with points north.  We would follow it, and spend time in a lower, warmer climate beyond, to soak up a bit of heat for a while.  Friends of ours had stayed in Coroico a few years back, and recommended a hostel that had us huffing and puffing as we packed our gear down about 50 steep steps to our little cabaña, and parked our bikes up a hill across the road.  But we were repaid with a great balcony view over the treetops and across the broad valley, where we could see the highway we had just ridden dropping down, down, down the mountainside into our area.

The Death Road is a one-lane dirt and rock road, wider in some places, narrower and rougher in others, easily negotiated by riders with moderate dual-sport skills.  It runs generally downhill to the northeast toward Coroico, with the mountain on your right and the cliff on your left going down.  But when I imagined two big trucks or buses trying to get by each other going opposite directions, I could easily see why this was the Death Road before the paved highway bypassing it was built.  The custom is to pass on the left on this road.  This puts the drivers on the outside, and so the one nearest the edge will be better able to judge where he was in relation to the edge of the road better.  In some places that edge drops off, sometimes steeply downhill, and sometimes straight down, for hundreds of meters.  There are big memorial markers along its length where particularly grisly accidents occurred.  We learned that the road, which is spoken of as strictly one-way now, is actually still a two-way road, but in the morning there are hordes of tour-group bicyclists that like to coast down from the top.  Once the bicycles start flowing down, the locals set up at least two stations to collect local “road fees” from them, giving out very official looking tickets, all totally illegal but tolerated.  I met a German fellow on an R1100GS at our hostel who told me about all this one-way stuff.  His name is Florian, and he had ridden it the day before, on the way down to Coroico.  On his recommendation he and I waited until about 4 in the afternoon, and headed up the road the “wrong” way, while Jalene relaxed in town.  In the afternoon it was pleasantly empty, and we were able to stop and take photos all we wanted.  Small pickups and cars occasionally came by going both ways, as people do live along some parts of this road.  No toll-ropes to be seen, and a very enjoyable afternoon ride along a super-scenic and historic road section.  When Jalene and I rode it together, following the “rules”, we ended up amongst bicycles, lots of them along with their attendant vehicles as well as some crazy ATV riders.  We were both very nervous with them in front, beside, and behind us at times, as they were trying to coast as fast as they could along a road where a mistake could get you killed.   If you come to the La Paz area, you must do this road, but I’d encourage those on motos to ride this road, up or down, in the afternoon when it is empty.

We stayed for 5 nights in Coroico, and enjoyed a beautiful view across a huge valley of the mountains to the north and the road leading down, down, down into the valley we were in.   At night we could see long trains of cars and trucks coming down the mountain switchbacks in an endless procession.  We were in a very steep country here, and on our fourth night, we noticed a small grass and brush fire on a hillside opposite us.  It was already dark outside, and we could not easily tell what was between the fire and us, or how fast it could reach us if it spread up hill in our direction.  The ground was quite steep below us, and the trees and foliage very thick and dry.  As we watched, the fire spread to our right and down hill quite steadily, but we heard no alarm response nor did we see any evidence of anyone trying to quench the flames.  Soon the hostal lost power, the next-door hospital clinic fired up it’s generators, and we packed our bags up just in case we had to run for it.  After watching for a couple of hours, we went to bed.  I woke up and looked out several times, but heard no commotion in the town around us, so decided that if the locals weren’t alarmed, maybe I shouldn’t be.  In the morning we could see that between the charred area and us, there was a low rise and second watercourse, which we had not seen in the dark.  The fire had burned downhill slowly to a creek, and stopped.  The flames we had observed in the night was the fire on its way up to the ridgetop beyond, but no further, leaving a large section of the hillside blackened, but no real property damage appears to have occurred.  Next year’s pasture crop on that hillside is sure to benefit.

In places the road is quite narrow and slick.  Fun on motos, but I wouldn't want to be on the bus coming through here back when this was used as the main route.

We had a nice 5-day break here in Coroico, but soon enough it was time to depart and head south into other areas of Bolivia.  We rode back to La Paz, and this time I was able to see the terrain from a different direction.  What had seemed a gentle descent down into the Coroico area now was revealed as a very steep climb out, with long sections between switchbacks (super-fun!).  We could look straight up at the road as it crossed above us in long, sweeping arcs.  Seeing the underside of a crumbly Bolivian concrete bridge you will be crossing in a couple of minutes, well, you just learn to expand the “adventure” attitude.  Once back on the ridgetop, we took a break at the short tunnel that drills through a very steep mountaintop, and came to appreciate just how hard transiting this area can be.  Super-steep mountains all around us, it’s amazing how a two-lane road wide enough for trucks can be punched through here – one is able to easily comprehend why the Death Road lasted as long as it did before this bypass was finally constructed.  If you are coming over into this area from La Paz, keep an eye out where you first top out over the pass – you will see a dirt road heading down below you.  I imagine that this is the original pathway into the valley below.  It would be fun someday to do this section on a nice, light little dirt bike.  This was a time when my F650 Dakar felt big and ponderous, too much for explorations like this.  Oh, to be traveling on a Yamaha WR250, or even better down here (for parts and repair), a Honda 250 Tornado.  Then we’d have some fun!

We crossed back through La Paz, and spent a night at our Muslim friend’s hostel again before heading southeast toward the heart of Bolivia.  The mountains around Potosi and Sucre were our goal, as well as the big Salar de Uyuni.  Leaving La Paz, aiming ouirselves toward the center of the country, we started out on a big divided highway, filled not with cars and trucks, but crowded on either side by market stalls, so that all traffic was constricted down the center lanes.  This traffic/market hybrid jam lasted for many kilometers until finally it cleared out and the road opened up before us.  In all the craziness I couldn’t pull the camera out to get the best sign I had seen yet.  In front of a gas station, it showed a cartoon drawing making it graphically clear that if you urinate on the ground around that station, a large pair of scissors would be used, gentlemen, to castrate you.  No words, but perfect clarity.

