peru

The Magic Hour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lots of cool new photos here.

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.

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

 

Koronas del Incas

Jalene’s birthday is three days from now – what to do?  We’re hanging out in Cusco, planning our route into Bolivia, and getting over the cold that both of us have caught.  Fortunately it’s high and dry here, so head colds don’t last long.  Skin cracks, throats parch, and your sinuses and lungs always feel a bit on the leathery side at this altitude.  Cusco is just over on the dry western side of the Andes, and you roll out of here to the southeast onto the high Altiplano as you approach Lago Titicaca.  Yesterday afternoon was spent opening up the valve cover on my bike and installing an updated decompression lever on the exhaust cam, which helped cure my bike’s high-altitude cold-start issue.  I’m getting to the point where any paved area is all the shop I need to do engine surgery.  Still, what I’d give for my garage and proper tools…

But back to our journey through northern Peru.  After we left Chachapoyas we rode north a short ways and found our way up a mountainside to the village of Cocachimba.  From our hostel window we could gaze out at the 771-meter high Gocta waterfall.  Strangely, while many people know of this spectacle, we only encountered a few other tourists coming to see it.  The dirt road up to the village is not hard, and so I wondered why there were not more people there.  The waterfall itself is amazing, descending in two steps down into a large pool that you can hike to and swim in.

Now it was time to turn east and then south again.  We had been at altitude in the Andes for quite some time, and were anxious to change our surroundings, and so headed for the Amazonia.  Our path took us to Moyobamba, where we took a 3-day break to soak up some warmth and relax.  We found a very comfortable and inexpensive hostel near the square (as always), and enjoyed some time getting to know an American PhD student working with the local indigenous people to develop the market for an alternative vanilla species grown locally.  I had no idea that vanilla was a species of orchid, and that there are many species that produce the vanilla pod.  The hard part is getting a new species recognized and approved by the regulatory agencies in importing countries.

This is a place with a tremendous variety of orchids, and as we dropped in elevation going east, the desert of the high mountains gave way to lush, wet jungle.  We continued east until we reached Yurimaguas, literally the end of the road, at least the road for things with wheels.  There, one finds a harbor on the big Rio Huallaga, where river boats of all kinds pull up to the bank, serving as truck and bus on the watery highway that continues into Amazonia.  One can hop on a boat here – look at the board on each vessel advertising where they are going and when – and head deep downriver.  In a few days, you could be at Iquitos, a fair-sized city still in Peru where only boats and planes go, or continue on until the river joins into the Amazon itself before flowing east to Brazil.  The noisy “docks” where the boats pull up to the bank is an interesting area to watch, with everything loaded and unloaded by hand, using long ramps and slides.  Large things, even vehicles, are wrestled off onto the bank and driven up the rocky, muddy ramps to the street level.  Bags of rice, fruit, cement, and whatever are sent sliding down long planks covered with tarps, and only once did I see one go off the side.  It reminded me of tales of the Mississippi from long ago.

We have many photos of the long, long canoes that ply the river, carrying people and cargo up and down the river locally.  Some are covered, seat four abreast with an aisle down the middle, and over 20 meters long.  As we rode along the river southward, we could see them moving along through vast areas of farmland and jungle, and in the little towns where the road found the river again, we saw shops with “Yamaha” and Suzuki” over the door, but inside there were only outboard supplies – this area was totally focused on river travel.  This is also timber country, and we were pleasantly surprised when we looked in a chainsaw shop and spotted Oregon brand chains for sale.  I asked the guy at the counter what chains the locals preferred for cutting the hardwood trees here, and he pointed at the Oregon brand boxes.

As we were riding south through the area known as the Mountagnia, that flat band of jungle near the base of the Andes, we found the roads varying between good pavement, bad pavement, and good rock roads.  The good rock roads are much better than the bad paved roads, mainly because a bad paved road has sharp-edged potholes that can bend rims and break your teeth.  It tends to happen in areas where rocks fall down onto the road and punch holes in the asphalt, after which trucks and buses destroy it.  Sometimes it lasts a hundred yards, sometimes it lasts 100 miles.  We are always much happier when the asphalt ends completely and we’re on dirt and rocks, it’s much easier to ride on.  Sometimes when we choose our routes we make choices based on the road surface, especially if there is more than one way to get there.  Google maps will often have enough resolution that I can zoom in and actually see the road surface.

