overland travel

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

We Made It!

Hola...Jalene here...I'm hijacking Keith's blog, with all his well-told stories, to share breaking news with you. We made it to our goal of Ushuaia! To make this blog post even stranger, here's a link to my blog post -- Reaching Our Goal -- sharing a bit of what happened.

In other news...I know Keith is almost finished with the next story so stay tuned.

Happy New Year!

Jalene & Keith

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 :) 

 

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.

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

Bird Watching in Comfort

Leymebamba was a fun town.  As we often do, we rolled in needing to find a place to stay.  iOverlander, a web app for overland travelers, showed us a few places, and as often happens we had to look around a bit before realizing that it was either go find a place to wild camp or take the hostel that seemed way out of our price range, but had the only room with secure parking for the bikes.  A little bargaining got us a room for almost half-price, so we did it.  There was a festival going on, which led to a very fun evening in the town plaza, but the hostels and hotels were jammed.  In the plaza square, there was a huge Bingo game happening, with prizes of all sorts of locally made things, the cakes being the most popular.  A 9-km race was run, with the finishers coming into the square and circling round before coming to the toilet-paper tape stretched out for every finisher.  All should get a medal just for finishing at this altitude, and the warm applause and cheering for every single runner was something to see.  Nobody left until the very last had finished and been welcomed in.

We met a group from the US who had just returned from a multi-day trek with horses to supply a remote village with solar panels and a computer, allowing them to communicate via a satellite internet link.  I would think this is valuable for very basic reasons, such as medical needs, but also for the kids and education.  I’m no expert, and I have stated that I think it is critical to make sure that your “help” really does benefit the village, but in this case they seem to have researched the need thoroughly, and I hope it proves to be a help to the community.  They have done this in several remote sites, and plan more.  On this occasion they had three foreign students along as well.  We also benefitted from their detailed local knowledge, and as a result got much more out of our visit to the Leymebamba Museum, and also visited the nearby ruins of the fortress city of Kuelap.

Museo Leymebamba is well worth the visit.  Take a moto-taxi (similar to a tuk-tuk) a few kilometers back up the hill to the museum, and after your visit walk back to town along the old road used by locals and horses that follows a straighter line back down the valley.  The museum does an excellent job of preparing you for the mummies and sarcophagi that you will be seeing more of as you travel north along the valley, visiting ruins and burial sites.  You will learn about the culture of the Chachapoyan people, and understand something about why and how the mummies were prepared and positioned, and see many actual mummies and the associated artifacts (ask to turn on the light in the room where most are stored).  Most are seated with the legs drawn up, and the arms wrapped around the body or over the head.  They were then placed in a cone-shaped covering of wooden slats.  After the museo, walk across the paved road to have coffee or hot chocolate while watching the colibri (hummingbird) feeder by the garden table.  We saw no fewer than five different species, some thimble-sized, and others as big as your hand.  The extremely tiny booted racket-tail with it’s long tail, shaped like twin tennis racquets, which often appears at this feeder, was sadly not on hand for us.   Bird watching at 2 meters in comfort with South American hot chocolate surrounded by orchids and flowering trees, an afternoon doesn’t get much better.

Our walk back down the old road from the museo took us through potato fields and then down a dirt path with great views of the surrounding valley.  We passed through a village a short ways above the main town, and soon found ourselves back at the hostel.  While walking down, we shared the old road with a cheerful local woman and child, carrying a gathered bundle of wood and sticks back downhill.

Leaving Leymebamba the next morning, we followed the paved road down the river, which had begun to level out.  We enjoyed a beautiful ride, with the road flowing along and our pace quite a bit faster than when we came down into the valley.  The river was fairly high and rushing along, lined by green fields and pastures alongside, with horses and cattle.  On the advice of others we’d met, we stayed the night at El Chillo, a rather luxurious (for us) hostel along the road just south of Tingo, only an hour or two from Leymebamba.  With thick walls, heavy doors, and water flowing through gardens of orchids and trees dripping with flowers and bougainvillea, it has the protective hacienda feeling to it, and the people and friendly dogs there were wonderful to us. This place was more expensive (again!) than we would have liked, but it was a treat, and they allowed us to drop off all our camping gear and other stuff, and enjoy riding up the 24-km dirt road to the ruins of Kuelap on lightened bikes.