Once out of the city and rolling, the roads through Bolivia are simply incredible.  Western Bolivia, in the area of the Altiplano, is a very high, dry landscape.  The altitudes vary from 3-4,000 meters (~10-13,000’) while traveling the roads, and the area lies east of a wall of Andean peaks, sheltering it from most precipitation.  Now we were rolling along on fairly flat ground, with low scrub bushes and grasses growing on the open ground.  It’s a high desert here, and there is nothing to stop the wind and weather.  After a night in Oruro, we continued south paralleling Lago Poopo, a large, shallow lake where you can see the salt and sediment deposits in the satellite view on Google Maps.  South of Poopo lie the great salt flats: Salar de Coipasa and Salar de Uyuni.  But first, we wanted to detour into the mountains to the mining city of Potosi, located high above the Altiplano in the Cordillera Central, or central range of the Andes.  At an altitude of 4,100 meters (13,400’) we had a cold ride to get there, and were also very glad the 8-liter plastic gas jugs we each carry were full (more on that later).

From Oruro, our day’s ride didn’t look all that difficult, but we were to have an introduction to Bolivian mountain weather this day.  We started out just fine, with clear skies, riding south on a good paved road to Challapata, and a hot lunch at a roadside cafeteria.  There was a load of tourists on a big high-clearance off-road bus there as well, and we enjoyed chatting with them.  The company is Dragoman, and they specialize in taking you much further into the “outback” areas than the regular bus routes.  They camp along the way, and passengers take turns sharing kitchen and camp chores, so it’s a bit like a rolling hostel.  A chat with the two driver-guides revealed that the company does tours in many places in the world.  The routes are often very long, and passengers can begin and end at places they choose they choose along the route, or go the whole way.  It looks like the kind of bus tour I’d take!

The road to Potosi, Bolivia had entertaining weather.  This is my current office environment these days.

After lunch, our route turned up a valley, and began to climb into the mountains.  The temperature dropped, but the skies remained clear, at least for a while.  We topped out over several ridges taking us above the snowline.  Stopping for a pee break along the road, it was silent except for the cold wind, and I could look around and see angry storm clouds that we had been skirting were now moving directly into our path.  It’s often hard to know this, as the road tends to dodge to the right or left every time it rounds a mountain or ridgeline, but this was too close to be mistaken about.  We were in for it.  Within about ten minutes, we were riding with snow on the road in cold, drenching rain and sleet.  Fortunately, the Dragoman bus had passed us at our pee stop, and we now had two nice tandem tire tracks of clear, wet pavement to ride in for about 30 minutes, until we descended out of the snow.  Not long before gaining Potosi, we came into a town with a gas station.  Tarapaya, I think it was.  It was still cold and raining, and we were thankful to pull under the pump shelter.  Problem was, the power was out and the pumps were not running.  No sweat, we dumped the fuel from our jugs into the bikes, at which point of course the power came back on and we were able to top off.  Still, having that gas in those jugs meant no panicky feeling anywhere, as our tanks were pretty dry.  We started making a habit of filling at least one jug whenever we had the least doubt about fuel availability ahead.  Although we never really got into an emergency situation, it was a good feeling to know we had that extra gas along.  We did this in Patagonia at times, as well. (I’ll tell you a little more about Bolivian fuel-buying adventures in the next story.)

A note here for long-distance folks and practical cheapskates like me:  The upper third of a clear plastic water bottle, cut off at the fattest point, makes the best funnel for pouring gas.  You can see right down through them with perfect focus, and watch the level as it fills.  No more “It’s full!” spillovers.  Best of all, they are free, available in any ditch or garbage pile near you.  Bring your knife.

Riding above 4,000 meters (13,000’) in hard rain, with snow on the ground, way out in the Bolivian Andes, with no help anywhere near really gets your imagination running.  A flat tire?  That’s workable.  An engine failure?  Much more difficult.  An accident?  Let’s not go there.  These are the times that keep me on top of the bike maintenance when we stop for the night.  We spent a lot of money on good gear and equipment, and in these conditions I am so thankful for it.  We arrived in Potosi in the cold rain, found a hostel using iOverlander, and though we were shivering and cold, we were relatively dry and safe.  We unloaded stuff, lubed the chains, and put the bikes to bed.  Rooms here are equipped with thick, heavy wool and alpaca blankets, and after finding a hot meal nearby, we were oh-so-glad to burrow in underneath them.  We dozed off dreaming of sunshine in the morning on the ride to Uyuni, and the largest salt flat on earth.


More photos HERE :) + check out Jalene's take on swinging and the changes coming our way.

The Magic Hour

Leaving Cañon del Colca after just two days seemed a shame, as this was a place that deserved much more exploration on foot, hoof, or by moto.  But we had tickets to Machu Picchu in just a few days, so it was time to pack up and go.  We managed to get the bikes successfully out of the hostel without me falling into the cactus again, and off we went towards the Sacred Valley.  We had planned that our route would run to the east a bit and then cut straight north, taking two days with a stop somewhere in between.  But when it was time to turn northward, we saw that our proposed route was used by tons of mining trucks forming up in trains, and the dust would be horrendous.  So instead we continued east toward Lago Titicaca for a few hours, and revised our plan to turn north on the paved road running up through the northern Altiplano.

The road continuing east was high, fairly flat, cold, and starkly beautiful.  The land is dry and mostly brown grass-covered hills and mountains, with low brush and few trees.  There are occasional lakes and rivers, and at times snow on the volcanoes and hills.  It looks like it should be hot here, but the elevation insures that it is quite cold and windy.  People live by herding alpaca and cattle, or by working in the mining industry.

For the first time on the entire trip, near the little town of Santa Lucia, I had a cop ask me point-blank for money.  Jalene and I keep our intercoms open at security checkpoints, and I overheard “her” cop ask only to see her passport, and so I, turning back to the other cop, said loudly “Dinero, o solo un pasaporte?” (“Money, or just a passport?”), at which point “my” cop instantly shouted that everything was okay, and we were cleared to go.  He couldn’t wave me out of there fast enough.  Having told this story, however, I must say that our experiences with cops and soldiers at checkpoints and such on this trip have almost always been friendly and professional, and very often end up with us taking group photos together.  One police officer in Peru even tore off the flag patch that was Velcroed to his uniform, and gave it to me – a treasure!

It was kind of frustrating having to head east further than we wanted, and we ended up staying in the busy town of Juliaca, not far from Lago Titicaca.  We managed to find a hotel in town with secure parking, threw our stuff into the room, and headed out to find an ATM and some dinner.  We were tired and unhappy, being pushed so far out of our way, and having to ride so far north tomorrow to get to where we needed to be.  Little did we know what a beautiful ride we had ahead of us.