We rode south , and spent nights in towns with names like Juanjui, Tocache, and Tingo Maria.  Finally, at Huanuco, we turned west again and headed back up into the Andes, our goal being to see the Cordillera Blanca with its glaciers and ice fields.  It would take us two days to get to Huaraz, which sits in the valley below the mountain range.  The road rose quickly, and just as quickly deteriorated to a maze of potholes, rocks, and small patches of the road that once was.  Our speed dropped to about 20 mph as we weaved and dodged obstacles and holes, working our way up through switchbacks, trucks, buses, and what-have-you.  We finally topped out in the afternoon at Koronas del Incas, the Crown of the Incas, a spectacular series of rock towers on the mountaintop above.  The pass topped out at 4100 meters, and we took a break on the grass beside the road and soaked in the scenery.  Glen Cochrane, from Australia came by on his Triumph, and we had a nice chat and story-swap.  Glen has been traveling for three years now and filled us in a bit on the area around where we were going.  After a while it was time to ride, and as went descended the clouds closed in and the rain began, coming down harder and harder as we worked our way further east.  Finally, in La Union, we found a clean, cheap place and threw in the towel for the day, muddy and wet and tired, but happy with the progress we’d made.  Some kind of festival was going on, so the streets were noisy and crowded.  We found a place for Chifa, a kind of cross between Chinese and Peruvian food, which is usually a good choice when you have no idea, and are tired and hungry.

When we left La Union in the morning, the road changed quickly for the better, and soon we found ourselves back on good pavement, becoming two-lane once we reached Huansala.  Neither one of us could quite remember when the last time we’d seen a yellow line was.  Now the road rose up quickly, and we climbed to 4,700 meters over Abra Yanashalla, a high pass where nothing but brown grass and bare rock is seen, with jagged peaks and glaciers above you.  We dropped down into a broad valley, looping around and around, and the road passed frigid streams with llamas along the banks and in the fields.  Soon we turned north, and the land opened out onto high, rolling plains, with the snow-covered peaks of the Cordillera Blanca in the background behind.  This was a new and different kind of country to us, and while the huge bowls of brown grass reminded us of Wyoming at times, the round corrals surrounded by dry-stack stone walls that had been there for ages, and the herds of llamas quietly grazing with their brightly-dressed Peruvian shepherds always nearby under the high mountains beyond told us we were far from home.  The air was thin and cold, and we were glad to have good gear to ride in, and heated grips and jacket liners.

We reached Huaraz, a high mountain city at 3100 meters, and checked in at Jo’s Place, a hostel that let us pitch our tent in the grassy courtyard with others, and we enjoyed a nice cross between camping and hotel room.  Hot showers just a few steps out of your tent, near freezing temps a night, intense sun filled days, and fascinating travelers with whom we swapped stories.  Huaraz was a unique city, where we found a creperia run by a guy from France, excellent wood-fired Peruvian pizza, and views of the snow-covered peaks rising above the buildings everywhere you walked.  Plenty of tourists were around, as this is a popular and challenging place for hikers, trekkers, and mountain climbers.

While in Huaraz, I took a ride up to a nearby pass which tops out at the highest tunnel in South America at over 4,800 meters, Tunel Punto Olimpica.  The old road over the top still exists, and of course when I reached the tunnel, I turned left onto the dirt switchbacks leading over the pass above.  Sadly, the old road was badly washed out in one spot not far from the top, and I chose to stop just below 5,000 meters.  On the way back down to the tunnel, I lost the front end in some big loose rocks, no harm, but then got to experience picking up the bike at almost 16,000 feet of elevation.  It was a bit of work, but the cyclists going over the top were doing the real work, wow!  They loved it when I pointed to my GPS and they could see their elevation.  But the scary part was when I entered the seemingly safe tunnel to see the other side.  This is a major highway, two lanes and perfect pavement and the tunnel is 1.3 km straight through.  I swung in behind a car, which proved fortunate for me.  While enjoying the sparkling lights off the icicled rock ceiling, I saw brake lights come on in front of me and slowed to a stop behind.  My front tire slid a bit on wet ice that I didn’t know was there, and then I saw the two-foot deep ice barrier on the road ahead that had fallen from the ceiling moments before.  It looked like crushed rock on a railroad bed from wall to wall, tons of ice about 2 feet deep and maybe 100 feet to the far side.  Cars and trucks came to a stop in both directions, and the glare made seeing extremely difficult.  A big SUV, first in line coming at me, smashed through it and blocked others while I turned the bike around.  I elected to take the safe way back out rather than trying to push through the deep chunks of wet ice.  I never did get to thank the SUV driver that was probably my lifesaver in that wet, slick, glare-filled tunnel with traffic piling up.  I was disappointed at being twice-thwarted to get to the other side, but happy at being able to ride away with some great photos from way up high.