Kuelap is a mountain top fortress-city built in the 6th century, and occupied through the 1500s by the Chacapoyan people.  With its massive walls, the only way in is up through one of three narrow slots, easily defended from above.  To get to the topmost level, a similar slot is barely wide enough for one person up steep, high steps, making it seemingly impossible to fight your way in.  The outer walls surround the remains of roughly 400 circular stone dwellings in various states of decay, once the houses of the people, along with larger structures.  Most houses once had tall, conical roofs over them of wood poles and thatched grass, with what looked like an inverted clay pot over the peak to seal it.  The setting atop a 3000-meter ridge provides incredible views of the valley below and the Andes beyond.  A teleferico (cable gondola) is being built from just above Nuevo Tingo, and should be an amazing ride once finished, but you’ll still have to walk the last 2 km, which should preserve the isolated feel.  You can see the terminals and towers already in place in some of our gallery photos.  I hope this doesn’t lead to big crowds, we loved the silence of the ruins as we explored on our own.

We rolled back down the dirt road to El Chillo, which is a fun and easy ride, and also gives some fairly safe thrills in the way of big drop-offs, twisty switchbacks, and narrow spots cut under overhead rock.  Overhangs are actually quite common in the Andes, and we commonly ride underneath thousands of tons of unsupported stone above us, sometimes extending out over two full lanes of roadway.  Traction is generally very good on these roads, and standing in the tight switchbacks makes the front end bite even more securely while letting you see way down into the canyon below.  We returned to our luxury digs just before dark.  Dinner was in the big dining room, and afterward we were shown into the lounge area, with its unique chairs made from twisted driftwood recovered out of the nearby river.  No worries, that mummy peering out from near the doorway is a replica, it was finally admitted.

After a tranquil night in El Chillo, we continued up the beautiful river road along the Rio Utcubamba toward Chachapoyas.  This is a very cool mountain town, with a wonderful plaza area, where we found a clean, cheap hotel that other moto-travelers had stayed at and enjoyed.  In every town, no matter how big or small, there is the plaza square.  You can always find it by simply looking for the cathedral tower.  The square consists of a park (the plaza) taking up a city block, with the streets around it always directing you around one-way.  The cathedral is always on one side, and often a main government building, too.  Around the square are shops and restaurants, and vendors with carts roaming the area. This is a place for family and friends to meet, and we have grown fond of settling on a bench in the shade with local ice cream, and just watching the world go by.  Many travelers agree that this is a great way to absorb the local culture, and often we stumble into a parade or some sort of ceremony – they always take place in the plaza, it seems.

On the plaza in Chachapoyas is Café Fusion, where Jalene and I had our first Pisco Sour.  It’s a funky little place, popular with locals, too, where we found good food and fine atmosphere for a great price.  We’ve traveled to Pisco itself now, and we still consider the Pisco Sours we had at Café Fusion the best.  Chachapoyas served as our base for the exploration of a couple of notable ruins – the Karajia cliffside sarcophagi, and the ruins deep in the canyon near Wanglic.  We took one of the tourist vans to the trailhead to Karajia, and with several other French guests from our hostel walked down about a mile, dropping below the canyon rim and along under the cliffs above.  As we turned a final bend we were greeted by seven 2-meter tall sarcophagi above us on a cliff ledge, some with paint still intact after 500 years.  In various pockets in the cliff around them, other sarcophagi can be seen, some quite small.  Human bones are on the rocks next to the trail, I’m not sure if they are props or came out of a sarcophagus, but they sure fit the scene.

In the afternoon, the same group of us, with a guide, hiked down a steep trail deep into a canyon.  It narrowed to a slot for the final 100 meters straight down, where we crossed to the other cliffside over two huge boulders that had wedged between the narrow canyon walls, forming a natural bridge crossing the gap.  A misstep meant a long, long fall to the river below.  We found ourselves amongst several circular house foundations and walls, very similar to those we had seen at Kuelap a few days earlier.  There was only sandy bare rock to walk on, which rolled away into the deep slot canyon.  It appeared that once upon a time there may have been a narrow trail hacked into the cliff leading down the river, but today there was no way out but back over the two boulders.  Even at the bottom of this super-steep canyon where only a poor foot-path leads, we found lots of graffiti and vandalism of the ruins.  It’s frustrating to work so hard to see ruins like this, and have someone’s name painted in bright red letters on the walls.  On the hike out, our guide made a special effort to point out rock paintings across the canyon that had not yet been defaced, only because they were almost unknown except to the local guides and nearly impossible to reach.  Tread lightly, fellow travelers.

