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.