Sometimes it’s best to just accept what we are given, and on a trip like this, that sure is a lot to be thankful for.

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Head over to our South America Gallery to peruse the photos + take a gander at this video from Jalene sharing how this trip is teaching her to Live with More Heart.

Desert Beaches

Written July 20, 2016

With the slight nervousness we always feel when crossing into a new country, we approached the border into Peru.  We were stamped out of Ecuador with quick efficiency, and rode across the bridge over the Rio Macara.  Peruana Migracion stamped our passports with 183 days of time to see the country, after which we moved across the street and purchased the mandatory seguro (insurance) for the bikes.  After that it was up the road another 100 feet or so to the Aduana office to import the motos.  Sadly, the bikes were only given 90 days in Peru, even though I kind of begged, so that will be our limiting factor.  We took our time and made sure all the numbers were correct before signing the documents.  Friends have experienced trouble when exiting countries, especially Peru, because mistakes were made at entry, often simple typos, and so we are very careful about this.  Once we were satisfied, we rode south to continue our journey in the land of the Incas.

Peru was immediately different from Ecuador.  The coastal region dries out as you move south from the equator, and there is a fairly abrupt change in the border region.  On our route south, angling toward the Pacific, the land flattened and dried out drastically.  We were down in the coastal desert now, and in a much poorer country.  Visually, it looked much like northern Mexico deja vu.  Cactus, brush, sand and rocks.  Hot and dry.  Garbage was once again all around us.  But it was somehow liberating to be back in a place where things were simpler, choices in the little stores were fewer, road rules, or enforcement anyway, were nearly non-existent, and people just seemed happy in such a simple way.  Indeed, while having a flavor all its own, Peru has that old familiar loose feel and attitude, where most things are tolerated as long as we all get along.  Or don’t crash.

We stayed our first night in a little village called Chulucanas.  From here, we had a choice - go straight as an arrow across the Desierto de Sechura, or skirting inland along the base of the Andes.  The inland route seemed more interesting to us, a little windier and going through several towns along the way south toward Chiclayo.  Our route was desolate but quite beautiful, passing across great fields of sage-like brush, sometimes winding up and down to penetrate low hills sticking out from the mountains like troll’s toes.  There were places where water turned a valley green around us for a brief time, then we were back into the rock and sand that dominated.

Eroded pyramid at Sipan ruins.

We stayed at Chiclayo for 3 nights, after having been on the road daily since Vilcabamba.  I did a little work on the bikes (Jalene’s water pump is starting to leak coolant again), and we visited the site of the Sipan ruins and spectacular treasure excavated from the tombs there recently.  The treasure recovered and displayed now at the museum in Lambayeque rivals Tutankhamen’s, and is of finely crafted gold, silver, copper, and turquoise.  We rode out to the Sipan site itself and saw the eroded pyramids, which were made from adobe bricks.  Over several hundred years, the periodic El Niño/La Niña rain cycles had turned them into ordinary-looking worn-down desert hills, but when you inspect them closely the faint horizontal tracings of the rows of adobe become visible.  The excavation pits were still there, and they have recreated what was found in the pits, allowing you to see just how things were laid out in the tomb.  Well worth a visit if you are in the Chiclayo area.

After leaving Chiclayo, we headed south along the coast to an area recommended by an Ecuadorian friend, and we found our way across the flat, baked rocky sands to Chicama, a tiny surf village on Punto Malabrigo.  We were hot and tired after this day, and welcomed the cool breeze off the water.  We treated ourselves to a hotel costing more than our “limit,” but we struck a bargain and got a great deal on a really nice room for the night.  Our view was of the “Chicama surf spot,” which a friend in Oregon tells me is one of the longest left surf breaks in the world.  Indeed, one could sit and watch the waves continuously peeling, row after row, as they bent around the point and came toward the sandy shoreline.

