January 09, 2003 GMT
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 Cañar, 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.


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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.


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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.


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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 Arequipeña 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.


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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.



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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:


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Picking up a dropped bike at 5000 meters is a workout!



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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 Vicuñas 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!


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The deep gorge of the Colca Canyon



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James battling with a flat tire in the Colca Canyon



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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.


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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 03:51 PM GMT
January 24, 2003 GMT
La Paz to Mendoza, Argentina

Back in its heyday, Potosi was referenced by the Spaniards in the phrase "es un Potosi", meaning something that was immensely rich. You wouldn't expect to find what used to be the world's richest city at 4100 meters in one of the world's poorest countries after bumping along a dusty dirty road for 150 km, but as James and I rounded the last corner, there was the city, thirty-something grand churches and all the other signs of immense wealth, wrapped around the mountain that is responsible for its existence. This mountain was full of silver, zinc and tin, metals for which the Spaniards' insatiable thirst caused unspeakable conditions of slave labor amongst the Indians and Africans that worked the veins. Conditions have improved since the days of slavery (miners worked in six-month "shifts" without emerging from the mine) but it can still be described as a job from hell. Visiting the mines was one of the most humbling, somewhat disturbing, yet strangely fascinating things I have ever done. We hired a guide to take us deep into the inner reaches of the mine, but because it is customary for visitors to bring gifts for the miners we went shopping first.

A dollar gets you a stick of dynamite, a detonator, a two-minute fuse, and some ammonium nitrate as a sort of an explosion amplifier. So of course we bought just about as much as we could carry. Buying dynamite was really no different than buying groceries: we had a choice of four varieties of varying color, weight, percentage nitroglycerine, and of course cost. And of course no questions asked. The Bolivian variety is supposedly the best and the cheapest, and so we opted for four big, chunky sticks of Bolivia's finest. We left the store carrying sacks of dynamite and all the necessary accessories, bulging bags of coca leaves, cigarrettes, and the nasty 95% alcohol that comes in little plastic rubbing-alcohol style bottles. Imagine trying to board a flight to the states with your Bolivian shopping as carry-on bags!


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"This dynamite will do just fine. Four please!" Photo courtesy James Courtier


So we passed the hardy miners outside, stuffing coca into their bulging cheeks in preparation for their shifts, to enter one of the many entrances to the mine. After about twenty minutes of clumsy walking along muddy passages (using carbide lamps!) we arrived at two very young miners (13 and 20) hammering away at a vein of zinc. We stopped and talked for a while, gave some cigarrettes and coca, and each bought a piece of zinc ore for 2 Bollis. (7.5 Bolivianos=US$1). That is many many more times what they would get otherwise; they get about 50 Bollis per kilo locally. It is almost slave labor, very taxing physically, and the miners don't last long either. Yet the miners are friendly enough, and we visited three other groups working separate veins after that. One was preparing a dynamite charge which we were able to watch, then crawled fast in the other direction after the fuse was lit. It was a muffled, earth-shaking boom that finally broke the silence. The shock wave in the air blew out my carbide light and made little bits fall off the roof of the mine tunnel.


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Miners digging zinc in Potosi. Photo courtesy James Courtier


When we emerged a couple of hours later, dirty and happy (for once) to be cubicle workers, it was time for a lesson in dynamite preparation. Our guide laid out all the necessary items, taking care not to agitate the detonator or get it unnecessarily hot. The bomb was rapidly assembled, placed some 300 feet from us, and then we waited. Two minutes of adrenaline-pumping anticipation, and... The resulting boom echoed across the mountain valley and seemed as loud as a jet breaking the sound barrier. That was better than all the fireworks I've played with in my life, combined. We just had to take some for the road and so we headed back down to the market to stock up.

The ride from Potosi to Uyuni was fantastic- great dirt road through rugged, wild land- just a hint of what was to come though. Uyuni is a desolate place. It is a ramshackle collection of decrepit houses in the absoute middle of nowhere, with a disproportionate number of gringos. But that's where we stocked up for the next big adventure- the Salar de Uyuni and the Southwest Circuit.