We rose, found breakfast, and pointed the bikes northwest out of town.  On the way, we had to cross railroad tracks where the pavement was completely broken away around them, and heavy traffic forced us to cross them at the worst possible point.  Jalene’s kickstand caught on one as she went over.  It nearly tore the wide aluminum foot off the stand, but she made it across okay, and I pulled the mutilated foot off at the first gas stop.  Lowering a bike an inch comes with its perils when traveling in foreign lands where the roads can throw surprises.

Leaving Juliaca, we rolled northwest out onto the Altiplano grasslands.  We were on broad, flats plains, with grass fields on either side of us, and low hills in the distance to the right and left.  The GPS told me we were slowly and gradually rising.  The railroad tracks ran beside us all that day, sometimes on our left, sometimes our right, but we traveled together all day.  From time to time we would see a pond of water, and it was such a surprise to see flamingos here, at such an elevation and where it is so cold.  This is lonely country, and hard to describe here.  Things can be hidden in the monotone brown and tan of the fields.  We stopped for a break, and rolled a little ways off the road, out into a level field of stubble.  Once we had our helmets off, we noticed the person sitting on the ground not 50 feet away from us, keeping an eye on the llamas a little ways off.  With a nod, a smile, and a wave, we acknowledged each other, and returned to watching our own worlds.

As we moved north, the far-off hills slowly advanced on us, and we eventually found ourselves riding up a broad valley.  We stopped for the night in Sicuani, and rang the bell at the gate of Hostel Sicuani.  Inside the gate, to our surprise, we parked the bikes on a very nice lawn, and we were shown our room with a comfortable bed and hot shower.  We slept soundly, and enjoyed a nice breakfast in the sunshine the next morning before heading northwest again.   Again, we paralleled the railroad tracks up the valley, finally cresting gently over at about 4,300 meters (14,100’), and began our journey into the Sacred Valley.  The light had a yellow-gold feel, and the air was thin, cold, and crisp.  We caught sight of glaciers above us at times. Fences made of stacked stone ran everywhere on the mountainsides.  At times there must have been huge numbers of grazing animals, llamas and sheep, to be tended.  For us they seemed common enough, but not in overwhelming numbers, by any means.  It was difficult to see what kept people going in this land, but it was very obvious that they had been here a long, long time.  Houses and structures showed the wear and erosion of wind and weather.  Paint has a hard life here, and most all of it was pretty patchy.

At the end of the day we found our hostel in Ollantaytambo.  From here, we had tickets the next day on the train that would take us up to Aquas Calientes, the town that sits along the river directly below Machu Picchu.  We would stay the night there, and see the Sacred City early the following morning, returning to Ollantaytambo that evening on the train.  Walking up to the plaza, we found ourselves amidst many Europeans and North Americans.  Buses were pulling in and out, full of tourists, and we could hear the train whistle from just below at the station.  Locals were selling lots of knitted alpaca items, blankets, hats, and so on.  It’s always such a contrast to see a traditional Peruvian woman with her brightly colored handmade alpaca wares spread out on a table on the sidewalk, and the ATM machine on the bank wall right beside her.  It takes courage to approach a group of brightly dressed women all talking together, but if you are polite and use your best attempt at Espaniol to ask a question, it’s easy to get a photos of them, especially if you give a few coins “for the baby” that is always slung across the back in a big shawl-like cloth.

In the afternoon, we secured our motorcycles inside our hostel in Ollantaytambo and caught the train up to Aguas Calinetes, along the river.  Initially, we gently curved back and forth, passing farmland on either side.  The train rolls along narrow-gauge tracks, and even at the slow pace it goes, rocks back and forth along the uneven rails.  We followed the river, and while the ride only takes a couple of hours, we saw a huge change in the landscape.  As the valley walls closed in, the brown grasses and scrubland changed dramatically to a beautiful, lush green forest, with tall rock cliffs rising directly up from the river.  When we exited the train, we knew that an ancient city was perched right above us, but we could see no sign of it from the valley floor.

We found our hotel, and then wandered the tourist-laden streets for awhile.  We searched out some great stickers for the bikes, trying different stalls to find the best price, then rewarding ourselves with ice cream and a seat in a side-street park.  After returning to the hotel for a nap, we ventured out to find some food in the rain, but we didn’t like the prices at most places, so settled for cheap Chifa, which is Peruvian Chinese food.  After that we hunkered down for the evening – it was our first night away from the motorcycles in over a year.

We were told that the best time for seeing Machu Picchu was early in the morning, and that buses started running at 6am.  We got in line at about 5am, and the line was already at 500 yards long, at least.  The first person in line said they had arrived about 3am.  Our concern was unfounded, as buses were leaving as fast as they could load people, and we soon found ourselves bounding upward on the Hiram Bingam Highway, which is a good switchback road but you still feel like you are just putting your life in the hands of the bus driver and hoping for the best.  We’d made it this far, hadn’t we?  Sometimes it’s best to quit fretting and just enjoy the ride.

Machu Picchu was crowded with noisy tourists, waving selfie-sticks everywhere, and mostly concerned with finding great spots to take photos of themselves to post on social media.  It was loud, and swarming with people.  The magic was just not there as we imagined it would be.  We joined a two-hour tour right away, and that turned out for the best, because any photos would be full of tourists, our ears were already full of loud people, and meaningful contemplation was, well, unthinkable.  I enjoyed hearing our guide (and other guides) explain the history and culture for a couple of hours.  We hiked up to the Sun Gate after awhile to see what the place looked like from above, and to just get away from the crowd.  The Sun Gate is a point on the ridge above where the Inca Trail comes over, and you see the city for the first time.  In the morning, the sun rises behind it.  It was overcast, so the light was flat and had a bit of haze.  While we were impressed with the size and beauty of Machu Picchu, we were somehow left uninspired, disappointed by the crowded tourist-trap atmosphere.  After killing some time at lunch in the cafeteria, we went back in, and that’s when our ho-hum day started to change.

People begin to leave in the middle of the afternoon.  As we sat on an isolated set of stone steps, we noticed that the crowds had really thinned out, and that the late afternoon sun was slanting in below the high clouds above.  At about 4pm, I took the opportunity to climb back up the “Guard House”, which gives the classic picture-book view of the city from above.  The light had gone soft and golden, and there were only three of us, quietly taking photos where before there had been dozens trying to shoulder their way around.  The city below was near-empty, and finally the magic had returned to Machu Picchu.  My advice? Forget about sunrise, you’re just fighting everyone else who wants the same thing.  It’s already light by the time the buses start from the bottom.  Go up mid-to-late morning, take a tour, relax, and hang around for the crowds to leave.  Four in the afternoon was the magic time for me.  The park closes at 5, and it’s the last hour that I would never miss.