Chicama surf spot and our treat for a night.

Waking up in Chicama was like waking up in Newport, our home in Oregon.  It was cold, the wind was blowing, and the sky was gray.  Who signed us up for this?  Breakfast was outside on the patio, not exactly what I was looking for, but we got fed with some great food and juice, packed up the bikes, and went inland just a bit before finding warmer air.  We were bound for the metropolis of Trujillo that day, and didn’t have far to go, so on the way we checked out some river valleys inland a little ways, and found incredibly dry, rocky plains between ridges where water comes down only during flood times.  We rode up a ways to get a feel for the country, over the sandy, rocky road leading literally “upriver” in the riverbed.   We could have continued if we wanted to and looped around into Trujillo from another way, but our hungry bellies won out and we went back down to the highway, where we ate at our typical little roadside restaurant stop for almuerzo, which is almost always a great lunch of soup, some chicken or pork, and maybe rice with yucca or platano, with a glass of fresh juice.  Usually it’s the equivalent of just 2 or 3 dollars, a heck of a deal for a good hot meal.

We only stayed one night in Trujillo.  We found ourselves in a crummy hotel and just didn’t like the feel of the town.  Later we found out that Huanchaco, just outside of Trujillo, was a much better place to stay, but our choice had been made, and so we packed up and headed inland to explore the northern Peruvian Andes.

After heading inland along the Rio Moche, it didn’t take long for the land to begin rising, and we found ourselves in green farmland along the bottom of a narrowing and steepening valley.  Beautiful, lush crops of potatoes, grains, and a little coffee grew alongside the road in small plots, and it took on almost a storybook feel to it as we were lifted through several small villages and the road snaked up and around like a roller-coaster.  We stopped to take a short break at a nice overlook, and a dog came barking up at us from a house just below.  With the steep drop-off, you could almost literally step out onto the roof of the house.  Soon a woman came up after the dog, and just as loud, whacking it with her cane and apologizing to the two gringos beside the road.  We had a pleasantly broken conversation with her.  She was a friendly, happy, comfortable person who was pleased to meet us, and let us get a photo with her and her lovely farmland valley.  Even if we only half knew what she was saying, it was obvious she was welcoming us into her land, and was pleased to meet us.  This is a place AND a face I’ll always remember.

Keith's roadside friend.

Soon we were high in the Andes again.  The air dried out, the land dried out, and it got cold.  We crossed a pass over 4,200 meters just two hours after leaving sea level, and found ourselves amidst huge mines, where they extracted gold, silver and copper.  Gigantic piles of mine tailings were around us at times.  But more often we were riding through starkly beautiful mountain tops covered with thin bunchgrasses and brush, no trees and little sign of rainfall.  The air was thin and cold and the wind never stopped.  Coal was piled outside some of the houses we passed.  Breathing was a purposeful exercise, getting what oxygen out of it that we could.  We endured this for couple of hours before coming into the town of Huamanchuco. 

As we came near the town, we were famished, so we stopped at a building that looked empty except for the chalkboard almuerzo sign out front.  We stopped and had a great meal of the usual soup, chicken and rice, skipped the salad, thanks, and a glass of juice.  A few other people were eating there, which was a good sign, and as usual, everyone was friendly.  The baños here were typical, in that they were clean enough, but one had to take a bucket and dip some water out of a barrel to flush the toilet, which was not plumbed to a water source.  The sink had cold water, and even some soap, which was great.  As is normal, no towel for your hands.  Bathrooms in more frequented places will almost always have the toilet working normally, but soap and towels are always hit or miss.  Seats on the toilet are sometimes not present, and hot water in the sink is very rare.

Huamanchuco is down in a bit of a valley and sheltered from the surrounding weather.  We found a great hotel with secure parking for the bikes across the street in the compound of a car repair place.  The décor of the hotel was unique, I must say, with color and flair, but you really have to go to the photos to grasp the “style.”  Still, it had hot water, so we were totally happy.