Once we had crossed again, the rest of the party went upriver a short ways to a pool below a waterfall, while I hung back and photographed the canyon walls and the narrow ledge where the ruins perched.  We hiked out by following the canyon upstream, with the trail rolling up and down until, after five hours on the trail, our van picked us up at the trailhead.  Tired and a little footsore, we were proud of having made this steep trek to see ruins that very few have the privilege of visiting.  Jalene proclaimed a Pisco Sour should be in our future when we finished the hike, and that evening our hiking group met to savor the drinks together.

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Head on over to our website gallery for new photos + Jalene talks about Travel Tools from an inner perspective from the top bunk.

Down Through A Cloud Layer

Written July 21, 2016

I lied a bit when I left you last, or at least got ahead of myself.  Rather than heading directly onto the adventurous roads I described, we needed to ride further north through the mountainous farm country north of Huamanchuco in Peru, which means high but only moderately steep slopes, where corn and grain are grown, cattle roam, and horses find an ideal home.  Peruvian farmland means adobe houses all around, thick walls of mud and straw, with roofs of corrugated metal, or clay tiles.  The bricks and tiles were made locally everywhere we went, and it was common to see hundreds of adobe bricks laid out on the ground to dry.  Nearby, the curved slabs of clay roof tiles lay in long rows to dry, leaning one against the other like dominoes.  Black smoke would pour out of the wood-fueled kilns where the roof tiles were fired.

We left Huamanchuco and rolled north along a narrow paved road toward Baños del Incas, where we had made an Airbnb reservation at an old hacienda.  Our ride was really enjoyable that day, as it rolled along through beautiful and varying farmland and small towns and villages.  Around lunchtime, we were riding through the streets of Cajabamba, a moderate sized town, and Jalene spotted a sign for a café that somehow pulled her in.  We ended up having a terrific lunch of sandwiches and some of the best hot chocolate I’ve had yet.  Jalene also indicated that her latte was outstanding, and she loved it.  So when in Cajabamba, stop at San Vicente Sandwicheria Criolla, and have yourself a real treat.

After Cajabamba, the road opened up onto a two-lane again, and we made tracks through somewhat drier country, rising into a semi-desert terrain of brush and grasses, and we found ourselves climbing and falling through fun switchbacks and wraparound roads.  On afternoons like these, I often find myself wishing I could magically transport some of my sportbike friends here, so they could see it for themselves.  I think there would be some emigration south, or at least some serious vacation time booked.  Bring extra tires and brake pads.

In Baños del Incas, named for very old thermal baths used by the locals for centuries, we found our way to an old hacienda outside of town.  We were ushered inside the thick walls into a green grassy courtyard with leafy trees providing shady areas.  The welcoming rooms surrounding the courtyard were built along the outer wall.  Ours was large and comfortable, with rippled wood floors obviously laid down long ago.  The ceiling was of wood beams, crossed by bamboo slats, upon which were laid the roofing tiles visible to us from below, open to airflow.  We had the use of the kitchen, and the family invited us to breakfast with them in the large, formal dining room.  There was also a long, open living room, where one could relax and imagine the ladies and gentlemen in all their finery, entertaining guests a hundred years ago.  That’s how long this hacienda had been in the family of our hostess Rosario, and she and her husband made us feel welcome and comfortable in their home.  Out back, of course, were the horses and cattle, and we were treated to freshly separated cream each morning for Jay’s coffee and our hot harina de avena, or oatmeal.  Nothing like it.

People down here are incredibly helpful, and will go to great lengths to try to take care of you.  For example, Jalene and I decided to go into nearby Cajamarca from the hacienda to hit a cash machine and then have a nice dinner.  We wanted to just take a taxi, but our hosts would not hear of this, so Rosario’s husband drove us into Cajamarca, and dropped us at a restaurant of his approval.  To make sure we would make it back safely, he talked to a friend in an office next door to the restaurant, and gave specific written instructions that we would need a taxi to take us back, and here was the address, etc.  We were then told that when we finished dinner, we were to come back here and that a taxi would take us home, etc.  How we made it all the way down through Central America to here, heaven only knows.