Machu Picchu is described in so many books and TV shows that I don’t think I need go into detail about it, but it is certainly an amazing place to visit for yourself.  We’ve all seen photos of how tightly the rocks fit together, but seeing it in reality is a shock.  There are some stones with many angles cut into them, and sure enough, you really can’t fit a piece of paper into the joints, they fit so perfectly.  There are hundreds of structures all packed together, and large, grassy lawns that suggest a central plaza area.  The surrounding mountains are stunning in their steepness, height, and beauty.  One can look down to the river below and see the train snaking along, secure in your near-invisibility from high above.

I had noticed people working diligently with small brushes and squeeze-bottles, and it looked like they were cleaning the stones, or working to conserve them in some manner.  Just before we left, I approached two fellows just gathering up their tools at the end of the day and asked what they were up to.  They were cleaning the stones of lichens, they explained, using only soft wooden tools, toothbrushes, and distilled water.  Lichens produce acid, and over time will erode the stone surface.  One showed me a stone he had cleaned that afternoon, and in about two hours he had cleaned the lichen off about two square feet of surface.  I understood that they are part of a team of about ten, and they work continuously to keep the lichens under control.  They have a job that will last forever.

Afterward, we rode back down in the buses, and splurged a bit at a nice pizza restaurant near the train station.  Just outside our window, the river ran by, and on the far side a granite rock wall soared vertically up out of the river, out of sight over our heads.  Air plants dotted it by the thousands, merging into a leafy green above.  Somewhere on top we had wandered around just an hour before, amongst the remains of the Sacred City, but now here we were back in white-tablecloth civilization in the blink of an eye.  It seemed a little dream like.

So yes, it’s a big tourist scene, but don’t let that throw you.  Go to Machu Picchu, hang out and relax through the afternoon.  I hope you will find your own magic hour.


Lots of cool new photos here.

Cañon del Colca

We left Arequipa on a warm, sunny morning with the temperature climbing fast.  On our way up the busy highway leading out of town, choked with trucks and buses, we stopped to gas up, and I noticed oil all down the side of Jalene’s bike.  I had left her oil tank cap loose while finishing up work on her water pump the previous day, and a little oil had burped out with every sharp bump.  Her very clean motorcycle was now a mess, due to my own error, and I was pissed off.   I secured the cap properly, and we got back on the road with a cleaning chore on my list.

Once we cleared town, we left much of the truck and bus traffic behind, but we were still caught up in a lot of truck convoys heading north to the same goal, Cañon del Colca, with relief supplies and equipment for both the mines and the townspeople.  Apparently the earthquake damage was serious, although we had received good information that we should go ahead.  Our hostel, near the epicenter, was open and ready for us.  The road north to Chivay, at the upper end of the canyon, climbed steadily as we curved around the big volcanoes to the north of Arequipa.  We soon found ourselves putting on more layers as we rose through 4,000 meters (13,100’), where we saw a team of railroad locomotives hooking up cars of ore at a mine entrance.  It was remarkable to see the big engines up at such an altitude, but the tracks wound around and around, following the contours to reach the rich mining areas.  The Peruvians will blast and tunnel to put roads and rails in places almost unimaginable.

The road topped out at a freezing 4,900 meters (16,100’), and we stopped at the summit to use the little restroom built of rock and old timbers, and check out the hand made alpaca hats and gloves.  The ladies were knitting them right there, and wearing their own wares, not just for show.  It was darned cold, and we didn’t stick around long.  In a few miles we were winding our way down into Chivay, which sits on the eastern end of the canyon proper, and serves as the supply center for locals, and the base from which trekkers head westward along the canyon rim, or down along the river, following its flow deeper and deeper.  We turned west and followed the paved road a bit, which then became a fast dirt road, and wound our way along through irrigated terraced fields along steep hillsides, the kind you see in the picture books about Incan farming.

We passed through smaller villages where the earthquake destroyed the adobe-brick structures, or crumbled walls to expose the home within.  I wanted to take photos, but that seemed disrespectful to those struggling to recover.  I left the camera unused and simply allowed the images to burn into memory – I need not fear forgetting them.  Peruvian road crews with heavy equipment and trucks were hard at work along the road, and while we had to stop now and again to wait for a flagger, we got through with little delay.  Some of the friable rock cliffs above the road had let loose with big rockslides, but the cleanup was proceeding smoothly at an impressive pace.  Bus service was on schedule.

Along the way, we had to negotiate a tunnel about 500 meters (1,640’) long, which seemed like an easy task, except that it was curved along its length, and the road was dusty dry gravel.  The bus going through ahead of us created a thick dust cloud that hung inside the tunnel, blinding us to oncoming traffic, and even made seeing the tunnel walls almost impossible.  I had to stop inside the tunnel to orient myself, and let the dust clear a bit, even though it meant that similarly blinded traffic could hit us from behind (Peruvian drivers don’t stop just because they can’t see).  After a tense few seconds, we could a little, and rolled through unscathed, but these kinds of experiences just give me more grey hair.

We arrived in Cabanaconde and found Hostel Pachamama, where we squeezed the bikes into the courtyard and parked for the night.  We had a room on the third floor, reached by a tight spiral staircase going up an outside wall, masonry of course, which felt like a dice-roll so soon after the earthquake, but here we were.  The people were very friendly and we enjoyed quite a lot of comfort and great food here.

The next day, Jalene took a hike down into the canyon while I went off on my bike to see condors fly and explore down into the canyon depths.  She was warned that the hike, while difficult, long and steep, was do-able in one day but tackled by most people in two days, and told to call the hostel if she had any problems.  I was told that the track down to the river in the canyon bottom was very difficult for motorcycles, and that I should not try it.  Both of us, of course, dismissed the warnings.

I wished Jalene a good hike, and then rode out to Cruce del Condor, the site where I was guaranteed to see the huge birds rising out of the canyon in the morning as the thermal updrafts gained strength.  As I worked my bike out through the narrow entryway to the street, I demonstrated my advanced skills by bumping one of the pannier boxes on the stairway rail, which tipped me over into a large cactus against the brick wall, sending about a dozen spines through my glove and into my wrist and hand.  I was trapped, but Jalene and another guest saw me and helped free me, trapped between a heavy moto and a cactus.  By some miracle, no spines had gone through the sleeve of my good Gore-tex riding jacket.  As usual, my ego took the most damage.

