Quito to La Paz- Deserts, mountains, and mysteries
In all, we stayed in Quito for a whole week. The Kawasaki shop on Diez de Agosto presented James and me with two finely operational, cleaned and lubed KLRs, and mine had a nice new rear tire. We were ready to roll again and the wonderful thing is they gave us excellent discounts for being travellers: 100% discount on labor (really, no charge!) and 10% was taken off the price of the tire and the new oil. We were blown away by the generosity.
It was pouring rain in Quito when we finally left. The highland wet season had really started, and didn't show signs of wanting to let up before our departure. Unfortunately this meant the views on the normally beautiful ride on the Panamerican were obscured by clouds, and we could see neither Chimborazo nor Cotopaxi, the two most prominent peaks in the area. It was cold but still relatively easy as we passed through Ambato and Riobamba, but from there the road toward Cuenca wound higher and higher into the mountains, disappearing in a thick white swirling fog. And damn was it cold! This meant a very slow, careful ride, making sure to stay on the far right side of the road and watching out for all the crazy kamikazes coming the other way who would try to pass and drive too fast, despite the fog. It was miserably soggy and cold, and the concentration was incredibly tiring. The road got worse, was unpaved and therefore quite slippery in spots, and hung precipitously on mountain ledges over which there was nothing but more swirling clouds. I was hugely relieved to finally pull into a hotel in the small town of Caņar, in the pouring rain. After drying off and getting some hot food and drink in me, it was off to bed before 9. I shivered myself to sleep.
The next day I awoke to a brilliant blue sky, the surrounding mountains were deep green, and everything looked surprisingly clean and fresh from the rains. The air was crisp and cool- in short, it was a perfect morning for riding the dramatic winding roads through the mountains. We wound our way up to Cuenca and just made it out of the highlands in time. In my rear view mirrors I could see the fog closing in again and once again it would have been a wet and cold experience.
The desert of northern Peru appears to be the poorest area we have passed through. In the cities of Piura, Chiclayo, Chimbote and Trujillo, I was distinctly reminded of India. The roads were extremely chaotic, a two-lane road had vehicles four-wide, the small motorcycle taxis "rickshaws" buzzed around everywhere, tooting their horns and zipping around between the traffic. Then there is the heat, the zillions of people and the filth and rubbish covering the streets- just like in Delhi. I had no problems skipping Piura and Chiclayo and moving quickly through the northern desert.
An unexpected half-hour break in Peru
We did, however, stop in Trujillo and Huanchaco. It was December 23rd and we wanted to find a good place to spend Christmas. That good place we found in the form of La Casa Suiza in Huanchaco, on the coast. Great place, the highlight of the northern coastal desert! Yes, we also visited the interesting crumbling walls of Chan-chan, the largest precolumbian city in the Americas, but really there's not much more in the area.
A river at the coast- a lush green fertile oasis in the bone dry desert
Now James and I were really cruising. In just one week we crossed about 15 degrees of latitude, and made our first real stop in Nazca after trying to sandboard on dunes near Ica. The mystery of Nazca was accentuated by a very strange encounter about 50km before town, not too far from the lines, on the straightest, flattest, most barren stretch of desert imaginable. At first it looked like a shimmering mirage in the distance, but Morgan le Fey was not responsible for this one. As we got closer a solitary human figure became discernible, casually walking along the side of the road as if this were a city park and he were walking his dog. Soon I noticed that this man was totally, 100%, bare-ass naked. How odd, I thought. I slowed down to second gear, we looked at each other as I passed him, and then I stopped. But he just kept casually strolling in the other direction, in no way ashamed or self-conscious. He did not look dehydrated, starved, or in need of help in any way. Nor did he ask. He was simply walking. Naked. In the desert. He probably just wanted to be left alone, so that is what we did.
When the pilot took off for the overflight of the Nazca lines, I thought my experiences in helicopters, small airplanes, and violently rocking dive boats meant I was resistant to motion sickness. In this decayed, single-engine plane, however, I spent the next thirty minutes (the duration of the overflight) concentrating hard on not coating the plane's dashboard and controls with remnants of my lunch. In order to show the tourists the figures in the sand, the pilot would bank the plane so hard that you could see the lines horizontally, straight out of the windows. Every time he banked past a certain angle, some loud noise would start, an alarm, I thought. Then he'd bank it some more. It was more terrifying and vomit-inducing, and less interesting than I had hoped.
But the mystery about the origin of the lines is interesting enough. I was amazed how faded the lines are, you could hardly tell where they go. I think the last El Nino in 1998 made the lines quite a bit worse. What also surprised me is how small the figures really are. They are not that big, and you don't actually NEED to be in the air to fully appreciate them. My theory on the lines is this: they are there for art's sake. Making a line in the sand is as easy as dragging your foot through the upper layer to expose the light earth below, and so this giant flat canvas in the desert was just begging to be doodled on by people that enjoyed art, as evidenced in their pottery. No doubt their creations were aimed at the gods in the sky, but from having been to the lines to see for myself, my conclusion is that the answer to the question "why?" is simply, "well, why the hell not?" Maybe people are trying to read into it too much and I have the feeling there is no answer to the mystery of the lines, people are searching in vain.