We had crossed over a significant divide in the mountains, and we saw this immediately in the people we were now surrounded with.  We found a unique culture here, with different clothes and especially different hats.  Now most all of the ladies wore a broad-brimmed hat with a tall center and flat or dished top, made of woven plant fiber, very distinctive and attractive.  Their hats were all nearly exactly the same, and a few of the men wore them too, but it was obvious that any lady worth her salt never left the house without that sombrero.  Over the next few days as we worked our way north, we continued to see that hat, but watched the style change from place to place.

So far, the trip in Peru had been a whirlwind of places and faces and varying climates, cultures, clothes, and food, and we had only been here about a week!  We decided to slow down our movement across the landscape, and so we chose a long valley to the north of us known for it’s Peruvian mummies and sarcophagi in the high cliffs and deep canyons.  As well, the roads were narrower and more broken, traversing extremely rugged canyons and mountains in a way we’d only seen in photographs before this.  Now we were planning on roads where we could literally fall thousands of feet if we went off the side, and where trucks or buses could not pass each other.  The trip was going to get really interesting.

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Plenty of photos to see in our South American Gallery.

Road Luck

Written July 18, 2016 

Photo credit: Alvaro Fau, www.facebook.com/alfventuras, a new friend we met at Scott Nelson's place in Vilcabamba, Ecuador.

Where we are in northern Peru, a little south of the equator, the stars go straight overhead, and it’s like you’re inside a rolling barrel, with the axis ends on either side of you to the north and south.  As Jalene and I passed down through Central America, more and more of the familiar features in the night sky were disappearing, and new southern constellations rose.  I had begun to think “my” northern sky was gone, but last night I got a surprise.  I wandered outside at about 10 pm.  The moonless sky was full of stars, and looking northward I suddenly saw the Big Dipper!  It looked huge, looming just above the horizon with the handle pointing up.  The North Star was just below the hills on the horizon, with everything wheeling around that point.  Turning around, I could see the Southern Cross and all the “new” stars revolving around a point due south on the horizon.  I realized that the northern sky is not all gone - my sky here is now half of the northern hemisphere, and half of the southern.  But compared to the sky I have viewed all my life, the relative positions have shifted 50°.  Only when we get much further south will the sky be truly all-new for me.

Thinking further on this, at the halfway point on our trip, we have now traveled from the 45th parallel in the northern hemisphere to the 5th parallel in the southern.  That means we’ve only gone about 1/8 of the way around the globe.  Not very far when you think about it in those terms.  Compared to some people we know that have circled the globe multiple times on motorcycles, we still haven’t accomplished much, have we?

And yet look at what we’ve learned, and the people we’ve met, and all the stories we can share!  One doesn’t have to go very far from home to learn and experience an awful lot, do they?  So why not make that tiny step, and just go to the country right next door to wherever you are, and meet new people, make new friends, and maybe see a new star?

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Look closely. See the soil is disappearing from beneath the road?

Back to our regularly scheduled story:  After leaving Baños, in Ecuador, we ventured down the canyon to the east, and I showed Jalene the old cliffside roads and the narrow wooden suspension bridge I’d found when I was out for a ride by myself the day before.  As we reached flat ground, we came out into the basin of the Rio Pastaza, which would eventually join the massive Rio Marañon in Peru, destined to find its way to the Amazon.  These are big rivers coming down out of the Andes, becoming much, much bigger as they gather together and make their way eastward.  That night found us in Macas, a hot, humid town along the Rio Namangoza.  During the night, we heard the raindrops begin to fall, and dawn found us with slumped shoulders as we packed the bikes and climbed into our riding gear in the steady, warm drenching.  For the next few hours we cruised south through the flatlands in a constant hard rain.  Water ran in rivers along and across the road, pushing mud and rocks into our path.  Cars, trucks, and buses all plowed big wakes, but it was relatively safe for us, as the road-builders had done a good job at allowing for drainage.  Eventually we turned west and began to climb back up into the mountains, making our way toward the city of Cuenca.  Once we gained a little altitude, the rain stopped, and eventually we climbed above the weather.  In the warm air, we dried out and soon were able to take our rain-mitts off.  We wound our way up and down through the ridges and valleys, seeing big waterfalls in places where last night’s rains were coming down out of the high valleys.  We had to slow in many places where mud and rocks had been pushed out across the road.  Here, where the rains can be sudden and of huge volume, roads are made with low spots, where water (and any slide material) is allowed to simply rush across, rather than try to gather it into a big culvert.  It works very well, and they “harden” the road at these low spots to take the abuse.  Usually the water just flows right across and the road is “self-cleaning”, but if necessary a bulldozer scrapes it off after a really big rain.  They work like snowplows here.  On the bikes, we can just pick our way through the mess that often stops cars.  At other times, we might look back across a narrow valley to see that the concrete we had just ridden across had lost most of the ground supporting it, and was likely not long for the world.  A bit un-nerving, but we made it across each time, so what the heck.