Safely released from cactus bondage, I rode out for Cruce del Condor.  I walked three steps to the wooden rail after parking, and there they were, right in front of me, some passing within a rock-throw.  It was deceptive at first, the size of them, with nothing but canyon air behind them, until I saw one glide low over a slope below, and I saw its shadow on the ground.  Compared to the brush-clumps it skimmed over, I could then see how long its wingspan stretched and the size suddenly hit me – these are giants!  These big birds are made for soaring, and the only time I saw one flap its wings was just after taking off from a cliff ledge, and then it was more for control than lift, as they have a way of simply tipping forward off the ledge and letting gravity do the hard work of acceleration.  After that they soar upward on the wind and thermals, climbing until they are dots overhead, heading off over the ridges.  Just east along the road a half-kilometer was another area where the condors gathered after clearing the inner canyon, and I sat on the motorcycle and watched 50 or more massive condors wheel overhead as they rapidly gained altitude and moved of to the south.

While looking at the photos of the birds later, I was struck by the resemblance to big military cargo planes.  A soaring condor’s wings become several inches thick where they meet the body, and merge seamlessly across the top.  The trailing edge of the wing is continuous across the bird’s back.  There are no abrupt changes in dimension, just smooth curves and long lines, free of sharp angles.

After watching the condors for an hour or so, I decided to ride to the west, where the canyon deepened, and the map showed some possible routes down to the river.  I took the first right that looked promising, where a yellow sign indicated I could reach some of the villages on the opposite side of the canyon.  I started down a small, rocky but firm dirt road, which led downward at a moderate but constant steepness.  I soon came upon a woman walking her cows back up the hill.  I asked if the road led to the river, and if it was in this same condition.  I got a firm assurance on both topics, and so off I went.  The road wound down and down, fording a few little runs of water.  I was enjoying the ride immensely, having just enough challenge to make it fun, but not dangerous so far from home in such an isolated place.  I had brought tools and spares, plenty of water, and some leftover food, so I felt okay if trouble arose.  The road continued down for 8-10 miles, descending steadily through rock, gravel, and dust.  After about a half-hour I came upon a woman sitting on her cloth bundle of stuff beside the road, and she flagged me down.  By this time I was about two-thirds of the way down into the canyon, and it was extremely hot and very dry here.  My American ears heard her explain that she might have missed her friends who were supposed to pick her up and take her out of the canyon to town.  She asked if I had any water and I held out my Camelback hose.  She indicated she had no cup, so I showed her how to bite down and suck it like a straw, which she gratefully did.  I assured her that if she were still here when I came back out, I would take her up with me (wondering how the heck I’d make it with her on the back through some of the deep, slippery flour-dust sections, which felt exactly like riding over green, slick rocks in a river crossing).  About 20 minutes later I found myself winding down through a rough and rocky road to the river.  Of course, just above the river, a city bus came up and I fortunately had a wide spot to pull over and let him by.  Buses go everywhere here, why was I so surprised?

Down at the bridge over the river, I came upon 6 hikers who looked sunburnt, hot, thirsty, and a little desperate.  The temperature was really, really hot now, and the sun was fierce.  I asked if they were okay, and they said in a French accent that they had lost their guide and wanted to know where to go next.  They asked me for water.  They needed it much more than I, and I let them drink my Camelback dry, the whole 2-liter bag.  I pointed to a shady area and said I would let others in town know they were down here.  I was thinking all this time about Jalene, and felt a little reassured by her habit of always carrying a lot more water than she thought she needed.  Today that would save her, judging by these folks. I thought about waiting to see if she showed up and wanted a ride out, but with no water and terrific heat, I decided to go back up, reasoning that if I had a flat tire I would need time to deal with it, or hike back up the road.  The food I thought I had packed was not to be found.  I knew that Jalene would make good decisions if she ran into problems.  What I did not know was that the trail she had taken came down to a different place along the canyon bottom, and I never would have seen her.

I rode out of the canyon without delay. The trip took about an hour, and went just fine.  The lady at the roadside had apparently caught the bus, and so there were no passengers to haul up.  Once safely near the top, I took a break and looked again for any food or something to drink in my panniers, but only found that the plastic bottle of fuel additive I was carrying had worn through by rubbing against something, and had soaked into everything, leaving me with a pannier stinking like kerosene.

I was really hot and thirsty by the time I reached our hostel, and I let them know about the French hikers.  I asked about Jalene, but no news.  I started to worry a little, but I was hopeful she was okay.  I soaked up the spilled fuel additive with rags, and laid them out in the hot sun.  Along with the stinking gloves and tools, they quickly dried, thankfully leaving no smell behind.

Jalene, as it turns out, had much more of an adventure that day than I.   She tells the tale so well in a video she made – be sure to go to her website and follow her down the trail, and see what she found!  But we are all safe, had great adventures, and we were reminded once again to listen to the locals regarding the trails, and that local farmers and herders really know the conditions of the small roads.

And Peruvian buses will go anywhere, on time and on schedule.


Lots of great photos & video here! Plus, a bonus video that I keep forgetting to share with you. When we were in Lima, Peru, I captured an everyday moment of living in hostels on the road. If you're curious about what a typical "home" looks like for us these days.

Shaky Concrete Boxes

We headed south from Nasca along the desert shore of the Pacific Ocean.  It’s so hard for me to believe that these are the same ocean waters shared by Oregon – I’ve never seen any place so dry and yet have an ocean of water at hand nearby.  The wet ocean beach transforms seamlessly into dunes that climb away eastward into the coastal desert mountains.  Where does the beach stop its association with the ocean, and change allegiance to the desert dunes?  It’s hard to think of a more complete opposition in duality than this.  Yin and yang taken to the extreme.  All I can do is show you the photos and let you wonder about it as much as I do.

Halfway to our next goal of Arequipa, we stayed in the beach town of Atico.  Along the coast, most rivers flowing down out of the interior mountains never make it through the coastal desert, but we do see many dry streambeds, or arroyos, some impressively deep and broad.  Along rivers that do succeed, we now see orchards of olive trees, and roadside stands selling locally produced aciete de oliva, or olive oil.  Even though the ground under the trees appears dry and dusty, the roots surely reach deep to find the life-sustaining water.  The hillside land above the olive trees is once again parched rock and sand.