We loaded up with 15 liters of gasoline each and wobbled down the "road" toward the salar, and with the heavy load of gasoline, water and food it was hard to get going fast. But once we emerged on the salt flats of the salar, the going got not just a little better, we were able to open up to as fast as we wanted to go: 120 kph or better. It is one of the flattest, most uniform spots in the world. I could ride one minute with my eyes closed! Slowly the mirage that indicated the position of Isla de Pescado turned into an actual island, and when we rounded the corner at the tip of the island, we were surprised by two French-registered Honda Transalps, and accompanying riders! They turned out to be Fabien and Thomas of "Team Panamerica 2002", on their way to Tierra del Fuego from New York, and we had a good time chatting and camping out together. Later that night the summit of the island, dotted with fuzzy, funky-looking cacti, afforded us a spectacular view of the sunset over the salar. As the sun was setting in the west, on the three other sides of the vast salar, continuous lightning flashes illuminated the dark skies. It was quite an amazing display of nature and added to the whole salar experience being one of the highlights of the trip so far.


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Sunset over the salar




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Accompanied by a fuzzy cactus



That night the lightning eventually got closer and closer, until we had the full force of a thunderstorm over the small island. The thunder and lightning rapidly diminished, but the rain didn't let up until the next morning, and the salt flat had been transformed into a giant lake. A 5 cm layer of water covered the salt. No worries for riding out, it was a great ride! The effect of the clouds and sky being perfectly reflected in the water made for a bizarre, very unique effect that can only be described as dreamlike. The horizon completely disappeared and the water stretched on for as far as the eye could see, in the direction of travel. I threw a glance over my shoulder and noticed my bike making a wake just like a motorboat. Absolutely fantastic!


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The morning after a heavy rain on the salar




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Is this a dream?



There were times on the first leg of the journey between the Salar de Uyuni and Laguna Colorada where I thought we wouldn't make it. The rains had turned the other salar on the route- the salar de Chiguana- into a huge tub of thick dark bike-swallowing muck. This thick slippery mud really did it's best to hinder our progress but in the end we made it through after endless difficult hours, and finally were happy to see a sandy track heading south through the mountains. Only a short distance off of the salar de Chiguana we came across a vicious thunderstorm hanging over the exposed and treeless mountains. The intense electric storm was just daring us to continue, but we decided to stop for the night and wait for it to clear out. The next day the track wound through a volcanic moonscape as desolate and rugged as any I have ever seen. This is an exceptionally harsh, windswept land that supports very little life and is plagued by an extreme climate- bitter cold in the winter and strong storms and rain in the summer. But that is the appeal of it. Further south, approaching Laguna Colorada, the track deteriorated to many parallel jeep tracks on the deep, soft sand. The gale-force winds kept trying to knock us off our bikes and make us freeze to death, but in the end we finally rolled into Laguna Colorada and splurged by taking a $2 bed each in the lodge. We were absolutely finished at that point. It was a very long ride, very slow going with constantly tense muscles to keep from wiping out on the very soft sand.

James just collapsed on his bed but I made the concentrated effort to wander along the shore of the lake with my camera to take photos of this unique landscape. Hardy flamingos were all over the shallow lake, pumping the briny water in their beaks to filter out the little bits of food that they feed on. These birds with the stark volcanic cone as a background made for some excellent shots. Sorry, I haven't got any on this website, you will have to wait for the slideshow to see those.


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This is the road as marked on the map: Soft sand tracks on the way to Laguna Colorada. What you can't see is the hurricane wind.



There was a drastic improvement of the condition of the trrack south of Laguna Colorada, and despite the mega-corrugations it could be considered reasonably good. Again, there were many fascinating, equally bizarre sights. We passed the continuously farting mudpots at the Sol de Mañana geothermal area, as well as steaming fumaroles nearby. Whereas Laguna Colorada was reddish, the next major lake was Laguna Verde, bright green in color, also shadowed by a huge perfect volcano.