Mummified Nasca Indians, whose now-bleached skulls once contained brains which knew the answers to the mystery of the lines
New Years in Arequipa was real nice. After passing time shooting the breeze with other travellers (mostly Dutch) and drinking the most disgusting syrupy stuff ever to be labeled as wine (Jeff, my hat's off to you for finishing that bottle!) we watched the entire city erupt with fireworks from the hostel rooftop. More drinking of alcoholic syrup as well as the fine Arequipeņa beer continued until four in the morning. Needless to say, we went nowhere on the first. We just stayed in Arequipa nursing headaches and cursing the 50 cent wine.
A very low-key New Year's eve with a group of Dutch travellers. "Gesellig", as they say in Holland, but the Oliebollen were missing.
Three gents consuming the most vile stuff ever to be labeled as wine: Jeff Kyba from British Columbia; your humble narrator; and James
On the following day, James and I retraced our path for 100 km or so along the Panamerican highway toward the Valle de los Volcanes, a very remote area. We wanted to see the barren, volcanic cone-dotted landscape. This is a road of extremes: it dropped dramatically into the Colca Canyon, where we stopped to have a look at the mildly interesting Toro Muerto petroglyphs (supposedly the largest petroglyph site in the world, for those of you who like superlatives). This was at less than 600 meters, stinking hot, but no more than about 80 km up the winding narrow dirt road, after having said to myself "there just CAN'T be another damn switchback" probably 20 times, darkness caught up to us and we stopped to camp at 4600 meters, as established by James' GPS. The top-of-the-world views down into the canyon were breathtaking, but for that the biting, siberia-like cold, and the sudden rise to altitude made sleeping real difficult. The following morning I was surprised to see the road wind up another 500 meters before topping out at over 5000 meters. Unbelievable. We ended up not making it quite all the way into the heart of the valley, although we were right at the base of the 6425 meter Coropuna, a remote snowcapped volcano. Lack of fueling possibilities, as well as the increasingly difficult and muddy road forced us to turn around. Here's a pic of James and fallen bike near the summit of the pass:
Picking up a dropped bike at 5000 meters is a workout!
At 5000 meters in the Andes
After that side trip, we decided to make the most of having dual-sport bikes, so we rode the entire length of the dirt road along the Colca Canyon. It was simply spectacular. Before even arriving at the canyon edge, we were treated to beautiful, remote mountain riding where herds of wild Llamas and Vicuņas would casually look up from their grazing as they heard us approach. Along this road, we found a great campsite, about as remote as you can get. The next morning we had the stunning ride through the mountains and along the canyon edge to ourselves, and we really took our time absorbing the awesome views of the world's deepest canyon. Three Andean condors rode the thermals high above us. Having a bike for this route was PERFECT!
The deep gorge of the Colca Canyon
James battling with a flat tire in the Colca Canyon
The KLR really does go everywhere- a rough spot on a descent from the high Andes
From Arequipa it was a relatively non-descript standard gringo-trail route to La Paz. On the way we stopped and visited some islands in Lake Titicaca, including the famous but now overly touristy floating ones. Taquile was interesting. We had a look at Tiahuanaco coming into La Paz, also quite a nice site. The museum has some great stuff.
A typical scene of open road on the Peruvian carreterra
South American camelids, Llamas and Alpacas to be specific, taste fantastic. At first I thought I would go to hell with all the other eaters of cute and fuzzy animals, but realizing they are domesticated just like cows, and that the ones on the menu are not shot in the wild, I decided to give it a go. Since then, James and I have put a good-sized dent in the Alpaca population of Peru, ordering it whenever the opportunity presents itself. I haven't yet tried the other local specialty, guinea pigs, but they are suppposed to be quite tasty as well. Look for my review of guinea pig-on-a-stick (that's how they serve it) in upcoming trip reports. I would think that hamsters would taste similar, and that they would just pop them as appetizers or snacks, maybe with a little honey mustard dip or so, but that doesn't appear to be the case.
Anyway, we are in La Paz, Bolivia now, gearing up for the adventures in southern Bolivia. The bikes are in the shop for an oil change each, finally a valve job, and have received nice knobbly new Pirelli MT-21s for the dirt down the road. These should be ideal for the dirt tracks in the Salar de Uyuni area. There has not been a shortage of things to do in this mountain-ringed city, and we have taken in a couple of good old Hollywood flicks, as well as cultural, soul-enriching experiences such as the local coca museum, which provides samples and sells coca pastilles. Interesting stuff. So I will carry on from here, hopefully with some good stories, in the next entry.
Posted by Arne Bomblies at January 09, 2003 03:51 PM GMT