Peru is full of inexpensive places to stay with food nearby, so we rarely worried about making reservations when we were just traveling along.  Since we were staying in Arequipa several days, we had used the iOverlander App to find and book a relaxing spot near the central Plaza, and once again it put us in a great place.  It was a comfortable hostel with secure parking, a rooftop terrace and ground-level courtyard inside.  We stayed four nights there, which was wonderful as it let me change Jalene’s water pump again, this time taking only 2-1/2 hours.  I had a nice level flagstone spot, and found a scrap of old cardboard to kneel on.  Curious hostel backpackers stopped by and marveled at seeing someone expose the guts of an engine on a side street in such a casual manner, except for the overlanders in old VW buses.  I give up on trying to explain a wet-plate clutch to someone who has never seen one pulled apart.

I change water pumps on our BMW F650 singles so often that the ritual has become something of a meditation now.  I find the constant repetition somehow centering and calming.  When I see oil or coolant dripping from the weep hole of one of our bikes, it once made me very upset, but now I only feel resignation and acceptance.  Discovering it dripping from both bikes together brings me double the peace, near to nirvana.  I must send my appreciation to the engine designers at Rotax.

In the early hours of our second night in Arequipa, I lay awake in the pre-dawn hours, enjoying the cool air and quiet, hearing the occasional dog or other early morning stirrings.  Very suddenly I heard the rumbling of a big truck coming down the road, not gradually, but instantly, like someone switched the sound on.  It was deep, strong, constant, and powerful, like a jet engine on a runway.  About 5 seconds later I knew the source for sure, as the ground started to shake. “Jay, get out!”  By the time I had made the doorway to the inner courtyard, the shaking stopped, and never restarted.  It lasted for maybe 6-8 seconds.  The quake happened just off the coast, many miles away, and was very shallow.  These concrete boxes we stay in make me react fast.  It’s also disconcerting when you find that the steel outer security door is locked and can’t be opened from the inside without the key, a practice not uncommon down here.  If you want to know how to get out fast, better ask ahead of time.

We had plans to ride north from Arequipa to visit Cañon del Colca, which is the second-deepest canyon in the world at 10,700’ (the deepest in the world is right next to it).  Colca is famous as a place where one can sit on the edge of the cliffs, and watch condors soaring on the thermals rising out of the canyon as they pass close by you.  A second earthquake had happened there.  Four people were dead, and the roads were damaged.  The earthquake was centered right next to Cabanaconde, the town at the edge of the canyon we were planning to stay in.  We learned the next day that the roads were being rapidly cleared, and so we decided to stick with our plans.  They treat road debris and landslides like New England treats snow – it’s plowed and cleared before you know it.

But back in Arequipa…It is a beautiful town, with a generous and lovely Plaza area with plenty of shade trees and fountains, great food, and reasonable prices for the traveler.  There is much history to be sampled here, with museums and the large convent, lots of crafts available from local artisans, and of course, huge volcanoes visible to the north from every street.  We enjoyed the view every morning from the rooftop as we had breakfast, and were able to be in t-shirts and sandals at sunup without it getting too crazy hot in the afternoon.  The breakfast conversations with travelers from around the world, with the jumble of city spread before us and the volcanoes presiding over all, were terrific fun and such an education. We spent a lot of time walking around and just wandering the central part of the city, but when we turned the corner onto “our” street with the hostel, it wonderfully changed to a quiet tree-lined small town avenue.

All this time we were catching the Olympics here and there on TV.  There are three channels down here that play Olympic events 24-7.  You can see stuff they rarely show at home in the US (women’s hammer-throw, field hockey, weight-lifting, judo, team handball), and it was great to just sit down and see what came on next.  The pole-vault showdown was incredible, with the winner becoming a Brazilian hero overnight.  As well, the Special Olympics received lots of attention and coverage here.  Best of all (in my view), there were none of those sappy time-eating profiles of the athlete and their family and their struggle.  Just show me the events – and down here, they do!

We had now spent about 6 weeks wandering around Peru as we worked our way south, and we still had three big goals ahead of us – Cañon del Colca, Machu Picchu, and Lake Titicaca.  With some nervousness and a great deal of excitement, we made sure the bikes and ourselves were ready for high altitude, rougher roads, and life on the Altiplano as we journeyed inland and south.  Thoughts of high, rolling grasslands, llamas, Incan ruins, cold nights, alpaca blankets, the steep Andes and the Sacred Valley fired our imaginations, and energized our dreams.  And when the ground shook beneath us, it made it all so very real.

Postscript – As I finish this story, we are staying at Casa Matte, a family-owned hostel in Santiago, Chile that caters to moto-travelers.  I’m seated in the work area, amongst about a dozen motos belonging to the various travelers.  Cristian, our host, came out of the house a moment ago with a box of incense.  He told the story that, two years ago that day, a close friend of his died while exploring Iceland by motorcycle.  Christian lit a couple of fragrant sticks and placed them in an old jar in the corner.  It sits by the feet of a meter-tall statue of the Virgin Carmen, and on the jar is pasted a photo of his friend.


We shared these photos of Arequipa in the last blog but they make make even more sense after you read this post -- click here :) 


The Lesson of the Machu Picchu Ticket

I will always look back at this trip with fond memories of our nine weeks in Peru.  When we entered the country, we had no idea of what we would like to see or do, other than we had to see Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca, but what about the rest?  Well, as you have read, once we began to look around a bit and talk to locals, we had no end of options to check out.  But once we came out to the coast, we realized that we needed to get to Lima for badly needed bike maintenance and repair chores, buying spares and supplies, and just a rest in a nice place.

It took us two days to ride down the coast.  As we had seen to the north of here, the coast is a dry desert environment, but has a wonderful beauty in the forms and colors along the way.  It’s such a yin-yang thing, so much water on your right, and none at all on your left.  You can get off the bike, stand and face due east, and never be able to imagine that if you simply spun about, all that you would see is endless ocean.  Now try to imagine that behind you is the dry, lifeless face of Mars.  For folks from the rainforest coast of the Pacific Northwest, it’s a bizarre world.

A snapshot from our ride down the coast to Lima.