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Laguna Verde


What a welcome sight to see a paved road on the Chilean side of the border! We hadn't experienced the joys of smooth paved roads since shortly after Oruro, south of La Paz. And there were road signs, kilometer markers, and high octane fuel in Chile. Quite a difference to the roughness and crude oil gasoline of the Bolivian side. San Pedro de Atacama was a bit of a disappointment, though- mostly blissed out hippie types and the town wasn't the idyllic oasis I had made it out to be in my mind. Nevertheless, it was a good feeling to have made it on one of the toughest stretches of the trip so far, and San Pedro was a good place to relax a bit and raise a glass of Cerveza Cristal in celebration.


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The not-so-tropic



So from San Pedro onwards, it was a very fast ride on Chile's excellent roads, and we made quite significant headway through the Atacama desert on our southbound odyssey. We passed out of the tropics just north of Antofagasta, where a sign marked the crossing of the Tropic of Capricorn. It reminded me of the excitement of entering the tropics when we passed the decrepit and urinated-on Tropic of Cancer monument all the way back in Zacatecas, Mexico. What a long way we've come already!

South of Antofagasta, someone has erected a giant statue of a hand, half buried in the desert sand of the Atacama. It is far removed from anything except the highway, and comes as a bit of a random surprise. I thought back to Nasca, and the ongoing, fruitless quest for answers to the riddle of the mysterious lines. Now similarly, assuming any written record of the Hand in the Desert were nonexistent in the year 4003, what would future archaeologists make of it? Would a similar investigation surround the Hand in the Desert, the most significant archaeological find of the forty-first century? A list of conclusions after investigation of the mysterious site might include:

1. The Hand was the symbol and production of the Cult of the Hand, a secretive group of 20th century desert-dwellers who built their iconic structure out of a deep reverence for their god but left no written records.

2. The ancient names and dates painted on the sculpture indicate sacrificial ceremonies were carried out underneath the Hand. "Carlos y Maria 2002", for example, shows that these members of the Cult of the Hand were sacrificed at the base of the Hand back in that year.

3. A large concentration of urea in the soil at the back of the hand shows that urination on the Hand was deemed a very deeply spiritual practice, perhaps done by priests shortly before subjects were ritually sacrificed.

4. The fact that the Hand can only be fully appreciated using a fourth-dimension photosynchofilerator (assume for argument's sake that such a device exists in 4003 and the it makes the effect of the Hand in the Desert oh-so-much better, similarly to airplanes for the Nasca lines) raises questions about how the Cult of the Hand acquired such technology. Could it have been the work of alien visitors? This is a mystery that as yet remains unanswered and further clues remain unfound.

So presumably if the artist of 2003 met the archaeologist of 4003, he would say something like "Dude, You got it all wrong, man! Can't you see from our modern art museums that we just love making funky things that sometimes can't be explained, but that's, like, the beauty of it, you know what I mean? There's no REASON for the hand, it's just for the hell of it." Would a Nasca Indian's conversation with a 2003 archaeologist be similar? Quite possibly so, I think. I see no reason why would motives for art back in the days of the Nasca lines should be any different from what they are now.


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...and then we passed a huge hand in the desert...


South of the Hand it was relatively uneventful- just endless desert. Taltal was a great choice for an overnight stop, it is a wonderful little seaside fishing town, no gringos in sight, and we indulged in the tip-top seafood for which Chile is well known. It was excellent. North of Santiago we battled fierce headwinds that halved the KLR's usual fuel efficiency of 50 miles per gallon to about 25. We skirted the northern end of Santiago, and stayed the night in Los Andes, Chile. Here we hoped to cross into Argentina, but a landslide kept the pass closed and we spent two nights in all. Now James and I are in Argentina, loving it. While I have been enchanted by most of the people I have encountered on the journey, the Argentines top the list. People went out of their way to make a couple of gringo bikers welcome in their wonderful country. The chicas are the most beautiful I have seen anywhere, they are the world's beauties in my opinion. The food and wine is excellent, and there are plenty of activities around here to keep us busy for a while. So I guess I'll sign off for now and pick up the story again with the next entry.


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The huge Cerro Aconcagua



Posted by Arne Bomblies at 07:32 PM GMT
 

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