Cuenca is a very urbane, civilized town with quite a few gringo ex-pats.  A big surprise was walking down the sidewalk in such a large city and running into a woman we had become friends with while on our trip two years before!  We stayed in Cuenca for two nights and rested a bit, then rode south again along the cold, high ridges until the road passed through Loja, where we descended into the dry, warm valley of Vilcabamba.  We met up with our friend Scott Nelson from Oregon at his place along the Rio Catamayo, which lies in a valley that gets little rain.  The climate has made it something of a haven for people from all over, who want to live a quiet life away.  We spent a couple of weeks there while waiting for the package (yes, the package we were waiting for during our stay in Quito) to clear Customs, and helped Scott out by doing a little handiwork around the place, painting, plumbing, and building a table.  I enjoyed my mornings with Scott’s dogs down along the river, a great spot to sit and clear your head in the sunshine.  We went out for a day ride to Zamora with new Vilcabamba friends Charlie and Kay, negotiating several big landslides across the road.  At one I watched basketball-sized rocks bounce and fly just a few feet in front of Jalene’s bike, and prayed that another slide was not coming down onto us.  Once again, road luck was with us.

Hallelujah! - We finally got word that the package in Quito had cleared Customs after 52 days, and our friend Felipe had picked it up.  At last we felt free to leave Ecuador and head into new territory - Peru!  Felipe has coworkers that travel to a branch office in Lima, and so it will await us there.  We headed southwest on a beautiful ride along mountain ridges to Macara, where we would cross the border.  Macara is a sleepy, dusty little town, but we found a clean and cheap hotel with underground parking for the bikes.  We walked through the warm evening to find some dinner, and talked excitedly about getting moving again after so much waiting and concern over Ecuadorian Customs.  But we had succeeded without any payoffs or bribery or dishonesty, and so we felt really good to have “beaten” the system completely above-board.  The most important thing we learned, from Daniela, a wonderfully kind and helpful woman who worked at the Ecuador Post Office, was that by walking in and asking worriedly about our package when we first arrived in Quito, we probably drew attention to it that resulted in scrutiny and the delays.  If we had just quietly waited for it to appear, the long wait and accompanying hoops we had to jump through would likely not have occurred.  Travel is an education, isn’t it?  Be humble, quiet your mind, be patient, things will work out.  Relax.  Tranquillo…  But to all who helped us, Daniela at Correos, Court, Sylvan, and Ximena at Ecuador Freedom Bike Rental, and to Felipe and Mila, thank you so much for your generosity and assistance.  We have learned much from you.

From our hotel window, we can see the hills of Peru!

We left our hotel in Macara early in the morning, so as to be at the border first thing, with the whole day ahead of us.  We went to gas up the bikes, only to find a long line at the gas station reminiscent of 1974.  All but one of the pumps was broken.  As we took our place at the back of the line, imagining a long wait of at least an hour in the rapidly strengthening sun, a guy on a backhoe came by and waved at us to follow him.  He took us to the head of the line and pointed to the pump emphatically, and so we just pulled in behind the car getting filled.  The guard motioned to us that it was okay, and the attendant waved us and another motorcycle up as the car pulled away. Nobody in line seemed to notice or care as we quickly fueled up the bikes and took off for the border.  Travel by moto in Latin America rocks!

We're in Peru! Yes, that's a polica. No, we weren't in trouble. They pulled us over to check documents but, instead, we took photos of them and they took photos of us!

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For photos, head to our Gallery page, then scroll down to "Macas to Cuenca, Ecuador" and view the photos up to "Vilcabamba."

Take a look at Jalene's thoughts about how we're "Experience-ing" this trip.