Lima hove into view by gradations.  It’s a big city, with 8.5 millions souls there.  I had some need of help with bike issues, and so I had made contact with Felipe Miranda at Motos del Peru through the Horizons Unlimited webpage.  Though he owns a Suzuki shop, he agreed to round up all the spares I needed, and to let me use one of the service bays for doing my own work.  In return, I bought all supplies through him.  He and his crew were terrific help to us.  We were able to repair Jalene’s badly leaking fork by wet-sanding the chrome tube, and it seems to be holding still over a month later after the roads of Bolivia.  Both bikes received a thorough once-over, oil changes, cleaning, electrical repairs, brake pads, a new tire for me, etc.  We received some personal maintenance in the form of some needed rest, food, and good company.  We stayed at Backpackers Hostel in Miraflores, just a few blocks from the beach area, and it’s lovely parks.  People here really seem to use these parks, and we saw lots of families and groups of friends out and about.  Remember the swing sets and monkey bars that were everywhere when we were kids?  They’re still here – nobody seems to worry about the occasional broken arm in the growing-up process, and you can find all sorts of fun adult size exercise equipment, too.

Lima is written about as being a culinary mecca these days, and we saw some evidence of that.  Just around the corner were a few fancy places on the roundabout, and the prices warned us of the good food to be had there.  We walked on a few doors and found a cheaper place owned by a couple from Spain, and had a terrific meal for much less.  Later, we went back to the upstairs bar nearby and got a real education on Pisco Sours from a local bartender with only two customers to entertain, which proved handy in the days to come.

Motos del Peru was about a 6-7 minute ride from our hostel, and we also ventured out to Touratech and other shops.  Big city traffic in Peru is hard to describe, but easy to learn.  Many smaller intersections are totally uncontrolled – no signs or lights.  First come, first served.  If the race to the crossing is a tie, then tonnage wins the day (pedestrians are nothing).  If you are on a moto, the bus will majestically steam into your lane, and you will become flotsam in its wake if you don’t find another path.  The courteous taxi driver will wave a lazy hand out the window just before turning left from the lane to the right of you.  Don’t get angry.  We’re still alive and we all got there, didn’t we?  On the other hand, on a moto you can do things unheard of in any western nation.  One-way streets?  Lane-sharing?  For that matter, what’s a lane?  The number of lanes corresponds to the number of vehicles that can fit in the street.  Push to the head of the line at a light.  To make a left, cars going both straight AND left will gas it on the green light.  After everyone slams to a halt, whoever got furthest into the intersection is allowed to proceed.  Turns across multiple lanes are common, and nobody seems upset.  Many say that drivers in Peru have a suicidal gene, but there is a method to the madness once you “learn” it.  Gone are the days of Mexico, and orderly traffic patterns.

Southward along the desert coast again!  We took off refreshed and repaired and made our way out of the traffic and noise, and found the dry desert so peaceful and quiet.  We found a spot in the beachy town of Paracas and checked into a hostel with a pool for a couple of nights.  With no secure parking, they ushered us with our bikes poolside, where we parked them and relaxed a bit in the warm sun.  Jalene took a boat-tour to see the bird sanctuary offshore and came back with some great photos and tales of fun.  Not me, I’m done with saltwater boating for now.  Good ceviche and cheap ice cream kept us going, and after surviving two days of this, we continued south.

Poolside in Paracas we celebrated 1 year on the road!

Poolside in Paracas we celebrated 1 year on the road!

Ica is a town in vineyard country, and we of course had to find out about this.  A visit to the Tacama winery, the oldest vineyard in South America, gave us a great education in local Peruvian winemaking and, especially, the distilling of Pisco.  A beverage much like grappa or cognac, Pisco is a strong grape liquor enjoyed straight or in a Pisco sour.  We had enjoyed Pisco sours already in Chachapoyas, and those continue to be my favorite.  At Tacama, it seemed a shame to leave without a Pisco sour from the heartland, and so we enjoyed refreshing afternoon drinks that left us absolutely smashed in their wakes.  I have never had a single 8-oz. tumbler leave me with a hangover the next morning.  Caution is advised, but I would never discourage you from trying one at Tacama.

The next day we took a short ride south to Nazca.  Sure enough as we neared the fabled site of the Lineas de Nazca, the land opened out onto dry, rocky plains.  The surface was quite flat, and covered with dark stones.  Just under the surface is light-colored substrate, and the lines are formed by scraping away the thin dark surface layer.  From ground level, one can see nothing to suggest any designs or geometry on this vast canvas.  There is a single tower beside the road where one can climb up and see two figures directly below, but we passed it by and headed for the town of Nasca, hoping to catch a flight and see them from the air the next day.  As we checked into our hotel, we learned that flights in the morning are often delayed unpredictably by fog and poor visibility.  The afternoon was perfectly clear and the wind low, so we purchased tickets immediately.  Our flight took off at about 4:30 pm, and in about 40 minutes we saw 13 of the classic figures and many, many geometric designs and lines that stretched for miles and miles.  Most are not as large or easily visible as I thought they would be, and the pilot did a great job of circling with the end of the wing pointed exactly at the target below, so we touristas didn’t have to search to find it.  As with many things found by archeology, we know how and when the figures were made, but the why is still evasive.

Seeing the Nazca Lines from above was spectacular!

Seeing the Nazca Lines was kind of expensive, but it was one of those things that we didn’t want to pass up and regret later.  “We’re never going to be here again” is how we decide whether we really want to see or do something, or are just checking off the box on a place we were told (expected) to see.  Machu Picchu was also going to cost us the equivalent of many days of gas and accommodations, but we both agreed that it was something we wanted to see for ourselves.  What we didn’t realize is that, due to demand, we needed to buy our tickets in advance.  Jalene searched and found tickets two weeks out, and so after hearing tales of having to buy two months in advance by others, we felt lucky and grabbed them.

This led to an important new lesson about life on the road.  Once you have a location and a firm date fixed on the calendar, everything suddenly revolves around that, and options start to disappear.  Suddenly, that flexibility you took for granted is compromised.  Now we must make firmer plans than before, and you may not be able to just stay another day “because you like it here.”  Suddenly the motos MUST make it to Machu Picchu on August 26th.  So many times we started to say something, and the other would say “But we have tickets for the 26th…” and that would end it, or we’d decide maybe we could figure out how to do it afterward.  We came to hate having that limitation imposed by the date and place we had to be, and vowed never to do that again unless there was no other way.

For months before this, we had become excited about the prospect of having others come see us and share a little of our travel life.  We had started to make plans for some of our family to meet us in Buenos Aires in spring of 2017.  But, with the Machu Picchu ticket lesson learned, we began to think twice about this.  We would have to be in Buenos Aires to meet them, and would have that date out there for six months, influencing how we traveled through South America.  Plus, at that time, we would be concentrating on returning home, shipping bikes, re-entering the job market and life at home.  And besides, we would be seeing them once we were back in the US, anyway.  There was disappointment for all, but in the end it was the wise choice to cancel the idea.  Now we are free to make this trip whatever we want it to be, and can travel unhindered by dates and commitments.