After reluctantly departing Rosario’s family and Baños del Incas, it was time to head for the area where we had been told we could see the Peruvian mummies, and the associated cliffside sarcophagi and the ruins of ancient dwellings.  We rode northeast to the jumping-off point of Celendin.  The road that day was not difficult, a paved two-laner, but we did cross over a high pass that had us adding a layer under our riding gear.  Eventually we dropped down again into warm air, and a valley containing the town opened before us.  Celendin is a very cool town, with a great vibe and very nice people.  It’s sits in an area like the cupped palm of a hand, but with the valley dropping away steeply on one side where the river exits and falls away.  We found a fairly new, comfortable hostel on a corner of the main square, where other moto-travelers have stayed and recommended.  Wi-fi was not so hot, but the water in the shower was.

We hung out in the square for a while and soaked up the sun, with our ice cream cones.  In Peru, the ice cream tends to be much softer and lighter, full of air, and you have to eat it really fast in the sun if you want to avoid disaster. For the more solid, dense stuff, get an ice cream bar from the freezer that’s in every little store, and you’ll be happier.  Dulcetto is my favorite, rich chocolate with peanut butter inside, usually 2 soles, about 66 cents.  Grab one, find a shady bench across the street in the square, and watch the world go by.  Dinnertime found us in the restaurant adjoining our hotel, and the owner came out and introduced herself in perfect English.  No surprise as she had lived in New Orleans for years.  This kind of thing has happened several times now in Peru, where suddenly someone will speak to us in perfect English, and we find that they have lived in the US or abroad for a time.  These meetings tend to be particularly valuable to us, as these people can quickly help us understand local customs, where to find things, or just tell us about our surroundings.

Celendin sits just west of the Rio Marañon, a very deep canyon that runs northward between the two parallel ranges that form the northern Peruvian Andes.  Our ride from Celendin to Leymabamba took us on a path directly crossing that canyon, and then continued over another high pass before dropping into a sheltered valley up in the Cordillera Central range.  As we reached the edge of the canyon, we found ourselves looking down through a cloud layer at what, from that point, looked like the descent to a valley floor visible to us some distance below.  We could see the road wrapping back and forth around steep terrain, forcing its way where it could.  It was obviously a very old path that had been widened again and again over time, and it was now wide enough for one truck to drive on, about 4 “giant steps” across.  The wind coming up the mountainside swept the clouds upwards around us.  We could see a bus slowly making its way down the road behind us some distance, and so we made our photo stops short so as not to get stuck behind the slow moving turtle.  We also admitted that if we were following that bus, we’d have to watch if it tumbled off the side of the road and crashed down thousands of feet below.  It was incredible to see that full-sized buses and trucks were coming down this narrow, steep lane, portions of which were often missing.  The photos will help explain, but they don’t capture the bad parts, where we did not want to stop on the bikes, even for a just a photo, for fear of someone coming around a blind corner and hitting us, or worse, knocking us over the edge.  As it turned out, traffic was very light on this amazing road and we were fine.

But where we looked down through holes in the cloud layer, and thought we could see how far down we were going, that was all an illusion.  We could only see to where the slope temporarily flattened out a bit, and the road left our view.  It turns out that we rode switchbacks down for about an hour, dropping from one hanging valley to another, seemingly without end.  Once we got below the cloud layer, an immense canyon opened out for us, and only then did we realize how far down below us the river was.  As we descended more than 2,000 meters, the air began thin and cold, with winds that carried fog up to us, but changed surprisingly quickly to hot and thick and dry.  Just before we reached the river, we were stopped at a barricade, where we were told the road would not be open again for an hour due to blasting operations.  While in line, we had a nice chat with a botanist from one of the Peruvian universities, who was engaged in studies of the local flora with assistance of some other universities in the US.  We had a great discussion on the merits of collaborative research, and how it enables funding from our National Science Foundation for work in Peru.  For a while there came a light rain, but it was so hot that none of us took notice other than to comment that it felt good.

Finally the barrier was lifted, and we found ourselves along the Rio Marañon on a road hacked into the cliff, eventually turning to cross a bridge and enter the town of Balsas, just a few streets along the riverbank.  In the hot canyon-bottom, we cooled off in the shade of a few trees and got some water back into ourselves.  Leaving Balsas, we did a little dirt-biking along the river bank where they detoured us, and then we were once again on pavement.  For a short time we rode along a tributary through irrigated fruit trees, and then once again it was up into the dry desert surroundings as we rose out of the canyon, climbing for mile after mile, seemingly forever, to find ourselves once again high in the Andes.  This time we climbed right up into the clouds, finally topping out at 3,600 meters (11,800’) in fog and rain before descending into the steep-sided valley where the town of Leymabamba is found.  It was here that we found our first mummies.

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