Selfish?  Yeah, I guess so, but this is an extraordinary time in our lives and we want to give ourselves the freedom to fully experience it.  Let’s go to Arequipa tomorrow, and see what’s there.  We can stay as long as we like – no, wait, we’ve got tickets to Machu Picchu on the 26th!


Take a look at the photos connected with the stories in our Gallery and Jalene's post about the dip in our trip.

Outside Of Our Home Context

Written on September 11, 2016

Nine-eleven.  Sometimes it takes a huge event to show us what is truly important.  Yesterday morning Jalene’s bike wouldn’t idle, and the erratic behavior of the electronic tachometer told me to look for a ground fault somewhere.  I began by pulling out my little Craftsman multimeter, but found no life in it. I forged ahead anyway, and quickly found the issue in a poor connection at the negative terminal of battery, always the place to begin.  Problem solved, but the importance of the multimeter was suddenly very clear to me.  Without it, I had no good (i.e. rapid, convenient, reliable) way to test connectors and circuits out here in Bolivia.  I had simply tucked it down where it would fit, not thinking about protecting it.  A plastic bottle of fuel cleaner had leaked, and soaked everything, multimeter included.  This morning I sprayed it out with contact cleaner, dried it out, and put a new battery into it.  This got the voltmeter part working, but the ohmmeter function is still dead.  Without this tool, finding a broken wire out in the desert somewhere would prove much more difficult.  As such, we spent a morning in La Paz roaming the electronics shops until I found a good replacement.  I will revise my tool-packing strategies to protect things that are important.

I doubt Craftsman will replace the multimeter, but I am carrying two broken sockets all the way back to the USA so I can walk in and get new ones.

I believe I left you outside the tunnel high in the Cordillera Blanca, after having escaped the ice-jam inside, an experience that still scares me whenever I think about it.  But I was able to ride away, and came back down to warm Huaraz.  Jalene and I relaxed for another day before we took off for Cañon del Pato to the north of us, and the warmth of the coast.  The day did not start off well, as Jalene had a dead battery and we had to jump it from my bike.  Once we got going, her bike’s voltmeter kept climbing and she finally reported 14 volts.  So we forged our way north, with the faith that her battery would at least get us to Lima where it could be replaced if need be.  After a stretch of lovely pavement following the Rio Santa, we rolled through Yungay, which made headlines in 1970 when an earthquake rocked the region, and a mudslide originating high on Nevado Huascarán, Peru’s highest peak, wiped out the town, killing 20,000 and leaving only 92 survivors, ironically who were in the cemetery or stadium, located above the level of the city.  The danger had been predicted in 1962, but the two American scientists involved were forced to either retract or face prison time, and fled the country.  The government suppressed the prediction, but Huascáran didn’t seem to respect this.  There is a large flat area where you can see the ruins of the cathedral and the old Plaza, and it is an eerie place to be.  Some of our photos of the vendors along the road look up into the area of the destroyed town site with the volcano beyond.  Having grown up under the Cascade volcanoes and their similar tendencies, I didn’t hang around too long.  There is a fascinating preliminary report put out by the USGS in 1970 that you can see here.

We slowly descended all morning, and the land began to dry out as the broad agricultural valley gradually changed into a deeper gorge.  We found lunch in a small village called Yuracmarca, where once again a little girl wanted to check out Jalene and her shiny, well-traveled moto.  After almuerzo, we headed northwest and now descended much more sharply down between dry rock slopes and walls.  Cañon del Pato is traversed by a one-lane paved road with 35 tunnels bored into the canyon walls.  Most are short and straight, but one must be careful of the dirt and sand that builds up in the center of the road in some of the longer tunnels.  We learned to take off our sunglasses to let us see better, and listen for horns.  Although we found the road empty and easy, there are long, long drop-offs and no guardrails or barriers.  Be careful to stay alert, and enjoy the views from a standstill.  In many places the cliff walls narrowed to a slot just wide enough for the river, and we hung above it many hundreds of meters on our little ledge of a road.  Don’t be scared off, this is an incredible road to explore, and we enjoyed every bit of it.  It’s parched country, and the rocks are totally exposed to view, with amazing colors everywhere.  The geology of earth with the appearance of the moon, not a plant to be seen anywhere.  The temperature soared in the canyon as we continued to descend, and we were so glad to have started with full Camelbacks of water.  We dropped over 3,000 meters this day from Huaraz to the coast, and after two hours working our way down the canyon, the land opened out onto irrigated fields along the river as we approached the coast.

I knew that at some point we would begin seeing vineyards, and sure enough, along the river were trellises with grapevines.  What I thought were railroad grades above us were actually irrigation canals running along the hillside, where water had been diverted from the river above.  This fed water to the agriculture along the river, and also carried water out to the cities on the coast below.  We followed the river all the way to Santa, a small town lying just inland of the bigger city of Chimbote.  We were hot, dusty, and tired by this time late in the afternoon.  Neither of us had any desire to go through locating a hostal in busy Chimbote, and so we checked into a corner hotel in Santa that proved to be comfortable and cheap.  Around the block from us was a market area, where we found a good polleria.  These are restaurants that specialize in chicken (pollo), and are usually good fallbacks when you don’t know where to find decent food.  Deep-frying is a good sign of reasonably sterile fare that won’t get you sick.  The church across the street was having choir practice, and there were familiar hymns wafting out the open doors that sounded pretty good after the constant noisiness everywhere.

It’s so funny that a car alarm should go off, blaring in the street outside while I wrote that last sentence – in Latin America, noise is abundant and constant, and no one seems to think it’s annoying but us gringos.  Different, yes.  “Better” or “worse” can’t be applied out of my home context, because I don’t have the knowledge of “why” down here.  To survive, I’ve learned to just accept so much here.  It is the most difficult skill I’ve ever managed, and like so many, I’ll have to practice it daily, hourly, continuously if I expect to keep it.  The other morning I remembered all the damned dogs barking constantly after the sun went down, and then realized I had fallen right asleep anyway.  I hope I can preserve these abilities of acceptance once I’m back home, even if Jalene says that my grumpy old man image will suffer for it.  I sure am happier this way.


There are more photos in our Gallery and, Jalene's made a video about what failure and extraordinary have in common.